De-aging technology is Hollywood's fountain of youth

Everyone's looking younger on screen. What does it mean when Hollywood's future is it's past?

Adam Graham
Detroit News film critic

None of us are getting any younger. Except in the movies. 

Robert De Niro looks sprightly in "The Irishman." Will Smith shaves about 30 years in "Gemini Man." Arnold Schwarzenegger is back to his "T2" self in "Terminator: Dark Fate." 

A de-aged Robert De Niro in "The Irishman."

Their secret, and the key to the literal changing face of Hollywood? Technology.

Specifically, de-aging technology, which is fast becoming Tinsel Town's fountain of youth. And business is booming: as stars age, computer technology is doing more than just smoothing out the wrinkles in their faces. In many cases, it's making them young again. 

It's rapidly expanding the possibilities of film as we know it. But it could replace the need for actors as we know them altogether, and jeopardize the humanity of film.  

De-aging technology has been around for more than a decade, since Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen appeared as digitally-altered younger versions of themselves in 2006's "X-Men: The Last Stand."

In 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Brad Pitt aged in reverse on screen with the help of computer technology. Now actors are regularly aging in reverse in a wide range of projects. 

In this year's blockbuster "Captain Marvel," 70-year-old Samuel L. Jackson was made to look about half his age. Even the kids from this year's "It: Chapter Two" were aged down to appear more like they did in the first "It," and they're still in their teens. 

And the technology is getting better all the time. In "Gemini Man," Will Smith stars opposite a younger version of himself, which is an entirely digitally rendered composite of a "Fresh Prince"-era Will Smith. The tech isn't seamless and is jumpy at times.

But in Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman," De Niro's character ages some 50 years on screen, from his 20s into his 70s, and the results are pretty darn convincing. (At least in the face; his physicality still screams man-in-his-70s, even when he's supposed to be much younger.)

So if you're an actor, why age at all? Digital effects will soon become smooth enough that they'll be able to clean up any blemish or imperfections. They'll be to screen performances what Photoshop is to photographs.  

In more extreme cases, it could be used to bring actors back to their heyday. The joke with the "Expendables" movies is that its cast is made up of aging stars of yesteryear. But who says that has to be the case? With a few swipes of a mouse, Schwarzenegger, Stallone and the rest of the boys can be pumped back up to their 1980s glory, their muscles rippling and their faces wrinkle-free. 

We're at a point where actors don't even have to be alive to be brought back to their glory years. It was announced this week that James Dean, who died 64 years ago at the age of 24, has been cast in the upcoming Vietnam-era action film "Finding Jack."

Never mind that Dean was dead before the Vietnam war started. If 2Pac can appear in hologram form on stage and shout out Coachella and a digitized Roy Orbison can still tour the theater circuit, what's to stop Dean from stealing jobs from young actors?  

Good taste and restraint, for one, but that was out the window once Fred Astaire started shilling for Dirt Devils in Super Bowl commercials in the late '90s, a decade after his death. Back then, there was an outcry that someone's likeness would be used without his consent. Today, de-aging is just another filter in the Snapchat of life.

Where's the line? We don't yet know, but the possibilities are endless — and a little worrisome. A back-from-the-grave Audrey Hepburn and an aged-down Brad Pitt in a romantic comedy? A sequel to "Ghost" with an actual from-the-beyond Patrick Swayze? Don't think that someone hasn't thought of it yet. There's money to be made in beating the one thing that is coming for us all. 

Which makes actors disposable, in a sense. It begins with Will Smith opposite his digital self. A few tech upgrades and the real Will Smith isn't needed at all. This is the future "The Matrix" envisioned.  

As for actors who want to appear as themselves on screen? They'll be hailed as brave, like when an actress appears sans makeup on a magazine cover, and relegated to indie projects.   

Robert Downey Jr. stopped playing "Iron Man" this year after playing him on screen for 11 years. Look at him in the original "Iron Man" and compare it to his likeness in this year's "Avengers: Endgame." The difference is notable, like the pics of Barack Obama before and after his presidency. But it works for the character, as you can see the toll being Iron Man took on him over the years. That's life, and that's the reality you want to be reflected in movies. 

But with a franchise as lucrative as "The Avengers," it would make sense for Downey to hang onto the role as long as he could. In 2019, he bows out. But the next time around, maybe he doesn't. Because in Hollywood, aging is becoming a thing of the past.