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The State of Special Effects

Movies like ‘Ready Player One’ lean almost entirely on CGI to build their virtual worlds. Is the time-honored art of practical effects being lost in the process?

Warner Bros.

While there are very glaring flaws to Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One pertaining to the story—issues that similarly plagued Ernest Cline’s novel—you have to admit one thing: The movie was a visual marvel. The movie’s virtual-reality world, the OASIS, was stunningly brought to life, along with a litany of (mostly) ’80s pop culture icons who existed in the virtual utopia. Freddy Krueger being felled in player combat, or protagonist Wade Watts throwing Chucky like a grenade in the final act, just looked good and convincing. The special effects worked; this was not Ang Lee’s Hulk, Jar Jar Binks, or—sorry, Spielberg—Shia LaBeouf swinging with monkeys in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Ironically, most of the movies Ready Player One references so diligently didn’t have the luxury of CGI. Krueger was a man in a spiffy sweater and gnarly makeup, and Chucky was played by little person Ed Gale in several of the franchise’s films. The era that Spielberg comes from—the one Wade Watts is so obsessed with—almost exclusively used practical effects. But in 2018, the use of CGI and digital effects in blockbuster filmmaking has swallowed the practice of practical effects, turning it into a novelty.

It was only a few years ago that practical-effect blockbusters appeared to be having a resurgence, thanks in large part to George Miller’s 2015 masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road. The film, which is essentially a gripping two-hour car chase across a desert wasteland, won six Oscars in 2016—more than any other film that year—and relied plenty on practical effects. The raucous praise surrounding Fury Road—and other examples, like Tom Cruise literally attaching himself to the outside of a plane in Mission: Impossible–Rogue Nation and like some scenes in Star Wars: The Force Awakens—ushered in what The Verge called “the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback.”

However, 2015 might’ve been an exception to the rule, a year in which a few practical-effects-heavy films took the spotlight precisely because they were uncommon. In the years following, it’s become clear that Fury Road was an escape from the way things are done, rather than an indicator of how things will be done. To wit: Of the top-20 highest grossing movies of the following year, 2016, there were several animated films (Finding Dory, Moana), superhero flicks (Captain America: Civil War, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Suicide Squad), and what can only be described as CGI funhouses (The Jungle Book, Warcraft).

When praise isn’t being doled out to practical effects—the way Hollywood used to operate—special effects are usually being maligned for their superficiality and repetitiveness. “Just because CGI wizardry allows you to do something, whether hoisting an entire city into the air or leveling skyscrapers willy-nilly, doesn’t always mean you should,” Brian Lowry wrote for Variety after the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron. “Because while the box office figures might suggest otherwise, there is an audience out there that’s weary of these movies precisely because of the hollow quality to the inevitable final 30 minutes of unrelenting mayhem.”

Indeed, there was a point when it seemed like every superhero film under the sun culminated in a CGI clusterfuck that specifically required a giant sky beam to blast through the middle of a crumbling city. But that’s not an effects problem: It’s just lazy writing. What pro–practical effects or CGI-bashing arguments fail to acknowledge is that CGI is still an essential component of film. If you look at unedited footage of Fury Road’s car-crash and chase scenes, a couple of things pop out. One, even untouched Fury Road footage is objectively more hard-core than the entirety of the Fast & Furious franchise. Second, while astonishing, without the proper CGI it just looks like a really cool monster truck compilation.

In the case of a movie like Fury Road, the CGI shows up in much subtler ways, giving the film a postapocalyptic zeal that cars driving over gravel roads can’t compare to. (For more on the subtleties of CGI in certain films as disparate as The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Lucy, YouTube channel RocketJump Film School has a good explainer.)

And sometimes, films like Ready Player One necessitate special effects: The OASIS could not exist in all its visual glory without it. The movie welded several icons of pop culture into a virtual wonderland; it’s unlike anything seen before it. What Spielberg made in Ready Player One transcends the minimalism of Jaws (practical, yes, but the mechanical shark was notoriously tricky to work with) or even the scope of Jurassic Park: world-building within world-building.

Great special effects don’t take away from a good cinematic experience; sometimes, they can enhance it. For all the belated criticism James Cameron’s Avatar received—some of it certainly justified—I can still remember the awe of seeing Pandora in 3-D on opening weekend and feeling genuinely transported. The story, thankfully for Cameron, was a secondary concern at that point. Last year’s Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets from Luc Besson achieved a similar sensation. There is a predictable plot, sure, but when Dane DeHaan is trucking his way through gaseous orbs, underwater caverns, and busy alien metropolises, you’re not really thinking about plot holes.

It ultimately comes down to the artist: For every Michael Bay Transformers movie (if you can tell who anyone aside from Bumblebee is during a robo-fight, please, work for NASA or something) there is a project like Valerian, Ready Player One, or Interstellar that exemplifies how these projects can burst through the screen in the right hands. And yes, a marriage of both practical and visual effects is great as well. Perhaps no moment encapsulates that better than Yoda’s appearance in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Combining the likeness of the original trilogy’s puppet with an ethereal CGI glow, The Last Jedi’s Yoda was both an homage to the character’s practical roots and CGI’s own resourcefulness in scenes; the effects showdown in miniature.

The reception of CGI-heavy blockbusters is inherent to how good these movies are on an aesthetic and narrative level. Black Panther might be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s greatest movie yet—a Shakespearean epic that’s an early fan-favorite Best Picture nominee. Rooted in African culture, the lifestyle and foundation of Wakanda was gorgeously realized with the aid of special effects; vibranium necessitated it. And that’s what the state of CGI in Hollywood will keep coming down to. While CGI in big-budget filmmaking will never wipe out practical effects completely, seeing the practice en masse is an increasingly frequent experience. That might sound apocalyptic and like a rejection of film history, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not about the kind of effects so much as who’s in charge of using them, and the movies they make as a result.