By now you have probably seen the trailer for the latest installment in the "Hollywood ran out of ideas 25 years ago so here's the 917351st comic book superhero movie but hey, at least it isn't a remake" series, better known as Green Lantern. If you haven't had the pleasure, here you go:
Look at how stupid that looks.
No, I don't mean the acting, the plot, or the idea of making a film out of a B-squad comic book hero from the 1950s. I mean look at it. The cartoon-meets-Sega Genesis visual effects. The green screened everything. It is all clearly the product of the finest technology available to visual artists and filmmakers. And it's terrible. It's completely awful – fake, sterile, and desperate to make up for its fake sterility by jamming as much crap and kabloom-y effects as possible into every single frame of the film. Now contrast that with another film about people in outer space, one made without the benefits of quad core Mac G5s: 2001: A Space Odyssey (embedding disabled, so click through to see the Blue Danube docking sequence).
That was made with plastic models, a camera, and moving objects held in place with wires. Which one looks more "realistic" to you? Which one allows you to suspend your disbelief and feel like you're watching something that's really happening? Which one looks like what it is supposed to look like?
Sometimes I feel like CGI is killing movies. And sometimes it's so obvious that it ceases to be subjective.
I understand that there's a line between filmmaking as a skill and as a craft. Skill allows you to churn out a product that meets the prevailing contemporary standards, makes a buttload of money, and is immediately forgotten. Five years later it looks painfully, even embarrassingly dated. Craftsmanship produces something that holds up over time. Return of the Jedi was the product of craftsmen. The prequel trilogy is crass, mass produced garbage filmed in an empty warehouse.
Talented directors can do great things with CGI and other visual effects technology. Even in a bad movie, someone who knows how to use it can create a distinctive visual style immediately identified with the film (i.e., 300). It can also be used to seamlessly blend the real world with the director's imagination (Lord of the Rings trilogy, Sin City, Harry Potter, etc). Or it can be used to make Avatar and The Phantom Menace.
The fundamental problem is that CGI, rather that being a tool that allows directors to explore new creative possibilities, just enables laziness. The original Star Wars films were made with thousands of man-hours of tiny models. The scenes in 2001 took months to shoot to create the desired look. The original King Kong relied on the laborious stop-motion technique with its models (and rear screen projections for city skylines, another Golden Era technique that is now all but lost). Why bother now? Just click some buttons, hire some graphic designers, and make the entire movie inside a computer.
The other problem with CGI is that it's too easy. Consider the original King Kong compared to the christawful 2005 remake. In the first film every frame of the ape required hours of labor working with delicate sets and models, which in turn required dozens of hours of work to make. It encouraged the filmmakers to use the titular creature sparingly. If it's all digital, then why not have King Kong in every damn scene? Why not have him knock a few buildings down? Hell, it's all just clicks on a mouse. Another example, of course, is the new-vs-old Star Wars trilogies. If you have to build an enormous Imperial Cruiser model, you're probably going to shoot the scene with ONE Imperial Cruiser…because you don't want to build a second one unless it's absolutely necessary. So the original trilogy had a sense of economy. It was sparse. In the prequels, why have one ship when you could have…(*click click click*)…a hundred ships??? Isn't that way better? See how much it improves the experience to jam as much blinking, exploding shit as humanly possible into the frame?
I understand that a movie like Green Lantern is not intended to be a great work of art. It's a product churned out for the purpose of being merchandised to death. But the annual summer blockbusters are symptoms of the continuous dumbing down of the visual aspects of filmmaking. Twenty years ago even the summer blockbusters required some actual imagination and craftsmanship. Now "special effects" is synonymous with digital effects, and moviemaking treats the human actors as an inconvenience to be dealt with as quickly as possible and plugged into the laughably unbelievable, visually insulting movie that exists only inside someone's PC. The result is ugly. Very, very ugly. As film is a visual medium, producing something this ugly is counterproductive at best.