Lacking a pulse is no longer an obstacle to having a thriving Hollywood career. That became clear last week when director Anton Ernst announced that James Dean—dead since 1955—had been cast in a leading role in his upcoming Vietnam War movie, Finding Jack. To resurrect Dean, Ernst will feed old footage and photos of the Rebel Without a Cause star into advanced CGI software. Still-breathing actors reacted with outrage, perhaps fearing the dead might soon come for their jobs. “This is awful,” said Captain America star Chris Evans. “Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. The complete lack of understanding here is shameful.” The entertainment industry has experimented with digital necromancy before: High-tech wizardry allowed Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher to reprise their Star Wars roles postmortem, and hologram versions of Elvis and Frank Zappa have toured the world. But Dean is the first star to be brought back for a work with which he had no connection while alive.
It was perhaps inevitable that Hollywood would start reviving old screen greats, because it already makes a killing resuscitating old movies. In the past year, Disney has released live-action remakes of four of its classic animated movies—Dumbo, Aladdin, The Lion King, and Lady and the Tramp—and more redos are in the works. And as Martin Scorsese recently griped (see Talking Points), all Marvel superhero movies are “remakes in spirit,” because they follow the same market-researched narrative arc: A hero emerges, struggles with self-doubt, then beats those inner demons along with the supervillain. In this risk-averse environment, recycling dead actors makes perfect sense—they can’t embarrass movie studios with sex scandals, dumb comments, or drug problems, and they’ll never abandon a franchise to make art house movies. So let me offer my congratulations in advance to James Dean, who’s sure to be cast as the next Spider-Man.