We live in a strange time. Not since the industrial revolution has the nation faced such awkward growing pains. Telecommunications are globalizing world cultures. Big business is becoming invested on a macro-scale. Our democracy is becoming our fake democracy. The most important and frustrating transition, however, is the shift from old-fashioned puppetry to the new world of CGI and digital special effects.
People still love the Fraggles and fear the C.H.U.D.S of yesteryear. There may always be a place in our heart for both of them. I doubt many people even remember the digital, giant-eared space moppet from the big screen Lost In Space, much less scared by the computer generated spooks of newer horror films like Resident Evil.
It used to be that if a movie maker wanted to put a flesh-eating critter that looked suspiciously like a Gremlin in a film, he’d hire somebody to sew a rubber puppet together, lower the lights, and shoot. Nowadays, they hire someone to scan in a picture of whatever crazy thing they can imagine and somehow paste that picture into a film using Photoshop. This is a problem, a problem summarized by one rule of thumb: a Graboid beats an Assblaster any day of the week. In other words, the large worms, or Graboids, of 1990’s Tremors that were accomplished with real models and trick photography looked much better than the digital beasties, called Assblasters, of 2001’s Tremors 3.
The wet tangibility of fake blood or the presence of a guy in a zombie costume still produces a more visceral reaction than the slick, pasted feel of today’s computer hokum. I believe this is made the most apparent by tracking the career of actress Jennifer Connelly.
Her second movie was Phenomena, an Italian horror picture most noticeable for its homicidal monkey. A teenaged Jennifer had the ability to control insects with her mind, an effect created by using a pen to make dots on the actual celluloid, simulating a swarm of flies. It was crude, but the movie was fun, low-fi bedlam.
Her next movie, a crowning achievement by puppet master Jim Henson, was the remarkable Labyrinth. She spent most of her time on screen with a troll named Hoggle wandering through a maze filled with amazing creatures cooked up at Henson Studios. Much like Sesame Street or Star Wars, it still resonates with adults today, who can often be heard reciting memorable quotes like “Goblin King! Goblin King!” or discussing why David Bowie’s cod piece was so big.
Connelly later starred in Inventing the Abbots and The Hot Spot, two great films- one because of its east coast melodramatic, nostalgia, the other for its noir-ish heat. To my knowledge, there were no special effects in these films, digital or otherwise. However, she appeared topless in both of them.
In between those two, she appeared in The Rocketeer, co-starring with Billy Campbell. I am fairly certain Billy Campbell is a robot. To make him appear not overly robotic, I think they enhanced his human features later using CGI. As a result, The Rocketeer was an average film.
Most recently, Jennifer starred in Hulk, a bombastic, wall-to-wall spectacle of techno-effects. Director Ang Lee was visually successful in making the best moving comic book yet. The actors were more than adequate. The movie lacked heart, though, largely because the Hulk came across as an unrealistic, bouncing mammoth and left much of the audience wondering why Lou Ferrigno on a pogo stick wouldn’t have done just as good a job.
As you can see below, the quality of Jennifer Connelly’s body of work can be defined by a nonsensical line graph that plots the amount of digital effects versus real effects (while taking into account nudity) in her movies. Labyrinth wins out over the Hulk by a large margin.
I realize that things take time to perfect and digital effects will need time mature. Rome was not built in a day. I just wish I did not have to live in Rome with all the construction going on. I wish they’d kept releasing flicks with goofy puppets and plastic monsters, all the while making the “pixar-ated” version of the same movie simultaneously, but only putting that version on the DVD for curious fans. Only after perfecting the art of computer generated images should Hollywood start releasing movies that included them into the theaters. Instead, we have the blood of so many prematurely retired puppets on our hands.
Nonetheless, I believe the creature features of today will soon reach a plateau of acceptability. Then, and only then, will I finally be able to start complaining that you can’t tell what is real and what is fake anymore and how, back in the day, the Hulk was the perfect instance of digital dazzle comforting us with his artificial charm.