Has life in the age of casual magic made moviegoers numb to the amazing?
Certainly no one would accuse me of being shy about offering an opinion.
There are times, though, where that opinion isn't welcomed by a reader, and that's normally when I'm writing up a news story and I can't resist a wee bit of cynicism. I know that any time there is news about "Alice In Wonderland 2," I am openly skeptical of the need for that film. I understand that the first one made a billion dollars, but I'm not sure I actually know anyone who enjoyed it. I recently wrote about that when they picked a release date for the film, and I got several angry e-mails from people who resented my attitude, claiming once again that I was being too rough on the movie.
Taking a second look at what I firmly believe may be Tim Burton's worst film, I was struck by two things. First, it is a terrible movie, a frustratingly wrong-headed adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic. Second, it is filled with visual marvels from start to finish, a technical accomplishment that would have, at one point in time, been impossible to realize.
To be fair, that's what Burton was hired to do, and he delivered. Right now, it appears that there is no incentive to filmmakers working in science-fiction and fantasy to actually craft something that pushes the envelope in terms of narrative.
After all, when studios cut trailers, they aren't showing you elegant problem-solving and deft character work. They're showing you explosions and giant CG army scenes and whatever monsters they paid for. They're showing you the big epic visuals that they spent their $200 million on, and that's what translates from culture to culture to culture right now as international money becomes more and more important to the overall success of any blockbuster.
We are living in an age of casual magic, and it has numbed everyone on both ends of the equation. Filmmakers are so used to being able to just call someone and ask them to do the impossible that they take it for granted, and audiences have become so jaded about the effects they see that when things are anything less than flawless, they get angry about it. Never mind that we are frequently seeing people reinvent the entire process of how something is created onscreen, sometimes starting a movie not entirely sure how they're going to accomplish everything they have in mind, and innovations seem to happen every year now. People expect flawlessness, and anything less is unacceptable.
Even more impressive, there are special effects that you never notice, that no one realizes are going on. There's an FX reel for Nicolas Winding Refn's "Only God Forgives" that just recently popped up and became a mild sensation online, and it's because it highlights just how much visual fine-tuning was done by the visual effects vendor on the film, and just how little of it is something you'd even notice. If you haven't seen it, check it out:
One of the benefits of introducing my kids to films from every era of filmmaking instead of just falling into that trap of only showing them new things is that they seem perfectly willing to watch a film with less-than-perfect effects as long as they're interested in what's happening. I don't think either one of them is particularly fooled by the miniature work in "Godzilla Vs. Biolante," but they don't care. They love the designs of the creatures, and they love the idea of big monsters, so they'll happily accept guys in suits. And, sure, they're excited to see the newest Godzilla in all his glory on the bigscreen this summer, but they just watched "Godzilla Vs. King Kong" and thought it was pretty much the greatest thing of all time.
As a lifelong genre fan, I've always found myself loving films that are full of images that just barely work, that just barely technically accomplish the goal of conveying an idea. But often, those shots are in service of something that works in every other way as a movie, and I can roll with it because I know that films aren't real, and it's not a documentary.
I remember when special effects were actually special.
Can kids today even imagine that world? The level of technical sophistication that is routinely bent to the task of creating empty-calorie kiddie programming is mind-boggling these days. Jim Henson and his team had some sewing machines, some fur, and this crazy hippie notion of making learning fun for children.
Today, there is the attitude among producers that you can put together a Chinese sweatshop of computer animators and crank out something that is exponentially more technically complex than, say, "Return Of The Jedi." That's not true, obviously, but in the hands of the right artists, you can marry images together in a way that is seamless because all of the information, whether live-action or computer generated, exists digitally, and the manipulation of that is commonplace, rendered easier and easier with each new generation of computing power.
What concerns me is the notion that we could become culturally numb, that there might be a moment of overkill where we just can't create anything that works any harder to push buttons. Sitting through the absolute state of the art in digital mayhem these days is overwhelming, especially if you go the extra mile of seeing it in IMAX or 3D or HFR or Dolby Atmos.
Movies aren't just movies anymore. That $17 price tag is because you're paying for an experience. If Hollywood's going to ask that of you, then they feel obligated to make the movie worth it. And why not? A movie that is just a barrage of sensation can be sent overseas with minimal work to translate it, and international box-office is just as important as domestic these days if not more so. If you make a movie where people have to talk to each other, you're asking your audience to read a ton of subtitles, and you risk losing a chunk of the possible ticket buying pool.
Even films that would typically be considered B or C grade programming is produced at such a high level of polish now that it's almost hard to embrace as cheerfully silly genre junk. When I look at a "Resident Evil" or an "Underworld," those movies are hugely technically ambitious. They each have hundreds of major digital shots that feature live-action, animated characters, digital mattes, and any number of other elements.
Look at that and then look at science-fiction or fantasy from the '50s and the '60s and you see how careful filmmakers had to be when making those movies. They knew how hard it was to produce every single second of magic, and that the longer they kept some of the effects onscreen, the less magical they would seem.
When everyone can produce visually dazzling material, how can you make any actual impression with imagery anymore? When anyone can order up a futuristic landscape that puts Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" to shame in sheer scale, then how impressive will anyone of it seem? How can we be transported if we're busy being overwhelmed?
I believe that I have maintained an active sense of wonder as I've gotten older, and part of that is a choice I made long ago as a film fan. Every time I walk into the theater, I am rooting for the filmmaker. I want to start from the position of loving movies, not from a soured stance of demanding that each and every film dazzle me all over again. What gets me to turn on a movie is when I see someone who is given every resource they would ever need and then some, and they make something that doesn't even try. That is infuriating. When I see studios play it safe, that is infuriating. When I see filmmakers who seem to have just given up and taken the path of least resistance, that is infuriating.
Because if we do live in an age of casual magic, then we should recognize this as a gift, not a curse. Instead of lamenting about how much has been done and retreating into endless imitation and repetition, how about we take this as a challenge to expand what we can imagine?
We don't need to see anyone else tell us a Campbell-style hero's journey story, and we don't need more origin stories and we don't need a prequel to every other film already in existence. We don't. What we need are people who look at the tools available to them who say, "There are things we have never tried that we can finally try, and I want to be first." We need filmmakers who take these tools and push them so far, who try such unexpected new things with them that they end up having to create new tools just to get there.
There is nothing more dangerous to storytellers than the idea of an audience that is incapable of awe anymore, and yet that's what our studio system seems determined to create. It's like putting someone on an all ice cream diet. If you forced someone to eat ice cream breakfast, lunch, and dinner without any interruption, that person would eventually learn to detest ice cream. The thought of it would make them physically ill. You would destroy it for them.
So why is it that every movie has to feature a life and death struggle between the ultimate forces of good and evil with the stakes being nothing less than the existence of the Universe, with only the Chosen One to put things right? After a while, it's really difficult to get excited about a bunch of people fighting over a glowing doodad on a rooftop.
I am looking forward to this summer's movies. I just recently published my review for the summer's first giant film, "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," and I'm happy there are people who enjoyed it more than I did. But I am excited for a number of other films as well, and I am hoping that I'm going to get blindsided by all sorts of things. I want to be transported. I need escape. Trust me… if anyone needs escapism to successfully do its job right now, it's me. I'm rooting for you, Hollywood. So calm down… make the stakes more personal… let's get back to telling good stories that also happen to be amazing to look at. You know you want to.
You can make anything happen onscreen. So start widening your definition of "anything," and let's see just how much room there still is to stake out your own place in pop culture.