The movie industry has been going all-out, for the past decade, to overwhelm us with incredible images of superhero battles, space action, and dragons. Movie budgets skyrocket. IMAX screens pulsate. It's all kind of overwhelming. And, you know what? That's kind of excellent.
I'm always kind of bemused when people complain about there being too much incredible spectacle at the movies. It's like when people say there are too many superhero films. Sure, some of them are terrible, but it's still kind of amazing that we're getting such an amazing quantity of beautiful visuals. A couple of the better essays about this came out last May from Hitfix and The Dissolve, exploring the idea that too much empty spectacle would numb us, and cheapen our fantasies.
It all reminds me a bit of George Santayana's famous essay on the poetry of barbarism, where he warns that "Irrational stimulation may tire us in the end, but it excites us in the beginning," and cautions against art that "shows an exclusive respect for quantity and splendour of materials." (The essay is an elaborate takedown of Walt Whitman and Robert Browning, two poets whom Santayana sees as insufficiently scholarly.)
Are a lot of movies that feature gorgeous visuals also kind of dumb or devoid of real characters and storytelling? Sure. Do some of these films look kind of the same? Totes. Are the worst of them, like Battleship or Green Lantern, kind of bland and soupy? Sure. Back when the Catholic Church was paying hundreds of artists to paint frescoes, they weren't all the Sistine Chapel.
But still, every time a new trailer comes out — as trailers soon will for Star Wars and Batman v. Superman — we screencap the shit out of them, not just looking for easter eggs but also just admiring the beauty. I still remember poring over the ridiculous heart-stopping spaceship images of the Prometheus and Interstellar trailers — two movies which really were incredibly gorgeous to look at.
I've been thinking about this for a while, but seeing Interstellar, with its astonishing views of a wormhole and a black hole, really brought it back. We're seeing an art form that has really come into its own in the past half-century blossoming, because for a brief historical moment, there are corporations willing to pour billions of dollars into paying an army of people to create it. (And to screw over VFX companies along the way, unfortunately.)
Forget the CG-vs-practical distinction for a second — visual effects, as an industry generally, has really grown up over the past 50-odd years. One huge watershed is the release in 1977 of Star Wars, which jumpstarted the notion of the summer blockbuster and changed how people saw effects sequences.
Although when I was a kid, I didn't recognize any great distinction between pre- and post-Star Wars stuff. The Ray Harryhausen stop-motion animation and classic monster movies and space operas were just as exciting, and felt just as much of a piece with Star Wars, as the flood of shiny brilliance that came out in the 80s. It was all just more awesome make-believe, more fantasies made semi-real. Whether they looked convincing or completely fake, they were still beautiful either way.
I still kind of feel that way about old-school VFX, even if I make fun of its shortcoming sometimes. And I still love the completely unconvincing loveliness of 1990s television CG.
So for me, it's not just about whether CG and modelwork have reached a point now where they can look "photoreal," or convince me that I'm really watching an army of zombies or a kaiju attack a city. It's more just the thrill of "holy wow, somebody put that on the screen." I kind of care if it looks fake, but I also kind of don't really care.
The thing that really great VFX work does, that makes it in some sense elevating and maybe even ennobling to look at, is to convey a sense of scale. The best effects on the original Star Trek were those matte paintings that made it seem like the crew were standing in front of a huge sky fortress.
There's a reason every CG spectacle of the 1990s and early 2000s uses the "pull back" fake zoom, from someone's face to a massive setpiece until that person's face is just a dot, like the above shot from Star Trek: First Contact — the cool factor isn't just that we can make a huge spaceship now, but that we can put ourselves inside it.
Where VFX-heavy movies tend to fail the worst, it's because they've lost sight of the human being in the middle of all the greenscreen crap, and the frame has become overly cluttered with baroque garbage. If we can't even locate ourselves inside all the bric a brac, then scale becomes irrelevant and the impact is lost. That's also one problem with that wave of films that tried to show cities being destroyed without letting us see human casualties in those cities — no casualties meant no sense of scale.
But even when a movie contains a weak story or is deeply flawed or boring, there are often some stunning digital paintings. The Last Airbender was unspeakable crap, but having spent a day at Lucasfilm listening to the ILM artists who toiled over frame, I can see some really incredibly gorgeous — and ground-breaking — digital imagery in there. I still think about the glowing spheres in the dreadful Day the Earth Stood Still remake, too.
I guess my point is two-fold. First, that it's kind of awesome that for a brief moment in time, so much money and energy is being poured into developing this art form. It won't last forever, and maybe hundreds of years from now scholars will study the art of ILM, Weta and other effects studios the way we now study some of the Renaissance art studios that cranked out artworks. And second, that maybe the flood of big-budget VFX spectacles won't numb our imaginations, but actually make us more curious — if we see ourselves out there surrounded by massive wonders often enough, it might make us more hungry for real-life discovery.