Science! Outer space! Realism! One of my favourite ongoing series of articles comes to us care of Dr. Andy Howell over at Ain't It Cool News, wherein he analyzes the science behind various science fiction blockbusters - always tongue-in-cheek, but sometimes (as, for example, with Star Trek Into Darkness) with surprisingly accurate critical commentary extending from the scientific perspective. It's fun to spitball the plausibility of the hard science in, say, Avatar; and in a lot of cases, it's a useful teaching tool, too.
That might have been what Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson was trying to do this weekend with regard to Gravity (watch Willem and Miranda's review here). Tyson received media attention on Monday morning after posting a series of tweets regarding the "Mysteries of Gravity," wherein he quibbled about the zero-G simulation of Sandra Bullock's hair, and (perhaps more meaningfully) why we are more interested in a film like Gravity than the actual space program.
With the exception of the latter point, which might be a valid (if directionless) criticism of the American mindset with regard to space exploration, Tyson's other needling must in some fashion be the ne plus ultra of this appalling 21st century art form with relation to all forms of consumed media: the nitpick. We've become fairly nitpick-obsessed in the last ten or fifteen years, possibly as an outgrowth of all this social media in the first place - where would you have gone, in 1993, to nitpick the science of Jurassic Park? - or possibly because we've completely lost our ability to take visual flights of fancy at the movies altogether.
I have begun to wonder if there's a relationship between the development of visual effects and their ability to portray pretty much anything with complete photorealism, and the rise of nitpicking a film's realism as a popular method of criticism. Has photorealism pushed us over an invisible mental boundary between the admissibly elliptical and the intransigently fact-based?
Older, analogue visual effects were credibly impressive in their day, but hardly ever passed the sniff test of representing something that was physically photographed in the real world by a physical camera. To an extent, then, our brains had to lend such effects a "willing suspension of disbelief" pass that allowed the more critical, logic-oriented nerve clusters to just shut up already and let us accept what we were seeing as well-meaning representative imagery intended to convey a fantastical idea.
I've never till this moment given one second's thought to how, for example, the Mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind could possibly fly... but then, that beautiful, optically-printed chandelier from outer space has never entirely been perceived by my brain as a real object. It's a piece of fancy, writ large in my (and everyone's) imaginative consciousness, because it comes from a time in the evolution of cinema when realism was only required to the degree that something could adequately represent a larger idea. The Mothership isn't an "insert spaceship here" card, cut into the flow of a movie, but your brain interprets it the same way anyway: "this is a thing meant to represent another thing that doesn't exist. Go with it."
In like kind, though, I've given a lot of thought (relatively speaking) to how the Prometheus could fly, because Prometheus went so far out of its way, on a photorealistic effects level, to show us how such a thing could be possible. There were lingering beauty shots of the ship sinking to the planet's surface with its thrusters and landing gear realigning in perfect symmetry, "bumping" just slightly upon contact, to suggest a real object with real mass under the influence of real gravity. All of these events were simulated inside someone's hard drive, of course, but they were as brain-teasingly sincere as we're mathematically capable of making them. ("Mathematically," I think, being the operative word there - computers are great at math. Optical printers were great at optical illusion.)
Now, Tyson seems to be in a class by himself on his Gravity dislike. $55 million for the opening weekend and a basket of glowing reviews are more than enough to suggest that most people are going to care about Gravity's realism about as much as they cared about Avatar's. I also don't recall people getting too fussy about the realism of, say, the robot fights in Pacific Rim, so maybe nitpicking is just what it's always been - a weak, lazy manner of expressing irritation with a movie, when the true source of one's dislike actually lies elsewhere. (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull isn't a shitty movie because Indiana Jones survives being flung eight kilometres in a lead-lined fridge by a nuclear bomb. It's a shitty movie because the story sucks and Shia LaBeouf is awful in it.)
But conversations around realism in movies speak to a dearth of wonder that seems to grow increasingly prevalent, year by year, as virtual realities with perfect simulations of physics like GTA V make a billion dollars on their first day of sale, while those rock 'em, sock 'em robots in Pacific Rim can't belly-crawl across the hundred million dollar mark in a summer where few moviegoers would likely cop to being satisfied by the other product on the field. Shortly before Gravity made its mint this weekend, another IMAX 3-D movie took in a good amount of money, too, in spite of being surely the least "realistic" movie ever made: The Wizard Of Oz. To abandon oneself to that tornado of practical magic is to completely sidestep questions about Sandra Bullock's CGI hair, thank goodness; so, too, does the smearing of proverbial Vaseline upon a movie's lens forgive us the onus of assessing whether something onscreen is exactly as it's being portrayed or not. Here's the scoop, which still seems to be news to an astonishing number of people: when those lights go down, nothing you're seeing is real. Enjoy, or don't.
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and popular culture.