I saw Iron Man this past week, after it had already raked in over $100 million dollars, and was as impressed as I hoped I'd be. While it probably will pale in comparison to The Dark Knight, one of the summer's other numerous comic book films, it was right up there with the best of the Marvel movies (although this was the first film produced by Marvel itself, I'm including the Spider Man's, X-Men, and the first Hulk here).
Robert Downey Jr.'s manic, sarcastic charm was perfect for Tony Stark, as were the supporting actor's in the minor parts. And certainly one reason it was successful is that the kick-ass parts were, well, pretty kick-ass. His escape from an Afghanistan Cave, the fight on a Los Angeles freeway; they're all done in perfect big-budget, big-movie, special effects extravaganza mode. Cars are flipped over, things blow up, a confusing and potentially impossible power source plugs into Iron Man's chest, and his yellow and red suit blasts Tony up close to outer space, as well as helping him to out-duel two fighter planes in the Middle Eastern desert.
In fact, the only bad part of the whole experience was the guy I was sitting next to, who downed two large soda's and two Butterfinger's while he was tweaking out like the aliens in Men in Black who need sugar to live.
Iron Man, however, got me thinking about what really makes memorable special effects. Because, although entirely adequate for a movie based on a comic book, it's not digitally created scenes like ones I mention above that get talked about for years to come. In fact, the Comic book genre in general hasn't really inspired much wonder for CGI; if anything, it's provided a glut in effects that makes the films less impressive. The move to films shot mostly on green screen, or where entire characters are generated by a powerful Apple in a backroom somewhere, has increased only the amount of special f/x in films. It hasn't increased an appreciation for these lavish, technologically superior worlds.
For example, has anyone been impressed by the kaleidoscopic acid trip of the new Speed Racer, or the new Hulk in the Incredible Hulk trailer ? This thing looks like it cost a lot of money to create, but it doesn't exactly instill one with a feeling of awe for the magic of moviemaking. Not to mention it's a shame to sign up Edward Norton to bring the film some gravitas, and then saddle the action sequences with a hero and villain that look more suited for the soon-to-arrive Xbox 360 game than any movie.
What does this add to the movie? When the new Star Wars movies came out, all I heard about was the revolutionary graphics and technology George Lucas was cooking up at Skywalker Ranch. But what this did was make it clear that the movie was 90% tech and 10% story, acting, and heart. Creating armies of Stormtroopers with a computer might have been a neat stunt, but it made the movies worse.
Obviously special f/x, even gratuitous effects, have been used for good and not just evil. The T1000 was incredible, for example, as were the action sequences throughout The Matrix series. But overall, it's just not that impressive to see chunks of a movie filled purely with CGI. Maybe my old age has given me a jaded perspective along with sore knees and deteriorating vision, but movies like Iron Man, or The Spider Man movies, or Pirates of the Caribbean, make me think, "holy cow, that looks expensive," more than, "that's awesome."
The special effects that really get to me, that stay in my head for months, are the ones that seem to fly under the radar, a little more under the surface. The best example is Spike Jonze's Adaptation. The effects in this movie are just brilliant. First off, you have the most realistic and affecting car crash ever put to film. While I know this doesn't compare to the wizardry of some bigger movies, and has to do mostly with just great non-green screen filmmaking, it's nonetheless the rare scene that gets the audience asking, how the heck did they do that, which I think is the general point of great special effects in the first place; the sense of wonder.
What I find even more impressive, however, is the front of Chris Cooper's mouth. In the movie, it's missing two teeth. Not just painted black, but they are missing. Now I've seen Chris Cooper in plenty of movies before and after Adaptation, and the man has just as a nice a set of chompers as you could ask for. So through what sorcery did Spike Jonze and the producer's make him toothless?
Another great example is Forrest Gump, which in fact did win the Oscar for best Visual Effects. When I (perhaps smugly) remind friends of this, they're pretty surprised. This is the category, after all, where the Big Blockbuster's reign supreme. King Kong, with it's 45 minute interlude of CGI dinosaurs and large bugs, won in 2005, preceded by Spider Man 2, and followed by the third Pirates of the Caribbean. Gump doesn't exactly have the same feel as these films; while the Bubba Gump shrimping boat gets caught in a pretty bad storm, they don't have to fend off ghosts from the deep blue sea. But what the film does do is get rid of Gary Sinise's legs in convincing fashion, and let Forrest meet a few different Presidents in archival footage.
Popular Mechanics has an article on their website that argues the rise of Comic-book movies have resulted in a decline of "smart" science-fiction (sci-fi presumably based on "real" science, as opposed to the "comic" science of gamma rays, etc.). I think, perhaps, their gripe is related to mine; for me, the rise of Comic-book movies, even if they have been accompanied by A-list actors and directors, have ruined CGI effects.
By their very nature these films rely on effects a lot, making them commonplace and just not that impressive. When you watch a computer generated Iron Man climb to the reaches of Outer Space, it's not nearly as impressive as trying to figure out where Chris Cooper's teeth went, or Gary Sinise's legs. It's not that I have a thing for missing limbs (although for another good example of this special effect, see Master and Commander for a grizzly amputation on a boy who, in real life, has both arms), I have a thing for special effects that make the real world seem a little more spectacular. What does a 100-foot wall of sand, with a face and fists, that is set on destruction in Spider Man 3, really do for anyone? It seems that more and more movies are made like last year's Transformer's, which showcased almost no action scenes that featured real actors, and I'm not impressed.
But if someone can tell me how you can take out someone's teeth, I'm all ears.