Between Reviews: Unspecial Effects

Posted on May 15, 2010

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UNSPECIAL EFFECTS

With all the techno-gizmos at their disposal, why don’t present-day filmmakers strive for memorable (as opposed to merely functional) visuals?.

MAY 16, 2010 – ANTICIPATING THE CGI-HEAVY Hollywood-blockbuster releases of this summer, I attempted to recall the last time I was truly socked out of my seat by visual effects – the way we were when Terminator 2: Judgment Day unfolded in front of our unbelieving eyes, or when Jurassic Park made us reach for the rippling skin of the dinosaurs. Virtually no big-budget movie, today, is free of all-that-money-can-buy visual effects, but can you remember the last time you saw something you’d never seen before, something original? Take, for instance, the recent worldwide smash, Clash of the Titans. This is a film that screams for special effects, what with its story of hapless humans trapped between punitive gods and petrifying monsters. There’s Medusa, the snake-infested Gorgon who can reduce men to marble with a gaze. There are three blind witches – possible progenitors of the prophesying trio of Macbeth – who share, between them, a single all-seeing eye. And, above all, there’s the Kraken, the original Beast from 20000 Fathoms, a sea-monster so formidable that Zeus himself hesitates before unleashing it upon mankind.

None of the visions on screen, however, possess a tenth the wonderment their descriptions evoke. They are, to the last one, standard-issue scaly beasties. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all – dull creatures hatched from digital ooze. You could pack these monsters off to another summer blockbuster – say, a superhero saga – and no one would be able to tell the difference. They are, to the last one, defined by their externals – they rage and bellow and wreak havoc, but there’s no inner life to them, nothing internal, nothing to make you see why this monster is different from that one. I’m hardly going to pretend that the earlier version of the film, from the early eighties, was some sort of classic (it’s certainly some kind of camp classic, though) – but it invested a cackling camaraderie between the witches, and it painted Medusa as a victim of godly whim. (Her island fortress, therefore, was practically an exile.) Better yet, the action was punctuated by brief moments of idyll, like the young Perseus, with his mother Danaë, shuffling along the shores of the very sea from which they were rescued, as if they were the last two people on the planet.

It’s understandable that today’s blockbuster-template films cannot (or, perhaps, will not) accommodate these moments of idyll. After all, the catchphrase is momentum-momentum-momentum. These films are made with worldwide audiences in mind, and anything that doesn’t move the story ahead, anything that stops to reflect or observe, is a monumental no-no. (Idyll will not fetch you an international gross of approximately $450 million, as of this writing, for Clash of the Titans.) But there are baffling compromises even within the fantasy aspect. Even with the latest technologies at hand, the makers of this version did not see fit to replicate (and surpass) the taming-of-Pegasus sequence from the earlier film, where the fabled winged horse was a creaky creation of stop-motion animation. (This alone would have been worth the price of admission.) Have we become so undemanding of these big-ticket productions that they know they can serve anything with the full confidence that we’ll lap it up, simply because there’s CGI, and so long as we don’t actually have to think?

At the other end of the commercial-filmmaking spectrum, there’s the earlier release, Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief, instilled with a lot of the same imagery. Here, too, we have Greek gods and greasy monsters, and there’s also a huge Harry Potter hangover, so much so that this adventure appears to exist solely so HP fans will have something to snack on while anticipating the forthcoming (and final) chapters. (This is also the story of a young lad separated from his parents, with powers he doesn’t fully comprehend, and this is also directed by Chris Columbus, who made the lead-footed initial installments of the HP franchise.) The special effects, again, are hardly spectacular, all fire and brimstone with little power to penetrate our imaginations (or our nightmares). But where Percy Jackson scores is in being lighthearted, light-witted. This is the kind of movie where the randy queen of the underworld, Persephone, mocks those who threaten her with harm: “What will you do? I’m already in Hell.” Even Medusa, here, isn’t just a creature – played twinklingly by Uma Thurman, she’s a woman, with sunglasses, with attitude.

I haven’t read the books, but this conceit is a truly inspired mashup – part disaster movie (storm clouds gather as the gods rage in the heavens, with threats of quakes and erupting volcanoes), part teen-empowerment saga (a hurting, abandoned offspring discovers his destiny, amidst summer camps and sorority soirees and a Romeo-like adolescent crush on an enemy-faction daughter), and part cheerful camp (in this modern retelling, Hades is situated in Hollywood, which, in hindsight, would seem the only appropriate place on earth). The visual effects may not be spectacular but the high concept wins you over. This is perfect light-entertainment – not resonant enough to aspire to greatness, but intelligent enough to not look like something that fell off the action-movie assembly line. And yet, the worldwide gross, so far, is a mere $220 million, half of what Clash of the Titans has raked in. While by no means a failure, Percy Jackson isn’t quite the success you’d imagine of a fantasy-line franchise-starter along the lines of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, which wound up with close to $745 million internationally.

I could barely sit through that bloated adaptation of a beloved classic, but it did showcase a talking lion – perhaps that’s the thing that made a difference. It’s futile to try to analyse why some films work and why others don’t – though, perhaps, there is some kind of corollary, that culture-specific wit doesn’t exactly translate across borders, even within the generic cloak of fantasy storytelling – but let’s get back to the original topic of visual effects (and Narnia did not have anything great in that department either). With so many films relying on digital visuals, why are so few so memorable, so many so derivative? If you’ve seen one quaking monster, you’ve seen them all (and in the case of the latter-day George Lucas, if you’ve seen one space battle, you’ve seen them all). The only effects-heavy films that seek to disturb our complacency are those by genuine artists like Guillermo del Toro, whose Pan’s Labyrinth was situated exactly at the intersection of dream and nightmare. It’s worldwide box-office loot? Just $83 million – which is spectacular for a film of its stripe, an art-house film really, but what does this relatively meagre tally say about what we demand of special-effects entertainers? Nothing, that’s what.

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