Whenever there is a major advance in special effects, there tends to be an accompanying blockbuster movie that dazzles audiences by showing of that “groundbreaking” capability. Viewers emerge bug-eyed, astonished, perhaps even speechless. And the film is heralded as a major event in cinema history.
And once in a while, the film is directed by someone other than James Cameron.
But maybe you’ve noticed that there is an unfortunate commonality to most of those “event films.” Almost all of them introduce the new powers of visual effects by employing them to stage scenes of massive, horrifying, cower-in-your-theater-seat destruction.
From Titanic to Terminator 2 to Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while the camera might have found beauty in the landscape or the architecture or the actors, when the digital animation innovations were unleashed, they were used primarily to make us fear for our own lives, to draw us into the midst of chaotic action. It’s the impulse that led Peter Jackson to cut essential scenes from Tolkien’s narrative in order to leave room for seemingly endless sequences of elaborate warmaking, and the filmmakers responsible for The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to turn a page-and-a-half stretch of the storybook into 20+ minutes of battlefield hysteria. “Hang on,” says the filmmaker, “because I am gonna blow shit up in ways you’ve never, ever seen before. I’m gonna throw you into the middle of violence so spectacular that you’ll want to reach for the remote and slow it down. And you’re going to come out asking, ‘Wow, how did he do that?!’”
Distressingly few counterexamples come to mind. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the obvious one, but that’s ancient news now. Blade Runner is another good SF example. For the most part, it’s all an adrenaline rush though.
Probably the most recent movie which impressed me with its visual effects in a non-actiony manner was, of all things, Ratatouille, which convinced me that computer animation could be just as artistically pleasing as its hand-drawn counterpart.