Monday, July 02, 2012


I rewatched 1978's Superman the other night.  It's very much a movie of its time, in good ways and bad, but one thing can definitely be said about it: We'll never see anything like it again.

In a sense, of course, we're seeing lots of movies like it.  Every month seems to bring another big-screen superhero epic, and they're all indebted to Superman, the first mega-budget attempt to bring a comic book adaptation to the big screen.  Watching it now, one can't help but be struck by its sometimes campy attitude, as if the high-powered supporting cast couldn't quite be bothered to commit to the material, but at it best, it succeeds admirably.

What I meant was, we'll never see a movie like it again.  Many of its most impressive visual whammies were created on set, with wires, rear projection and practical floor effects.  It was made well before the CGI era.

And is all the better for it.  Recent special effects extravaganzas, from (the already-dated) 2012 to The Avengers, have showcased apocalyptic visions, buildings, forests, whole cities crumbling into dust, every meticulously-rendered pixel landing at just the right place.  It's the very perfection of these sequences that keep them from fully convincing--no matter how much the computer tries to render some sort of chaos, it looks too designed, too assembled, lacking any of the randomness we would see in real life.

Consider this sequence.  Forgive the picture quality--it seems to be from a badly-dubbed VHS source--and focus on what is shown.

The big effect here, of course, is the falling helicopter.  It's not, in most shots, a real copter--in the long shots of it dangling from the building, it's a miniature, and Lois is hanging from a fiberglass mock-up.  But it still exists, not in the digital world but in real life--when Superman lifts it, it has heft.  We don't just see it, we feel it, and it feels real.

My eye is immediately drawn to the small things that really sell this sequence--the drops of rain on the copter's windshield, the steam and the fog on top of the building, little things that we instinctively recognize as real.  CGI artists could try to simulate these things, of course--though it's amazing how often these things are overlooked --but it would remain a simulation, inorganic, processed food shaped to look like the real thing but utterly lacking the flavor.

There's more to it, though.  CGI is routinely deployed now to enhance everything--even something as prosaic as a car chase is usually somehow digitally enhanced.  But in the days of practical effects, filmmakers were limited to what a vehicle could actually do--they couldn't show it cartoonishly spinning or twirling or hurtling around in a manner defying all laws of physics.  And when real vehicles were being used, when real stunts were performed, the danger on the set was real, too.

As a result, there was a respect for human life you could see in older movies.  As silly as a movie like, say, Earthquake was even in 1974, when it shows buildings collapsing, you see people crushed and killed by the rubble, and we're meant to feel that loss.  The Avengers is a wonderful movie in many ways, but the wholesale destruction of NYC in its climax is remarkably bloodless--we see buildings shattered, but we don't see the bodies falling from them, rubble hitting the ground but no people crushed.  It's devastation as pure spectacle.  It's terrifying, alright, but not in ways the filmmakers intended.