A Deeper Valley

Despite a decade of improvements, visual effects in film remain a less than perfect deception

With a seven year gap since Alfonso Cuarón directed Children of Men, it’s no surprise that his return to the screen in next month’s Gravity is hotly anticipated. Warner Bros. is (likely to Cuarón’s specifications) being cagey on the film’s details, releasing only a handful of trailers that cover only snippets of what seems like a very small narrative set-up revealing Sandra Bullock’s character fighting for control after a violent collision in zero gravity.

Response to the carefully cut shots that have been released has been overwhelming positive, with critics and film buffs abuzz over the claustrophobic terror that lies at the core of Gravity’s public introduction. It’s a notion I really want to get on board with, and also one I’m having a hard time accepting.

Interestingly, Gravity’s sci-fi aims are realistic – its premise looks simply like an exploration of two people coming to grips with the existentially horrifying scenario of panicked survival against the unforgiving vacuum of space. This is a better match for Cuarón’s narrative tastes than, say, Ender’s Game would be.

Alfonso Cuarón’s directorial style is both organic and intense. (He also loves tracking shots.)

His Harry Potter installment The Prisoner of Azkaban was arguably one of the more human entries in the film series, balancing necessary CG elements with the revelatory weight of Harry’s lineage and Cuarón’s organically tempered camerawork. (Children of Men, shot in a space somewhere between POV and verité style, is an even stronger example of how the director reflects the underlying humanity in his narratives through technique, and includes one of the most beautiful and harrowing continuous tracking shots ever put to film.)

This isn’t a new trend.

Pathos is what makes these stories work so well, and the technological limitations present in Gravity’s contemporary setting seem to promise an imminent, character-driven intensity rather than big, dumb sci-fi popcorn. There is no armada of megaton, fusion-drive leviathan, no alien menagerie, no humanoid androids just off-kilter enough to trigger an inner neurological response here. That’s not a bad thing.

But for all its grounding, Gravity isn’t quite out of the bounds of its own uncanny valley: the virtual environment it takes place in.

You’ve probably experienced the effects of the uncanny valley. A psychological concept floated by Japanese robotics scientist Masahiro Mori back in 1970, it attempts to explain why we find artificial or humanoid reproductions unsettling compared to a living, breathing human.

Tron Legacy’s young Jeff Bridges is pretty creepy.

The most common exposure is probably seeing CG characters in films, and the valley’s boundaries should be immediately evident to anyone that’s ever watched an effects-based creation in a movie and found it more creepy than convincing. (And the more “human” these rendered lifeforms try to be, the less we’re generally convinced of their authenticity.)

Since we can’t reconcile reproductions of ourselves with how our brains already know humans look and behave, the uncanny valley has been restricted to the existential confines of whatever’s made in, or at least closely resembling, our own image. The results aren’t guaranteed to work.

Earlier efforts like the cast of Robert Zemeckis’ Beowulf or David Fincher’s de-aging Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button feel more like shiny facsimiles rather than physical beings (to be fair, Beowulf was completely CG, though it touted then state-of-the-art mo-cap of the actors’ faces).

Which dips deeper into the valley?

Of course, the sheer amount of detail visual effects can push increases with every passing wave of tech advancements, and it’s become significantly easier in the past few years for filmmakers to push rendered characterizations in a way that’s believable on-screen. But there’s an inherent insult in all this facial and bodily progress, too. With the past decade having seemingly been spent almost entirely on making improvements to “living” visuals, whatever art direction remains has suffered.

This isn’t a new trend. When George Lucas revisited Star Wars for the series’ needless, abortive prequel trilogy, two of the three new films were shot all-digitally and each were stuffed with so many CG created sets and setpieces that the actors may as well have been running around in a ‘90s point-and-click adventure game.

The result – a universe whose abrupt divorce from the reality of palpable sets and locations was replaced with a digital landscape nearly 100 percent made from computers – is about as credible as it is easy to take seriously.

With Lucas having also digitally tampered with the original trilogy so many times already in various video releases, that’s a long pall cast over the series, and one Disney is going to have to approach with a lot of caution in order to rise up.

Some legacy.

It’s like I’m really there!

Compare that to the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, which counteracted CG additions to its Middle-Earth with both the natural beauty of New Zealand and some amazingly detailed sets the cast could walk on, not to mention a population of thousands of flesh-and-blood extras in makeup and costume. Which universe seems more real?

It’s not uncommon for genres like sci-fi and fantasy to rely on dense, fantastical worlds whose construction costs would be astronomical if spaces were primarily handmade and used in mostly location-shot scenes in order to bring them to life on-screen. Movies are a tech-powered industry, and it’s clear that a certain amount of visual effects are needed to pull off some types of fiction. That doesn’t mean anyone should get an automatic free pass to abuse CG as a catch-all. Yet this is exactly what Hollywood seems to be skewing towards.

No one should get a free pass to abuse CG as a catch-all.

Not even Peter Jackson is immune. Thus far his return to Tolkienian fantasy with The Hobbit has felt generally hollow and lifeless, thanks to an incredible amount of superfluous CG. Rather than once again capitalizing much on terra firma with a mix of practical and digital effects, the Middle-Earth of 2012’s An Unexpected Journey is almost unrecognizable.

Lacking any sense of physicality, the film’s dwarven cities, elven sanctuaries and underground goblin shantytowns alike are broadly painted as videogame cutscenes rather than tangible locations of wood, stone and steel. When held up to the original trilogy, the difference is jarring. It was heartbreaking to see that familiar realm I so loved in Lord of the Rings reduced to so many 48 FPS-tailored pixels, and I found it almost impossible to not be repeatedly taken out of the story because of it.

Sir Ian McKellan, Cate Blanchett and a whole lot of not much else.

On a purely visual level, Disney has been particularly egregious of late, making fans wonder just how much they should believe claims that Star Wars Episode VII will focus first on story and characters over effects. Their last two big fantasy films haven’t done them any favors.

Their 2010 Alice in Wonderland redux, along with this year’s Oz The Great and Powerful, could just as easily have done away with real actors and locations for all the tactile difference they made. (Tim Burton’s Alice in particular is a creepy cartoon circus that echoes Lewis Carroll’s manic language with an aesthetic that’s as plastic as it is hideous.)

At least Avatar had the decency to wear its tech guts on its sleeve, with James Cameron taking every possible opportunity to flaunt the film’s overwhelming, all-encompassing 3D-fueled setting of Pandora. No one that contributed to the film’s $2.7 billion worldwide box office had any doubts that they were going to see a nearly-all CG spectacle.

More importantly, for all its flaws (and unlike the Star Wars prequels) Avatar’s effects were classy enough that it was all too easy to forget you were ever watching humans on a soundstage interacting with virtual objects against a greenscreen.

Alice in Wonderland is one of the most egregious recent examples of environmental uncanny valley abuse.

You can still find directors that prefer to shoot scenes the old fashioned way whenever possible. Take the hotel fight in Christopher Nolan’s Inception – had Nolan merely mocked-up the scene with CG, it would lose a crucial element of perceived realism.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt wouldn’t have appeared to be defying gravity against the hotel’s rapidly shifting gravitational center while fending off the dreamworld’s thuggish projections. He’d look like he was flipping through a virtual space that was being artificially altered around him. Instead, Nolan used a giant rotating set so that he could shoot the scene with authenticity.

It’s these films – the ones that continue to employ miniatures, models, environmental constructions (and, yeah, real explosions) concurrently with CG flourish – that will stand the test of time. Inception is in many ways an unprecedented visual achievement, and I doubt it’ll have lost that 20 years from now.

Christopher Nolan used an actual rotating set to shoot Inception’s amazing hotel fight scene.

Blade Runner’s 2007 Final Cut, the most polished re-release of Ridley Scott’s seminal 1982 sci-fi masterwork, looks in many ways like it could have been released this year when played back in 1080p. Scott’s Prometheus similarly matched any CG foregrounding with a sumptuous backdrop of stunning landscape shots and locations that had a presence and weight you could feel. Bit by bit, filmmakers like Nolan and Scott are becoming outliers.

You should see it in motion.

Gravity’s script, which follows two astronauts involved in a disaster with the International Space Station, could perhaps have been shot using other methods, though I can somewhat understand Cuarón’s desire to bring a film set in an oxygen-free void to life through heavy visual effects. Reportedly the director’s only other acceptable option was filming both Bullock and George Clooney suspended in temporary zero-g aboard an aircraft that would break through the stratosphere before entering freefall. Not exactly a walk in the park.

I want to be wrong.

Cuarón’s method solution for Bullock was to put her in a cube smaller than a jail cell for eight to 10 hours a day to mimic the extreme isolation of floating through space, strapping her in with a harness and filming performances with a camera that would accelerate straight at her to within an inch of her face.

Yet I can’t help but shake the feeling that for all the methodology and in spite of Cuarón’s considerable talent, Gravity’s CG could taint the film’s essence. How are we supposed to go on an emotional journey when its physical world feels so distracting?

Hopefully Cuarón’s visionary ability will overcome the inherent visual limitations of Gravity’s CG.

Given Cuarón’s past films, I want to be wrong about my initial impressions. Hell, I’ll be glad if I am. If anything can assuage my fears and pull Gravity beyond the possible limitations of its visuals, it’s the director’s vision. (After the trauma of An Unexpected Journey, I’m thinking this year’s Desolation of Smaug will probably be more of a lost cause.)

That said, it’s pretty damn hard to merely watch a trailer for Gravity and not have my immersion instantly broken when Sandra Bullock’s distinct face suddenly appears in what otherwise looks like a big-budget space disaster computer simulation. When the uncanny valley begins breaching even more serious contemplations, it may be time for an evaluation of judgment.

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