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2015 is the year of Hollywood’s practical effects comeback

Mission: Practical

The biggest set piece in Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is also its first scene. We’ve all seen it in the trailers: a frantic but determined Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) clutches the side of an Airbus A400 for dear life as it takes off into the stratosphere. While the scene itself is only tangentially related to the overall plot of the movie, Paramount made sure this was the scene that got people into theaters. A large part of this strategy was broadly publicizing the fact that it wasn’t faked. No CGI was used. No expense was spared. Tom Cruise was really and truly strapped to the side of that plane.

The Mission: Impossible franchise decided long ago to place its bets on over-the-top stunt work — Cruise famously scaled an actual section of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol in 2011, for example. But in 2015, practical effects and stunts aren’t exceptions to special effects rules. As some of the biggest movies of the year — namely Rogue NationMad Max: Fury Road, and the upcoming Star Wars: The Force Awakens — rely more and more on real-life actors for their action scenes, we might be seeing the start of a shift away from CGI as practical effects become a bankable alternative.

There’s certainly no question that CGI can take fantasies and make them seem like reality on the big screen. Recent successes like Furious 7 and Avengers: Age of Ultron wouldn’t be possible without computers allowing for flying suits of armor and cars flying out of buildings. But after more than a decade of high-octane CG theatrics from huge box office juggernauts like TransformersHarry PotterAvatarStar WarsStar TrekTerminator, literally anything the Wachowskis make, and every Marvel and DC tentpole, audiences might be getting fatigued of digital models exploding into countless pixels. As Variety TV columnist Brian Lowry put it after seeing Age of Ultron, CGI can now prove "more numbing than exciting, even during what should be the show-stopping sequences."

CGI can prove "more numbing than exciting."

Hollywood’s reliance on CG has only intensified. In the 1970s and ‘80s, movies like Westworld and Tron made use of rudimentary computer graphics to dazzle audiences who’d never seen such worlds on the big screen. Fast forward to 2014, and we got Transformers: Age of Extinctiona movie full of so much visual noise that it was hard to tell what was even going on. As computers have gotten more powerful, studios have used them to create bigger spectacles. Bigger spectacles translate to bigger box office returns; according to Box Office Mojo, six of the top 10 highest grossing films of all time were CGI-fueled summer epics that came out in just the last five years. Three came out this year alone. Raising the stakes for what what we expect from our popcorn fare inevitably means upping the visual ante. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, so long as it’s done well. But in overindulging what it thinks is our bottomless appetite for bigger, more bombastic movies, Hollywood might be battering our senses to the point of dullness.

As Matthew Zoller Seitz wrote for RogerEbert.com last year:

Despite their fleeting moments of specialness, "The Avengers," the "Iron Man" and "Thor" and "Captain America" films, the new "Spider-Man" series and "Man of Steel" treat viewers not to variations of the same situations (which is fine and dandy; every zombie film has zombies, and ninety percent of all westerns end in gunfights) but to variations of the same situations that feel as though they were designed, choreographed, shot, edited and composited by the same second units and special effects houses, using the same software, under the same conditions. As long as people are talking, there's a chance the movies will be good. When the action starts, the films become less special.

In other words, all this is expected, and the miracles that cinema pulled off 30 years ago — the moments when audiences felt transported to the directors’ dreamscapes — now feel rote. But in recent years, there’s been an attitude shift bubbling up among some of Hollywood’s biggest-budget filmmakers. In a recent interview on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy FallonRogue Nation co-star Simon Pegg talks about the merits of dangerous stunts over CGI:

"These days," he says, "CG is an amazing tool, and we love it and it enables us to do amazing things. But when you see something which is digital, there’s a slight sense of disconnect. You know it’s not real. Tom taped himself to the side of a plane for real! That’s how much he cares about you!"

"You know it's not real."

There actually is a visceral sense of danger and even wonder as you’re forced to acknowledge that a human being is risking their life for a film, much in the same way that there’s a greater feeling of connection to a person in makeup over her CG counterpart. That’s certainly true for Mad Max: Fury Road, whose promotional push made much of the fact that it was shot in the Namibian desert with real cars, real explosions, and a real flamethrowing guitar, as if to remind people that things like that could still be pulled off in real life. Of course, director George Miller also used plenty of digital effects to push his scenes over the top. Of the film’s 2,400 shots, 2,000 of them were VFX shots. But set pieces that might have been done purely by computer in other movies were choreographed in real life, making for some beautiful but incredibly dangerous scenes.

And it’s especially true for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which hits theaters later this year. Director J.J. Abrams has continually and consistently paid deference to the practical ingenuity that made the original trilogy so great. So in addition to the return of the original starring cast, we’ve also been promised a return of practical effects. The new X-Wing? Real. BB-8? Real. The Millennium Falcon? So real as to injure Harrison Ford on set. These decisions are billed as a return to form, as a chance to go back to the way things are supposed to be.

And that’s likely the whole point — that striving for verisimilitude today means moving away from the CG that’s an industry standard and reminding audiences of how directors like Spielberg and Lucas did it way back when. It’s clear that, at a time when so many of today’s movies are reboots or returns to older properties, studios are trying hard to mine for what made people feel so good about going to the movies in the first place. Directors like Abrams and actors like Tom Cruise seem nostalgic for a time when connecting to magical objects, spaceships from far-off galaxies, and actual peril meant relying on props, makeup, wires, and daring. They’re both saying that today’s CG landscape can’t pull that off because we take computerized effects for granted. That doesn’t mean that practical effects are inherently better or that CGI shouldn't ever be used. It just means that, like music lovers preaching the gospel of vinyl, some directors are pushing back against CGI because practical effects express their ideas about how their particular movies — and maybe movies in general — ought to be made.

Practical effects are like vinyl for cinema

At the end of the day, though, Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation is just a popcorn flick, diverting but ultimately empty. Special effects can never replace the connection created by an excellent story that keeps you invested from start to finish. But you do feel something during those stunts, an elevated kind of thrill knowing Tom Cruise really is on that plane or on that motorcycle, risking his life so that we can have fun for a couple of hours at the movies. It could be argued that Rogue Nation would be no better if the whole thing were done with green screen. After all, real-life action gets our attention right now primarily because it feels so different. But with the next few years positively glutted with action movies, "different" might have a leg up on the competition.

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