CGI Wasteland

Watching the new trailer for the BFG, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the current era of film is going to be remembered as one of the worst.

Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl classic looks fine in all respects, except in that it’s a live-action film that seems to have almost no live action. The giant is CGI, the settings are CGI, the camera movements appear to be mimicries done through CGI – in fact, the only thing that doesn’t appear to be CGI is the main character. At this point, can the movie even really be considered live action anymore?

Which is not to say that the BFG should be singled out or that there’s anything particularly egregious about it compared to other films. Nearly every big blockbuster coming out this year looks the same. The Jungle Book. Tarzan. Captain America: Civil War. Warcraft. Alice in Wonderland: Through the Looking Glass. They all seem to exist in glossy CGI wastelands where cameras can zoom around weightlessly and the characters seem sprung from video game cut scenes.

Whenever someone bashes CGI, they open themselves up to being accused of being a Luddite, someone who’s needlessly against technological process. I actually have nothing against CGI itself. It’s a useful tool that has been used to great effect in many movies, from Terminator II: Rise of the Machines to the first Iron Man.

In fact, nowadays, nearly every big-budget movie uses CGI, whether it’s apparent or not. There was a video from a few years back which showed just how much hidden CGI was in The Wolf of Wall Street. Everything from locations to character’s clothes were digitally rendered.

But there’s a big difference between a movie like The Wolf of Wall Street using CGI unobtrusively, as a complementary technique, and a movie like The BFG, where everything from a cup to a city street appear to be obvious computer-generated creations. What’s the purpose of this? Do we need CGI for cups, city streets, and regular human characters?

The risk with these films is that they will already look dated and completely unviable in ten years’ time (hell, some of these movies already look bad now). CGI, when placed front and center, becomes outdated very quickly. All you have to do is look at movies like The Scorpion King or Van Helsing, which had great CGI for their time but look downright ridiculous now. In many ways, CGI is still in its cinematic infancy. It’s been around for less than thirty years, and we still haven’t achieved completely lifelike renderings. Rise of the Planet of the Apes was said to look almost photo-realistic when it was released five years ago, but the graphics are now said to look antiquated.

There are certainly movies that have used even obvious CGI and which still hold up today. However, most of these movies immerse their CGI within real environments, which ensures that even as the animation becomes outdated, it remains just one negligible flaw within an entirely involving cinematic world. Take Terminator II, for example. The T100 was one of the first CGI characters, but it still holds up to this day. It’s not that the CGI used was particularly advanced, because it isn’t by today’s standards, but the character is interacting in a world of real weight and movement. If it seems slightly wonky at times, it’s easy to pass over or disregard.

That isn’t true with these newer movies. If the CGI in Warcraft is eventually wonky, there goes the whole film. Same goes for any of these other blockbuster movies. People can still become completely immersed in the worlds of Jaws, Star Wars, and The Terminator. That won’t hold true for Warcraft or Tarzan. When their CGI becomes retrograde, the entire films will lose their sense of immersion.

Of course, some people would say that realistic isn’t always better, and they’d be right. There’s nothing wrong with using CGI animation as, well, a form of animation. Speed Racer is an almost entirely CGI film, but the computer animation was used to mimic the feel and look of a cartoon. Kung Fu Hustle is another film that used CGI effects for cartoonish gags that throwback to the Looney Tunes. Neither of these films have realistic-looking CGI, and it’s to their benefit.

The problem with these current releases, however, is that they aren’t trying to look like cartoons. Nor are they trying to look real, blending their CGI with practical effects and real-life environments. Rather, this new breed of blockbuster film is not trying to look like cartoon or real-life, but rather some hellish, murky in-between state. The animated effects are apparent and all-consuming, far from looking real. Yet they’re rendered with no apparent attention to fancy, design, or visuals, instead aiming for a drab photo-realism close to something out of a Call of Duty game.

Watching the trailer for Tarzan or The BFG, I can say that while the movies both look good, they don’t look good. Sometimes, CGI is unfinished when trailers premiere, so it’s possible that they’re unrepresentative and the final films will look better. If not, I have a feeling that despite whatever reviews they receive, they’ll quickly become relics of this time. Maybe in twenty years, or ten. More likely in five.