Destroy All Monsters: JUPITER ASCENDING And Life After Peak Visual Effects

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: JUPITER ASCENDING And Life After Peak Visual Effects

It was on the fifth or fifteenth major sequence of extraordinary outer space somethingorothers doing something extraordinary in Jupiter Ascending that I realized I no longer cared about visual effects as a category of achievement. There are what seem like dozens of such sequences in Jupiter, and that's part of the film's problem; the "been there, done that"-ness of Jupiter is lethal.

(Read Loïc Valceschini's full review of Jupiter Ascending here.)

Now, with my realization about effects came a corollary understanding: at some point, I did care about special effects. This is not the way things are supposed to be. When directors of these kinds of movies - the Peter Jacksons, the James Camerons, even the Wachowskis themselves - sit sagely on DVD special feature documentaries and mention that visual effects are a means to an end, not an end unto themselves, I would nod along with them and feel like the smartest boy in school.

Of course visual effects aren't the point! The story is the point! The effects are just a tool to help you realize the story!

Except, that's kind of untrue. Like 3-D glasses or seats that lift up and fly around the room, visual effects are part of the gee-whiz experience of moviegoing, a value-add by which tickets are sold. This has been true for at least as long as I've been alive.

I was born in 1976, and the first thing I remember seeing actually is that Star Destroyer flyover shot from Star Wars. And with my passion for filmmaking came an equally strong - arguably, even, stronger - fascination with taking apart the meticulous, behind-the-scenes clockworks that led to my favourite images being up on screen.

I have a full shelf of Cinefex magazines dating back to the '80s (and a lot of out-of-print digital editions, too); and I sourced out a laserdisc player in 1991 because I'd heard those discs had more on them than just the movies. Who was pissed off that there weren't any featurettes on the Gone Girl Blu-ray? Me.

Perhaps since the beginning of film, but certainly while I've been alive, the evolution of effects technology has been a kind of story, as motion control and rubber masks gave way to digital compositing and fully-textured digital objects. And I've followed the story avidly.

As such, I have to admit that the thrill of seeing something new - the full-motion CGI dinosaur in Jurassic Park, or bullet time in the jeans commercials that preceded The Matrix by about 8 or 10 months - actively became part of the attraction for those properties, for me. You see whatever you see when you see The Phantom Menace; I point at the Battle Droids and say, "look at the hard-surface modeling on those suckers!"

Then we reached Peak Visual Effects.

Peak Visual Effects was either The Fellowship of the Ring or The Two Towers (take your pick). It was The Lord of the Rings trilogy, anyway, with King Kong as an unofficial fourth-part kicker. Each of those films has their flaws from an effects standpoint - the CGI stunt doubles in Fellowship, for example, were and remain atrocious - but they are the moment in Hollywood history when special effects went from "how close can we get to what we need here?" to "we can visualize literally anything, given adequate resources and time."

(Sure, the photo-real CGI human is still ahead of us. But I'd argue she's not far away. The ape in King Kong, even more so than Gollum, was the watershed on that development - because his eyes fixed the Polar Express problem, and once the eyes work on a digital character, everything else matters less.)

The problem with Peak VFX is that like Peak Oil, it's all downhill from here: it will take more and more energy to extract the market value from these special effects, until it will no longer be possible to do so at all.

In the meantime, there are workarounds: omni-connected movie universe labyrinths of the Marvel Cinematic Universe style, which use continuity connections to bolster the flagging interest in their Holy Shit moments (cuz once the Avengers have flattened New York City, scale has officially become a problem); heartily experiential voyages into the CGI jungles of alien worlds that use effects and other technologies to make you feel like you've really been there (officially patented as The Avatar Model); or just standing up in front of the fanboys and insisting that you're using practical effects as much as possible, and that that matters.

(Note to J.J. Abrams: it doesn't. It really doesn't. Nobody ultimately cares how an effect was arrived at, except a half-dozen whack-jobs like me. Everyone else just wants the visual to work in context.)

And in the meantime, you arrive at movies like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, arguably one of the most substantial achievements in character animation in motion picture history that might not even manage to scrape an Oscar next week; or Jupiter Ascending, which - story problems aside - plays on a visual level like a mix tape of John Carter, Attack of the Clones, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon.

The story problems are the problem, in Jupiter's case; the Wachowskis have never crafted so wholly uncommitted and listless a screenplay. But watching the film, I was struck repeatedly by how little the best concept designers, pre-viz artists, and visual effects technicians apparently have to show me any more. Whole alien worlds, gravity boots over Chicago, a deep-dive into the Great Red Spot on Jupiter (a personal favourite astrological phenomenon since childhood, no less), and I never felt a second of amazement at any of it.

We've seen it all, done it all. Maybe this is another reason games are taking over while the whole filmmaking enterprise is on a single track to the end of the line: there's still room to expand what's possible in game visuals, and we need that room to engage with the content. We need to feel that surprise, or it's just CGI - and regardless of how faithfully it's rendered, the backs of our brains will always go "just CGI, not real, what's next?"

Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and popular culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on twitter.

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Ard VijnFebruary 11, 2015 10:31 AM

Valid point: how to make a shock-and-awe special effects film, when special effects do not shock-and-awe anymore?

Mind you, JUPITER ASCENDING had a few moments which still totally did it for me (a cruise-ship breaking through Saturn-like rings, a docking sequence in the most crowded spaceport ever seen, two mechas fighting their way through a literal swarm of droids...), but I'm a nutcase for things like that. Storywise, the film would have had a million times more impact if I actually cared for Jupiter, if she ever did something which made me admire her. She gets abducted and rescued so often, it's like watching a rugby match as seen from the perspective of the ball.

Marcel SamsonFebruary 11, 2015 11:59 AM

Haha, that last comparison made me laugh so hard, thx for that!

LA JulianFebruary 11, 2015 4:19 PM

Oh dear. I was thinking it was Mario from the perspective of Peach, but that works too!

Mr. CavinFebruary 11, 2015 4:44 PM

I agree with everything you've just said; but then again, I think that it's not all the fault of the effects themselves. I mean, the evolution of this tentpole monster that has gobbled up the whole market means that CGI and spectacle film making are the new normal. We grew up in a time when special effects masters were hailed as heroes and given the latitude to become artisan specialists. While I can tick off dozens and dozens of excellent examples, from seventy-six till today, the reality is that it's survivorship bias--most movie specimens from the time period are more like When Harry Met Sally than Alien. Not so anymore; large genre spectacles are running the fiscal year, and Harry and Sally share way more of the market with modern Aliens. In that environment--and with the survivorship-colored glasses of hindsight--we see special effects efforts regressing from the artisan standards we remember of the past to cost-constructed assembly line manufacturing of today. I too am supremely bored with animated CGI matte inserts and all the reliance on computer compositing. But then something like


pops into my feed again and I remember that visual effects can still compel me, surprise and delight me, whether or not they are hitched to the simple expedient of narrative. Hopefully in twenty, thirty years I'll forget most of the movies that bored me and only remember the few that thrilled.

LA JulianFebruary 11, 2015 5:08 PM
Valid point: how to make a shock-and-awe special effects film, when special effects do not shock-and-awe anymore?

Indeed, one thing that blew my mind is that much-cited item where they boast about how they spent months and months filming one single chase scene outside in downtown Chicago, where they could only do it for a few minutes per day, every single day-- hours and hours of setup with streets being cleared and special helicopter rigs, on top of everyone having to get into their costumes, all to capture the quality of sunrise light for the tiny window of opportunity before it changed.

And all I could think reading that was, was that really the best use of all that time and (somebody else's) money? You couldn't film the scenery in panorama with your special fancy high-res cameras, then replicate the hue of the daylight with gels on a soundstage and greenscreen it? I get that they wanted me to be impressed with their dedication, but it's like seeing someone paint a magnificent ceiling fresco of Dogs Playing Poker. One simply wonders, "But WHY?!"

StuFebruary 11, 2015 5:39 PM

"But watching the film, I was struck repeatedly by how little the best concept designers, pre-viz artists, and visual effects technicians apparently have to show me any more. Whole alien worlds, gravity boots over Chicago, a deep-dive into the Great Red Spot on Jupiter (a personal favourite astrological phenomenon since childhood, no less), and I never felt a second of amazement at any of it."

I feel ya Matt.

As much as this malaise is exacerbated by poor story-telling, I have to wonder if it actually begins with us... When effects do work, they work as a unification of story and effects execution. When they don't work, it's generally because the story has faltered and our eye for flaws is sharpened. But there is this huge space in between, where stories are good enough and effects are great, yet we just don't care that we're looking at something special. Novelty itself is no longer sufficient, and I can't tell if that's because we've simply seen so much newness that the novelty of novelty has worn off, or if the cynicism that seems to permeate our post-modern world is just finally rubbing off on us. I've always felt that cinephiles - particularly the "film geek" type - are one of the last bastions of wonder; willing to defend even mediocre films for the value of a few moments of genuine wonderment. I've always had a soft spot for Harry Knowles because he exemplified this, though even he has waned over the years.

This pursuit of wonder is what motivates many - if not most - of us to keep chasing down hundreds of movies every year. And yet despite this quest and our conviction in it, we just don't give a shit about the scenes of genuine wonder that a film like Jupiter should evoke based on the art and craft of its effects.

I don't know what the solution is. I'm inclined to think it might be something like persisting with a principled commitment to the cause; compelling ourselves to consciously keep looking for it rather than relying on it being revealed to our now quasi-consious cg-strained eyes.

For instance, if I think about the prospect of rewatching Jupiter, it is the chance to explore that visual universe again that makes the notion even worth considering. I personally didn't find the story or characters particularly off-putting, and in fact I quite enjoyed the spin on a traditional fairytale, replete with admittedly stale gender roles and tropes. I don't think every single movie needs to be modern - the world isn't, after all. But still, it is the effects that would draw me back, or more accurately, it is the universe those effects manifest that would draw me back. Because that universe is truly wonder full, even if I didn't blow my mind the first time. It's not that the wonder isn't there, it's that I didn't see it. And, I think, that has more to do with my complacency and attitude in the theater than it does with the film itself.

Unflinching_EyeFebruary 11, 2015 8:48 PM

"and I never felt a second of amazement at any of it"

Exactly. Great article Matt. I think we're in the midst of a time when a lot of blockbuster filmmakers simply can't rein in their urges to indulge in this revolutionary new tool. Kid in a candy store analogy.

I've seen so many examples of it in the last few years. One particular low-point for me was Ender's Game (a movie that I wholeheartedly loathed, but that's by the by). The fx in that movie are an over-complicated, ridiculous mess that comes across like a parody of CG overuse. Ugly to look at, and by the halfway point I had a headache.

CG is such a great tool, it just requires someone with a bit of restraint. Blomkamp has it. D9 was a incredible, and seeing Elysium at IMAX was jaw dropping. Gareth Edwards too. People piled shit on Godzilla for not having enough monster action, but I thought the way he teased it and then left you hungry for more, instead of feeling utterly FATIGUED was very smart.

jammamonFebruary 12, 2015 7:04 AM

The problem is that cgi characters will always look artificial no matter the technology. And that takes your mind away from the plot. It's like watching androids play theater. You can give them the best script in the world and it will still be irrelevant. I, for one, am not willing to spend another 20 years until they master the technology to make them look 100% real, having to endure all that cgi shit in the meanwhile. And for what? Just take a man and give him a costume ffs! It's not as if anyone liked those orcs at the hobbit trilogy anyway.

Even the CGI backgrounds look artificial because of the heavy post-production, color highlighting etc. We need more analogue effects, a new school that combines the two worlds. It's no accident that action movies have suffered after the switch from analogue to cgi (1990 onwards)...

Dave BaxterFebruary 12, 2015 6:00 PM

"It's not that the wonder isn't there, it's that I didn't see it. And, I think, that has more to do with my complacency and attitude in the theater than it does with the film itself."

But by this logic no lack of wonder for any work of art becomes valid criticism, because all of reality, and everything within it, CAN be full of wonder given the right mindset. All of mankind's achievements, all art, etc etc. I think criticism has to take into account time and place, and context, and the audience of that time and place and context. If something doesn't create a sense of wonder in most audience members, then that's that, it's a failed attempt for that given time and place and audience. Innovation has to innovate, it has to take us by surprise. It can't just be "new" or "impressive" in non-surprising ways or non-impressive ways. Either you believe things can be criticized or you don't. Any argument about mindset/expectations/perspective is an instant slippery slope toward all criticism being, by this definition, by default, invalid.

Dave BaxterFebruary 12, 2015 6:10 PM

It may also be more a question of innovation/expression vs. the steady march toward pure realism in CGI use. You can only go so far with making CGI more and more lifelike before this achievement ceases to wow, even as it's advancing. Possibly even achieving perfect realism in CGI will be the ultimate in viscerally unimpressiveness - because it'll just look like reality, and...we'd actually have to cogitate the fact that it's NOT reality and so we should feel impressed but, in reality, that would be a constant struggle, to remind ourselves that what we're looking at is impressive for reasons not viscerally apparent.

Perfect realism in CGI will open the doors to outlandish sequences that will suddenly look truly real, but without restraint we'll quickly become jaded to such things. Probably the answer is more abstract/expressionistic use of the tool. Literally, CGI will have to go from still life portraits to being advanced through a series of disparate art style movements. It'll happen - it's always been happening in small pockets here and there. Though realism will always be around as well, just hopefully on a less saturated scale than we're currently suffering.

StuFebruary 12, 2015 7:10 PM

You're absolutely right; the very validity of criticism is at the heart of the matter.

I should perhaps clarify where I stand personally. I am not a trained film critic, and I would not be comfortable suggesting that when I review a film I am providing an objective assessment of it. I do not have the film studies experience to back up genuine criticism, so I personally focus more on revealing what I see as the worthy points of a film. I don't want to pretend that I divorce myself from criticism, because one can't in writing about film, but at least for me it is primarily about drawing attention to what it is that I find worthy, and fleshing out the fuller context of a work (the film-making process, the cultural context of a film, and the like).

In this context, I do feel a "professional" responsibility to approach film with the right attitude; to give the artists and craftists the respect of an open mind and full engagement (recognizing of course that this is just my end of the deal, and they must meet theirs). This is why I feel troubled by the apparent cynicism in my viewing, and Jupiter is hardly the first film to raise this issue for me. I haven't quite figured it out, but often its only in the writing about a film that I now notice the wonders within it. I recognize that this is common to most experiences of film - that we don't digest it in the watching but in the reflection - but it still bothers me. It's a sign of increasing insensitivity to "live" wonder, which is something I have always prided myself in and has long been a driving motive in my film-watching.

And anyway, who wants to write about films they don't find wonderful?

Jaguar LivesFebruary 12, 2015 8:55 PM

Odeon Cinema in central London projected Jupiter a tad dark for me and that sequence was ruined. They may as well have composited the actors in because I got no sense of them being there. Such a shame. I only went for the spectacle and it was dulled. Of course, by the halfway mark I was yawning and the story was becoming a slog so no effects were magic enough to keep me diverted anyway.

Jaguar LivesFebruary 12, 2015 9:05 PM

Man I loved Cinefex in the 80s and early 90s. Then Young Sherlock Holmes happened. Once everything started being packed with CGI it wasn't as fun to read as, say, the making of Indy's mine car chase with miniatures or the matte paintings of Mike Pangrazio.

jammamonFebruary 13, 2015 6:17 AM

I would totally like to see a more abstract use of CGI! Although I do believe that one of the main drivers behind heavy cgi use in our days is simply cost reduction. To be able to film a pretty normal (not fantasy) scene without actually having to drop someone from an helicopter or spend money to travel to exotic locations etc. And the audience ends up facing the real versus fake question all the time.

Then again, the issues you are raising (innovation-expression) have a lot to do with the mindset/culture of the FX people themselves. It seems like they are far more utilitarian nowadays compared to the artists-visionaries of the 70s-80s. Which is exactly why I don't expect any new Blade Runners anytime soon...

Dave BaxterFebruary 13, 2015 6:02 PM

Regarding objectivism/subjectivism, though, it's true that any review/stated comment about anything has a subjective side to it - we're subjective POV creatures, it's inherent in anything we think and analyze. But this doesn't mean statements are purely subjective without objective elements inherent as well - they're statements about things that exist outside of ourselves. The cultural context, the film-making process, etc., as you say. It's always both.

So that being said, the best anyone can do is be aware of their subjective position with the objective object, which together create the context. If you approached the film WANTING to be in the right frame of mind (and by the sound of it you certainly weren't waffling on this desire with JUPITER), then it seems specious to blame your lack of proper mindset rather than the fact that the mindset necessary has become more elusive and artificial to achieve within the cultural context.

The fact that you have to strive to find the wonder in JUPITER, should tell you that it's not readily accessible wonder. Like having to remind ourselves how amazing the achievement of a skyscrapper that we walk by every day is. We can do this, intellectually, but no one is going to wow anyone with a new standard skyskrapper anymore. That's proper context - it isn't a flaw of our own, it's the flaw of the skyskrapper builder if he built a standard skyskrapper with the intent to wow.

The real question is: if this particular film-making process has grown stale, if the culture has been inundated with copy cat versions of these films, is there an increasing insensitivity to "wonder", or a lack of innovation with those striving to give us this sense?

It can be a little of both, but to paraphrase you: who wants to watch films they don't find wonderful? If the wonder is waning, it's often not because we want it to, it's because we're not properly having it nurtured by actually wonderful things.

LA JulianFebruary 14, 2015 11:19 PM

That's too bad, because it's one of those movies that's only worth it for the effects! But there again -- a good movie, in my book, is one that is better on a big screen, but still works on a little blurry TV -- the movies that every time you catch them on, you have to stop and watch them, because they're just that good dramatically, even if you can't get the full visual impact.

I know it's a cliche to say "they don't make movies like that any more," but as long as studios can get away with making video game gobstoppers instead of telling stories, it looks like that's what they're going to do.

But if we've peaked, then maybe the next "GIGANTIC PILE O' SPLOSIONS BY MICHAEL BAY!!!" won't be worth their while either...