The late River Phoenix is set to return to cinema screens with Dark Blood, a thriller that was the actor’s final film. In fact Phoenix died with nearly two weeks still to shoot on the production in 1993 and as a result the movie was all but abandoned. It’s only been restored and ‘completed’ recently after 20 years in storage when the director, George Sluizer, found new motivation.

Sluizer has reportedly pieced his movie together by using lots of voiceover material in place of Phoenix’s missing scenes – so far the feedback from the festival circuit has been pretty positive.

Phoenix wasn’t the first film star to die before his time and he wasn’t the last. Heath Ledger’s untimely death was one of the film world’s higher-profile recent tragedies and at the time the actor was working on Terry Gilliam’s fantasy drama The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. Gilliam took a creative approach to Ledger’s sudden absence and hired no fewer than three different stars – Jude Law, Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell – to make up for the loss of the young Ledger and complete the movie.

There are perhaps few other filmmakers who could take a similarly inspired approach in tragic circumstances. In the days before decent visual effects, stand-ins and creative camerawork helped directors rescue their deceased stars’ final work from oblivion, but this was before the hard-living Oliver Reed died on the set of Gladiator.

Ridley Scott’s swords-and-sandals classic was one of the first cases of digital effects being used to recreate a star and, when combined with stand-ins and a quick script rewrite – par for the course on Gladiator anyway – it turned out to be just enough to act as a fitting final performance for the gruff actor.

Enter performance capture, stage left. Love or loathe the technology, it’s breathed life into Gollum, King Kong, Tintin, a creepy version of Tom Hanks on The Polar Express and re-kick-started the Planet of the Apes franchise. As a technology it’s here to stay and getting better all the time, with the mighty Andy Serkis helping pioneer the art form.

My point is that, in a world where studio executives are frightened of originality and remakes are a default Hollywood position, performance capture offers the potential for a creepy filmmaking future. It would be a world where performance capture is used to recreate the stars of yesteryear. These remade icons could be used to remake the films that made them famous in the first place for an audience that thinks they’re watching original material.

It becomes a matter of plundering the greats and reinventing them for a new generation that’s largely ignorant of the past. Early cinema would repeat itself in a pixellated blur of forever-young Charlie Chaplins, Buster Keatons, Katharine Hepburns and Marilyn Monroes.

Their stories would play out against the backdrop of a photo-realistic digital New York City or Casablanca recreated from scratch in a blue-screen studio in Louisiana as an anonymous actor in a blue, skin-tight leotard says “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.” Naturally, the subtleties of his performance would be rendered into a 21st Century Bogart.

Maybe that’s an optimistic view. Filmmakers can’t be all old-fashioned when they’re trying to be down with the kids in the multiplex on a Friday night. The performance-capture Casablanca will be set against the backdrop of a turf war between teenage gangs on a gritty, CGI council estate and end with Bogey texting Ingrid, the love of his life: “You’re so fit! Will miss u loadz :(”

Does it really seem so unlikely? For all its technical brilliance and world-building bravado, Avatar took few storytelling risks and the switch to performance-capture was a big win for James Cameron. In the late 90s the filmmaker had to build a three-quarter scale model of an ocean liner and flirt with hypothermia to make a billion dollars. Flash-forward a decade to Avatar and a movie filmed in a stripped-down warehouse with actors in skin-tight leotards has pulled off the same trick. It was still pricey, sure, but practical and controllable, and offered enough visual fireworks to distract from the broad brushstroke narrative.

We should have faith in Serkis. He’s planning a performance-capture version of Animal Farm and various other enticing projects through his new London-based studio The Imaginarium. Let’s just make sure performance-capture stays hourable and doesn’t turn to the Dark Side.