Thing One and Thing Two: Thoughts on modern horror, FX films, and CGI

the thingHorror can be very comforting.

At some of the lowest points of my life I have often burrowed my way into a Lovecraft collection or Stephen King novel.  Perhaps it’s the schadenfreude factor (the ability to take comfort in the misery of others).  Perhaps it’s a matter of empathy.  While reading about someone doomed to go insane or be eaten, you can empathize with them and forget your own various lapses.

Whether because we just passed the gray tail-end of the year or whether the stresses of life have recently overwhelmed us, my husband and I recently engaged in a “Thing” Marathon.  First up: John Carpenter’s 1982 The Thing with a sexed-up, bi-ocular Kurt Russell.  A day later, we followed it up with the 2011 prequel directed by Matthijs van Heijningen, Jr.

This is the third time I’ve seen Carpenter’s film and it is still genuinely disturbing.  The prequel?  Obviously made by fans of the 1982 version, it touchingly adheres to Carpenter’s plotlines but, like most modern horror movies, is more loud than scary.

I have a theory about this.

I’ve got several bones to pick with the digital age, but when it comes to art, the adversary is clear: we have reached some kind of “peak CGI” and, I’m sorry folks, but I just don’t buy it anymore.

You know those critics (often they write for The New Yorker) who bemoan superhero movies and only like indie flicks about mimes? They’re not wrong.  I’m convinced that, if I had to watch every Chris Evans movie for a living, I’d think time lapse photography of tofu was fair trade.  This has to do with the reason we make art in the first place: all artists want to make something that is somehow true.  But truth isn’t served by current technologies which allow you, far too easily, to bend reality to your whim.  Just as we can slap a bunch of pictures on Facebook and convince total strangers we have a life, so too can the average studio team concoct whatever creature or effect they want and distribute it to IMAX without really trying.  A good fantasy must, ironically, feel real to its audience, but today’s filmed fantasies are often no better than loud, adult cartoons.

Cartoons.  Cartoony.   There’s a good reason critics use such words to describe popular entertainment.  With the exception of a few Peter Jackson creatures (Gollum and Smaug are awfully good) CGI creatures and environments don’t seem to take up space or feel like they carry physical weight.  This becomes abundantly obvious once you compare John Carpenter’s 1982 Thing to the Thing concocted in 2011.

In theory 2011 (Thing 2) has better production values, but once the monster shows up you’re, at most, mildly stressed.  The filmmakers know they can do anything with CGI – and so they do, the laws of physics be damned.  Faces split in half in three seconds flat, necks and arms flap any old way they choose.  Like pretty much every CGI fueled film in recent memory, the moment they can Make Shit Look Cool, they usually do.

Kurt Russell is his own special effect.

Kurt Russell is his own special effect.

By contrast, Thing 1 uses effects more sparingly.  The central tension of the film isn’t “What does it look like?” but rather: “Who is it going to be next?” The filmmakers, constrained by lack of technology, a modest budget, and the physical constraints of raw materials, are unable to magic up a Thing on a computer, and so create a series of replicas, many of them life-sized and filled with goo. Because it takes a lot of blood sweat and tears to mold a hell-beast, the film crew are also forced use their creation wisely.  They can’t turn the characters into the Thing willy-nilly, but must actually think of the most effective way to perform a series of Big Reveals.  This adds to the tension of the story as the Thing is withheld for scenes at a time, and then forced, through the actions of the increasingly anxious (because diminishing) survivors, to come out and fight.  (Note: if you’re ever in an Antarctic outpost with a bunch of twitchy people, stay the hell away from any petri dishes full of blood.)

Our beetle is bigger than your beetle.

Our beetle is bigger than your beetle.

Instead of gloating about their achievement and showing off (as in the scene above where, for some reason, the 2011 Thing is a beetle) the shape of the 1982 Thing itself is, initially, kept tantalizingly amorphous as if even the camera dreads to behold it.  As result, we feel the same sort of primal fear that we would experience in the presence of an actual predator. Likewise, the actors, by occupying real space with their nemesis, are reacting in real time to Something That is Actually There.   No greenscreen.  No tennisballs on sticks.  Also, did I mention they’re reacting to this?

thing gross

You should have let me SLEEP!!!

Jesus Christ.  That’s terrifying.  A lot more terrifying than say, this:

2011 thing

My shoulder feels out of joint.

I mean honestly, what is even going on here?  And why is it that the faster Thing 2 goes galloping around in quasi-photo-realistic glory, the less and less terrified I become? Spider Thing from 1982 may barely manage a many-legged scrabble across the floor, but the image of his upside-down head with creepy legs is still burned into my memory in all its terrifying cheesiness.

Gah!!!

Gah!!!

See?

Again, I think the secret here is that Cheesy 1982 Thing is actually in the camera shot.  And, in Spider-dude’s case, is probably some kind of remote control contstruction.  Maybe there’s a battery-powered Tonka truck underneath his paper-mache noggin.  He can’t move too fast, but, this just serves the story, preventing the filmmakers from performing umpteen-billion tracking shots (which convey space and mobility) and, instead, preserving the overall sense of confinement and claustrophobia in a film that, less we forget, is about people trapped in confined, claustrophobic spaces, in the dead of artic winter, with no escape. Once the camera can move all the hell over the place (and several of the 2011 Thing sequences take place outside, as if it’s the easiest thing in the world to battle monsters in sub-zero temperatures) the filmmakers are able to go nuts and do things like create a really unsatisfying, didn’t-we-see-that-in-the-X-Files-movie space ship set where the unnecessarily huge climax occurs before literally fizzling into nothing.  A cool post, credit sequence, complete with a nod to the original score and editing of the 1982 film, creates a nice bridge between the two projects—but only emphasizes the tremendous lack of soul that invades modern film making when there are no limits to encourage innovation and cleverness.

Limiting yourself as an artist seems counter-intuitive, but a lot of our best art was accomplished on small budgets and limited means.  Orson Wells filmed a memorable sauna-scene in Othello using hotel napkins as togas because he lacked the budget for Shakespearean costumes.  The Blair Witch Project scared the hell out of people with a camcorder and a few snapping sticks.  We all remember the puppet-version of Yoda from the original Star Wars trilogy and wish we could forget the bloated Thomas Kincaid paintings that contain his digitized doppelganger.

This isn’t to say CGI has no place, but the current glut has made everything from Tolkien to the USS Enterprise feel uniform.  There are gorgeous images and talented artists behind many of these ventures, but, without limits we lose something immediate and tangible.  We may have some of the shiniest surfaces available, but without the underlying soul, that’s just cold comfort.

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About hsmartin

I'm a writer in Northern California.
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