When asked about the most disturbing part of filming It Chapter Two, the adult actors of the Losers Club pretty much settled on one answer: seeing Bill Skarsgård go full Pennywise IRL. It’s a shame, then, that so much of the clown’s performance onscreen is hidden behind a blanket of CGI. But don’t fret! Skarsgård’s eater of worlds might have been the most frightening part of It shoots, but the final cut of Chapter Two contains a specter that’s much more discomfiting: Finn Wolfhard’s digitally de-aged face.
When I first saw the trailer for It Chapter Two, which provided the briefest glimpse of Finn in a flashback scene, I thought … They didn’t. Did they? Surely, they didn’t run a computer paintbrush over the face of a 15-year-old boy to make him younger for a movie that features a dancing alien clown. Surely, the filmmakers didn’t assume my suspension of disbelief would apply to a giant, naked woman running through an apartment after Jessica Chastain but stop at my ability to accept a slightly older-looking Finn Wolfhard as Richie Tozier? No, no. That couldn’t be.
And yet it is. Throughout the course of watching It Chapter Two, I found myself absolutely fixated on the appearance of young Richie, on the unsolvable equation of his digitally smoothed face. It’s a face that is supposed to exist in Derry, Maine, but can actually be found in the uncanny valley. It is a face so devoid of pores and with such perfectly airbrushed pink cheeks that it’s like looking at a Wolfhard American Girl Doll. With his coke-bottle glasses magnifying his eyes to manga proportions, Chapter Two Richie is phenomenally similar to the character’s featureless Funko Pop toy.
Listen. The filmmakers drew a somewhat tough card with the very talented Wolfhard. The first film was shot in the summer of 2016 when he was just 12, and in the two years between wrapping Chapter One and filming the sequel, the actor hit a classic teen-boy growth spurt and gained what seemed like a foot of height just as the topography of his face developed from “goofy kid” to “goofy kid, but also maybe put him on a runway during Paris Fashion Week.” If you want to see the progression of Wolfhard’s appearance within another screen universe, jumping from the first season of Stranger Things to this summer’s Stranger Things 3 will give you a pretty clear idea of the aging Chapter Two tried to erase. And the end result is like looking at a deepfake of the actor.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m talking about a really good deepfake. De-aging actors is a more and more common practice in Hollywood, and they’re getting pretty damn good at it — whether that progress is welcome, or just frightening and gross. Studios are body-scanning actors so they can say, “Screw you time!” and preserve actors for use … maybe in perpetuity? And this isn’t just a young man’s game. Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming The Irishman will test the limits of this new era by rolling back the clock on all of its iconic actors. But the whole process is less chilling when you watch someone go from 70 to 30, not so much 15 to 12.
Sure, Wolfhard really raced ahead of his fellow Loser actors in between the first and second It, but in real life he’s still very much a kid! A tall kid, with cheekbones that could cut a steak, but he’s still a tender-faced teen, and when you try to smudge-tool any age that he’s registered whatsoever it leaves flashback Finn looking younger than he ever did in the 2017 film. Chapter One Richie seemed to have a persistent sheen of sweat typical of a messy tween who’s constantly on a bike and, oh yeah, running from a demon. But de-aged Richie is like a body-swapped version of that character, sent to drive audiences mad wondering if his face is about to split open so a nightmare worm can fly out. (This is It, after all.)
Fortunately for New Line, fans either weren’t put off by the de-aged Finn they saw in the trailer, or they were drawn to it like a Lament Configuration that would consume them in darkness and ruin their lives. (Alternately, they were just excited for a sequel.) Accordingly, Chapter Two had a great debut weekend, taking in about $185 million across the world, including $91 million here in the U.S. I honestly haven’t held on to much of the three-hour endeavor, but digitally younger Finn Wolfhard has burrowed into my brain like a bad dream. For me, the mask of “youth” hanging on his face is the movie’s greatest sin, and perhaps as a result, its greatest triumph. CGI monsters almost uniformly make horror movies worse and less effective (I’d say fight me, but where is the lie?), and digitization certainly didn’t do Pennywise any favors. But when those monsters are “humans” dredged up from the Polar Express ring of movie hell and passed off as children, now that is pure, perverse terror.