A Longing for Practical Effects
The big boulder in Raiders of the Lost Ark, the grotesqueries in John Carpenter’s The Thing, the sets of Event Horizon, the triceratops in Jurassic Park; all of these examples have one thing in common: Someone actually fucking built them.
They were real, they existed, the actors could reach out their hands and touch the things they were reacting to.
Somewhere along the line (and I’m not exactly sure where), Hollywood decided to go all-in on CG (computer-generated) special effects. Where once you could see the joy and awe on the Goonies’ faces as they first saw the ship of One-Eyed Willy, now we’ve got actors that are chasing around green balls on the end of sticks, or reacting to a guy in a gray body condom (let’s be real, that’s what it is), as he pretends to be eleven feet tall.
Gone are the days when Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli could run across the plains in search of their friends. Now we’ve got massive soundstages draped in green sheets and directors that are only to happy to “fix it in post.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m well-aware of the fact that CG has brought (and will continue to bring) us some of the most awe-inspiring moments in cinematic history. To use Lord of the Rings again, the balrog sequence was nothing short of perfection. The Infinity War saga is, arguably, the greatest cinematic achievement of all time. I’m waiting with bated breath for Denis Villeneuve’s expedition to Arrakis, an expedition that I’m sure will be a good sixty percent CG.
That being said, the Death Star trench run was done with models and clever camera work, and it will always hold its own against these multi-billion-dollar tent poles that were conceived as nothing more than cash grabs.
This is something that’s been spinning around in the back of my head for years now, so I finally decided to give voice to the frustration.
It all came to a head while I was watching Jungle Cruise. It’s a fun enough movie in its own right; The Rock (do we call him Dwayne Johnson now?) and Emily Blunt do a great job. They’re having fun, the supporting cast is there to back them up, and the story itself had fantastic moments.
But the whole time I was watching it, I was very aware of the fact that they were not traveling down the Amazon.
Now, this may seem like a bullshit complaint to some of you. Of course they weren’t traveling down the Amazon. What idiot would go to those lengths for a movie?
Allow me to offer a counterpoint: The Curse of the Black Pearl.
Yes, there was CG. Isla de Muerta was a sound stage, they didn’t actually go to the Caribbean for the entire shoot, and (as far as I know) there’s no such thing as zombie pirates.
That being said… I never once doubted that they were on a boat, in the ocean. Because they were on a boat, in the ocean. When Jack and Elizabeth got stranded on that beach, they were on a beach. Not a sound stage with five-thousand pounds of sand dumped into it (I pity the poor bastard who’d have to clean that up).
In Raiders, sure they may not have been digging up the Ark of the Covenant in Egypt, but they were in Tunis, sweating their balls off on a set that people had actually built.
Hell, let’s take a look at Predator. It might not have been a Central American jungle, but they really were moving through a forest, and they really built that monster suit (I think it was something like 200 pounds).
I don’t know… I’m well-aware that we’ll probably never see a return to practical effects. Ironically, CG has become the cheaper option in the industry, and the stories Hollywood is churning out are designed with it in mind.
But even taking that into consideration, as far as I can see, actors will always give stronger performances when they’re reacting to something real, something they can see and taste (if they’re into that) and touch.
Harrison Ford ran his ass off away from that ball because he was scared it would crush him (I think it almost did, actually). The look of pure wonder on Sam Neill’s face as he lay on that triceratops was real, because he was actually doing it. Viggo Mortensen looked exhausted as he crossed blades with the Uruk-Hai because there was another dude standing across from him to catch the blow and strike back.
Call me old-fashioned if you want to (in a lot of ways, I guess I am), but in my mind, the more real you can put into a movie, the better it will be in every way.