The Practical Effects of Special Effects

            Special effects have been synonymous with science fiction films ever since a rocket ship crashed into the eye of the man in the moon in Georges Melies A Trip to the Moon in 1904. The art form of cinema has provided a canvas for filmmakers to create other worlds, with the only limitations being their own imagination and, occasionally, their budget. As technology has advanced, so has the scope of what we have seen on screen. The flying saucers dangling from wires and men in Martian suits of the 1950’s gave way to the visual wonders of 2001: A Space Odyssey in 1968. Both the Star Wars series and Blade Runner showed unbelievable new worlds created with miniature and model work in the late 1970s and early 80s. The boom of computer generated imagery seemingly broke the final frontier for special effects; whatever could be dreamt could be created from a computer terminal.

            The unprecedented rise of CGI in the past twenty years, for all that it has given us on screens, has not been without its detractors. Of the many criticisms lobbied against the Star Wars prequels, one of the loudest was its alleged overuse of CGI. Fans complained that it overwhelmed the story and its characters, and visually it didn’t hold up to the images and effects created decades before. Whatever flaws the prequels may hold, the complaints of the CGI are the ones that seem to never go away. And it isn’t limited to just the Star Wars series. It seems that every weekend now (especially during these hot summer months) we are given another $150 million event film packed to the brim with CGI. No longer relegated to just the sci-fi genre, expensive visual effects now populate standard action films and even comedies. And just as these films are, more often than not, one weekend wonders that fade rapidly from the public consciousness, so does the wonder and awe of their visuals. An audience that once gasped in awe at a seemingly never ending Star Destroyer pursuing a Rebel Cruiser through the stars looks at the green screened creation of Krypton in last summers Man of Steel and collectively shrugs.

            What is the reason for this nonchalance? On a whole, it can’t be that effects have gotten worse. Although some of the biggest event films of the past few years have featured questionable CGI, more often than not visual effects are still spectacular. It’s the oversaturation of effects seen every weekend in the latest blockbuster that takes away the sheen. Film such as Star Wars and Blade Runner were the exception to the rule in their day; the worlds they showed on screen were exciting and unique. There wasn’t another similar film opening the following weekend, or the previous weekends’ holdover playing in the theater next door. They were truly unique movie going events.

            Nostalgia also plays a role, as it does with most things related to film. Certain audience members tend to want for the past; the movies of their youth. They remember the costumes, practical sets, alien makeup etc. from the original Star Wars trilogy and wonder why George Lucas simply couldn’t do that again for his prequel trilogy. This group has become increasingly vocal in recent years, transcending their online message board start. Select filmmakers have indulged in this practice. Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy made significant use of miniatures and practical effects along with CGI. Director JJ Abrams recently appeared in a UNICEF video filmed on the set of Star Wars: Episode VII, where an alien creature appeared behind him. The alien was a complete creation of practical effects, and moved in such a way that it inspired wonder among viewers: “How did they do that?” Abrams has been adamant in interviews for the film that it will have an emphasis on practical effects; a knowing response to the criticism of the prequels. While we’ll have to wait until next Christmas to know for sure, Abrams assurance is seemingly a reflection of a filmmaker knowing what his audience wants.

            Special effects and science fiction films will always go hand in hand. As technology advances with each passing day, it’s interesting to ponder what we may possibly see on screen twenty years from now. And it’s even more interesting to wonder will be awed by what we see, lost in the magic of the onscreen world? Or will it just be business as usual, something to hold us over for six days until the following weekends blockbuster?