Just a few months ago, a new Star Wars movie came out in theaters. As with all Star Wars films, Rogue One was a special effects marvel, earning a place as one of the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects at this year’s Academy Awards. Rogue One is a gorgeous movie that creates an entire galaxy of wonder.
However, nobody really noticed. We sure noticed the digital zombies of Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing, but critics hardly discussed the space battles and the planets. They praised Rogue One for inventive cinematography, but we’ve seen space operas for decades with great effects. This is old news.
We have been spoiled by CG effects in ways we do not even realize. For nearly a decade now, CGI has created a visual splendor never before seen in cinema. Anything the mind can imagine can be created by a limitless creative tool. Hollywood has not been lazy either. The movie-going public has consumed entire worlds full of creativity and energy.
But, when you have everything, nothing can really impress you. And that’s a dangerous trend for blockbuster filmmaking.
Landmark Special Effects Movies
Once upon a time, even just as recently as a few years ago, there could be that kind of “must-see” movie based on effects alone. The draw was not necessarily the story or the characters. It was just the draw of seeing something you had never seen before. Millions of people saw Jurassic Park because no film before had made dinosaurs “real.” This is not a recent phenomenon; King Kong in 1933 was a landmark event. No computers were involved, just stop-motion and rear-projection. There is an appeal in the cutting edge that has existed with film since the beginning when motion pictures themselves were a wild new technology.
In the last decade though, only a couple of films have really held any claim to being special effects “landmarks.” Avatar in 2009 was a leap forward in digital effects. It could generate entire believable fantasy worlds with CGI. In 2013, Gravity was a film that was 80% computer generated. It gave a real sense of how terrifying space flight can be. These were also two films that innovated 3D effects. Avatar and Gravity were not just movies, they were “must-see experiences.” You can’t forget the feeling of first seeing the forests of Pandora. However, you also cannot replicate it.
Nothing in the last few years has really had that same kind of impact. There are movies with a lot of effects, but there are not movies with landmark effects. Movies are losing something by reaching this visual plateau: relevancy. Westworld is on television right now with cinema-level special effects. The danger is real for movies to lose their place in pop culture.
The Star Wars Issue
Rogue One or The Force Awakens have not been revolutionary in their effects which is remarkable. No other film series has relied on special effects as heavily as Star Wars has.
Star Wars has been a series that for decades was at the front of film innovation. The first film in 1977 created the idea of the special effects-driven blockbuster. Then its sequels only grew the artform further. They made bigger and better space battles time after time. The prequels pushed forward CG effects and their infinite uses. Love them or hate them, the prequels defined how to make a blockbuster in the 21st century.
However, now The Force Awakens and Rogue One just look like everything else. Beyond merely being good-looking movies, there is nothing all that impressive about either. And what is there to expand upon anyway? What could you add? The newest Star Wars films have retreated from the cutting edge to surviving off fan nostalgia. Can that last forever?
Visual Effects Nominees
Nothing else better demonstrates how plateaued special effects have become than the five Best Visual Effects nominees. All five are great-looking movies. They represent the very best that Hollywood magic has to offer. However, most of the five also look hardly better than anything else that came out last year.
In 2016 alone there were dozens of special effects marvels released to theaters. Between Warcraft, Batman v Superman, Arrival, Fantastic Beasts, Star Trek Beyond, and yeah, even Gods of Egypt, you had an infinite selection of huge effects-driven movies to choose from. The five nominees look great, but so does nearly everything else. No wonder then that so many of these movies underperformed last year. There’s simply a glut of movie magic. None can stand out as revolutionary.
Probably the only movie that in any represents a major shift is Kubo and the Two Strings. Kubo is a leap forward in the possibilities of stop-motion animation. Its look is far cleaner and sharper than stop-motion from just a generation ago. This is also the only film of the five that deserves to win. But for the average film-goer, they could probably not tell the difference between Kubo‘s revolutionary effects and its computer-generated rivals. There’s a new kind of art being made, but it is not a populist art like blockbuster media has to be.
You could argue that this entire discussion is ultimately shallow. Avatar, despite making billions, has been largely forgotten beside its special effects. While King Kong, despite looking like an antique to modern eyes, is a timeless classic. But unfortunately, blockbusters are a shallow kind of filmmaking. They’re designed to be huge events that blast you with overwhelming power into entertainment. But in 2017, are there worlds left to be conquered?
We’ve done battles before. We’ve done magical worlds before. Movies have stimulated and over-stimulated audiences. Raw power just can’t cut it once you’ve hit a limit. Movies still look better every year. Effects will always continue to improve but in less and less noticeable ways. Rogue One is far more advanced than Revenge of the Sith. There are all kinds of innovations happening behind the scenes that we, the general audiences, don’t understand. Yet when effects are already passably photorealistic, where can you go?
Surviving on the Plateau
Some would argue that the problem is not power but technique. Movies today are over-relying on a single tool, CGI, to the detriment of older physical tools. The brain can tell when the heroes are dancing in front of a green screen and when they’re actually interacting with other actors. Mad Max: Fury Road added a gritty physical element to its special effects wizardry, but that’s not the entire answer.
The secret is to understand that you just can’t wow an audience with mindless graphics anymore. You need to be creative with your CG. Doctor Strange was a great example of this. It used a brute-force “pixel mash” effect, but instead of just building another war scene, it went for something completely different. Its CG is instead used to send the audience down a psychedelic slide to a hidden part of the soul. The movie is unique and even humorous with special effects. That made the movie a bit more than just another superhero origin story.
Movies can still show us things we’ve never seen before. They just have to think outside the box.