In Ang Lee’s new movie Gemini Man, Will Smith plays a middle-aged assassin who finds out his bosses have cloned him and that his younger double — who is also played by Smith, or at least a swarm of pixels moving in his shape and under his control — wants to kill him and steal his job. It might’ve been inspired by a true story.
Gemini Man flopped — it only made $20 million in its first weekend — but think of it as an investment. To create their own clone of Smith, the moviemakers didn’t just airbrush his wrinkles or paste footage of his younger face onto somebody else’s head, like in that deep-fake video where Bill Hader morphs into Arnold Schwarzenegger; they built a complete digital replica of a 23-year-old Smith, with a body and facial muscles that moved on the 51-year-old Smith’s command (he wore a motion-capture suit to perform as his younger self). And now Hollywood has an ageless computer-generated copy of one of the most bankable actors in history to use however it wants — in sequels to Independence Day and Men in Black, or a reboot of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, or any other part the real Smith is too old or eventually too dead to play — plus the technology to digitize other stars, too.
None of the makers of Gemini Man has actually suggested the effects developed for their movie are intended to replace the real Smith or any of his carbon-based peers, probably to avoid riots by the Screen Actors Guild, but this is almost certainly inevitable. In every year of the past decade, at least seven of the top-ten-grossing movies have been sequels, remakes, or other extensions of preexisting franchises. Many of those franchises star humans who will someday get old and die or just decide they don’t want to play superheroes or Jedi anymore. Studios can recast their roles or make spinoff movies revolving around younger characters, but that doesn’t always work, and in most cases, franchises have rejected new stars like bad organ transplants: For every Michael B. Jordan, who successfully unseated Sylvester Stallone at the head of the Rocky franchise, there’s a Jeremy Renner, who was supposed to but didn’t replace Tom Cruise in the Mission: Impossible series and Matt Damon in the Bourne movies; plus a Shia LaBeouf and a Chris Pratt, both of whom were hired to succeed Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones reboots that never happened; and also an Alden Ehrenreich, who took over Ford’s role as Han Solo in the only Star Wars movie to lose money. If studios can prolong or revive their most valuable franchises with CGI that can bring back the old, dead, or burned-out actors who most profitably led them, they will. And a 35-year-old Ford will return to Star Wars and Indiana Jones, Heath Ledger will play the Joker again, and the next Sex and the City movie will star a virtual Kim Cattrall (who could lease the rights to her digital likeness to Warner Bros. for extortionate amounts of money, let another actress play her as Samantha via motion capture, and never have to see the co-stars she dislikes so much in person ever again).
Even if Hollywood were to reprioritize original movies, the pullback over the past decade has created a shortage of new stars capable of leading them. With fewer chances to stand out amid so much flashy intellectual property, and with moviegoers’ attentions divided by social media, tribal politics, and a dozen different streaming networks, not many younger actors have managed to reach the same levels of recognition and box-office power as their predecessors. Meryl Streep (70), Sandra Bullock (55), and Jennifer Lopez (50) have been wiping multiplex floors with Jennifer Lawrence (29), Emma Stone (31), and Anne Hathaway (36). And in the absence of younger male action heroes, Keanu Reeves (55), Denzel Washington (64), and Liam Neeson (67) are still karate-chopping Russian henchmen even as their prostates might pose a more immediate threat. Which is why the most valuable franchises of all may be older stars—the ones who have relationships with audiences spanning multiple generations, who bring to every new role the accrued charisma of their entire onscreen lives, and who can still occasionally get major studios to cough up the financing for movies that aren’t sequels to other ones. When those stars retire, entire film genres might be retired with them.
But if Hollywood could make backup copies of these actors and reanimate dead ones — say Bruce Lee, Audrey Hepburn, and James Dean for starters — and cast them all in movies together at the ages we remember them best, there might be no need for new stars ever again. (Last week, by the way, it was announced that a computer-generated version of Dean will have a lead role in Finding Jack, a movie about the Vietnam War, which started years after the real Dean’s death.) Will digital actors look as good or act as well as the ones they’re cloned from? Probably not, at least at first. But that won’t matter, just like it doesn’t matter that Spotify is a sonic downgrade from CDs, or that movies made digitally look flatter than ones shot on film, because the technology will provide too many other benefits. And maybe after we’ve seen it used tastefully a few times, in service of stories that couldn’t be told any other way, and in ways that appeal to our preferred nostalgic recollections, we’ll get more comfortable with it. Good filmmakers have coaxed great performances out of actors with limited ranges by carefully tailoring their roles — Adam Sandler is supposedly an awards contender this year — and they’ll find a way to get the best work out of digital clones, too. Critics hated Gemini Man, but more of them blamed the script than the effects. Reviews for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman have been mostly positive despite the de-aging techniques used on Robert De Niro, which leave his face shiny and only half-mobile in some scenes, because it’s just more fun to enjoy the reunion of Scorsese and a youthful-seeming De Niro than nitpick how it looks. And if Oscar winners like Ang Lee and Scorsese are already using tech like this in its still-primitive forms, who are other auteurs to turn up their noses, especially in a few years when digital cloning and de-aging get even better?
*This article appears in the November 11, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!