Special, Special Effects

film reviews | movies | features | BRWC Special, Special Effects

I remember a time when big budget “blockbusters” featuring copious amounts of special effects could be good films, do you? It wasn’t THAT long ago, just around 20-25 years… I suppose during the time period that Hollywood is currently mining for it’s remake-a-palooza.

Coincidentally, it was while revisiting the original Clash of the Titans (recently remade IN 3D!!!!!!) yesterday I was inspired to write this article. The 1981 film’s effects ARE incredibly dated today, BUT the film has a personality (and considerable acting talent) to it that makes you easily look past it’s production aspects and focus just on the film.

One of the set piece scenes, The Medusa Sequence, really made me take notice (when I was a child and now.) The Medusa, rendered with gorgeous Ray Harryhausen stop motion, is obviously fake, but it’s still more real than anything CGI can create today. But The Medusa her self is not what I wanted to mention… It’s the suspense. Perseus evading, pursuing and eventually killing The Medusa in her dimly lit catacombs is a tense bit of cinema. It’s well shot and paced, there is a real sense of drama to it all and above all else it is SUSPENSEFUL.

I have not seen the new version of the film, just the trailer but I can almost guarantee there isn’t a single moment (much less a sustained sequence) that packs any real dramatic punch or truly edge of your seat suspense.

And, that unfortunately seems to be the case with most “tent pole” films made today. They’re plotted in the fluffiest manner possible. The dialog and acting are flat. And, in the end, all that takes a back seat to the glossy, highly un-realistic, yet hyper-detailed CGI thrown at the screen for two hours anyways. It’s what I call the “wood chipper effect.” Most films today (2012, Transformers, Clash of the Titans 2.0, etc) just seem like a bunch of elements have been thrown into a wood chipper aimed at an HD camera, with some reaction shots from actors cut in and scored bombastically.

Sure the movies make a lot of money (but really, making $300 million on a $200 million budget isn’t THAT big of an accomplishment), but they’re soul less. Now, I do not HATE CGI like some people. I think when used properly, mixed with good story telling/acting foremost and practical effects, CGI can be a wonderful tool. Take Terminator 2: Judgement Day for example, one of the first major “big time” uses of CGI. It’s still talked about today and the film is considered a classic; but not wholly because of the effects, because it’s a great film on it’s own.

On that note I am now going to lapse into a list of my favorite Special Effects heavy films and or Special Effects heavy film moments. And of course, they aren’t my favorites for the effects alone, but for being wonderful films on their own…

Superman- The Movie (1978)
Directed By Richard Donner

Screw Tim Burton’s Batman (which I love) and the current incarnations of the caped crusader (which I tolerate.) Screw Spidermans 1-3, screw Iron Man… Superman- The Movie is THE greatest superhero film ever made AND in my humble opinion the greatest Special Effects film ever made. Not because of how amazing the effects are (and they ARE amazing, 95% of the shots hold up perfectly today) but because of how epic, beautiful and emotionally brilliant the film is.

The opening of the film, the destruction of Krypton and Jor-El sending his only Son, Kal-El, off to Earth are searing, poignant and painful. It’s a deadly serious beginning that could never be made today. And SECONDARY to the plot, the effects are stunning, iconic and flawless.

The rest of the film, Kal-El being found by the Kent family, being teased through high school, growing into Clark Kent, discovering his super-heritage and becoming Superman, are all touching, moving and serious. With brilliant performances from REAL actors highlighting dialog that COULD become total camp in lesser hands, and lending both gravitas and a subtle sense of humor to the proceedings.

Throughout the brilliant performances and well paced, tightly plotted story, we get tons of special effects scenes, all integral and all expertly rendered. The poster for the film promised that “You will believe a man can fly…” And you do. Christopher Reeve as Clark Kent/Superman sells it and owns it. There is never a moment when you think that he is human and doubt that he can soar up into the clouds and save us all. The wire work, rear/fore screen projection and practical effects used to make Superman come to life are superb and haven’t been matched to this day.

And it isn’t because you don’t know it’s fake (you do know, it’s a movie), it’s because the film and actors in it are so good you BELIEVE in it and them.

Vertigo (1958)
Directed By Alfred Hitchcock

Hitchcock was always a director on the cutting edge of the medium’s technology. Using (sometimes creating) advances in camerawork, editing and yes, special effects to heighten and enhance many of his masterworks. From the iconic crop duster sequence in “North By Northwest” to the hoards of attacking birds, in “The Birds”, Hitch always stayed ahead of everyone else and made the most of his films for it. Of course he never let the effects over shadow the plot or performances.

My favorite Hitchcock “effects” movie is “Vertigo.” It is a haunting love affair between emotionally unstable Detective Scottie Ferguson (played expertly by James Stewart), the mysterious and suicidal Madeline Elster (Kim Novak) and Madeline’s pseudo-double, Judy (also Kim Novak.) The film is ambiguous, dark, psychologically intriguing and brilliantly crafted on all fronts. Also, it really isn’t an effects film in the purest sense of the meaning.

The surreal Saul Bass title sequence is the most effects heavy sequence in the film. The rest of the moments I enjoy are touches that are there solely to enhance the film. From the now famous “Zolly Shot” where by the camera moves backward, but zooms forward, creating a disorienting effect (used heavily to this day.) To Scottie’s delusions, where his disembodied head floats through spirals of light. To the early use of blue screen and compositing used to make people fall to their deaths and create dramatic aerial shots of bell towers and buildings, appear still and crisp, from impossible angles. The effects are flawless, they hold up today and they don’t overpower the film in anyway.

You enjoy Vertigo for the story and the acting, not the effects, even though they are there and they help the film in many subtle ways.

Day of the Dead (1985)
Directed By George A. Romero

A lot of people dislike or dismiss Day of the Dead, but it is in fact my favorite of the Romero “Dead Films”, particularly of the original trilogy. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968) is a classic for good reason. It is an exceedingly well made low budget film, that is truly frightening in a realistic, visceral way. It’s sequel, “Dawn of the Dead” (1978) is bigger, better and more iconic than it’s predecessor, also for good reason. It is a great film, that I too love and cherish. The characters, plot and effects are stunning and memorable. But, Day of the Dead still holds a more special place in my heart.

It is a tale of savage, near hopelessness. It’s set in a world that has presumably been entirely taken over by hoards of flesh eating, undead humans, that can only be stopped by decay or severing their head from their bodies (and even then that isn’t guaranteed.) What we assume are the last surviving humans (some scientists, some military personnel, both distrustful of one another) are held up in an ancient, underground bunker, trying to find a way to stop the Zombie masses on the surface and survive without killing each other first.

The film is tense and on edge, it’s grimy and dark, but in a still stylish way. No, most of the characters aren’t “likable” but they are WHOLLY believable. If YOU were forced into a dirty hole, to escape violent death from un-stoppable, rotting cannibals, I doubt you’d be a ray of sunshine either. It is for this reason that Day of the Dead is very real to me and that’s why I like it so much. In my opinion it is the most accurate portrayal of what would happen IF zombies some how over ran the world… Naturally not just for the plot and acting, but also for the special effects…

And, what special effects they are. The legendary Tom Savini and his cohorts put on the ultimate gore tour-de-force. No stops were pulled and seemingly no expense was spared to make the horrors of a zombie army come to life. From the zombies themselves, all exposed tissue, bone and muscle (all done with REAL practical effects.) To the violent dispatches of the human cast (heads ripped in half, arms lopped off, intestines spilled) the gore and make-up effects are the best the horror genre has ever offered, ESPECIALLY to this day.

The effects and film are an intense, realistic experience, purely visceral and gut-wrenchingly terrifying, give it a chance.

Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979)
Directed By Robert Wise

Much like Day of the Dead, a lot of people hate on Star Trek- The Motion Picture, or “Motion-less Picture” as it is jokingly referred to in some circles, I on the other hand find it to be a brilliant bit of science fiction and a beautiful film.

The Motion Picture, is very much a cerebral experience in terms of the plot. There is little action and lots of dialog. It is very much an “exploration of the unknown” film… A true middle ground between the innocent whole hearted sixties-ness of Original Series Trek and the darker, more philosophical Science Fiction of “2001 A Space Odyssey.” However, some say it’s just a long, boring mish-mash of special effects and reaction shots. And, I can understand this way of thinking, but I don’t agree with it.

The Motion Picture was supposed to be the flip side to Star Wars. A big budget, “thinking man’s” science fiction film. And it is, despite some cliches here and there. Really though, the reason I love this film, unlike the others on my list, isn’t necessarily for it’s plot, it IS for the Special Effects (and score) almost solely. And they are magical. When I watch The Motion Picture I feel like a little kid, every time. I get lost in the epic expanse and beauty of the film.

Early in the film, when Admiral Kirk travels to the re-fitted Enterprise, gaping in wonder at it’s size and beauty, tears welling in his eyes, Jerry Goldsmith’s score blaring triumphantly in the background, I feel like I’m there. I feel a true sense of something indescribably special… That is what the whole film is to me.

The largest section of the film, the travel into the mysterious V-Ger cloud and it’s inner depths, is mystifying in both it’s beauty and it’s depiction of the sensation of experiencing something unknown. The crew of the Enterprise doesn’t know what’s happening any more than the audience does, all they can do is go forth into the darkness and pray they find a way to protect us from the evils that might lie within.

The Motion Picture IS an EXPERIENCE, one you must give into and go with to appreciate. But it is a beautiful journey and the effects have not been surpassed in the 30+ years since it’s release.

Legend (1985)
Directed By Ridley Scott

Before he moved on to exclusively directing gritty, realistic crap, Ridley Scott was a master of the fantasy/sci-fi genre. “Alien” (1979) is a classic film of the genre and the Special Effects subset, as is “Blade Runner” (1982) and I love them both dearly. But Legend, Scott’s last true film in the genre(s), is my favorite of his films and one of my all time favorite films in general.

Plot wise the film is purposefully iconic; essentially the tale of a beautiful princess, saved by a young warrior from the clutches of a great evil. The entire film was shot on sets (creating lavish, expansive forests, more beautiful than anything found in nature) and done entirely in studio, but never once does it not feel like a real place or magical world unto itself.

There aren’t many overt VISUAL effects in the film, the ones that are there are well used and practical, serving to enhance not to weigh down. The reason this film is one of the greatest effects films comes down, not to visual pizzaz, but to two PEOPLE; Make-Up Artist Rob Bottin and actor Tim Curry.

Curry plays the villain of the film, simply called Darkness, and he is the living embodiment of pure evil brought to life onscreen. Tim Curry as Darkness, IS the Devil you always imagined. He’s 12 feet tall, impossibly muscular, red skinned, with giant horns, massive cloven hooves and piercing yellow eyes… But most importantly, he is REAL and there in the world and on the set with the other actors, towering above them and tearing through every scene with menacingly, lustful, relish.

Rob Bottin went all out to make Darkness THE ultimate expression of cinematic evil and his work is flawless. CGI could never create a creature like Darkness. He is alive and breathing, vivid and totally realistic. Darkness is the scariest creature to grace a film of this type. A horrific Disney villain brought to full life before our eyes. However, Bottin’s work would only be half as good if it were anyone other than Tim Curry under the make-up.

For those not familiar with Curry outside of Rocky Horror, he is a brilliant character actor, famous for stealing almost any scene he is in and Darkness is his ultimate work as an actor. Every line of dialog, every inflection, every nuance is pitch perfect. Couple that knowledge with the fact that Curry is covered in POUNDS and POUNDS of make-up and prosthetics, it’s a wonder he can even move, much less enliven all of his moments with a palpable, evil-gravitas. Darkness is a powerhouse character and one that really must be seen to be believed.

Legend is an adult fairy tale, a definite pre-cursor to the Lord of the Rings Trilogy, extremely enjoyable in either it’s Theatrical or Director’s Cut.

Star Wars Episode VI Return of the Jedi (1983)
Directed By Richard Marquand

I will start off by saying that “The Empire Strikes Back” (1980) is my favorite Star Wars film, BUT Return of the Jedi is probably the one I’ve watched and enjoyed the most. Aside from the much hated (I don’t mind them) Ewok sequences Return of the Jedi is a dark, ambiguous and emotional film. The opening scenes in Jabba’s dark, foreboding palace, Luke’s search for his father and attempted seduction at the hands of the Emperor and the Rebellion’s final battle against the Empire are emotionally and psychologically well played and exceptionally melodramatic, in a classic sort of way.

And… the special effects of the film are the best in the entire series. Jabba’s palace and the creatures within are a marvel of set/production design merged together with make-up and practical effects. The battle against the Rancor inside the palace and the pit of the Sarlac outside are also an expert combination of compositing, miniatures and on set effects work.

The Death Star sequences of Luke being prodded by Vader and the Emperor to succumb to the dark side, intercut with the battle on the surface of Endor are thrilling examples of great acting and special effects talents coming together for vivid dramatic impact. And, lastly, the final battle in space. The rag-tag rebellion fleet versus the Death Star and a seemingly endless volley of Imperial fighters is suspenseful and visually stunning. THIS is how a space dog fight is supposed to be. You can see everything that is happening, you have moment’s to catch your breath. There is a lot going on, but you are never OVERLOADED by everything (unlike in the prequel trilogy.)

Return of the Jedi is an underrated film, still certainly a sci-fi classic. (Avoid the Special Editions of the original trilogy at all costs, watch the original cuts.)

V for Vendetta (2005)
Directed By James McTiegue

The only fairly modern Special Effects film on my list, is this, V for Vendetta. Having not read the original graphic novels, I cannot complain or compare the screen adaptation to it’s source. But, as a stand alone film, looking at it just for cinematic merit, it is outstanding. The plot is dark, subversive, twisty and suspenseful. The acting, particularly from leads Hugo Weaving and Natalie Portman, is brilliant all around, inflecting each moment of the film with the appropriate weight, humor or gravity as required. Nothing, even perpetual scene chewer John Hurt, is TOO over the top. The film is pitch perfect in the plot, story, acting and tone from beginning to end.

This brings me of course to the Special Effects… Aside from one or two CGI shots ever so SLIGHTLY poorly integrated into the film, the effects on the whole are brilliant, especially for a modern film. Once again, nothing is taken TOO over the top or done TOO much. And NEVER at any point do the special effects over shadow the story or the performers, they only serve to enhance the film.

Case in point my favorite effects scene in the film, the destruction of Parliament perfectly synchronized to the 1812 Overture. It is a dramatic scene, emotional and powerful. It’s a seminal moment in the film and it FEELS like it. When I saw it in the theater I was left speechless and stunned, in awe. The first time I’d had that sensation since the next film I’m about to list. It’s a tour-de-force moment and probably the best special effects moment in recent history. AND it was done with very little CGI, mostly model work and practical effects.

V for Vendetta is a powerful modern blockbuster, both in terms of it’s effects and it’s effect.

Jurassic Park (1993)
Directed By Steven Spielberg

Ah, the end of a great era and the beginning of a not so great era. I consider Jurassic Park to be Spielberg’s last gasp of “Spielbergian Magic.” After this he stopped having fun with his movies and started taking himself and his work far too seriously. Partially to blame was his next film, the admittedly great Schindler’s List. After Jurassic Park and that film, he just lost whatever it was that made him special. And now he just makes big, slightly better than average, “giant-films.” They’re soul less though, formulaic and just not Spielbergian.

Jurassic Park doesn’t just mark the end of the classic Spielberg era, it marks the beginning of the CGI Blockbuster era. It is both a sad and wonderful thing. Sad in that most of today’s dull, effects over burdened, summer crap-fests wouldn’t exist if it didn’t exist. And wonderful in that Jurassic Park’s CGI effects are the ultimate example of the medium, never bested, even nearly twenty years later. (Granted a lot of Jurassic Park’s CGI effects are seamlessly blended with animatronic and practical effects.)

Based on Michael Crichton’s novel of the same name, the plot of the film is quite intelligent and witty (especially compared to modern “popcorn” films… or Jurassic Park 2 and 3….) The acting is uniformly good all around, particularly from Sam Neill, Laura Dern and the two child actors that carry the film. And the dialog, while weighted down with a lot of exposition and techno-babble, is crisp, tight and at times darkly humorous. Like Star Trek- The Motion Picture however, Jurassic Park is not on this list for it’s plot per say, it is an experience, something that must be given into and just… seen.

Spielberg promised to deliver something with Jurassic Park, something un-imaginable, something akin to making Superman fly… Dinosaurs. Realistic, wholly believable dinosaurs. Does it achieve that? It does. And so much more…

I was at Jurassic Park on opening weekend when I was 8 years old. I sat in the front row and was mesmerized by the film. The first shot, when they reveal the Brontosaurus eating leaves from the treetops of the Park, left me speechless. Even when I think about it today it brings tears to my eyes. It’s one of those un-describable moments that confirms the magic of movies, unlike any other. Even the wonderful Tyrannosaurus and Raptor sequences from later in the film, while expertly crafted and totally believable, cannot compare to that one splendorous instant when we see a Dinosaur for the first time.

That first reveal is a moment of pure, beautiful wonderment and for that moment alone Jurassic Park could stand as a classic, thankfully the rest of the film is great too.

Poltergeist (1982)
Directed By Tobe Hooper

Here is yet another film that holds a very special place in my heart and mind, on an emotional level. Poltergeist is a movie that I consider the last “70’s Horror Film.” Meaning that; 1. It is well written and brilliantly acted. And, 2. It is a PG rated film that packs the punch of a Hard-R.

Poltergeist tells the story of an average american family that moves into a new home, in a new neighborhood, only to find their house possessed. At first the spirits that inhabit their house are playful, even humorous, but that soon devolves into the ultimate suburban nightmare. Their daughter is taken from them, the family is put at psychological odds with themselves and their deepest fears and if they don’t come together, they’ll lose everything and possibly by sucked straight into the darkest depths of hell.

My main love for Poltergeist stems from it’s plot and the carrying of that plot mostly on the shoulders of Jo Beth Williams. As the matriarch of the “most average and relatable family” Williams delivers an emotionally draining, heart wrenching performance, that not only anchors and drives the film, but in a perfect world would have netted her not only an Oscar but a much grander career. The latter parts of Poltergeist, when Williams (and the rest of the family) are searching for the missing daughter are as emotionally draining as they are terrifying. You truly feel for this woman and her family and that is what makes Poltergeist work so well.

As for the effects, they are brilliant, the film wouldn’t be on this list if they weren’t. From the little tricks the spirits play early on, to the killer tree, the evil clown doll, the nightmarishly stretching corridors and the climactic, ghastly apparitions, every effect in Poltergeist is first rate. And, not only are the ghosts of the film capable of generating suspense and terror, they also, in a few brief scenes, expose us to that mystical sensation of the unknown, ever so difficult to capture on film.

If you like horror with an emotional undertone, experience Poltergeist (before the (surely wretched) remake comes out.)

Star Trek III The Search for Spock (1984)
Directed By Leonard Nimoy

Wrath of Khan is considered the greatest Star Trek film, for good reason of course, because it IS the greatest Star Trek film. It is one of the few major Hollywood films to pack such darkness, drama and emotional impact into it’s effects laden borders. Also it is one of the few major Hollywood films to kill off a long standing, beloved, iconic character (Spock) and do it in a SERIOUS, weighty, truly heart wrenching way. And, I love Wrath of Khan, it’s a classic, but Star Trek III The Search for Spock is my FAVORITE Star Trek film.

Star Trek III begins right after the climactic events of Wrath of Khan. Kirk has been reunited with the son he never knew he had. The Enterprise is limping back home to Earth. The crew is drained and depressed and Dr. McCoy appears to be going insane after being touched by Spock, just before the vulcan saved all their lives in the last film.

When our intrepid heroes finally arrive back home they are met with little fanfare. Sulu, Scotty and Uhura are reassigned to less than thrilling jobs. Admiral Kirk is essentially told he’s gonna be put behind a desk and the Enterprise is to be decommissioned. And, Dr. McCoy is institutionalized.

The glimmer of hope at the center of the film is that there is a chance Spock is still alive. To follow through on this chance, Kirk and crew must throw their careers away, break Dr. McCoy out, steal the nearly destroyed Enterprise and trek back to the now forbidden Genesis Planet, created at the end of the last film, to retrieve Spock’s body. On their journey, in addition to being pretty much alone and outmatched by all, the crew must deal with irate Starfleet forces and a deranged renegade Klingon.

Star Trek III is the darkest chapter of the original series’ run and one of the darkest, most depressing mainstream films ever made. And, it is for this reason I love the film the most. It is a film of much uncertainty and great ambiguity, it is also a film that deigns to kill off yet ANOTHER beloved character in a tragic, shattering manner…

And no, I don’t mean David Marcus, Admiral Kirk’s son (who’s death and Kirk’s subsequent reaction is powerful and a high point of the series), I mean the destruction of the Original Starship Enterprise. It is for this sequence alone the film is on this list. AND this sequence is one of the few pure special effects moment that is emotionally draining unto itself.

The destruction of the Enterprise is the single greatest “stuff being blown-up real good” scene in cinema history. The Enterprise is such an iconic creation and such a powerful image by itself, seeing it ripped apart inside and out and blown to bits in rich wide screen glory is painful. To add to the pathos, we see Kirk and his crew, helpless and heartbroken, stranded now on a hellish planet, as they watch their beloved ship fall through the sky, burning, dying.

Star Trek III is a misunderstood, highly underrated, emotionally powerful film. If you like Sci-Fi or are a fan of Star Trek (new or old) I recommend watching the original series films, particularly 2-4 (it’s a great story arc.)

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