Friday, 8 January 2010


Amidst the camp of the just departed festive season's televisual offerings – a sparkly landscape punctuated by James Corden, soap specials and the usual anthropomorphised animated animals – there were some feature length moments that gave me cause for reflection on the state of filmic production (of a specifically cataclysmic thrust) in recent years.

Most noticably was big-bucks, small-brains disaster movie 2012, a grandstanding armageddon flick in the tradition of The Day after Tomorrow, albeit potentially even less interesting. Now, at the time of viewing, Christmas had already begun to exact its toll on my senses in terms of consumption of both alcohol and food, and I was not, to put it bluntly, at my most alert. Nonetheless, I had to consult Wikipedia just now to reacquaint myself with the film's 'plot', as the only extant mental image I can summon to mind still is a cloudy montage of John Cusack's worried looking face surrounded by assorted overblown computer generated effects, and a sensation of near transcendental boredom. It was like a secret dross nictitating third eyelid (as posessed by certain reptiles to retard dust and the like) crept across my peepers imperceptibly, filtering out the waves of tired cliche bombarding them.

Which seems sort of odd really, as when I first saw the huge poster for it, leering across the junction of Shoreditch High Street and Kingsland road, I remember thinking: "Y'know, I bet that film won't have much in the way of brains, but it might be worth watching for sheer spectacle". Unfortunately, even in this arena, it remained woefully deficient.

Indeed what really struck home though, was how utterly unimpressive CGI effects have become, taken at their own merit. Maybe we've become too aclimatised to these wonders, but it seems that as the trompe l'oeil of technological wizardry becomes ever more commonplace, it's a case of ever diminishing returns for visual pyrotechnics that might have once dazzled.

2012's problem, first and foremost (aside from its shocking paucity of ideas or ambition) is its inability to charm or captivate on any kind of emotional level. The backstory, consisting as it does of some flimsy science, garlanded by weedy acting, merely a pretext for a bunch of exploding stuff, happening to characters you really couldn't give a rat's ass about. This really isn't so much a story about how humanity would cope in the event of such a happening, as... a bunch of exploding stuff.

For even CGI benefits from judicious use. Didn't you hear guys? less is more – even with explosions! There are films once hailed as technologically groundbreaking, now looking relatively antiquated (eg: Jurassic Park, Terminator 2) which still pack far more of a punch than this, due to the antics in post production remaining relatively contextually appropriate (indeed, the 'digitalisation' of the T1000 in this sequel seems an astute move in one-upmanship over the outmoded, analogue T800 as the then nascent franchise cruised into the nasty nineties).

Another issue that seems to plague films like 2012, aside from the phoned-in performances, is the lack of any internal physical validity to the action. During a discussion with friends the other weekend, conversation fell on this very subject, and my friend Will mentioned seeing Mad Max 2, and noted that, although hammy, the effects still retain vigour and kinesis. We discussed also how the stop-motion techniques of Ray Harryhausen, though blatently unreal, still manage to captivate due to their sheer, well, animation, and how the vertiginous painted backdrops and ravines of 1947's Black Narcissus remain sumptuous in their super-saturated technicolour majesty. For surely, in their limitations and artifice, these older methods were necessarily more symbolic, and as such, demanded careful attention to integrate them into a film's Mise-en-scène, as opposed to merely splicing them in at the editing stage.

Special effects are still, for all their sophistication, at the mercy of human imagination; and outmoded techniques – though palpably false – can still be oddly entrancing. This could be to do with them posessing an inherent physicality – The Airfix-built starships that populated science films of the seventies are actual objects, for example – travelling down wires against a perforated black curtain which is actually a starfield. Or sets! If Alien was to be filmed now, I hugely doubt Swiss odd-bod Giger's biotech fetishes would actually have manifested at Shepperton studios, rather than being quietly rendered on a bank of PCs overnight in a post-production house in Soho.

No doubt this all sounds like shameless nostalgia from a child of the 70s, and to some extent, I'm come quietly on that. Nonetheless, I do sometimes suspect that the smoke and mirrors of analogue production in film often forced the industry in general – from the effects guys up to the directors, to work harder, be more resourceful, and moreover, invites viewers to engage more. A problem common to many digital formats (be it in the arenas of musicmaking, art, design or film) is that the regulated mathematical perfection of the end product is often sheer and flat, shorn of the drama imparted by 'noise', chance and the human hand – a 'quality' that seems fraudulent when manufactured by Algorithm or conscious manipulation.

Which isn't to say that there haven't been films utilising these effects I've been impressed by. I thought Danny Boyle's Sunshine was pretty great, and they spent a full year editing that and adding effects (though tellingly, the entire thing is something of a paen to, you guessed it, films of the 70s). And Lord of The Rings... well, yeah.

But surely – SURELY – the bar is so high now that a big effects budget is about the flimsiest pretense you can have for grinding out yet another hackneyed potboiler, when nowadays you need something on the level of Avatar to get it taken seriously, soley on these merits. So In fact, why not fuck the effects, and spend even a quarter of the money you were going to splurge on wank hiring a writer with even the faintest glimmerings of an original idea. Go on. I double dare you.

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