Star Wars and Digitally Raising the Dead

December 27, 2019 - Jonathan Zong

Eleven days before Carrie Fisher died in 2016, the digital image of her younger self debuted in Rogue One. Three years later, her image plays a role in The Rise of Skywalker—a Star Wars movie that wears its commitments to a nostalgic past in its title. Is it any surprise that a series so insistent on reanimating its own corpse is leading the charge on digitally bringing back the dead?

“We know better than ever today that the dead must be able to work,” Derrida writes in Spectres of Marx. The dead are highly productive. The neoliberal drive to convert identity into “human capital” has reconfigured our relationship to the data and images that put identities on display. Their accumulation over a lifetime amounts to not only an archive but also a valuable resource to be mined, recombined, and recapitulated. This is especially so for celebrities, whose work in their lifetimes is affective, identity-based image work.

The Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg reanimates Salvador Dalí as a deepfake tour guide. Xinhua News in China puppeteers a deepfake of an employee to deliver the news, “reducing news production costs”. James Dean is cast in the upcoming film Finding Jack more than 60 years after his fatal automobile collision.

These “technologies of the intermundane”—which reconfigure the relationship between the worlds of living and dead—work by processing large datasets of images from the past in order to interpolate them into new images. Celebrities and public figures produce images in their work, and when they’re gone, their images will themselves go to work.

For Roland Barthes, the photograph is “having-been-there”. Photographs take something that was there-then, and bring it into the here-now. Derrida might call this process spectral, or ghostlike—no longer belonging to time. Buse and Stott explain:

Ghosts arrive from the past and appear in the present. However, the ghost cannot be properly said to belong to the past. . . . Does then the ‘historical’ person who is identified with the ghost properly belong to the present? Surely not, as the idea of a return from death fractures all traditional conceptions of temporality. The temporality to which the ghost is subject is therefore paradoxical, at once they ‘return’ and make their apparitional debut. Derrida has been pleased to call this dual movement of return and inauguration a ‘hauntology’, a coinage that suggests a spectrally deferred non-origin within grounding metaphysical terms such as history and identity.

The Rise of Skywalker, a movie produced by the largest corporate nostalgia-machine Hollywood has ever seen, cannot “let the past die.” It brings back major characters as ghosts. It is a ghost itself, originating nothing. It continually mines its own past, recombining it and projecting it into the present.

In Rise, Emperor Palpatine comes back from the dead to quote his own lines from Revenge of the Sith . The substance of the movie is reanimation and recapitulation using recycled lines from an antagonist who in Revenge tempted Anakin with the power to conquer death. Did you ever hear the tragedy of Darth Plagueis the Wise?  Want to hear it again?

Remember this moment from that movie you liked? Here it is again! Remember how it made you feel the first time, when it made sense in the context of a larger narrative? Here it is, stripped of all life. In Carrie Fisher’s scene, totaling eight minutes, she speaks in one-sentence sayings that never quite seem to be in response to what was said to her. The camera cuts away from her face as audio clips play. She is back, yes, but displaced from time—speaking to someone who is already gone.

Reanimating the dead by digitally recombining the past will yield images that appear to be new. But they refer to no real there-then, and won’t fit into the here-now. The spontaneity of life, the making of decisions in the moment based on context and experience, is impossible to reproduce when there was no originary moment to begin with.

In 2017, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy told Vanity Fair, “We don’t have any intention of beginning a trend of re-creating actors who are gone.” Not even archival footage: “Sadly, Carrie will not be in IX.” But corporations, like ghosts, cannot resist unfinished business.

At the end of the movie, Kylo Ren raises Rey from the dead using an ability introduced for the first time in The Rise of Skywalker. For the short remainder of the movie, Rey uses her new life as a revenant to fly Luke Skywalker’s ship to Luke Skywalker’s hometown to take Luke Skywalker’s family name. Two apparitions watch over her. As long as there are movies—and money—to be made, they will continue to be recalled to life.