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CGI and the Banality of the Incredible, Part 2

In 1993, audiences gazing on the truly imposing sight of dinosaurs come to life in Jurassic Park felt the same sense of jaw-dropping awe displayed by the movie’s human characters.  Nothing in movie

history could compare to what Steven Spielberg and his CGI crew were able to put on the screen:  not the herky-jerky stop-motion-animated lizards of 1950s monster-on-the-loose movies like The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), nor the pet store lizards made up to look like supposedly threatening beasts in Irwin Allen’s back lot The Lost World (1960), and certainly not a man in a rubber reptile suit rampaging through a miniature Tokyo in the original Godzilla (1954).  But as impressive a sight as it was, once the novelty of Jurassic’s CGI creations wore off, so did some of their appeal.

Jurassic Park earned a whopping $350.5 million domestic gross, and while its sequels were, without question, major box office successes, none had the same attraction as the original with The Lost World:  Jurassic Park (1997) earning considerably less with $229.1 million, and Jurassic Park III (2001) bringing in $181.2 million.  In the same vein, the big budget remake of Godzilla (1998) brought in $136 million, Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong $218.1 million, and an attempted revival of the monster-on-the-loose vehicle in Cloverfield (2008) just $78.8 million.

Similarly, after the debut of CGI-created catastrophic weather in Twister ($241.7 million domestic gross), similar meteorological terrors seemed a little less engrossing in The Perfect Storm ($182.6 million) and The Day After Tomorrow (2004, $186.7 million).

The inspired visuals of the $171.4 million-grossing The Matrix (1999) had grown stale by the time of the series’ third and final installment — The Matrix Revolutions — just four years later.  With the novelty gone and the series therefore more reliant on its muddled storytelling and emotionally flattened characters, what had once been mind-blowing had become mind-numbing, and Revolutions’ U.S. gross topped out at $139.3 million, particularly disappointing in light of the movie’s $150 million cost – almost two and a half times that of the original.

The fall-off in the appeal of sword-and-sandal epics trying to capitalize on the success of The Lord of the Rings series is even more marked:

U.S. gross

The Lord of the Rings:

The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)     $314.8 million

The Lord of the Rings:

The Two Towers (2002)        340.5

The Lord of the Rings:

The Return of the King (2003)       377

Troy (2004)          133.2

Alexander (2004)           34.3

Kingdom of Heaven (2005)          47.4

Prince of Persia:

The Sands of Time (2010)          90.8

And so the pattern continues to this day with each new innovation or application of CGI.  300 had been a surprise hit.  Despite lacking any major stars and being released in the winter/spring lull of early 2007, the videogamey-looking thriller easily overpowered bad reviews on its way to a U.S. gross of $210.6 million.  Released later that same year, the similar-looking and better-reviewed Beowulf, made for twice the cost, stalled at $82.2 million.

In his book Which Lie Did I Tell?  More Adventures in the Screen Trade (Pantheon, 2000), two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter William Goldman recalls walking out of a screening of The Matrix suitably impressed by the movie’s special effects, but also wondering, “How long will they hold?  How long before they look just as dated as (the original) King Kong seems to us today?”

The box office scores above suggest they don’t hold up very long at all.  It may be that in how CGI turns the incredible into the commonplace, it robs spectacle of what had previously been its chief draw; its power to awe.

The movies have always relied on special effects magic to do what was either physically or financially impractical.  There are no twenty-odd feet tall gorillas, and even if there were, it would hardly be prudent to let one go tearing through midtown Manhattan for the sake of making a movie.  Instead, producer/director Merian C. Cooper and his co-director, Ernest B. Schoedsack, set effects wizard Willis O’Brien to sending a 24-inch tall ape marauding through a miniature model of Manhattan one stop-motion frame at a time for King Kong (1933).

But, as long ago as D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) and its Babylonian sequence with its monumental 100-feet high sets peopled by thousands of costumed extras, there have, conversely, always been occasions when a filmmaker has decided that the best – and sometimes only – way to adequately convey something spectacular is to do it:  build a full-sized set, engineer an extraordinary physical feat.  And so, in 1931, director Wesley Ruggles sent 5,000 extras charging in front of his cameras to recreate the Oklahoma land rush in his epic Western, Cimarron; exacting producer David O. Selznick brought to life the burning of Atlanta in his Civil War epic Gone with the Wind (1939) by sending his stunt people running past sky-filling flames as MGM torched old back lot sets to represent the burning city; in 1949, when director Henry King needed a B-17 to crash-land in his classic WW II tale, 12 O’Clock High, stunt pilot Paul Mantz provided the spectacle by really crash-landing one of the bombers for the cameras; for his 1959 version of Ben-Hur, director William Wyler felt the only way to pull off the movie’s all-time classic action centerpiece – a bitterly contested chariot race — was to construct a full-scale arena filled with 15,000 costumed extras, then send his stunt crew (and, occasionally, his stars) roaring around the track; for the ship-sinking thriller The Last Voyage (1960), the producers leased the decommissioned Ile de France and partially sunk her; in his quest to make the ultimate war movie, producer Darryl F. Zanuck used 23,000 U.S., British, and French soldiers to recreate the storming of the Normandy beaches for The Longest Day (1962).

In the face of such staggering physical productions, it was hard not to be absorbed; to look at Japanese planes coming across the waters of the real Pearl Harbor as explosive charges detonated around a full-size, moving replica of the battleship Nevada in the 1970 WW II epic Tora!  Tora!  Tora!, and think, This is what it must have looked like! What viewer could not have felt the same daunting awe which must have been felt by freedom-seeking slaves facing off against the Roman Empire 2000 years ago as Stanley Kubrick’s cameras caught the massive coordinated maneuvering of his 8,500 uniformed extras during the climactic battle of sword-and-sandal epic Spartacus (1960).

These pre-CGI spectaculars never failed to impress at some level.  Because of the great effort and, particularly, expense of executing them, their value was always maintained – at least to some degree –  by their comparable rarity.  Whether the movies were good or bad, the difficulty in producing them meant any pre-CGI movie of extraordinary scale or marked by special effects wonderment was often a singular event.

Even when a big budget spectacle failed as effective drama, it was still hard not to be taken with the sheer physical accomplishment of, say, the recreation of the Roman Forum in one of the largest outdoor sets ever built for The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), or the 60-acre replica of Peking c. 1900 for 55 Days at Peking (1963).

When drama and spectacle meshed and fed each other, few sensations in the American movie canon can match them.  When stuntman Bud Ekins (masquerading as escaped WW II POW Steve McQueen) makes his 65-foot motorcycle jump over the German/Swiss border in a bid for freedom, it’s an emotional as well as visceral peak for The Great Escape (1963), so dramatically resonant it remains one of the iconic moments in American popular movies even as more spectacular stunts have come and been forgotten.  The original screenplay for Spartacus had no on-screen battles, but Kubrick saw the emotional necessity of adding one to the film’s third act; a full-scale depiction of the final battle between the slave army and the massive, almost inhuman might of Roman legions.  The sense of the waste and misguided priorities of war finds no better reflection than in a troop train following a collapsing full-scale bridge into the Kwai River at the bitter finale of David Lean’s WW II epic, The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957).

Having to rely on real world replications could sometimes bring a level of unplanned authenticity to the experience not possible in the totally controlled virtual reality of CGI effects.  During a scene depicting Japanese planes strafing an American airfield in Tora!  Tora!  Tora!, effects crews lost control of a taxiing plane, sending stunt men literally running for their lives – a scene the makers kept in the film, and which is one of the most memorable in the film.  The movements of locomotives colliding to sabotage a Nazi train filled with looted French art in John Frankenheimer’s WW II thriller The Train (1964) were so chaotic, the careening engines destroyed several of the cameras set up to capture the crash while still providing Frankenheimer with one of the best shots from the sequence as one engine unpredictably side-slipped directly into one of the cameras. At one point in the classic chase scene from The French Connection (1971), star Gene Hackman’s car is sideswiped by a car which had somehow slipped past the production’s traffic control. During the chariot race sequence from Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston’s stunt double, Joe Canutt, was nearly thrown from his chariot during a jump – an action director William Wyler thought so exciting he incorporated it into the scene. That these were unscripted events was often patently obvious and only made what was on-screen seem all that more true-to-life (and exciting), much like the way a well-delivered bit of verbal ad libbing can enliven an actor’s performance.

CGI has changed all this.  The technology has not only put spectacular visuals and effects within the reach of even modest theatrical releases, but effects dazzle has long since become a routine aspect of popular entertainment.  CGI effects are pervasive in TV advertising (the GEICO gecko, for example), and appear throughout the TV spectrum, from expensive broadcast network series like CSI and House, to cable programming like Syfy’s monster-of-the-week original movies, and documentary series like The History Channel’s Dogfights to name just a very few.   Produced for a fraction of a blockbuster’s costs, these – and many other – TV programs now offer better special effects than what had previously appeared in most Hollywood effects showcases throughout the six decades before CGI.

Not only has CGI made it easier to turn out spectacles and effects/action-driven movies, but it has also made it possible for those movies to feature as much action as moviemakers demand, amping the action/effects quotient up to what would have been an impossibly extravagant level in the pre-CGI era to satisfy the expectations of a young audience producer Peter Guber once described as “…weaned on videogames.”  Instead of Spartacus’ single battle, Braveheart, Gladiator, and 300 offer cascades of escalating CGI-enhanced contests; where Steven Spielberg had to shoot around the cantankerousness of his mechanical shark in Jaws (1975), Renny Harlin had a squadron of CGI sharks on a ceaseless prowl in Deep Blue Sea (1999).  Fleets of spaceships, marauding monsters, aliens and mutants, past and future civilizations, specters and mythological beasties can now be produced on demand in any quantity.

But in this, their prevalence, special effects have, inevitably, become less…special.

CGI has created a new baseline for effects showcases and spectacles to the point where what would have been amazing as recently as the early 1980s, is only a starting point for today’s theatrical action/effects fests.  What would, at one time, have instilled an audience with wonder and amazement has, through its near-constancy, become just so much visual chaff.  The ability of CGI to inflate even the most banal of stories to epic proportions in turn pushes thriller-makers to even greater heights of improbability.

Which, it appears, matters little to today’s thriller audience.

Consider that among such truly engaging CGI-dependent fare as Inception, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1, and Martin Scorsese’s more life-sized Shutter Island where CGI was used to create psychologically-fractured cop Leonardo DiCaprio’s hallucinations, 2010’s box office chart toppers also include creative disappointments like Alice in Wonderland, and wholly disposable efforts like Clash of the Titans and The Last Airbender.

It’s worth considering just how much dramatic impact would Bud Ekins’ The Great Escape motorcycle jump have had if, before the movie’s release, audiences had seen a segment on Access Hollywood or published in Entertainment Weekly showing how Ekins and his motorcycle had been suspended by wires in front of a green screen, with CGI filling in the background and barrier fence slipping by below while also extending the jump to an impossible one hundred feet or so?  Would the jump have been just as thrilling if audiences had known it wasn’t really a jump?  That Ekins had been perfectly safe inside a sound stage?

Not only is that kind of artifice (and awareness thereof) commonplace in today’s blockbusters and the promotional bombardments that accompany them, but, if box office performances like those cited above are any indication, it has also been embraced by both thriller-makers and their audience.  The blockbuster thriller audience has no particular requirement for what they see to be plausible or in any way credible – simply dazzling.

To be sure, there have been enough underperforming (and some flat-out disastrous) big-budget, effects-filled extravaganzas to demonstrate that spectacular visual effects and action hardly guarantee success i.e. the 1998 remake of Godzilla, The Hulk (2003), Superman Returns (2006), Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Harry Potter wannabes The Golden Compass (2007) and The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008), graphic novel-inspired The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003), The Matrix Revolutions, Prince of Persia:  The Sands of Time, and so on.

But at the same time, the box office charts have, for some time, been regularly dominated by dramatically anemic spectacles over-stuffed with eye-catching effects and improbable action suggesting the mass audience has willingly exchanged drama and character for often empty spectacle.  According to Peter Biskind in his book Down and Dirty Pictures:  Miramax, Sundance, and the Rise of Independent Film (Simon & Schuster, 2004), mainstream commercial cinema has become monotonously immersed in escapism, improbability, and obvious artifice to the point where the “absence of content has actually become a virtue.”