From the Computer Comes a Stranger: CGI Luke Skywalker and the Obsession with Nostalgia

Reactions to episode six of The Book of Boba Fett, titled “From the Desert Comes a Stranger”, have been mixed to say the least. For the second week in a row, the show spent little time on Tatooine with the titular bounty hunter and instead focused on the trials (both figurative and literal) of Grogu’s Jedi training. And once again we were treated to the inclusion of CGI Luke Skywalker, now with the CGI fixed to look almost identical to the Mark Hamill of Return of the Jedi and the revelation that none of his lines were spoken by an actor but were instead created by a neural network

A frequent comment I’ve seen floating around the fandom is (paraphrased) “This is the sort of technology George Lucas would love, so how can I not love that Star Wars has progressed to this point?” And, well, I don’t necessarily disagree; it’s no secret that Lucas is a techie at heart and rather infamously doesn’t get on well with actors engaging in the acting process. So it’s not a big leap of logic to think he’d be fully excited about the latest in CGI and computer innovation, though for fairness’s sake none of my research has shown him ever commenting on the use of CGI for Tarkin and Leia in Rogue One. So at the end of the day we can only guess, we don’t actually know. But whether or not Lucas approves of the technology and how it’s used is beside the point. He hasn’t been substantially involved in the franchise since 2014, but even if he was, his opinion shouldn’t be the only litmus test for whether we think something is a good idea or not.

It’s understandable: Lucas (and the Lucas movies) were our childhoods and the desire to recapture that childhood magic is strong. But why are we so intent on recreating it digitally rather than giving real people the chance to breathe new life into it? Or better yet: why are we so intent on keeping Star Wars exactly the same as we remember it rather than letting it grow and be new?

So far the Disney era of Star Wars (at least the film and TV side, which will always garner the most mainstream attention and money) has shown great reluctance to move far away from the original three Lucas movies. Whether it’s expanding on an original trilogy plot point (Rogue One), or featuring fan favorite legacy characters (everything else), we’re always finding our way back to the story of Han, Luke, and Leia and their fight against the Empire. Which, fine, to a point; the Star Wars franchise started with that story and everything else grows out of it. But at what point do we stop growing new stories and instead cling to the old because it’s safe and familiar?

In 2016, Tarkin and Leia felt like a cool novelty. And at the time I thought nothing of it, equating it to similar CGI performances such as Ahmed Best as Jar Jar, Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata, Alan Tudyk as K-2SO, or Andy Serkis’s entire career. But now, five years on, it’s hard not to look back and see it as a portent of what Star Wars is becoming: increasingly self-referential and unable to let go of movies and characters that are over forty years old. Where does it end? Movies and TV shows made entirely of CGI people who speak with AI voices? At what point are we just using technology to play action figures instead of aiding in telling a meaningful story? Are we content to settle for an increasingly stale and lifeless franchise just because it figured out how to recreate thirty-year-old Mark Hamill or nineteen-year-old Carrie Fisher? Stories should grow and change with time, not be forever stuck to a fixed point in time.

Star Wars is timeless, yes, but I would argue that it means different things to us when we are children than it does when we are grown. We live, we experience, we grow, and I would hope our stories could do the same. Do we love Star Wars because of the stories it tells or because we can point at the screen and recognize a character?

Mark Hamill, at least, is still alive to be involved in his character’s digital puppetry. Though he doesn’t seem to have been involved at all in the latest episode of The Book of Boba Fett, he was involved as much as possible in the filming of Luke’s appearance in The Mandalorian’s season two finale. But what about Peter Cushing’s digital necromancy in Rogue One? Though there was at least a real actor doing the speaking, it’s not like Cushing could be involved from beyond the grave. And sure, all these Star Wars actors sign away their likenesses so it’s not like Disney/Lucasfilm will get in trouble for digitally recreating them in order to continue using these characters at the age they were forty years ago. But now it feels ghoulish. Why are we so set on romanticizing that past that we go to great lengths to create computer puppets instead of passing the torch on to new actors or (god forbid) new characters entirely?

At the very least, in Solo Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover were given the chance to put their own spin on iconic characters. We got to see a younger and more idealistic Han and a more rambunctious Lando. Ewan McGregor’s Obi-Wan Kenobi is widely considered a fan-favorite performance, even amongst those who generally dislike the prequels. If this technology had existed in 1999, would Lucas have used that instead and robbed us of an incredible acting job? Impossible to know, of course, but one has to wonder if there are other similar performances we’re missing out on should Star Wars continue to utilize this type of CGI doubling and AI speaking. There is simply a level of nuance that a living, breathing, and speaking actor brings that cannot be replicated by a computer. 

I get the appeal of seeing Luke Skywalker circa Return of the Jedi show up and take down a bunch of droids and spout Jedi wisdom. And the technology involved to make it happen is impressive, I won’t deny that. But the implications it poses for Star Wars as a whole are greatly troubling. I worry that this will cause the franchise to become even more self-referential and unwilling to break away from the original trilogy. Who needs new characters and stories when you can recreate their appearance with CGI and completely synthesize their voice without the need of a voice actor?

Perhaps my fears are overblown. Perhaps, like Guy Henry said in 2016 about his work as Tarkin in Rogue One, the technology won’t become commonplace but will be used sparingly for moments where it truly enhances the story. But Star Wars has already shown a pattern of sticking close to the familiar, and the lure of recreating beloved childhood characters without worrying about aging actors is a strong one. I do worry that this is a slow but slippery slope to a Star Wars so obsessed with its own past that it can’t look to the future. The world isn’t the same as it was in 1977 and we aren’t the same people we were as children. Our stories should grow and change with us, not be forever stuck to a fixed point in time. As Shmi Skywalker says: “You can’t stop the change, any more than you can stop the suns from setting.” It’s a lesson both the Star Wars franchise and the Star Wars fans could take to heart.

2 thoughts to “From the Computer Comes a Stranger: CGI Luke Skywalker and the Obsession with Nostalgia”

  1. Bravo! You raise a very important point, that many fans are so afraid to let the franchise move on and grow and open up new stories. I look at how the clone wars gave new insight as well as introduced new characters that have become a success. Even the sequels where given new characters stuck in an old story but when new shifts were introduced many fans loss their minds because it was not what they were use too instead of letting something new grow and in turn, a disjointed story was given and reduced to old lore and leaves us unfulfilled.

    The advancement in tech is beautiful to a degree and when used to enhance story, It’s great! But when it becomes the story and you get too caught up reaching for what was and not opening the door, then Star Wars will not grow and the galaxy will collapse.

    1. Yes! I mean the tech is definitely impressive, I can’t argue against that. But while I could maybe be okay with it for a short cameo once or twice, I don’t love that it gives the franchise (and the fans) and avenue to just stay following Luke Skywalker forever and ever (and I saw this as someone who absolutely loves Luke!). We should be wanting it to move on and grow bigger; I’m tired of feeling like the galaxy is so small that everyone knows each other and I worry this will just entrench that feeling.

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