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Pulp and Dagger Fiction!



Editorial
Sept. 3, 2005



Diagnosing Sky Captain
or
Just Say, "Awe"?

Nearly a year ago, I wrote an editorial about the movie (just then released), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, starring Jude Law, Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelina Jolie.  That was the flick about a pulp-style 1930s' air Ace and his spunky "Margo Lane" racing to save mankind from the machinations of an evil genius (played postumously by Lawrence Olivier), involving every pulp fiction sci-fi staple from giant robots to rocket packs to ray guns -- and all of it (except the actors themselves) supposedly added in Post-Production using computers.  Remember?  Actually, my editorial was about the possibility that we might someday see, in the none-too-distant future, "single credit" blockbuster movies -- that is, movies that are literally the product of a single artist of many hats, without the assistance of the usual army of technicians and "gofers" now mustered to make even the simplest movie a reality. I pointed to Sky Captain as a harbinger of such a future.  Not there yet, but, hm, brother, can you taste it?

At the time, I was somewhat handicapped by not having actually seen Sky Captain and was going by what I had read in reviews and ads.  That and Ebert and Roeper (They from whom all wisdom springs.  Amen.).  Based on that admittedly Spartan research, I predicted that, when the time came to actually see it, I expected I would find the special computer effects good but unconvincing, and strangely muddy and washed out.  Well, the other day, I finally got around to watching Sky Captain when it premiered on Canadian television and I thought it might be interesting to revise my previous remarks in light of that increased knowledge.

Interested?  Right then.  Ushers, lock the doors.

Now, having seen it in its entirety, I find my reaction wasn't what I expected at all.  In my previous editorial, I believe the phrase "eye-popping stuff" was how I described the Sky Captain effects based on my limited knowledge. Make no mistake, I enjoyed Sky Captain.  It was a very good movie, oddles of fun, especially for those of us who worship at the altar of the Pulp gods.  Fast paced, mildly funny, vaguely suspenceful, very, very imaginative -- I had a good time.  And the special effects were certainly as interesting as they were plenitful.  You couldn't have asked first-time director Kevin Conran to have crammed in any more, I don't think.  One more super-scientific gadget and I think he would have had to pay a government tax or something.  (Even I'm not sure what that means.)

But to be "eye-popping stuff" calls for something more than mere "interesting".  It has to reach us in a deep, visceral level, to really touch that cord, that involuntary nerve which makes our jaws drop and our eyes dilate and leaves us feeling awe-struck and shaken, as if we have really seen something.  It leaves us feeling humble.

And, at first, I thought Sky Captain was going to pull it off.  After all, when was the last time you saw a movie that begins with a Hindenburg-like zeppelin in all its vast and gleaming glory?  Begins.  There was no particular reason for it.  Conran was just setting the game rules for those of us who hadn't read the reviews, showing us that, thanks to computer effects, the sky is literally no longer the limit.  Zeppelin?  Why not?  While we're at it, why not make it dock with the old airship tower on the peak of the Empire State Building.  No sweat.  One docking airship, coming up.  That's nothing compared to what we got waiting in the wings.  We can toss this stuff off in our sleep.

Then, barely had Conran finished wowing us with his zeppelin than -- Great Caesar's Ghost!  In the skies overheard, like a swarm of World War II Japanese Zeros... that's right.  Giant robots!  And not just one, but a whole humming squadron of glistening metal monsters.  (Or malevolent mechanical meta-men, as Stan The Man might have put it.)

And these were real robots.  Not gaily hued manga inspired Power Ranger wannabees animated by Japanese breakdancers.  These were real robots, looking precisely the way you know real giant robots would look if some real evil genius really did build them and unleash them on a real unsuspecting world.  But as interesting as they were soaring in formation overhead, it wasn't long before those robots set down in the middle of the city and then... then? 

It was just about then I realized something was wrong.  It was wrong precisely because everything seemed so right.  Those vastly clanking metal colossi marching titanically down the narrow city streets, their gleaming metal feet crushing cars like diary milk cartons, crowds of horrified citizens fleeing hysterically before them, police vainly firing off round after useless round from their puny pistols and, then, the heroine herself (Gwyneth Paltrow) unable to escape in time, finding herself dodging in and out of their stamping feet, like a little pixie caught in some giant mindless threshing machine.  It was all so perfectly precisely the way it ought to be. 

And yet...

One thing was missing.  Interesting it was.  Imaginative and brilliant and evocative.  But it just wasn't "eye popping stuff".  As the film progressed and more and more marvels were unveiled, the problem just became more and more evident.  Given the sheer size of the robots, the level of the destruction, the ingenuity that went into dreaming it all up, I would have bet good money my reaction would be one of awe.  I should have felt humbled.  Instead, I just found myself thinking: "Hm, that's pretty cool.  That's even more cool.  That's all right.  That's pretty cool..."  Cool, yes...but not eye popping.

The reason, I realized, for this lack of eye-poppingness was that, as good as they were, the computer generated effects came nowhere near convincing me that they were real.  I don't mean real robots.  Obviously I know the robots in Star Wars weren't real robots.  They were actors in costumes.  But they were real actors in real costumes.  And thus, when something was real big in Star Wars, like, say, those shaggy elephantine "Banthas" on the planet Tatooine, the effect (at least for this viewer) was to stare pop-eyed, with dropped jaw, amazed and awestruck and, yes, humbled.

In spite of the apparent grandeur of computer generated effects mustered for Sky Captain, they never succeeded in convincing me I was seeing anything more than a really impressive cartoon.  Nor was that far from the effect Conran was going for, I suspect.  The entire look of the thing was purposely designed (by Conran's brother) to evoke the legendary cartoons of the great animator, Max Fleischer, especially his short Superman vignettes which used to play in theatres before the main attraction.  And in that the Conrans entirely succeeded.  It was amazingly evocative, not only in the set design, but even in the way Conran composed the shots, and the impossibly blinding speed of the action.  It looked uncannily like those Max Fleischer cartoons.

And that was the problem.  It looked like a cartoon.  Only like a cartoon.  I was no more awed by the sight of the heroine barely avoiding a colossal swinging metal foot than I would have been had she dodged a passing shadow.  It looked like what it was -- an actress miming avoiding something that wasn't really there.  By comparison, I vividly remember the scene in the second Star Wars movie, The Empire Strikes Back, where Luke Skywalker's "snowspeeder" has crashed in the path of a giant metal "Walker".  I was on the edge of my seat as he scrambled to get clear of the wreck even as the vast metal foot descended on it like the world's biggest library stamp (God, I miss those.).  Now that was a big foot.

More importantly, that foot was real -- in that, it was a real object that really was that huge.

I suppose I'm not saying anything that I haven't said a zillion times previously in the course of these editorials.  Sure, I already knew I found computer generated effects to be cartoony and unconvincing.  I didn't care for the computer generated Hulk, nor Spider-Man, nor Cat Woman.  (Who in their right mind hires Halle Barry, dresses her up in a revealing dominatrix get-up, then replaces her with a computer generated image?  Were they mad?)  In fact, I think the only computer generated character that truly impressed me was probably Gollum from The Lord of the Rings.  That scene where his evil half is chewing out his weaker half just about had me in tears.  But other than Gollum, the rest have pretty well left me cold.  Still, I knew all this before.  But, until I saw Sky Captain, I don't think I quite realized how complicated the problem might be.  It might even be intractable.

The problem is, in Sky Captain the computer effects were just realistic enough to fool us into not consciously noticing how unreal they really were (and try saying that after tying on a few).  Which is why most people would balk at calling it a "cartoon" where they would have no such problem with something like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?  And yet, Roger Rabbit likewise combined extensive animation with real actors.  It's just that its animation was more traditionally cartoony.  So, on a conscious level, when watching Sky Captain, we feel we should be struck with awe, but on an unconscious level, our minds react as they would to any other cartoon.  We don't truly believe in the physical reality of what we are seeing.  The result is, when Gwyneth Paltrow ducks under a giant robot foot, deep down all we see is Gwyneth Paltrow ducking under a drawing of a giant robot foot.  The result is entertaining and fun, but rarely "eye-popping stuff".

The reason I say the problem might be intactable (other than to use the word "intractable") is that I'm no longer so certain we will ever see a day when computer generated special effects are good enough to truly fool us into believing in their physical reality.  I realize that is heresy in this day and age (All hail Industrial Light and Magic and the Great God George!).  It is simply taken for granted that creativity will follow a smooth curve to perfection, that computer generated art must steadily improve with the inevitable result that someday it will be indistinguishable from the real thing.  But is that necessarily so?

Experience tells us that the human mind's ability to detect the False itself evolves with time and experience.  Thus, today's "ground breaking" special effects are tomorrow's "out-dated" and "shoddy" effects.  We are caught in a sort of Darwinian arms race, an evolutionary battle between increasingly clever effects and increasingly fraud resistant audiences, each driving the other forward.  The result may be, not steady improvement to perfection, but rather what is called an asymptotic curve -- we may get closer and closer to perfect mimickry, but never quite achieve it because the human mind is always just one step behind.

But does this mean disaster for the film industry?  Far from it.  At least, not on a level that really matters.  (Ka-ching,)  Because I can easily see a future where most special effects are cartoony and unconvincing but everyone pretends not to notice.  It is my brother's contention that the reason the effects wizards have gotten this far is because a new audience is just beginning to enter the market, an audience reared on Nintendo and Sony Playstation.  The younger movie goers today have suckled at the breast of video game reality and they are prepared to accept a lesser reality in their movies, so long as it looks like a real sweet first-person shooter.

In the climax to Spider-Man II, the villainous Doc Oc (played by Alfred "You throw me the idol, I'll throw you the whip" Molina) sacrifices his own life to stop his experiment gone awry.  He leaps into a lake and we see him sink away into darkness, his face clearly visible until it fades into the downward distance. It is very important that we see, written on that face, how he feels in that moment.  But, to carry off the effect, director Sam Raimi daringly used a completely computer generated version of Alfred Molina, face included.  And, yes, it is just good enough to fool us into believing it really is Molina sinking into those waters.  But written on Molina's computer generated face?  Zip.  It is completely expressionless.  Perhaps the animators wanted it to appear tranquil and at peace.  All I know is that they might as well have sunk a statue from Madame Tussaud's for all the performance they managed to coax out of their Cray CPU. 

But I didn't hear any complaints.  Interpret that how you will.  Either the public's ability to detect the False hasn't yet caught up, or we have already begun to lower our standards.  Smart money's on the latter.

I guess that's about all I've got to say about Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow.  Before seeing it, I had read reviews that complained about the small size of Angelina Jolie's part as the tough, eye-patch wearing Nick Fury clone.  And, with that assessment, I certainly agree.  But at least it was really her most of the time.

Alfred Molina, please take note.

You too, Halle.



Jeffrey Blair Latta, co-editor and Supreme Plasmate

Got a response?  Email us at lattabros@yahoo.com


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