Rogue One: Digging Up the Dead in the Uncanny Valley

By Rich Firth-Godbehere on at

To tell the story of the Death Star without Grand Moff Tarkin would have been an almost impossible task. An iconic character, Darth Vader’s best mate loomed large in A New Hope, and with Rogue One effectively turning the original in to the second half of a two-part story, his absence would have created a noticeable hole in this part of the tale. Sadly, the equally-iconic Peter Cushing died in 1994, so short of resurrecting the great man, Tarkin’s presence was not an option – or so the causal Star Wars fan might have thought.

For Rogue One, the formidable Disney/Lucasfilm visual effects department have brought Tarkin back from the dead. The results are impressive, and I suspect will guarantee the team an Oscar come February 26th. But despite their achievement, I can’t be the only one who feels that there is something not quite right about Cushing’s zombie avatar. Something a little, well, uncanny.

It’s not the first time I’ve felt these sensations; they certainly aren't restricted to [re]animated actors. How about 3D printed figures of yourself? Porcelain dolls? Clowns? Cybermen? The Westworld cyborgs in cold storage? My own reflection? That last one might just be me, but the point is that there are many examples of the all-too-human that cause eerie and unpleasant sensations strong enough to freak us out and send us hiding behind the sofa.

Explaining the Creep-Factor

Thankfully, I’m not the first person who has felt this way. In 1970, a Japanese roboticist named Masahiro Mori realised that the strange sensations he experienced around wax figures (oh yes, add Madame Tussauds to my list) also occurred when he saw electronic prosthetic hands. He had an intuition that while we find things that look a bit human cute – such as stuffed animals, kittens in jumpers, cartoon characters, and toy robots – when things become just that little bit too human but not yet human enough we feel unsettled by them. Once things become closer to humans once again, the unpleasant feelings disappear. He called this dip in how pleasant or otherwise such things make us feel the Uncanny Valley.

Mori's charts from his original paper: Masahiro Mori,The Uncanny Valley, 1970,Energy, 7(4), pp. 33-35 
Translated by Karl F. MacDorman and Takashi Minato.

To give an example, a dismembered hand carved by Michelangelo out of marble does not seem eerie because it is clearly not real – it’s marble. However, a hand designed to look like a real human hand with skin, hair and blood vessels but not attached to a body gives us the creeps. This is especially true if the hand can move.

A carved wooden hand.

Mori used the example of a hand fashioned by a woodcarver for a Buddha statue whose fingers were jointed to allow movement. The woodgrain keeps this object outside the uncanny valley; it’s clearly not anything like a real hand. But a prosthetic hand with all the details described above, plus movement, is really unsettling. Perhaps this is why prosthetics don't look real very often?

A realistic prosthetic hand (Nadya Peek via Creative Commons)

Although Mori’s initial paper came from intuition there has been some research done that suggests he was on to something. The work started in his own field of robotics, but, as technology has improved it’s branched beyond into the study of animated human-like figures. In both areas, quite a few elements of the uncanny have been noticed. Looking almost-but-not-quite human is nearly enough to make something uncanny, but there should also be something abnormal about the avatar’s appearance. Also, inconsistent behaviours and movements enhance the eeriness, and semi-realistic characters in animated films are more uncanny that either cartoons or real human actors in makeup.

Current Thinking

Why the Uncanny Valley happens at all is one of those areas where the scientists haven’t exactly reached a consensus. Putting those who think the whole idea is as a daft and weird as a Lego Figure with a real face on it to one side, there have been a few suggestions as to why the uncanny valley exists.

One idea is “categorisation-based stranger avoidance”: creating a sense of eeriness when something looks human, but not human enough so it is thought of as a an “other”: a human that is not part of our comfortable in-group because he/she looks strange. The Grand Moff and Cushing are both familiar to most Star Wars fans. He may be an Imperial Commander responsible for the deaths of millions and Vader’s post-shift drinking partner, but he’s not an “other” to us.

It might also be the result of a human-like figure not quite behaving like a real human does: the mouth not speaking quite right, the eyes being just that bit too still, and so on. The Tarkin of Rogue One certainly fits that bill, perhaps because the cost of the hours needed in CGI to include such subtle micro movements remains prohibitively expensive.

Others think that something almost human acts as a threat to human identity, challenging the often religious idea that humans are in some way special. Resurrecting the dead to perform once more does seem a touch unsettling, especially for acting unions.

Mori’s original explanation might give a better reason for the strangeness we feel around the [re]animation of Tarkin. It came to be known as Mortality Salience: the idea that a lack of movement or bizarre movements in human-like things triggers emotional responses similar to those we experience when coming across the seriously ill, the mutilated, or the dead. For the sake of self-preservation, the body expresses a deep sense of aversion in order in order to avoid a potential harm.

Here are parallels to disgust, which is often understood as an aversive emotion or sensation triggered by a possible cause of infection or sickness. The rotten apple looks, smells and tastes disgusting, and so we don’t eat it and avoid becoming sick. This means that the uncanny and the disgusting could share a family resemblance, existing to keep people safe in subtly different ways. Alternatively, they could be two sides of the same coin, both existing to help us avoid pathogens.

Is Mortality Salience the reason why the reincarnation of Grand Moff Tarkin, or rather Peter Cushing, is just a little eerie? Could it be that we are seeing a digital zombie; the corpse of a much-loved individual still walking and talking? I can't help but wonder if the reintroduction of youth and perfect health to another character (who I won't mention) also qualifies as a reminder of death and ill-health?

Whatever the reason for the Uncanny Valley might be, it seems that the technology, though stunning, is not quite stunning enough. The next question is whether it ever will be good enough or if the very fact we are seeing a dead man act once more is really what gives me the creeps?