You probably know the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer, so-called “Father of the Atomic Bomb.” Oppenheimer helmed the Manhattan Project, but later came to regret his work after he had seen the catastrophic levels of human suffering wrought by his crowning achievement. It’s hard to know how to treat Oppenheimer historically. Is he a monster for creating such a devastating piece of weaponry, or just a kind of accidental contributor to said devastation, someone who could never have foreseen the end results of his research and direction? It’s an interesting question, but ultimately an unfulfilling, probably useless one to ask. The fact is that Oppenheimer’s creation led to horrific ends for a lot of people and no amount of regret would have ever changed that. Ultimately, Oppenheimer felt that he had opened a sort of Pandora’s Box, and that in the instance of the atomic bomb, humanity had pushed too far in the name of scientific progress. We had lost control of our creation because of pride.
Humanity’s fear over losing control in this way has been evident in art for a long time. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Huxley’s Brave New World, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner, and the Terminator franchise all explore the various terrible things that can happen when we overextend ourselves scientifically. In 1993, we added Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park to that list. In fact, the characters of the film spend a lot of time overtly discussing all of the ethical concerns raised by cloning dinosaurs and, of course, all that could (and does) go wrong as a result. There is even a scene in the film which knowingly references Oppenheimer and amplifies the motifs of regret and pride. On Dennis Nedry’s (Wayne Knight) desk, there is a picture of Oppenheimer. A post-it note featuring a pen-drawn mushroom cloud is attached to the picture’s upper right corner. The photo hints at Nedry’s role in the film as the destructor. His arrogance and greed lead him to make a decision that causes enormous problems for him and his fellow characters. But more than that, the photo unwittingly makes a statement about another destructor, a man who made what he thought was probably an innocuous choice and in so doing has nearly destroyed mainstream cinema. That man is Steven Spielberg.
After principal photography had wrapped on Jurassic Park, Steven Spielberg handed over control of post production to George Lucas. As a result, Lucas got to see and supervise the first real use of sophisticated CGI (computer generated images) in contemporary film history. It was this experience that made Lucas feel comfortable enough to create his Star Wars prequels. Oh, the humanity!
I feel, like many Star Wars fans, that George Lucas did everything he could to ruin his own legendary franchise when he created those prequels. They contain too much goofy comic relief, a lot of tone-deaf dialogue and acting to match, and most importantly, they’re lazily made. Here’s what I mean: in Episodes I, II, and III, every time George Lucas was presented with a visual problem to solve (i.e. How do we film this space battle? or What kind of set should we build for this scene?), he chose CGI rather than a more difficult, but potentially more effective option. In the original trilogy, this man had constantly relied on creative people to find creative solutions to difficult film making problems. They had to use models and construct elaborate camera riggings and try and fail time and time again before they got something right, but all of this hard work led to complex, ingenious answers to questions that no one had ever had to solve on a film set before. The blood, sweat, and tears Lucas’ team poured into the original trilogy led to the feeling of a lived-in world, something that can’t be said of the CGI-infused “new trilogy.” Lucas’ use of CGI started expanding rapidly and bled over into even commonplace scenes that suffer for its inclusion (floating CGI fruit, anyone?). Lucas became enamored with CGI and assumed that if some is good, more must be better. The hands-on approach that had made the original Star Wars trilogy’s special effects so groundbreaking had been abandoned at every turn, and with no incentive to push the envelope, Lucas settled for the ease of handing a concept to a team of animators and walking away.
As disappointing as the Star Wars prequels were for me, I could have lived with Spielberg’s decision to hand Jurassic Park‘s reigns over to George Lucas if that’s all the harm it had caused. But Lucas’ work itself has ushered in an age of moviemaking that is (perhaps irrevocably) eroding filmmaking as we know it.
The biggest fallout from Lucas’ forays into excessive CGI is that now, major studios rarely make dramas that are not entirely constructed on a CGI foundation. Fewer than 10% of the 2000s highest-grossing films did not use heavy amounts of CGI, and NONE of the 50 highest-grossing films was both (A) an original story and (B) not CGI-intensive. The list is populated with superhero franchises, adaptations of wildly popular book franchises, and that’s about it. The lesson: the more movies like these dominate the box-office, the more of them movie studios are going to make. This isn’t rocket science, but it is disconcerting, because when movie studios prop themselves up entirely on the backs of so-called “tent poles” (movies that rake in enough money to basically subsidize the studios’ other films) with $200 million budgets, the film industry grows more and more dichotomous. On one side, you’ve got Transformers 7 and the inevitable reboots of franchises that just concluded, and on the other you’ve got small studios making indie films that fewer and fewer people have access to, with a little room in the middle for Judd Apatow-produced comedies. The number of serious dramas with mid-range budgets are fewer and farther between, and the ones getting made seem to be powered entirely by a small group of well-connected stars who, thankfully, have a passion for the sorts of films that fueled the greatest era in American cinema in the 1970s. But Messrs. Clooney, Eastwood, Scorcese, and Tarantino can’t keep it up forever (and even they don’t hit it out of the park every time).
Now, I know what you’re going to say. But Corman, some of the best movies of our generation have been the kinds of “tent-poles” you’re talking about! And you’re right. It’s true that I love Lord of the Rings and The Dark Knight and I do believe that a major blockbuster with CGI by the bucketload can also be a great piece of cinema (Inception is probably the best example of this, but it’s worth mentioning that the only reason Chris Nolan could get Inception made was because of The Dark Knight‘s rampant success.). The problem is that for every Dark Knight there are 10 John Carters and I don’t see a way back out of the woods. CGI is not ipso facto a terrible thing. Like any tool, it can be used for good or for ill. It’s just that the track record is looking more and more bleak.
Jurassic Park is an excellent movie, and its use of CGI holds up well, but sometimes excellence begets awful progeny. After all, Puddle of Mudd and Nickelback wouldn’t exist without Nirvana.
Whatever comes, it seems that we’re all walking down the CGI path and we’re going to have to live with it. The only thing left to wonder about is whether, at the end of Steven Spielberg’s life, he’ll look back at Jurassic Park and think about George Lucas and Michael Bay and Roland Emmerich, close his eyes and mutter, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” What’s that? You say Steven Spielberg is the Executive Producer of the Transformers films? Forget it; we’re screwed.