Wednesday, June 04, 2008

CGI and I

A discussion in my favourite forum has yet again sparked a post. It’s about CGI (computer generated images) and their use in modern movies.

Now, I’m not against CGI on principles. I’m quite glad there’s CGI today as a means to make movies better and more life-like (especially an issue if you’re fond of watching Fantasy, Science Fiction and Horror). What angers me, though, is the way it is quite often used these days. Weak stories are pepped up with effects ... until the story is almost gone and the effects are all that is left.

From my point of view - and I know there’s a lot of fans out there - the “Star Wars” Prequels are a prime example of that. They have a story with a great potential and neglect it - plus a couple of characters that could be unique and interesting - in order to put in some more special effects. At least, that’s what it looks like to me.

Of course, with this story, the end is clear from the very beginning. The Old Republic (as a new one is build after the end of Episode VI, the one before the second trilogy is considered to be the “Old Republic”) will fall into the hands of the Emperor. Anakin Skywalker will become Darth Vader. His children will be born and left without any parents. The Jedi Order will be all but destroyed, its members hunted down and most of them killed. So the end of Episode III can hardly be called a secret. That doesn’t explain the ‘how’ or the ‘why’, though.

And this is where the story fails.

Beginning with Anakin being conceived in a supernatural way. I’m not overly religious and don’t see this as something blaspheme (and I know Jesus isn’t the only guy who’s supposedly got no genetic father), but, honestly, I don’t really see the point in it. And then he’s the ‘Chosen One’. Destined, as it is, to bring balance to the force. Can you make it any more obvious, really? In a galaxy with a couple of thousands of Jedi (at least) and a handful of Dark Jedi plus two Sith Lords, what can ‘balance’ mean but the destruction of the Jedi? If I had been a Jedi high-ranking enough to know of this prophecy, that boy would have been dead within five minutes after walking into my hands. (But then, I’d probably make a better Sith than Jedi, anyway.)

Why does he have to have his ‘fate’ revealed that early, in Episode I? Sure, the audience mostly knows what will become of him, but must it be made that obvious? And must he be so ... disagreeable ... in addition? He’s not a nice child, he’s much to precocious. And it doesn’t exactly get any better when he’s older. He basically deserves what will happen to him in the end. And that’s not good for the story. You can hardly feel sorry for him, you basically just wait for the moment the huge guy in black with the laboured breathing will turn up.

And what about the other important characters? Yoda is just as one would almost expect. He’s been a member of the Order for about 800 years (but that number doesn’t come from the movies, I’ve got some additional sources), naturally he’s basically breathing the rules and never questioning them. He’s still funny and good for a surprise, thought. Obi-Wan isn’t exactly three-dimensional, he takes on Anakin as a student, because it was his master’s last wish. But you don’t really see him being more than a Jedi among thousand others. And Padme (Anakin’s big love and the mother of his children, just in case you haven’t seen the movies) is even more of a disappointment. In Episode I she appears as a strong and self-reliant woman who is ready to fight for her people (she’s a queen, after all), but from then it just goes downhill for her. She turns more and more into your usual movie-heroine, becoming dependant on her boyfriend/secret husband (among other things, Jedi are not allowed to love, let alone marry) and passive to the point of not really doing anything by herself any longer. Compared to Princess Leia - who’s her daughter, after all -, she’s hardly more than a necessary character for the story in the end (someone has to be the mother of Luke and Leia, after all). Who else is there who’s really important for the story? There’s the future Emperor, of course, Senator Palpatine (known to some as Darth Sidious, too). The most interesting character, but in many ways not much more than a bureaucrat with the force as his ally. Yet he’s devious and resourceful, something you have the right to expect from the bad guy. He’s a politician who has more than mastered the art of manipulation (he could probably write a library of books about it - and a huge one, too).

So, you can more or less forget about the characters, too. That leaves you with huge battles (which I don’t find that thrilling; give me ten battles like the one at the end of “Pirates of the Caribbean 3” (also loads of CGI, but used far better) instead of one with just masses of masses of people killing each other), exotic, but still basically earth-like, planets and other stuff that can only be done because of CGI. Great monsters, sure. I also like that machine-like General Grievous. But without a really good story to hold it all together, it’s just an action spectacle with great effects. That’s not what I want from a “Star Wars” movie. I want a story that moves me between the action and the effects (which I expect, too). Seeing the rebels struggle against the mighty empire and Luke Skywalker struggle against his own family history was far more interesting than watching his father becoming a bad guy (and I expected that to be even more of a good story, ‘hero turning evil’ usually is).

But now enough of “Star Wars”. This is a post about CGI, not about the shortcomings of a movie trilogy.

First of all, I see a difference between movies that have been created using only CGI (like the three “Shrek” movies or “Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children”) and other movies. CGI-created movies may use effects whatever way they see fit (and in those cases, a good story is behind the computer animations). They are not ‘real’ anyway - just like cartoons or anime.

Then there’s movies that fall into the categories ‘fantasy’, ‘science fiction’ or ‘horror’. As you could hardly call them ‘realistic’ anyway, I can live with ‘realistic’ unrealistic CGI-effects - provided, as always, the story is good and strong. (But I love “Bram Stoker’s Dracula” which is mostly old-fashioned effects.)

Finally, there’s ‘realistic’ movies with CGI-effects. Those are in most danger of doing a bad job with CGI. I can see why producers will want to do certain things in CGI instead of ‘the real thing’. It’s less dangerous for the actors, less expensive (though this could be argued about) and can get you better results, too. But more often than not, the CGI-effect doesn’t work that well. It looks too bad or too good (too good? why that?). Too good in this case means everything looks too perfect. Reality is far from perfect and we, being creatures of reality, know that. If reality were perfect, I would be a rich writer and not working in an office. (And I would look different, too.) But that’s how it is. Nothing ever works out perfectly. Imperfection seems to be more difficult for a computer than for a human.

On the whole, I could break it down to this: “Yes, movie makers of the world, go on using CGI, but think a bit longer about why, when and if to use it.” The audience will surely appreciate it.

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