In the summer of last year, I stumbled into some film goon small talk with three people I didn’t know. After a few minutes, it came up that they were longtime co-workers at Industrial Light & Magic, the legendary effects house founded by George Lucas in the mid-‘70s. Whatever topic we were discussing vanished as I clumsily sputtered out some brain-damage like: “Why does everyone keep having computer effects that are so awful and oh damn gosh it sure is bad hoo boy.”
Patiently, one of them replied, “CGI? Oh, we hate it. It’s bullshit.” It was unanimous and the conversation became a very open assessment of the death of Hollywood wonder, straight from the mouths of the people who get paid to kill it.
It was tragic, but a tremendous relief to hear someone on “the inside” acknowledge the problem. They all spoke of digital effects the way surgeons might describe cancer: as a terrible, destructive reality that provides them with a career. They admitted to deep sadness over the state of their industry, and expressed genuine regret over their participation in the cavalcade of trons and shreks that pass as today’s blockbuster entertainment. They went on to praise original effects demigods, from George Pal and Ray Harryhausen to Rick Baker and Dave Allen, speaking about the endless inspiration that these artists provided. And the discussion ended with a resigned group shrug.
So if even those responsible for the current cinematic landscape acknowledge that it’s pathetically crippled, then why doesn’t it improve? Maybe audiences are somehow more enthralled by a computer-manufactured thrill than one created by a skilled miniaturist or executed by a real live death-defying stuntman, but that just doesn’t make sense. I’ve actually overheard people jeer the “cheesy ‘80s effects” of John Carpenter’s original (flawless) The Thing, while these same alleged adults are content to swallow the Sharktopus-caliber machinations of Machete and Ghost Rider. Somehow, we’re expected to accept that the last two iterations of The Incredible Hulk are any less laughable than Lou Ferrigno’s green nipples.
All right. To be fair, there’s surely some artistry required to doodle blue-skinned alien hippies on a 9000-pound computer. But no matter how many billions you sink in, there’s no tangibility, and that goes further than we might think. There’s a basic reality inherent in traditional effects work that subconsciously trumps the most expensive technology, an involuntary viewer recognition of Real vs. Not-Real. When you see professional daredevil Dar Robinson take a 220-foot freefall in the 1981 movie Sharky’s Machine, you’re watching a goddamn human being jump 22 stories straight to the pavement. Even when Bela Lugosi wrestles a lifeless rubber octopus in Ed Wood’s notorious Bride of the Monster, it’s a skilled performer physically interacting with an actual object, and the widely-mocked result is honestly every bit as compelling as anything we’ve seen from the upcoming $200,000,000 John Carter movie.
If Wood had been handed that type of budget (adjusted to its 1955 equivalent of roughly $24,000,000), he would have easily produced something as visually impressive and innovative than, say, Van Helsing. And it would have been a lot more fun to watch. Ed Wood may not have been blessed with innate filmmaking skills as most people would define them, but he was sincere and enduring in ways that have earned him some legitimate fans among scores of hecklers. Among them is of course Tim Burton, whose loving 1994 bio-pic to Wood closely preceded the widely acknowledged (particularly on this site) collapse of Burton’s own artistic legacy. In fact, this once-great director may serve as the best example of the industry’s rampant CGI holocaust. In just a little over a decade, his visionary output degraded to his reliable sad-fairy-tale-with-swirly-shit formula, devoid of any of the spark that made his early work identifiable, much less enjoyable. The characteristic hand-crafted creatures that defined A Tim Burton Movie gave way to downloaded gorillas and Wii-ready fairytale adaptations. Sure, his endless digital retreads afford him the very best swimming pool upkeep, but I'd like to meet someone who truly prefers the recent Alice in Wonderland to Beetlejuice...maybe only so I can beat them to death with a rake.
One defense you may hear is that digital effects are more “financially realistic” than other methods of miracle replication, and that certainly should be the case. But the current financial binge-and-purge model of studio film budgeting provides another strike against logic. Production costs have skyrocketed beyond all sanity, making Hollywood hacks and drones as hilariously overpaid as athletes and Apple executives. And these days, the closing credits are just crawling with ‘em.
Take for example Real Steel, a $110,000,000-budgeted flash-in-the-box-office that required 219 credited parties to digitally activate some blue-collar mandroids to punch each other among dusty trailer parks and other earthly locations. Now compare that to Jim Henson’s 1982 film The Dark Crystal, where less than half that number of effects artists collaborated to create AN ENTIRE GODDAMN PLANET, sculpting every form of life by hand and making them all breathe and burrow into our collective imagination forever. An impossible and perfectly executed undertaking, completed for a total cost of $15,000,000 (or $35,000,000 in today’s bucks), a fraction of the price of the next Jennifer Aniston comedy.
Henson’s premature death was one of the most resounding celebrity losses of the twentieth century, but I can’t help but feel relief that he’ll never have to see the CGI-laden Dark Crystal sequel planned for 2013. And it’s a shame that visual fantasy godfather Ray Harryhausen (who’s 91 and still kicking) has weathered TWO bastardized, digitized recent attacks on his epic Clash of the Titans. While there is still the occasional genre film released with actual stunts (Casino Royale; A Lonely Place to Die), innovative gore, or even fantastic use of computer animation (I loved Up as much as you did), examples are becoming scarcer by the season, buried beneath an indiscernible onslaught of shade-tippin’ trenchcoated hitmen, lightning thieves and scorpion kings.
Endless studio abominations will continue being pumped out for as long as audiences are willing to accept them. There’s a constant, insatiable demand for entertainment, and since the last couple decades have conditioned most moviegoers to lower their standards, few realize that a few better options even exist. Put a steaming bowl of shit in front of a starving man and he’ll eventually either eat it or die. I’d rather die.
Or what I’d really rather do is enjoy seeing Hollywood movies again, to get swept up in the incredible impossibilities of visionary creators who are as dazzled by new ideas as we used to be. And to be completely floored by the countless previously unexplored methods used to communicate those ideas. Computer-generated images assault us from our junk mail, billboards and pizza boxes. They have no place in our fantasies.
For the most part, movies exist to take us away. When a person shells out for escapism, that person has the right to escape. And the film industry has lost sight of the endless exploration and initiative that made this kind of enchantment possible, instead blinded by a now-diminishing downpour of money. The only magic Hollywood has pulled off in recent years is passing off laziness as progress.