There is an old fable about the time the the movies first came to the remote village of Macondo. The villagers had never seen a movie and they were enthralled by the happenings onscreen. They were totally absorbed in the story and identified completely with the characters they saw on the screen. However, when another movie was screened the following weekend , it met with a quite different reaction. One of the actors whose death they had wept over the previous week was now seen to be alive and well though in a different role . They realized they had been hoodwinked into believing that what they were seeing had really happened and they vented their anger with boos and hisses.
Special effects evoke in me some of that same reaction though for different reasons. Once special effects were things to marvel at; now they threaten to take over the whole story and often do. In earlier times, they would evoke an awed reaction ” Wow !! How did they do that ? ” . Today the special effects in ” Star Wars ” may seem cheesy but I remember how I was blown away by them when the movie first came out more than 30 years ago. ” Avatar” proked a similar reaction because the special effects were far and beyond anything we’d seen before. In both cases, the films were fantasies set in the future and the special effects were not out of place even though they were overwhelming. In too many cases, however, the special effects become the filmto the exclusion of all else.
The same week we saw ” Avatar” we also saw the latest ” Sherlock Holmes ” with Robert Downey Jr. as the Great Detective. What a waste of a fine actor. Conan Doyle created Holmes as a cerebral detective , a pipe smoking sleuth who reasoned out mysteries while puffing on his meerschaum pipe. In Downey’s version, Holmes is a meddling busybody, an accomplished swordsman and brawler . This transformation enables the director to bring in several fights and chases , all the better to showcase the special effects. The grand finale is a fight to the death on the scaffolding of London’s Tower Bridge , still under construction at the time .The special effects were awesome but, even as I appreciated them , I found myself irritated at the manner in which they had taken over the story. The fast pace of the movie had me absorbed as I was watching it unfold but , at the end, there was a sense of dissatisfaction .
In some genres, special effects are welcome as , for instance , in science fiction and other fantasies or in comic book adaptations such as “Iron Man”, ” SpiderMan”, “Batman” or “Superman”. Even there, they are sometimes piled on so much that the storyline all but disappears ; ” GI Joe” is a good example. The “Pirates of the Carribbean ” films( espescially the third one ) are another. What is missing is the human element, the interplay of emotions between the various actors in the drama. Movies like ” Grand Torino” or ” A Beautiful Mind ” are memorable because of the depth of their characters and the emotions they arouse in us. We identify with them , we are them. They take us beyond ourselves and isn’t that the ultimate purpose of a film ?
This is not to say that special effects are all bad ; only that there is a time and a place for them. They are successful when they are used judiciously, to enhance the story, not take it over completely. To paraphrase George Orwell, in the case of special effects , less is more.