"Back in the day" when a gun battle or a car chase came on screen in the theater, the goosebumps the audiences members got were because the things they were seeing unfold in two-dimensional form in front of them made them want to get up and experience life. Stunts have a way of fueling even the most passive movie goer's adrenaline, testing their theories about what we are capable above and making them want to take some risks all of their own. Though special effects, in one archaic form or another, have been around as long as cameras themselves-- in 1895, the first documented case of stop-motion photography (then simply known as "trick" photography) was created by Alfred Clark when he had his actors freeze in place, stopped the camera, and switched out his actress with a dummy while reenacting the beheading of Mary, Queen of Scots-- they were not used with such liberalism until recently. In fact, CGI, the technology that makes effects quicker and easier than ever before, was not introduced until 1976, and even then it's technology was quite unsophisticated. Still, filmmakers were excited by the prospects, and slowly but surely, they began incorporating its elements into action films, horror films, period pieces, and lately even straight dramas or comedies: the next time you're watching something that takes place in an arena or sports stadium, think about how many of those bodies you see in seats are real and how many are bots. At first it seemed like it would blow over: everyone was just excited by the technology and what it could do, and they used it with a heavy hand, but certainly the honeymoon phase would fade away... right? Sadly no, that doesn't seem to be the case. In an ever-escalating effort to keep raising the shock factor bar, more and more action films rely on CGI enhancement to create larger-than-life moments but unfortunately just end up falling into the traps of the technology and gives us something akin to an overblown videogame: just a bit too loose at the hinges to be mistaken for anything that could pass as reality.
In-camera special effects, such as stop motion technology or stunts allow filmmakers to get creative with their storytelling but to do so in a way that still lives in reality. There is an element that keeps the scenes grounded in reality: everything we watch unfold before us is something that a real person actually did. Not only does that give us a surge of power about what our limitations are, but it adds credibility to the work of fiction. CGI most certainly allows filmmakers to get creative in other ways; their horizons are expanded and roadblocks to ideas are virtually torn down, but there's a thin line with what's complementary and what's just too much.
Let's take today's release, Wanted, as an example. The Fight Club meets Smokin' Aces on meth high-octane shooter flick boasts a protagonist whose sped-up heart rate actually allows him to see things in slow motion and focus on details of chaos in front of him, grabbing a metal ball from inside a piece of clenching machinery, racing atop a moving train, and curving a bullet. But let's back up a minute: one of the first scenes in the film is an assassination on a Fraternity member who supposedly went rogue: standing in a high-rise office, a laser beam cuts through the windowpane, hitting his female companion in the middle of her forehead and sending her blood, as red as the laser light itself, splattering onto the wall behind her. From there the man takes off, running for the elevator, assumedly fleeing to safety. Instead, he breathes deeply, crouches down, and everything in his vision begins to pulse. He presses his foot against the back of the elevator, and the wall crumples like he's turning into the Incredible Hulk. He runs at down the hall, sending papers flying in his path, and plunges through the window, shooting at men on a rooftop across the way. Then, in a move over which Jerry Bruckheimer will probably sue, we see a bullet push through a man's forehead, as he gets shot from behind, and then everything reverses, and we follows the bullets path, sucking out of his skull and spinning back through the air into the barrel of a gun. Cool? Sure. Additional quality? Not at all. If anything, it was a cheap tactic to show off what they figured out their Macs could do.
The first time the young protagonist in Wanted is introduced to his destiny it is during a similar shootout, which once again focuses on the trajectory of the bullets rather than the dance the shooters have to do to in their chase. He, too, flees the scene and ends up in the center of a parking lot, with a delivery truck barreling down on him. His savior comes in the form of Angelina Jolie who whips a cherry red Viper around and manages to scoop him inside without even stopping. She can curve cars and bullets; she must be the master. While that shot had the audible "how'd they do that?" gasp going for it, what follows is a computer generated inspired mess of a chase that is incomparable in its frenetic nature, as well in the number of cars she purposefully drives into or against. Stunts like these used to be about artistry: about perfecting the use of an instrument (be it a prop gun, a car, or even just their own bodies) to the point where they would bring it to the edge (get inches from another car, for example), but at the last second they would always regain control with a simple smirk and flick of the wrist. Stunts are about grace and creativity and testing boundaries, but computers are just about formulas and equations and the easiest way possible to make something louder, faster, and more over the top. Stunts get you on the edge of your seat; though you know the players involved will survive, you still want to see how far they push themselves. CGI removes that risk and therefore a lot of the suspense, and to compensate, the result is often much glossier and flashier than it need be, provoking eyerolls and chuckles of disbelief. A dangling Amtrak train off a bridge that ultimately splits apart and plummets down a cliff to water below; a young hero blowing away his enemies one by one with muzzle flashes and mini-bombs? CGI can (and did) do that, but there's no choreography there; there's no interaction between a director, his actors, his stunt doubles-- his trained professionals. There's only a guy sitting behind a computer screen, creating a cartoonish, isolating world, and while CGI hasn't completely eliminated the need for actual people in films just yet, I'm sure (especially with all these talks of strikes) producers would love to work out a way for that to happen. And suddenly, Toto, we're not in filmmaking anymore; suddenly we're just computer programmers projecting our code onto a big screen. And is that art or just machinery?