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.
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?"