Do realistic special effects spoil our sense of awe?

Are we doomed to lives which pale before the awe-inspiring moments created by Hollywood?


Thanks to affordable computer generated imagery, or CGI, the days of cheesy-looking science fiction films and TV shows have largely passed us by. That doesn’t mean bad SF isn’t still being created, but at least the special effects look good. When today’s SF films blow up the Earth, viewers come away convinced that this was indeed the end of the world.

But recently I’ve wondered if such realistic special effects might have a negative side. Could being witness to a constant stream of mind-blowing special effect reduce our sense of awe in real life?

I began thinking about this after witnessing a bad car crash. My friend and I were sitting in our car at a red light. When the light changed, the car ahead of us pulled into the intersection only to be immediately T-boned by a small truck.

Fortunately, the truck driver slammed on his brakes so the accident wasn’t as bloody as it could have been. But it still resulted in an impressive amount of damage, a trip to the hospital for the drivers, and lots of surprised cursing from me and my friend.

But afterwards, my friend said something which really stuck with me. “It didn’t seem real,” he said. “I’ve seen more impressive crashes on TV.”

When I responded with a questioning WTF?, my friend explained that he’d always imagined automobile accidents involving cars somersaulting through the air, landing on their roofs, and sliding down the road to a choreographed spasm of explosions and rock music.

In short, he expected real life to conform to the special effects we see on TV and in films.

Since then, I’ve wondered if maybe that’s the downside to realistic special effects. We now expect real life to look like the movies. Bad enough when this belief applies to how people look and dress—of all Hollywood’s sins, their worst must be creating the illusion that only so-called beautiful people, as defined by the norms of certain cultural groups, are allowed to have their stories told.

But while Hollywood has always used make-up and soft lighting to create prettier-than-possible people, it’s only in the last few decades that films could showcase truly realistic special effects.

For example, one of the first major special effects driven films was 1933’s King Kong. While the film’s stop-motion effects seem silly to today’s audiences, at the time the effects were state of the art. In fact, the film’s infamous Spider Pit scene, in which members of the expedition fall into a ravine and are eaten by giant insects, was supposedly cut from the film after preview audiences were literally sickened by it.

But even though King Kong’s effects were once state of the art, and for 1930s audiences like nothing they’d seen before, they were not realistic. Not that this lack of realism mattered. Just as people today enjoy and relate to animated movies even though the characters aren’t depicted in a totally life-like manner, so too did audiences of early films enjoy the special effects without literally believing this is exactly how a giant ape would look as it rampaged through New York City.

But as the decades passed special effects edged closer and closer to reality. My father has often recounted how the hair stood up on the back of his neck the first time he saw the opening of 1977’s Star Wars, in which Princess Leia’s spaceship flees from a massive Star Destroyer. Obviously audiences agreed with my father since the film spawned a never-ending set of sequels and imitations (along with the retcon renaming of its title to Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope).

But the original Star Wars movie was also a watershed for special effects, standing as the highly profitable dividing line between effects which audiences merely accepted, and effects which approached real life complexity. While there had been films prior to Star Wars which embraced extremely realistic effects—Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, co-written by Arthur C. Clarke, is an obvious example—the popularity of Star Wars meant that from then on audiences would demand increasingly realistic special effects.

And pay good money to receive them.

And now we’ve reached the point where life-like special effects can be created for relatively low costs. When we go to the movies, we fully expect even a routine car crash scene to blow our minds. Effects which would have been awe-inspiring only a decade ago are now so common that no one notices.

But again, what does this mean for how we experience life?

If an alien spacecraft ever arrives on Earth, I’m certain many people will be disappointed it doesn’t measure up to those seen in Independence Day or District 9. But what about for less universe-shattering events? Are we doomed to a real life which increasingly fails to live up to the awe-inspiring moments Hollywood creates?

Perhaps. My friend’s comments make me suspect that some people will indeed disdain real life because it isn’t as impressive as the movies. But that won’t totally replace the awe humans feel during those grand moments in our life. You see, awe is more than simply what we see. Awe also comes from an awareness of life. From understanding what is real and what is not.

For example, I once witnessed an amazing shooting star. I was walking in a dark alley when my shadow started flickering on the ground. I looked up and saw a meteor flying right at me, burning and flickering into a fireball, growing larger and larger as it lit up the entire alley. And then it was gone.

No, that meteor wasn’t as impressive as the ones I’ve seen in the movies. But it still filled me with awe because it was a sight and experience I’d never had before, and will likely never have again.

So I doubt realistic special effects will totally do away with humanity’s sense of awe. There will still be moments—the first time you meet the person you fall in love with, the birth of your first child—which will still burn in each of us as awe-stuck memories.

But there will also be times when we see something amazing and, instead of feeling awe, a little voice in our head will mutter, “Ah hell. It looked better in the movies.”


Jason Sanford is a Nebula Award nominated author whose science fiction stories have been published in a number of magazines and books, including Interzone, Asimov’s and Analog. Follow his Sci-Fi Strange Medium collection at https://medium.com/sci-fi-strange.