Sir Laurence Olivier once said, "Acting is illusion, as much illusion as magic is, and not so much a matter of being real."
Olivier is one of the stars of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, opening September 17. He plays the nefarious villain of the piece, Dr. Totenkopf.
Oh, and Olivier has been dead for 15 years. How's that for range?
In the interest of full disclosure, no corpses were disinterred for the making of this movie. Lord Larry's appearance is the product of meticulous splicing, editing and computer manipulation of hours of archival footage of the legendary thespian. His voice has been dubbed by another actor. To suggest that Olivier is "acting" in the movie is stretching the truth. But in the context of Olivier's quote above, is that so far removed from any actor's purview?
Sky Captain is only the latest in a line of remarkable on-screen resurrections (and the inclusion of Olivier is only one of that film's illusory marvels -— but more on that later). There was the famous commercial featuring Fred Astaire dancing with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner. John Wayne played a crotchety general who'd misplaced his Coors. Oliver Reed was digitally recreated so that Ridley Scott could keep his character, Proximo, alive just a bit longer in "Gladiator"; the flesh-and-blood Reed died of a heart attack partway through filming.
The cost of all that high-end computer work, and the reticence of the estate lawyers to license out a given actor's likeness has kept these postmortem performances to a minimum — so far. But digital editing is getting faster and cheaper, and entertainment lawyers are getting faster and greedier.
Whether it's a bad thing or not is a matter of personal preference, and I can see both sides. Purists will argue that it's not really "acting" when the actor in question isn't the one imbuing the character with depth and emotion; they're only lending a physical appearance, and perhaps a voice. Pathos is adjusted with the turn of a dial, rather than being drawn from the soul of the actor.
But others may look on CGI actors as a means of overcoming casting hurdles that have hindered potential blockbuster projects. The very-much-alive Christopher Reeve could play Superman again. James Dean could resume his too-short career and give Brad Pitt a run for his money. And Marilyn Monroe could make Hollywood sexy again.
In the end, it's going to come down to audience acceptance. Right now, casting corpses like Olivier's is a novelty. He only appears "in the flesh," so to speak, in the last several minutes of the movie. The true test will come when a producer/studio with deep pockets brings back a dead actor in a major role. Jackie Chan's getting kinda old. Maybe we should get Bruce Lee to partner with Chris Tucker for the next Rush Hour.
Hey, I didn't say it'd be a good movie. But it's going to take that kind of exposure —- and proportionate success —- to make reanimated actors a reality.
Speaking of reality, let's get back to Sky Captain. Like I said, this is a movie with more visual gimmicks than just its Olivier twist.
Sky Captain started out as a six-minute short created by director/screenwriter Kerry Cornan on his practically-antique Macintosh IIci. The production quality of the short so impressed producer Jon Avnet that he began steamrolling full production of the movie immediately. Cornan went from a lowly film student laboring in his garage to a full-blown exec overseeing a $60 million dollar film practically overnight.
The software Cornan developed in his spare time simplified the process of putting computer generated settings around already-filmed actors. The technique had already been used on a small scale by George Lucas and other big-budget directors. But Sky Captain has taken computer animation to a new level. The entire film was shot with actors in front of a green screen. There were no sets, no stages. Outside of a handful of actors, nothing —- not the buildings, not the giant robots, and certainly not Laurence Olivier —- is real.
The plot? A mysterious force for evil has unleashed giant robots on New York City circa 1938. The city is being destroyed, the world's top scientists are being kidnapped, and power stations are being stolen. The fate of the world rests in the hands of dashing aviator Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law) and his ex-girlfriend, the plucky reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) as they take the fight around the world in search of the maniacal Dr. Totenkopf.
Sky Captain is a lush tribute to the old film serials of the 1930s and '40s, something that's been missing since the last Indiana Jones movie. Scenes are render with distinctly film-noir style, with deep shadows and chiaroscuro lighting, reminiscent of films like Fritz Lang's Metropolis.
This is a good old-fashioned popcorn movie, kid-friendly and packed with lots of thrills and visual punch. I'm a bit puzzled as to why Angelina Jolie feels the need to give her character —- the leader of an all-girl amphibious commando team —- a British accent, but pulp science fiction always needs a generous helping of the unimaginable. If I can handle Olivier pretending to be alive, I guess I can handle Jolie pretending to be British.
But it does stretch the boundaries of credulity.
If the media is the eye on the world, Russ Carr is the finger in that eye. Tune in each month to see him dispersing the smoke and smashing the mirrors of modern mass communication. The world lost Russ on 2/7/12, but he lives on.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
9.24.04 @ 8:42a
One industry that will most certainly not be taken over by computers in the entertainment industry.
Angelina Jolie's English accent is about as good as Kevin Costner's in Robin Hood, only more consistant.
9.24.04 @ 9:20a
DON'T DIS ROBIN HOOD.
9.25.04 @ 11:16a
As long as it's the Disney Robin Hood, it should not be dissed.
Actually, I didn't think the Costner Hood was that bad, aside from Kevin's English accent.
9.25.04 @ 1:31p
Ah, but (making the point of the column) I'd rather see Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, anyway. So just reanimate him and Olivia DeHavilland, and there you go...
9.25.04 @ 2:05p
I've seen the trailers for this. Although this is not my type of film in general, I will admit that the visual effects I've seen so far gee-whiz the heck out of me, and I'm kinda anxious to see it all.
I had no idea Oliver Reed was dead. Where the hell have I been?
9.25.04 @ 11:37p
Somehow the idea of this is creepy. It's not that I'm against it entirely, but something about using the image of a dead actor with a fill in voice seems not quite right.
Its like giving the audience imitation popcorn. How is it credited? As image of Olivier, and voice of someone else?
Somehow just because we can do it, doesn't mean we should do it. We should respect the dead. I've seen the commercials with all the 70s sitcom stars, and that is kind of irksome, but not offensive.
3.11.05 @ 4:54p
Dead man shilling! Gene Kelly busts a move for Volkswagen.