Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Good Visual Effects in Really Bad Movies

What should we think of excellent visual effects or other exploits of difficult technical filmmaking in the service of a bad movie? Should we hate it? Applaud it because it gives work to our friends? Keep our mouth shut because often the problem starts with the script and it is not our place to say?

The question comes up often in visual effects because of the recent trends in filmmaking that have wisely chosen to reduce costs by eliminating the screenwriter (or any writing of quality) in return for having more pointless, visual effects shots. Furthermore, when in preproduction, when there is still time to turn away from Satan and rewrite the script, who is going to tell the director that his or her ideas are really bad?

Recall that the visual effects industry, if we may flatter it by calling it an industry, is a very competitive work-for-hire, production service business. If anyone were so stupid as to criticize the content of a screenplay when asked to bid on it they would rapidly get the reputation for being “arrogant” and in very short order not be asked to bid on anything. It is not the visual effects facility's job or privilege to judge the director's vision.

Nevertheless we all have our moments of outrage when an expensive Hollywood film or cheap television knockoff egregiously or outrageously abuses our willing suspension of disbelief and we crash to the ground, taken out of the moment, by some appalling or ludicrous cinematic plot point or creative choice. At such times it may be useful to remember that the Hollywood entertainment industries are about, well, entertainment, not about presenting reality. True, the appearance of realism is often used as a technique to make a story more appealing or involving, but it is always in the service of making a project more dramatic or effective and in the service of entertainment. It is rarely, very rarely, about showing “reality”.

As an example of this I want to describe three films with “something that flies” in an unrealistic fashion: two of which I found completely acceptable and one which irritated the hell out of me the first time I saw it and every time since. And yet all three are clearly fantasy movies intended to be entertaining. Why do two of them work for me but the third does not?

In the first example, we have the X Wing and Tie fighters from the original Star Wars (1977). When this movie came out, there were some who criticized it because these spacecraft made whooshing noises as they went by the “camera”. Whoosh! But this never bothered me in the least because I, as a devoted reader of science fiction, knew that in the classic space opera it would be quite normal and correct for such fighters to make whooshing noises as they went by. It worked in the context of the film and the genre.

In our second example, we have the flying carpet in Disney's Aladdin (1992). Now it might be a surprise to you to know that this is pure fantasy, but it is. Flying carpets do not exist in real life. Dont get mad at me, its true, do your own research. But if there were flying carpets, I have no doubt that they might work like the one in Aladdin and it certainly was completely believable to the audience.

But our third example is not so happy.

This is a remake of a French film, a romantic comedy, about a secret agent whose family does not know what he does for a living and think he is boring. Of course, through dramatic and unbelievable plot twists, they discover that he is a secret agent and his daughter likes him again and he has hot sex with his wife. The American remake of this important dramatic masterpiece was called True Lies (1994) of course and it is even less believable overall than either Aladdin or Star Wars. Given this fantastic nature, surely one would not be upset when our hero has a magic carpet of his own, in this case a Harrier jet.

In the movie, the Arnold flies the Harrier right up to the side of a skyscraper to kill the bad guys. Bang ! Bang ! You are dead! At another point in the film, his daughter falls from a crane or a bridge or something, but is able to hang onto the wing of the Harrier. Arnold yells to her, “Hang on!”

This irritated the living bejeesus out of me. I still want to spit whenever I think of it. Why?

Because a Harrier, which is a very cool airplane, is a very loud jet. Very loud. If you flew it up to a skyscraper closer than 50 feet it would blow all the windows out, and you would probably lose control of the vehicle. You would certainly not be able to calmly shoot out all the bad guys. Maybe you could do something like that by standing off about 500 feet or more, that might work.

Or when the daughter falls to the airplane and hangs on. First off I doubt you could hang on. Second, if you did, you would almost certainly be hurting yourself terribly and you would let go and hopefully die. Third you would probably get burned all to hell. Fourth, and lastly, the Harrier is loud, really loud. Like really damage your ears loud. LIKE REALLY FUCKING LOUD. You would not be yelling to anybody “hang on” because no one would be able to hear a thing.

But why does this irritate me so much? The movie is clearly a fantasy. In fact, I might go so far as to say that the movie is a cynical, derivative, stupid, inane, worthless piece of shit. What difference does it make? I am not sure. Maybe because the Harrier is a real airplane and a very cool one, but its limitations should be respected? Maybe because the movie expects me to take these ridiculous developments as reality and I know it isnt even close to what is possible?

All I can tell you is that whenever I see these sequences from this movie, I start jumping up and down because I can not believe how unbelievably fucking stupid they are.

Not even Jamie Lee Curtis doing a striptease can redeem this horrible movie in my eyes.

But the visual effects are very nice.

Aladdin (1992) on IMDB

True Lies (1994) on IMDB

Star Wars (1977) on IMDB

Le Totale! (1991)

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