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Witless Wonders? The Case for Special Effects

1999 may be the year when film technology grew up.

By Josh Larsen     December 17, 1999

Everyone knows that Hollywood loves its witless wonders, those special effects extravaganzas that look amazing but don't have a thought in their pretty little heads. If you look closely, however, you'll notice that these inevitable blockbusters have been getting a bit smarter as of late. In fact, 1999 may go down as the year that special effects not only took a giant technological leap forward, but also as the year that they grew up.
Of course, behind such a claim lies the assumption that if you've seen one fiery explosion, you haven't necessarily seen them all. In other words, there's a value to special effects beyond their eye-popping quotient, a value that's related to the fundamental reason that the effect is up on the screen. When it comes to most special effects, what you see is what you get; they're eye candy and nothing more. But every once in a whileand lately it's been happening more oftena filmmaker will imbue a special effect with both visual beauty and a correlating idea. And when that happens, the computer-generated image joins lighting, editing and camera placement as another tool of cinematic expression, rather than being just a gimmick. It's the difference between using special effects as film filler and using them to create film art.
Still, even if a few movies this year have made artful use of special effects, it's easy to see that most films would rather wow us just long enough to take our money and run. From DEEP BLUE SEA's Gummy Fish predators to LAKE PLACID's killer crocs (which resembled rejects from JURASSIC PARK more than anything else), the majority of this year's big movies featured effects that were both mindless and a mess. In this age of awesome technology, such shoddy showmanship should be punished, not rewarded with a big weekend gross.
Yet even when the effects are well done, they can still be put to poor use. Among the many remarkable images at the movies this year was that of Dr. Arliss Loveless' giant mechanical spider lumbering across the screen in WILD, WILD WEST. But if you dared to ask what such a concoction was doing in the story, it became pretty clear that no oneincluding the movie's four credited screenwriterscould give you an answer. What they do know is that an enormous spider climbing out of ravines and firing cannonballs would look really cool, which apparently was enough of a reason for director Barry Sonnenfeld to put it on the screen.
In THE HAUNTING, director Jan De Bont puts so many pointless special effects on the screen that it begins to look like some graphic designer's computer had simply thrown up. The film's hook is that a haunted house plays the role of the villain, complete with fierce walls of teeth and tentacle-like woodcarvings that reach out to its victims. On their own terms, each of these effects are impressive, but as one gets piled on top of another the movie becomes more and more outlandish--flash for flash's sake and little else. By the time the climax rolls around, the small amount of dread that was established at the film's start has been squashed by a digital deluge.
Aside from the disappointments of WILD, WILD WEST and THE HAUNTING, this year also gave us the hyperactive doodads of INSPECTOR GADGET, the chintzy killer chemical in CHILL FACTOR, and animated cutesy lead character in STUART LITTLE. But none of these films really define the state of special effects in 1999. Instead, we can look to a handful of other movies that gave cinephiles reason to rejoiceand to hope that we may be entering a new era of visual magic.
Consider first the deep-think thrills of THE MATRIX, a sci-fi stunner in which a computer whiz played by Keanu Reeves discovers that our world is just a form of virtual reality, all controlled by a race of domineering computers. The movie's writer-director filmmaking team, brothers Larry and Andy Wachowski, earned kudos for cobbling together ideas borrowed from Christianity, Kafka and Descartes, but none of these allusions are what give the film's special effects their lasting power. At the heart of THE MATRIX is a story about not letting outside forces determine our definition of reality, a story that would be impossible to tell without the help of startling visual imagery. And so when Reeves dodges bullets because he knows that they don't really exist, our minds aren't simply blown because of how the digital imagery has frozen those bullets mid-flight, but also because of how intricately such action ties in to the movie's themes.
There's an even closer marriage of motion and meaning in STAR WARS: EPISODE ITHE PHANTOM MENACE, largely because the movie itself is one big special effect. And unlike the film's many detractors, I mean this in a good way. With its bold leaps forward involving computer-generated imagery, PHANTOM MENACE marks the most effects-heavy of all the Star Wars filmsand hence the most suspect to critics. But Lucas' audaciousness paid off. What better way could there be to depict the determination and daring of the boy who will grow up to become Darth Vader than placing him in an electrifying Pod race? That's the setting for the movie's most astonishing scene, as dozens of racers (including other fully computer-animated characters) tear off across a desert landscape in tiny cockpits tethered to rocket boosters. And yet thrills aren't the only thing Lucas is aiming for here; with its allusions to young Anakin's mysterious skills, the scene also works as yet another evocation of the larger Star Wars myth.
Whether they're used as meaningful flourishes or as the bedrock for an entire film, more and more filmmakers have begun to put some purposeful thought behind their employment of special effects. It's a welcome change, to be sure. Just two years ago, in the summer of 1997, we were pummeled by the dumbed-down digital imagery of SPAWN, THE LOST WORLD: JURASSIC PARK, and SPEED 2: CRUISE CONTROL (De Bont again). Only CONTACT, with probing questions about extraterrestrial life, stood as a paragon for what special effects could really do. Many of this year's filmmakers learned that lesson well, and we can only hope that future filmmakers don't forget it. After all, witless wonders may always be favored by Hollywood, but that doesn't mean they have a monopoly on special effects.

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