Updated: Sep 18, 2019
By Luke Worle, contributing writer to Retro Injection.
"The danger of the past was that men became slaves. The danger of the future is that men may become robots."-Erich Fromm
Here at Retro Injection, harsher-oriented think pieces have been a rare commodity, as we enjoy sharing bittersweet memories without too much of the bitter. At times though, there comes that critical tipping point where enough is enough and you just have to write passionately about your convictions. And hope you don't sound like the old man yelling at clouds.
For some personal crusades, it's save the whales and for others, it's nuke the whales. For me, it's getting pumped up about extolling the virtues of presently in-limbo practical effects in film, while detailing why CGI is the utter bane and shame of current cinema. So, grab a Jolt Cola and have a seat on the balcony as we dig into the flesh and bones (figuratively speaking) of my CGI hatred. Either way, let us take a gander, ye cinematic purists. It feels like I'm about to nail my thesis to the wall.
1. CGI looks unrealistic.
My first reactionary impulse when I see CGI in current films is to engage it through a lens of half-baked plausibility. It doesn't ''feel'' real on a visceral level. Your brain can always process dimensionality and CGI essentially betrays that composition, whereby things look superimposed upon layers of digital incongruities. CGI is coded in such a way with hyper-digitized processing that when it's integrated into film, it stands out like a sore neon thumb and draws attention to itself for all the wrong reasons, with the viewer witnessing a simulated celluloid artifice.
So, when you have a villain show up onscreen, and he's completely made from digital code, he looks unconvincing to our naked and subconscious eye, as though he's a virtual transplant into the visual universe we've been watching. CGI can be convincing when used sparingly, but if there's one thing current Hollywood is not good at (among its many celluloid sins), it's restraint. In fact, CGI is used in over ninety percent of all summer thrill-a-minute blockbusters, and many characters themselves are completely virtual. Is this a good thing? Is this a bad thing? Keep reading for the answer to that million dollar analog-devoid question.
2. CGI is too much stimulation for the senses.
In the same way that the so called ''loudness wars'' in the music industry have engendered hyper-compression to music mixes in order to demand our attention through sheer mind-numbing volume, CGI is also used in a similar fashion. I saw an alleged ''film'' (which I won't name*) recently on a long-distance flight, and was expecting great things from it (the film, not the flight). It had a top-tier director and the book it was based on was quite extraordinary, as well as a literary award winner. I settled in, thinking it might be a glorious waste of two hours on an eight-hour flight. Ten minutes into the movie, my senses were so overstimulated (mind you, no Jolt Colas were partaken) that I was actually annoyed instead of even remotely engaged. This faux fantasy world created by pixels looked unrealistic to begin with, but the extensive battering ram to my brain was even worse. Not only were things loud in the sound mixing department, visually everything was flashing like a Michael Bay film on untested steroids.
Do good or even adequate filmmakers realize that a restless visual narrative can be suffocating instead of engaging? I managed to skip through the movie, in parts, but ultimately found it deeply unsatisfying, as the film's takeaway premise was that lots of images, action and loud sounds constitute something that resembles a jumbled and jarring cinematic lobotomy. It's patchwork cinema whereby you get an unholy hybrid of motion, noise and stimulation, but the initial jolt (ha ha) of adrenaline quickly transforms to aggravated annoyance. In my case, I could only handle about ten minutes. In fact, I looked on with slight sadness that a once-great film maker has clearly been progressively losing his touch to the point of releasing completely irrelevant films, blemishing his once unshakably-great filmography.
3. CGI has its place, but many filmmakers have no discretion.
There are many fine films that use CGI in an emotionally arresting and compelling way without diluting the emotional exposition of their intention. Think of Mexican director Guillermo del Toro's now-classic Pan's Labyrinth. It is visually stunning, keenly acted and crucially memorable. It also uses CGI. However, it blends the practical effects needed for storytelling impact, by way of natural integration. It doesn't let the CGI lead, rather the CGI is a backdrop to the story and characters. What a novel concept! This is something also echoed in the great The Lord of the Rings trilogy from the early 2000s (or even the Academy Award-winning 2017 film The Shape of Water, another del Toro masterpiece). Even with some central CGI characters, Peter Jackson was able to use this technique and be all the better for it, simply because he's a judiciously prudent filmmaker who was focusing on characters, atmosphere, a moral compass and a connection to the audience through it all. Even with Jackson's artistic choice to use human actors emulating digital characters, Jackson and other capable directors are able to negotiate such technology that leaves the viewer convinced of its realism. This is because real people are still the life source. Andy Serkis, who played the CGI character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings is a genius in his own right and makes a compelling case for integrating us and machines into film without causing a virtual or organic hiccup.
However, the film (and those I've taken a gamble on in the past several years) I saw on the flight, directed by one of the greats, used CGI at the forefront. It was the story, even though there was a muddled narrative somewhere amidst all the sensory overload and chaos. A good movie was in there, buried beneath layers of stuff. This is a typical problem with modern filmmakers. They want their films to be enticing at any cost, and many of them think that using the shiny toys in the CGI arsenal will make for compelling cinema. It doesn't. It makes for a headache and at best is lazy film-making. At worst, it's a black-eyed insult to the medium of film itself and its purpose in connecting us to something worth our heart and mind's attention.
Quentin Tarantino's Pulp Fiction is likely the best film of the 1990s and aside from a few practical effects, it's a heavily dialogue-driven film that has a philosophical undercurrent. It makes us think, feel and go on a thrill a minute ride... with nary a digitized pixel in its wake. That's the core issue: Many current, trending filmmakers perceive mass audiences to be lazy on the draw and consequentially resort to crafting films that engage the senses, instead of the cerebellum and the heart. Basically, Hollywood capitalizes on the premise that we're dumb and need lots of loud and shiny stuff to stir us from our intellectual stupor. They want to pacify us by competing with all the external digital distractions we already have. So, the louder, the better. The more sparkling the firework, the more it will cut through all the noise. Is Hollywood correct? Take a look at the box office tallies in the past few decades and see if most, if not all, of the highest-grossing films are big budget, special effects-laden extravaganzas. Conversely, the most critically revered films of the past ten years or more have had little to no computer-integrated imagery, but are heavily driven by extremely well-acted performances, a great screenplay and a director who knew his strengths, boundaries and limitations.
4. Most CGI doesn't hold up over time.
The 1980s practical effects rank up there as the epitome of fantastic accomplishments in cinema by sheer virtue of their innate ingenuity. Take for instance John Carpenter's 1982 very strong remake of The Thing. Effects wizard Rob Bottin was largely responsible for some of the most visually-arresting scenes and sequences ever filmed. There is such a palpable tension to what we see, that it's actually upsetting because of its direct believability. Audiences were left legitimately shocked and reeling from the calculated mayhem on screen. They had likely never before seen such disturbingly-inventive effects catering to an already ominous storyline, and many critical film circles rightfully argue that Bottin's effects on this film have never been topped and still hold up to anything today. In fact, it's reported that Bottin was checked into a hospital for extensive exhaustion at the film's completion, as he worked relentlessly for a year. This was a tireless and pioneering FX genius, hand building his vision by way of a mental blueprint.
A year earlier, the John Landis werewolf comedy horror film An American Werewolf in London was released to glowing reviews and a strong box office draw. It also won an Academy Award for best makeup effects for another stalwart cinematic institution in practical effects, the very great Rick Baker. These two films are principle examples of practical effects at their finest, spearheaded by geniuses who still had to wrangle in the viable feasibility of making their effects believable, and come hell or high water, functional. The fact that they not only managed to make it memorable decades later is yet another feat of practical based special effects. Throw in Dick Smith (the godfather of special effects), Stan Winston, Tom Savini, Richard Edlund, Carlo Rambaldi, Kevin Yeager, Steve Johnson, Greg Nicotero and a host of other pioneers and see their practically-based output on screen for yourself. It's not only a highly-impressive body of work, but keep in mind that these guys could rely only on physical mediums to accomplish lofty visions. Props (no pun intended) and mad respect, as we say here at Retro Injection.
Some of these individuals' careers are sadly approaching the obsolete junkyard. Some have managed to stay relevant through organic effects and through the sterling laurels of their name and reputation. Others have retired and others have passed on into that great digital platform in the sky. (Actually, that would be hell. Let's opt for analog.) However, Big Brother is now at the helm, sequencing data into an unfeeling computer. Then, it spits out a decidedly sterile and soulless product... which is then called a "movie," I am told.
Some early (and current) CGI got it right and it does still hold up... when used through the lens of restraint and necessity. Steven Spielberg's Jurassic Park was a masterpiece of integrating practical effects and computer-generated effects, but sadly there is a rueful disconnect between using this union in most of today's films that call for special effects.
5. CGI exemplifies today's social disconnect.
CGI, the "loudness wars," and the oversaturation of social media are just trace examples of today's society functioning on high octane, virtual intrusion.
With most people glued to their smartphones and neglecting the healthy science and balance of peer to peer relationships, society is quickly becoming more ''enslaved'' to gadgets, gizmos and other technological commodities. This is also causing long-standing institutions to fold. No more need for perusing the hallowed and dusty aisles of your local video store when at the touch of a screen you have a host of films from any era at your disposal (Though you don't get complimentary popcorn and a balloon like at our beloved and now fallen Video King). Why investigate the beautiful and limitless expansion of imagination at the local library when you can download books on your Kindle and read on a sterile screen? Need to shop? Just stay in bed and have all manner of materials shipped to your doorstop (Although, we at Retro Injection admire the model of childhood, when we could save the cereal cardboard cutout coupons and send away for beautifully cheap, plastic prizes.)
There is a telling scene in the very great PIXAR film ''WALL-E'', which shows people so strung out on technology that they are unable to resume practical and healthy lifestyles, even in the face of imminent societal collapse.
By the way, PIXAR exclusively uses CGI to make their films... yet their movies have consistently ranked among some of the best ever. Why is this? How can this paradox be? As indicated above: Story story, story! Heart, heart, heart! They and a few other film studios have nobly kept the heart in the machinery, instead of some spectral entity that merely exists to engage your senses... and your wallet. (Let us forgive the sins of Cars 2 and Cars 3.)
6. I have an opinion... So what?
In closing, I'm not an anti-technology nut, and am typing this up on a DELL computer. I proudly own a flip phone, to the good-natured scorn of a few friends. I revel in watching my favorite films on a dusty VHS player on a snazzy-looking early '90s console television. I prefer vinyl or even tape cassette to digital downloads or streaming. And I like films from the 1980s to late 1990s, with only a smattering post 2000 that I can say I relish. So I'm borderline plugged in... and the happier I think for it. But, I truly feel that advancements which aid humanity, can also erode the fabric of interpersonal relationship. I also think it makes for lousy and insulting films that are setting a sad precedent for future filmmakers. Pretty soon, the breakdown ratio at film schools could be this: ''Shiny onscreen stuff + skull-shattering noise = money, fame and stellar success.'' Well, it worked for Michael Bay, anyway.
Some technologies are developmentally essential for us and engender our welfare in the fields of sciences, medicine and military. However, the ironic reality that is my conclusion, is that too much of anything can be a bad thing (except Jolt Cola!). This is stirringly true to form in the case of modern cinema. Through overwrought digital overload and lazy film-making shortcuts, we get CGI blood, CGI animals, CGI backdrops and even CGI people.
The gist of it is this: Is CGI the problem, or can we further extrapolate that cinematic storytelling has simply been dumbed down? And if so, has it been diluted so as to engage humanity's diminishing attention span and feeble dependence on a virtual and digital world? If you need dime store answers to million dollar questions, feel free to reach me on my flip phone.
*It was Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One, of which I was fine with seeing thirty seconds. -Dave
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