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Published: Sunday, 8/22/2004

Not-so-special effects

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

We make so much of the summer movie season while heading into it, now that we're coming out of it, with the major releases out of the way, it seems a disservice not to take its measure and make some elaborate pronouncements. So here goes:

Special effects are dead.

That's what I learned on my summer vacation. Special effects are lame, boring, depressing, lifeless. Usually they look like special effects. Gaudy, expensive ones. They try too hard, like $900 spinners on a $450 Chevy Nova.

Special effects can conjure up worlds now, with their own weather systems, create entire characters to empathize with, and yet we watch them generally without wonder. They do nothing for us anymore. Please, everyone who bought a ticket to Alien vs. Predator last weekend, and anyone who looks forward to Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid this weekend, admit it: they may sound cool on paper, or look tempting in a trailer, but faced with 90 minutes of their supple, fully poseable action bodies, which look completely convincing in so far as a 10-ton anaconda and a drooling alien arachnoid are convincing - they're just sort of routine.

Not-very-special effects.

This summer, as I turned around in my seat to gawk at audiences - a creepy habit, I know - I did not notice any wide eyes when Van Helsing confronted Dracula and the Prince of Darkness transformed into the nine-foot tall demon bat of our nightmares. Vin Diesel outran a pirouetting, football field-long space ship in The Chronicles of Riddick, and yet from the look of the faces around me, Vin might have been taking a light jog. Even when Spider-Man loop-de-looped across Manhattan, his digital torso as elastic as Plastic Man, the audience reserved its sincerest reactions for the quieter poignancy of the flesh-and-blood characters and their sidewalk-level heartaches.

So of course FX are not dead.

My beef's with CGI - that industry standard, commonly known by its ubiquitous movie-geek shorthand for computer-generated imagery. What the above examples share is that their special effects are almost completely computer generated, they look professional, and they're totally underwhelming.

You know a CGI web-slinger when you see a CGI web-slinger, even when you're not aware that you're seeing CGI. Because even at its best (and it gets more sophisticated monthly), the digital nature of CGI has an odd effect on the brain: it gives everything it conjures that vague aura of being a ghost of reality - of not actually existing in the same room.

Like a kind of visual echo.

CGI dirt, for example, is just too clean. A facsimile of dirt. See the cheesy Mummy movies for tacky examples. CGI armies don't march in lock-step like clones anymore; they have variation. But they lack that fire radiating off men at war. See Troy for even further tacky examples.

And still, no doubt about it, CGI - constructed of 1s and 0s and shaped into amazingly expressive digital creations - is too ubiquitous to be recalled; it's dropped weekly into our brick-and-mortar movie worlds the way Tom and Jerry were dropped beside a tap-dancing Gene Kelly.

So wait, let me rephrase:

CGI isn't exactly dead.

Quite the contrary: it's everywhere and has been for years. CGI is generally cheaper than constructing models, sewing the hair on a werewolf, and building sets. Without CGI there'd be no commercials with talking gekos, no Shrek. Without CGI there's be no Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a back-to-the-future sci-fi noir constructed in a computer and shot with real actors (like Gwyneth Paltrow and Jude Law) performing against blank screens to be filled-in with CGI later. (It opens on Sept. 17.)

The problem is, with live-action movies (as opposed to computer-generated animated features like Finding Nemo), CGI has become too committed to the artifice of realism - an assembly line producing some real lookers, but the soul and the warmth are sold separately. They're Stepford effects, and we may not recognize it, but we want to believe if we were to touch a space ship we see in a movie or walk along some fantastical landscape, some inverse pressure would be applied back.

It's the odd paradox of special effects: the more we can spot the seams in the ape costume, the more we're aware those are real shadows crossing a model space ship (held up with real fishing line), the more we're charmed.

Without that flaw, we drift.

It's the difference between the human hands who built the models in The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and the computers who drew entire sequences of Attack of the Clones (2002). It's the difference between the 1954 guy-in-a-suit Godzilla (revived this summer for his 50th anniversary, currently playing at the State Theater in Ann Arbor) and the chilly, CGI personality-deficient Godzilla from 1998 (rarely remembered, even by its fans).

It's why the all-digital Garfield looked so repellent for such a plush feline (particularly acting opposite real cats and dogs who don't always hit their marks); it's why Catwoman felt so cheap: for starters, when the camera flew over its anonymous city, we got a computer-generated nowhere without people on the streets, smoke in the air, or even dirt.

So here's a modest proposal:

Let's reconsider our love affair with computer-generated special effects. It's the perfect time. This summer marks the 10th anniversary of CGI - I don't mean its birth. (Its Hollywood roots and hi-tech DNA stretch back decades.) I mean its coronation.

Ten years ago - a year after Steven Spielberg left audiences in awe at his seat-rumbling digital dinosaurs in Jurassic Park - Hollywood gave itself over wholeheartedly to these relatively cheaper, more believable digital recreations. Jurassic Park proved audiences would buy an all-digital monster. A bit later the success of Titanic proved CGI could believably revive another kind of world long extinct. And there's been no looking back since. But summer of 1994, it started - just a trickle at first:

Jim Carrey going from rubbery to rubbery in The Mask. Forrest Gump shaking hands with JFK. The Crow rising from the dead. The Flintstones' entire dinosaur-centric universe given texture.

Oh dear, the irony.

CGI's modest arrival now sounds suspiciously like the plot of a CGI-laced movie itself: At first, the technology we thought would solve our problems is utilitarian, even charming. It tries hard to fit in, and it does, and we look the other way even when we know something just doesn't seem right. Gradually hearts and minds are won; George Lucas, an early convert, sunk his beloved Star Wars trilogy into this new revolution with an unquestioning acceptance. Eventually, before they realize it, the masters are serving the technology, which breaks free and runs rampant and threatens to ruin everything. In fact, we got that movie last month: I Robot.

With CGI robots, of course.

We also received signs that the resistance had already begun. If Hollywood learns anything from this summer's successes and failures, let's hope it's this, written on the Internet last week by a movie fan, after just getting back from seeing Alien vs. Predator:

"Why is it in 1979 and 1986 they were able to show us creatures that looked and felt like REAL and dangerous organisms, and in 2004 we get creatures that are like video-game cannon fodder? Very, very disappointing."

At the moment, Alien vs. Predator, the season's last mega-hyped release (not screened in advance for critics, incidentally), also looks like an unqualified success from a box-office vantage: it made $38 million in two days. That should be enough to ensure Hollywood learns nothing. But the comment is astute.

I've never been much fond of the original Predator - basically an '80s Arnold Schwarzenegger shoot-em-up with sci-fi geek overtones. But the first two Alien pictures the quote refers to collect dread as if it were pills on an old sweater. And one reason for that is the aliens themselves carries weight and had height. They loomed over their prey and were usually shot in a dark so black that you didn't know where the dark ended and the alien began. The look of revulsion on the cast seemed to be a combination of acting and not wanting to touch that dripping cement-glue slime applied by producer designers.

These aliens didn't race with the graceful slither of the armies of aliens in Alien vs. Predator. They moved a foot here, a foot there. CGI gave them mobility, but all it really did was remove their mystery and their menace. Alien latches to your brain like one of those alien face huggers. But a month from now Alien vs. Predator won't even be remembered by the same fan boys who rushed out that first weekend.

In fact, surveying the summer movies, then going further back to the beginning of the year, it's hard to remember a single computer-generated image with fondness. There's Gollum of Lord of the Rings, a miracle of sorts; and the runaway robot of I Robot - both created, no coincidence, by real actors who perform the role, leaving a live template for special effect artists to later trace over with CGI (to put it crudely).

There's Harry Potter's unnervingly ornery flying horse thingamajig from last June's Prisoner of Azkaban. And a handful of CGI elephants and CGI showdowns. But notice when the robots in I Robot start swarming: their bodies are multiplied into thousands and their souls handed over to computer-controlled movements, and you lose interest. (Swarming CGI creepy-crawlers that look like legions of green lizards bombarding a screen door in the Florida Keys - it's the first real CGI cliche.)

As for this past summer:

I remember the vast waters of Open Water, empty and frightening for what lies beneath that you can't see. (The movie, which opened in Toledo Friday, has no special effects - let alone CGI.)

The frantic chase through a Moscow tunnel in The Bourne Supremacy - another movie that might have employed CGI, but opted instead for the tangible world. (Again, no CGI used at all, and you can sense it, too.)

The genuine compassion afforded to Peter Parker in Spider-Man 2 by director Sam Raimi. (Beside it, those CGI brawls with Doc Ock became perfunctory.)

These were all hits, too. While Van Helsing, Troy, Garfield, Riddick, Catwoman, however much money they made collectively, have not been particularly liked.

What I remember most, though, was Godzilla, in his scratchy black and white glory, with Japanese subtitles, stomping across a sprawling balsa-wood model of Tokyo. The smoke from the rubble curled into the frame too much (perhaps inadvertently) and gave the obscured shots a fuzziness. The film itself, though restored, seemed to decay by the minute. But it combined for truly spooky images of mass destruction.

Of course there was no CGI in 1954. The man in the suit seemed to shuffle more out of caution of falling than dramatic effect. But it's a surreal image, pulled from the bleakest child's book imaginable, and when Godzilla spun his tail in the direction of the Japanese army, I saw the seams.



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