Why oh why CGI?

I am LegendLast night I went to the movie theater behind my apartment complex here in Austin and saw the new Will Smith movie, I am Legend. In it, Will lives alone with his dog in a post-apocalyptic New York where almost everyone has died of a super-virus. The reason I write “almost everyone” is because those who didn’t die from it (other than Big Will) have been transformed into a slavering mob of half-vampire half-zombie meanies who’d like nothing more than to have a Big Will buffet.

Now this sounds like it is right down my alley, and as the movie started it was. The opening images of Will prowling a empty, overgrown Mid-town Manhattan – hunting for food and researching a cure for the super-virus in the day, and closing heavy steel plate doors over his windows at night – really captivated me. The beautiful, solitary city scene, enhanced by CGI (computer-generated imagery), the forboding sense of “something’s not right here,” and the human themes of solitude and faith were compelling.

Then the bad guys starting appearing. A note from Entertainment Weekly via Wikipedia:

A week into filming, Francis Lawrence felt the infected, who were being portrayed with actors wearing prosthetics, were not convincing. His decision to use computer-generated imagery meant post-production had to be extended and the budget increased. Lawrence explained, “They needed to have an abandon in their performance that you just can’t get out of people in the middle of the night when they’re barefoot. And their metabolisms are really spiked, so they’re constantly hyperventilating, which you can’t really get actors to do for a long time or they pass out.”

And thus a movie that started out very promising and came close to being much more than just a holiday-season popcorn genre flick, was dragged down by its own technology. If the live actors wearing prosthetics were not compelling, these computer-generated bad guys are worse. The anxiety you feel when you hear them moving around in the dark, hear Will’s dog barking, and watch Will get more and more terrified, is totally dispelled when they emerge into the light.

I had a similar experience when I went to see the recently released Beowulf. They took an all-star cast of Anthony Hopkins, Angelina Jolie, and Crispin Glover, a very well-written script and some much better monster effects – and at some point decided to have all the human characters developed in CGI as well, turning them into highly paid voices that inhabit lifeless animated husks.

Numerous other movies I’ve seen in the CGI era that feature a supernatural element ruin it to some extent with a weak CGI payoff at the climax of the movie. Off the top of my head The Haunting, The Grudge, The Ring, and The Mummy all come to mind. I’m sure if I spent some time the list could go on and on. Seriously scary movies like 28 Days Later, Aliens, The Shining, The Exorcist, The Thing, Psycho – not a stitch or very limited (tasteful) use of CGI.

I hope that directors will eventually start to take their cues from these movies – sometimes what you don’t see is scarier than what you do. And when you do see it, sometimes all you need is a little red dye and a latex mask to make it work.


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