How old is Samuel L Jackson? How old is Michael Douglas? How old is Arnold Schwarzenegger? Looking at their movies these days, it is impossible to tell. All three have recently submitted to the digital de-ageing process (in Captain Marvel, Avengers Endgameand Terminator: Dark Fate, respectively), and the technology, which makes an actor look younger, is now so good, and so ubiquitous, that things are getting confusing. Watching a 30-years-younger Jackson in Captain Marvel, you might have had to check yourself and say: “Wait, I knew Sam Jackson looked good for a 70-year-old, but not that good.”
Digital de-ageing is a great tool to have in the box, of course, and film-makers are having fun with it. Ang Lee’s forthcoming Gemini Man pits a grey, grizzled Will Smith against a younger version of himself. And even old dog Martin Scorsese has been making use of this new trick for his latest, The Irishman. According to Scorsese, the tech is still not quite there. He recently revealed he had to delay the movie because the “youthification” – as he called it – of Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci was not good enough. Having known these actors most of their lives, Scorsese wasn’t convinced by their young, CGI-assisted faces, wondering in a podcast: “Does it change the eyes at all? If that’s the case, what was in the eyes that I liked? Was it intensity? Was it gravitas? Was it threat?”
Leaving aside the fact that this technology seems to be being applied to men more than women (in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, it was used to make Hayley Atwell 60 years older), there is the question of whether it’s really good for the movies. Might it tempt actors to stick with the “youthified” version, even when it’s not in a flashback? How much is that happening already? And if you’ve grafted, say, young Arnie’s face on to the torso of a young body double, can you really say it’s Schwarzenegger at all? Besides, creative, lo-fi alternatives are available. Instead of youthifying Terence Stamp for the flashbacks in 1999’s The Limey, Steven Soderbergh used clips from Stamp’s 1967 movie, Poor Cow.
Could all this tampering enable an ageing generation to cling on to their jobs? Countless actors have got a break by playing younger versions of characters, such as Josh Brolin in Men in Black III, who did a better “young Tommy Lee Jones” than Jones could have done. Or that up-and-coming actor of the 70s who won an Oscar playing a young Marlon Brando. If they made The Godfather Part II today, you would probably see a de-aged Brando playing young Vito Corleone. De Niro would have been out of a job. Or maybe De Niro actually died years ago and we’ve been seeing CGI versions of him ever since. How would we know?