Warning, dear reader: Curmudgeon Alert Ahead
Vancouver-based Neill Blomkamp, the formerly precocious 3D animator-cum-director of the memorable District 9, recently moved up a notch in the filmmaking world, given a $115 million budget (more than three times his previous effort), a team of 247 credited digital effects artists, a dab of Matt Damon, a smidge of Jodie Foster, and -- now I'm just guessing here -- a terrifically good looking assistant or three.
He turned all those riches into the just-released, Elysium, as of this writing the number one film in North America. It is reasonably watchable and gripping, and other than my desperate desire for Blomkamp to hire a Steadicam operator, he directed with an interested, purposeful hand. But after struggling through a laughable crumbling apart of the plot in the film's third act, all I could think on my head-shaking walk to the parking lot was:
Computer Graphics are to movies as the synthesizer is to music.
Computer graphics -- or CG -- has torn a swath through Hollywood filmmaking. It is the transforming in Transformers, the illusions in The Illusionist. Studios obsessively plug it in to reconstruct faces and create impossible worlds. It is the eye-popping froth that allows fourth generation sequels to go down easy. It finds its way, more frequently than you might imagine, into rom-coms and documentaries.
But CG's raison d'être is for productions to smooth the divots in bloated, uneven scripts by way of pixel alterations. (Anecdotal proof: the July-released, yawning laugher, Grown Ups 2, employed 77 digital effects artists. Groan.)
As Señor Spielbergo undoubtedly once mused, "The chipset tools are only as good as the artist who wields them."
Elysium may well win Academy Awards for technical mastery. It built a hellscape Earth and a country club satellite world that doubtlessly situated you in both. With a fully-formed story these could have been the nurturing environments to hold together a classically polarized, well-woven tale like the Wachowski siblings pulled off in The Matrix, or added magic and sardonic whimsy like Jean-Pierre Jeunet did in Amelie (with its pitifully few 32 visual effects contributors). Instead, its main function was holding together a movie with lofty aspirations and a middling script. It was the fourth single on a 1981 Human League release where the Casio calisthenics had firmly overwhelmed the tepid hooks.
Heading home from the theatre, my analogy grew more precisely articulated:
Today's computer graphics are to film what 1980s synthesizers were to music.
Synthesizers were not new to the 1980s. (Sidenote: If you want the full Mr. Léon Theremin meets Dr. Robert Arthur Moog breakdown on the rise of the synth, this BBC documentary, and others like it, will do more than my snide posturing ever could.) In the 1970s, talented, nerd-allied bands like Yes and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, initiated the masses on the finer points of synthesizer-laden music. Like the early days of CG simulations in film, the results were uneven but exciting for their sonic potential and special for their esoteric cult followings. Plus, they made us feel feelings. Those wacky new sounds dripped down our spines and made us want to eat space food and dye our heads like checker boards (chess boards to the more cerebral...bathroom tiles to the less.)
But as prog rock turned to disco and Jimmy Carter was flooded under by trickle-down Reaganomics, the synthesizer's role in pop culture grew, as did the dependency of the production studios upon it. Before long, a grand piano or acoustic guitar might as well have been a washboard and spoons supported by a jug band. Our sophistication, as always, was to become our undoing.
(Sidenote: I don't mean to bash the synth players or pixel painters. They are real good at what they do. Inherent to every art form is a certain amount of trickery or hidden language which helps to augment or emphasize a mood, feeling, concept. In literature, seemingly the plainest of arts, all manner of rhythmic tricks or glossy coatings or punctuational/grammatical/Justin Bieberal references can augment an otherwise frivolous statement. In film, a certain amount of "movie magic" is expected. But we have hit that curious intersection where the potent capacity of CG is eating away at the core of storytelling.)
In the Thompson Twins/The The era, the synthesizer brought listeners to previously uninhabited, even unimagined, sonic landscapes. I wanted to Whip It good, just like the next guy. Years later, with the distance to look back, we shared a collective grimace to what nonsense we had wrought. We had gone too far. An overly dated era. An entire decade digitally rendered to a tonal niche. (Sidenote: Praise be to Jane's Addiction, The Stone Roses, NWA and others for being the catalysts to our cultural widening.)
Now the synthesizer, and digitally-infused music in general, has reached a point of balance: it is sometimes awful and sometimes lovely. It can augment sweat-driven instrumentation or undermine it. We have seen the good, we have heard the bad, and here we are like every other marriage of technology and art: balancing precariously.
In film, despite ever-growing video distribution channels, the barrier to feature-length fiction is still quite high, and the offerings are becoming increasingly formulaic and tired. But we fall for their sweet, sweet, market-researched trailers and pay to watch their inevitable trilogies. Their slickness (spelled: CG) lulls us. Characters are too shallow? Put them in 3D! Conclusion is unsatisfying? How about 53 artists work on exploding a planet at the end of the movie? What do you mean the leads have no chemistry when they kiss? Reconstruct their lips. CG is the Pepto Bismol at the end, middle and beginning of a Hollywood meal.
In the 2013 film world, the balance found in music has not yet been struck. The trickery is too potent and the barrier to entry of mega-movie making is and always will be far beyond the entry to song production (so leaving the end-products in the hands of follow-the-leader studios and producers). The work of 247 digital effects artists unquestionably elevated Elysium to a level of visual awesomeness otherwise not possible. But feeding all those pixelated mouths left a paucity of nourishment for the raconteur set (of which there was but one, writer/director Blomkamp).
Even 246 to 2 would have been a ratio in the right direction.