The uncanny valley in Rogue One

Watching Rogue One last night [SPOILER ALERT!] I felt an interesting number of uncanny valley moments. What is uncanny valley?

The “uncanny valley” is a characteristic dip in emotional response that happens when we encounter an entity that is almost, but not quite, human. It was first hypothesised in 1970 by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori who identified that as robots became more human-like, people would find them to be more acceptable and appealing than their mechanical counterparts. But this only held true to up a point. When they were close to, but not quite, human, people developed a sense of unease and discomfort. If human-likeness increased beyond this point, and they became very close to human, the emotional response returned to being positive. It is this distinctive dip in the relationship between human-likeness and emotional response that is called the uncanny valley. Source.

The two clearest occurrences in Rogue One are with Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia. Shown here in the original 1977 film:

Feel anything out of the ordinary about either of these dudes? Other than slightly scared of Peter Cushing’s excellent evil looking acting, and slightly funny about wanting to be, or be with, Carrie Fisher? No, even though these images aren’t great quality, they look 100% like photos of humans. I’m cool with that. So are you. But see how you feel about these images: 

Even those the quality here is even worse, there is something noticeably off about the characters. Something in their mouths, a bit it Leia’s eyes, and Tarkin’s hair and lips. These CGI characters for me fall deep down the uncanny valley and slightly disrupt the diegesis of the movie for me, in a way that the recasting of Mon Mothma did not:

2016 Genevieve O’Reilly left, 1983 Caroline Blakiston right. I recognised the character, and for a second that it wasn’t the same actor, but then moved on quickly, back into believing her to be Mon Mothma.

Weirder still for me though is how I also felt into uncanny valley with the new CGI representations of the Admiral Ackbar race (the Mon Calamari as I’ve learned this morning). I can’t find decent images of the new character yet (Admiral Raddus) but his scenes toward the end distracted me in a way that Admiral Ackbar does not in the originals. 

I think there’s a lot more to uncanny valley than just our relationship with human characteristics. We have a highly refined and mostly indescribable way with identifying what is ‘right’ or ‘off’ with what we see. 

Relating this again to fake news, I wonder why we don’t have the same skill with cognitive facts? Perhaps there was more evolutionary benefit to correctly identifying things visually (the correct mushroom to eat rather than the near identical poisonous cousin), than there was to calling bullshit to the stories that your cave mate grunted at you (allowing simple agreement of ideas in order to create firmer and more secure social bonds). There’s little risk to not believing what your friends believe. If anything, it could be dangerous at times to disagree.