Star Whores and Other Space Oddities

1I love Star Wars (circa. 1977-1983). For all the grief we give George Lucas for the “Special Edition,” the prequels, TV spinoffs, etc, one cannot downplay how much influence the Star Wars films have had on culture and the art of filmmaking. Not only has Star Wars influenced subsequent science fiction flicks, it has also been copied quite a bit.

There are a few different approaches one can take when it comes to science fiction.

  1. You can be enigmatic, arty, and classy like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
  2. You can be extremely scientific, poetic, and subtle like Gattaca (1997).
  3. You can be lugubrious, philosophical, and metaphysical like Solaris (1972).
  4. You can be dark, suspenseful, and horrific like Alien (1979).
  5. You can be kooky, kinky comedy like Sleeper (1973).
  6. You can be fast-paced character-driven razzle-dazzle like Star Wars.
  7. Or (recognizing some of the childishness of space aliens, robots, and super-deluxe-hyper-warp-lightspeed) you can go all-out campy, flashy, trashy like Barbarella (1968).
  8. There is, however, another sub-genre of science fiction. I am referring, of course, to the blatant knock-offs.
You've probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

You’ve probably not seen this version of Star Wars from Turkey.

After the release of the first Star Wars movie in 1977 there was a huge sci-fi craze. It seemed almost any movie could be made a better or more profitable movie with the institution of a well-placed spaceship. Movies like The Black Hole (1979), Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), The Last Starfighter (1984), Ice Pirates (1984), and Arena (1988) were cranked out by the bushel. Well, some of my personal favorite worst and also lesser known sci-fi movies made in the wake of the space craze are on my mind today so, naturally, I felt compelled to write about them.


First up is Saturn 3 (1980).

This film is actually a bit more of an Alien rip off. There are essentially only three characters and they are played by (check this out!) Kirk Douglas, Farrah Fawcett, and Harvey Keitel. Before I go any further I must tell you that this film is bad. Really bad. Almost not even so-bad-it’s-kinda-fun-bad. And another thing; I can’t help but feel like the title is even a little oddly derivative of Capricorn 1 (1977).

"I am Spartacus!"

“I am Spartacus!”

Kirk Douglas (Lust for Life) is Adam, an older guy who’s been stuck up on a surprisingly spacious and roomy space-base floating around Saturn. We also see him naked and, I gotta be honest, 20 years since Spartacus and the man is still in shape. Farrah Fawcett (Logan’s Run) is Alex, Adam’s blonde, leggy bed-buddy and his only companion. Together Adam and Eve Alex (I get it!) live quietly in space for no apparent reason (it’s something to do with the government or science or something), until the most evil and warped mind in the galaxy comes aboard. This evil and warped mind belongs to a man named Benson.

Seriously. Benson. Benson is the name of the bad guy. Well, actually he only kills a guy named Benson for some inexplicable reason and assumes his identity, but really now. Benson? Benson is a dim-witted manservant, not a malevolent space villain. Anyway, Benson is played by Harvey Keitel (Mean Streets), but it gets better. Evidently the director was not altogether pleased by Mr. Keitel’s thick Brooklyn accent and so he Keitel awkwardly dubbed by some other robot-sounding British guy (it reminded me of Andie McDowell’s awkward dubbing in Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes).

3

It’s the wacky space adventures of Benson the Sociopath and Hector the Murder-Robot!

Benson is revealed to be mentally imbalanced in the beginning of the film (because suspenselessness) and then, once aboard Saturn 3, he puts a giant suppository filled with brains into an 8-ft tall robot named Hector. He gives the robot his own thoughts and then tries to get in Alex’s pants with the most awkward space-future come-on lines since Demolition Man. Adam gets jealous and they talk about killing Benson because he is weird. Then the robot chops their pet dog in half and tries to rape Alex. The movie is a wreck and actually pretty boring despite the presence of a horny, rampaging robot. Saturn 3 also feels simultaneously unnecessarily dark and unintentionally silly. For instance, there is a scene where Hector, the robot, wears Harvey Keitel’s severed head as a hat as a disguise. A very, very bad disguise.


Next up it’s Starcrash (1978), also known as The Adventures of Stella Star. I actually love this movie. It’s near-nonstop mayhem in the same campy vein as Barbarella. But much, much cheaper.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

Good to see the distant future portrayed as being so egalitarian.

The incredibly hot Caroline Munro (The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) stars as the frequently scantily clad Stella Star—the only hope for the galaxy. This film is more blatant a rip off of Star Wars and it is oh-so-hokey.

Outer space looks like an awkward jumble of bad Christmas decorations hastily assembled by a one-eyed crazy person. Who knew the stars and galaxies were so vibrant and psychedelic? The special effects for the spaceships are actually pretty decent, but again, the colors are more akin to a pinball machine that has lost its mind. The malevolent Count Zarth Arn (Joe Spinell) is the bad guy and his hairdo does for evil exactly whatever the name Benson did for evil. He also has his own version of the Death Star, except his is in the shape of a big, evil robot hand that clutches into a fist when it goes into attack mode.

No one messes with the do!

No one messes with the do!

There is also an extremely sexually ambiguous sidekick for Stella. His name is Akton (Marjoe Gortner) and he apparently has a new and incredibly convenient super power in each instance of peril. He bravely dies sword-fighting a stop-motion robot when his arm gets grazed and briefly caught on fire. The film also has a bald green dude, and a good robot with a Texas accent (half the film I just wanted to give him a ten-gallon hat to go with his Dr. Phil-esque homespun aphorisms). Starcrash also boasts  lightsabers and David Hasselhoff (Knight Rider). The costumes are great and I couldn’t help but notice the recurring use of arrows on helmets seemingly pointing to the face of the wearer, and on belt buckles pointing to the crotch.

The movie is crazy and the plot is on crack. We go from an outer space battle to a strange planet to a space jail to the jungle and back into space and then on to another planet with cavemen or amazons and giant robots in like 4 minutes. It’s like the first 60 seconds of the Power Rangers pilot. The film does slow down occasionally. . . for overly long spaceship docking scenes. What you eventually learn is that the film is strategically conditioning you to not care about the characters so you won’t be mad when new characters are randomly introduced and old ones go away or return without rhyme or reason.

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: "Don't worry. I'll live forever."

The last words Akton says as he lays dying: “Don’t worry. I’ll live forever.”

The best part of this movie? It’s a tie between Caroline Munro’s outfits (she dresses like Vampirella) and the great Christopher Plummer’s (The Sound of Music) emotionally detached and disenfranchised line deliveries. You can actually see it in his regretful eyes how much he hates that he’s in this movie. All around the movie is awesomely bad and I highly recommend this frenetically-paced, sexist light show. It’s a great bit of 70′s Italian schlock.


Last and most certainly least is The Man Who Saves the World, or as it is known in its home country, Dünyayı Kurtaran Adam, or as it is most commonly referred to, Turkish Star Wars (1982).

*not Darth Vader

*not Darth Vader

Every time somebody mentions the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) I fire back with Turkish Star Wars. The Star Wars Holiday Special is so bad it makes you wonder how there was a successful franchise afterward.  Turkish Star Wars is so bad it makes you wonder why God has not destroyed humanity yet. Seriously, have the people who made this ever seen a movie before? It is film heresy. The whole spectacle is a noisy, raucous, incoherent Frankenstein mess of a film. It is a mind-boggling artistic travesty on all fronts. AND I LOVE IT!!!

*not racist

*not racist

A guy and his best pal (Murat and Ali) crash land on an alien desert planet and they meet an impoverished, rock-dwelling civilization that is tormented by a big, nasty, beardy space bad guy, who allegedly is a centuries old wizard who needs a human brain so he can understand stuff and conquer the universe. The two guys decide to help the people and proceed to fight the worst excuses for robots and aliens you will ever see. Toilet-paper mummies, dusty zombies, rubber robots, dudes in skeleton outfits, and great big orange stuffed animals, and even racist-looking (African, Asian, and possibly Jewish or maybe Armenian—it’s Turkey, after all) rubber mask baddies, are only the half of it.

The love story between Murat and woman-who’s-name-escapes-me is also great. You see, occasionally jarringly softer music will play and we get reverse closeups of their eyes as they longingly/indifferently gaze at each other while performing mundane space activities. This unprecedented and clashing change of pace denotes romantic interest. Understand?

*not forced romance

*not awkwardly forced romance based solely on the fact that she is maybe blonde

I’d be kidding if I said I could explain the rest of the plot of this weird movie. There are mentions of the virtues of humanity and the human brain as the key to all things (something the filmmakers ironically refused to use for the production of Turkish Star Wars), and vague references to Islam and other things, but the story is so convoluted and poorly executed that it hardly matters. One minute our protagonists are fighting monsters, the next minute they’re in space jail, then the bad guy has monsters slaughter a cave full of frightened orphan children and he proceeds to drink their blood through a crazy straw, then Murat is wielding a giant, golden Final Fantasy sword [made of cardboard] and melting it in a huge vat and then thrusting his bare fists into the molten gold only to have them emerge with clunky gold space mittens on. Seriously. Tone! You can’t murder children in a film like this. It’s like the naked suicide in Endhiran.

*not more realistic than Rocky

*not more realistic than Rocky

One particularly memorable sequence is the training montage where Murat ties boulders to his ankles and goes jogging and then works his fist muscles by slapping big rocks. Instead of the Force, Murat has the amazing power to jump kinda high and karate chop things in half (boulders, stuffed animal monsters, robot heads, *SPOILER ALERT* the bad guy…except that they just black out half the screen and show him on the ground with his eyes closed, and in doing the same for the other half—to truly indicate the pure in-halfedness of our antagonist—the filmmakers also accidentally reveal that both halves apparently have full noses, but I digress). The finale is a jarring, headache-inducing mélange of so much incoherent violence, jumping, and explosions that you will be fighting—and fighting hard—your body’s urge to roll your eyes back in your head and halt all blood-flow to the brain. It’s like Vogon poetry really. Your welcome, Douglas Adams fans.

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

*not nonsensically -used stolen footage in the background

The absolute best part of Turkish Star Wars is how it is edited. I know that sounds nerdy, but let me explain. Not only does nothing make sense, but the film is notorious for ripping actual stolen footage from the real Star Wars—and several other fantasy movies and even a few newsreels—and splicing them into the movie. And the transfers are just terrible, but I suppose that’s nitpicking. Best of all, they do it at inappropriate times. For example, to show space travel they film a character with a stupid hat moving a wheel while scenes from the assault on the Death Star play behind him (except the real Star Wars footage keeps cutting to other shots so the backgrounds don’t make any sense). The music is also stolen from Raiders of the Lost Ark and a bunch of other popular movies as well.

If this movie weren’t so wonderfully, miserably bad  and hysterically inept it would have been facing an arsenal of lawsuits. People say I’m crazy, but I have actually watched this wretched film at least 5 times. It takes a certain constitution to enjoy bad movies like this. Turkish Star Wars is really more of an endurance test than a film. Are you ready for the challenge?

*not evil stuffed animals

*not evil stuffed animals


There you have it. Saturn 3 you might as well skip as it is the most boring and unimaginative of them all, but it does have a stupid enough plot to keep you with it and the Keitel dub is wondawful. Starcrash is awesome trash and you definitely should see it for Munro’s body and Plummer’s face. Turkish Star Wars you can watch, but this one comes with a warning: it is disorientingly bad and you may not be able to readily relate to people immediately after a viewing, but for Troll 2 and Birdemic fans I must insist you try. At least it’s not After Last Season.

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Jan. 25, 2011.

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Koo!

So what do you think of when I say “great science-fiction comedy”? How about Georgi Daneliya’s Russian cult epic Kin-dza-dza! (1986)? Kin-dza-dza! remains fairly obscure in the west…and this bothers me. Like so many weird and wonderful foreign films, it is currently hard to come by. This just won’t do.

"Where are we?"

“Where are we?”

Here’s the setup for this oh-so-sweet movie. A humorless construction foreman (known only as Uncle Vova)—on his way to the supermarket for his wife—is accosted by a younger comrade (known only as The Fiddler). The Fiddler tells the stranger that a shoeless man, presumably drunk and insane, is lost. They offer to call a policeman for him, but the shoeless man just insists he is from another planet and continues to fiddle with his space gadget. Incredulous, the two strangers reach for the device and are suddenly transported from downtown Moscow to a barren desert wasteland. It is the planet of Pluke in the Kin-dza-dza galaxy. And so our tale begins.

At first Uncle Vova (Stanislav Lyubshin) remains staunchly skeptical that they are indeed on another planet. This denial is clearly for his own sanity. The Fiddler (Levan Gabriadze) suggests interplanetary possibilities, but Vova dismisses them all in favor of some Earth desert estimations.

Faster, Planark!

Faster, Platzak!

They wander about in the parched abyss, when suddenly, out of nowhere, a large, rusty, rickety flying metal bucket riddled with dings and dents hovers right up to them and makes a sloppy landing in front of the earthlings. The hatch opens and a short, stocky gentleman in simple, uncouth togs steps out, accompanied by a similarly dressed but taller gentleman in a man-sized canary cage. They are Wef, played by Evgeni Leonov and Bee, played by Yuriy Yakovlev. Together they engage in synchronized squatting whilst reciting the fictitious word koo in unison over and over. Utterly bewildered, yet unyieldingly accepting of this peculiar performance, Vova and the Fiddler attempt communication. They attempt Russian, Georgian, English, and French and all they ever hear back from the two unkempt aeronauts are the unmistakable words, koo and kyoo.* Eventually the stranded Soviets figure out that they can bribe their new friends to take them in their craft in exchange for matches.

*Koo and kyoo comprise the bulk of the Plukanian language.

A gorgeous land.

A gorgeous land.

After many minutes with the human-like “aliens” everybody starts to speak Russian. Apparently the Plukanians are telepathic and it took them some time to learn the thoughts and subsequent language of the earthlings. Once the language barrier is removed we get a lesson in interplanetary culture…also Uncle Vova and the Fiddler must wear tiny bells on their noses out of respect. Pluke has a very strict caste system.

The desert planet of Pluke is a real tough place. Everyone (like eight people) is mean and only thinks of themselves. Their resources are all but wiped out and the land is sparsely populated (like eight people) and is drying up. Promises are worth little or nothing as you will more likely be swindled and cheated than helped. There are two types of people on the planet: the Chatlanians and the Patsaks, the latter of which, although indistinguishable from the former, is considered to be of a lower caste and must perform degrading rituals—such as being in a man-sized canary cage while in the presence of Chatlanians—to avoid punishment for impudence. The class differentiation seems almost entirely arbitrary. The higher class Chatlanians get to sleep on beds without nails and they cannot be beaten in the middle of the night. The lower class Patsaks are not so lucky. Matches are apparently very valuable. Water is rare. Police are corrupt. There are about thirteen words in the Plukanian language that can be translated. All other words are koo. A popular expletive is kyoo.

Travel gets cozy.

Travel gets cozy.

A particularly humorous bit comes at about the halfway mark where a title screen comes up and summarizes all of the words on Pluke we have learned so far. It doesn’t take long.

I won’t go into all the elements of the plot. Kin-dza-dza! is essentially a space travel comedy about two dudes trying to get back to Moscow and learning about human nature and friendship. That’s really all you need to know. The rest is just a string of absurdity, oddity, and japery. Be it the fear of being turned into a cactus by a higher being, or singing earth songs for money, or the ludicrousness of the many bizarre rituals lower castes must perform, or the way in which the earthlings are deceived and must use their heads to get wise and make it on Pluke, it’s all for a laugh. And it’s a good laugh too. Amidst the budding friendships and backstabbing there is always room for bizarre absurdist humor.

Great hats.

Great hats.

One thing that is particularly striking about the film are the jabs at capitalism and some of its pro-communist themes. One of the reasons why Pluke is so backwards and dehydrated is because of class struggles and wanton spending and exhaustion of natural resources. It is a dog eat dog world and nobody trusts each other and many have been reduced to begging. Only when the stiff Uncle Vova can accept his traveling companion, the Fiddler, and the Plukanians as his comrades and equals can they return to earth. We even learn Uncle Vova and the Fiddler’s real names: Vladimir and Gedevan. There must be social equality and mutual understanding in order for progress to take shape. Although Wef and Bee may never fully understand self-sacrifice or friendship and may never fully trust the earthlings, they wind up helping them get back to earth anyway.

It’s a kooky movie all around. Kin-dza-dza! is a consistently odd and humorous space saga with interesting characters and a truly absurd sense of humor. It is an amusing journey with philosophical and social undertones which as of yet remains unavailable in the United States. Someone needs to release this on DVD or Bluray. It’s got it all: spaceships, singing, funny hats, you name it. It’s great.

Kyoo!

Kyoo!

Top 10 Reasons to See Kin-dza-dza!

1. It’s funny!

2. The spaceships, although clunky, are just as awesome as anything in Star Wars.

3. It’s interesting to see a film from such a pro-communist perspective…the opposite of say, Krzysztof Kieślowski or Zbyněk Brynych which represent a more markedly anti-communist sentiment.

4. Did I not already mention the humorousness of the headgear (aka funny hats)?

5. Grown men wear bells on their noses.

6. It’s one of the more original outer-space movies you’re likely to find.

7. It’s obscure and kitschy and therefore tickles your anti-mainstream sensibilities.

8. Although visually sparse and minimalistic at times, the juxtapositions and mise-en-scène are wonderfully surreal (at times it feels to be a cross between Jodorowsky’s El Topo and The Bed-Sitting Room).

9. If you enjoyed reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy then you will definitely like this movie.

10. Koo!

Bonus Reason:

11. Kyoo!

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” Dec. 8, 2010

Me, Myself, and CGI

moon trip

A Trip to the Moon (1902)—man in makeup, painted glass.

Special effects have been a part of film since the very beginning. The very idea of organizing a series of slightly different images and playing them in quick succession to establish the illusion of movement in the eye of the viewer is in itself something of a special effect. Eadweard Muybridge*, you sly dog, you.

Film is merely still pictures dancing through time and it still fools us. French magician and film pioneer, Georges Melies, took the medium a step further. Let’s play further tricks on the audience’s mind, he thought. His early films featured expanding body parts, human disintegration, dancing specters, explosions, and much imagination. Melies’ most famous work, A Trip to the Moon (1902), inspired by the writings of Jules Verne and H. G. Wells, features one of the most iconic screen images: that of a rocketship wedged in the eye of the man in the moon. This image, although considered crudely realized to some by today’s standards, is still a magical special effect and gets the fantastical point across loud and clear.

metropolis

Metropolis (1927)—huge miniatures and impressive sets to match.

J. Stuart Blackton is credited as being one of the first people to use stop-motion animation special effects, using the technique as early as 1898.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)---composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

Journey to the Center of the Earth (1959)—composites or rear-screen projections with blown-up lizards.

To conjure the extinct relics of eons past, stop-motion pioneer Willis O’Brien used tiny figures to create the gargantuan prehistoric terrors of The Lost World (1925) and the infamous beasts and creatures from King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949).  Ray Harryhausen would become one of the most famous and prolific of all stop-motion effects maestros of the 20th century, with credits including 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), Mysterious Island (1961),  Jason and the Argonauts (1963), The First Men in the Moon (1964), One Million Years B.C. (1966), and the Sinbad adventure movies. Other effects teams would use puppets, or men in suits, or (the oddest of all) real lizards with bonnets and spikes glued to their bodies to create dinosaurs and monsters from other worlds. Irwin Allen must have been on something.

War of the Worlds

War of the Worlds (1953)—miniatures and animated lasers.

Before the advent of computerized special effects technology, earth was invaded by flying saucers; Godzilla stomped Tokyo; the thief of Bagdad rode a flying carpet, was aided by a monstrous djini, and fought a giant spider; Darth Vader dominated the galaxy only to be defeated by Luke Skywalker and the rebel alliance; blade runners pursued replicants; archaeologist, Indiana Jones, battled

Baron Prasil (1961)

Baron Prasil (1961)—hyper-stylized mixture of live-action, puppets, composite shots, in-camera tricks, stop-motion, and matte paintings.

Nazis and supernatural relics; Robbie the Robot made beer; Kubrick showed us the year 2001; Moses parted the Red Sea (twice!); E.T. got stranded on earth; Marty McFly went back to the future; Linda Blair did neck twists; Ben-Hur entered a magnificent chariot race (also twice!); the Ghostbusters got steady slime sleuthing work; Frankenstein’s monster was brought to life; Fritz Lang built a Metropolis; a murderous alien held a small group hostage in the north pole (twice!); Roger Rabbit shook Eddie Valiant’s hand; we journeyed 20,000 leagues under the sea (at least twice); the Blues Brothers crashed hundreds of cop cars; and Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan did their own stunts. Everything had to be carefully thought out and done and you knew a lot of thought went into it. There was no magic bullet to answer all the problems of how to achieve the impossible on screen. Before CGI if you saw it on screen you knew it was real somewhere. Perhaps smaller, perhaps less shiny in real life, but something occupied real space. Probably still in some freaky prophouse.

Alien (1979)

Alien (1979)—guy in suit.

One of my grievances with the overuse of computer-generated special effects is just that: overuse.  It seems to create this shortcut to the magic and for me the magic has rarely been more convincing this new way. Shortcuts are not in themselves bad, but they can be used too much. So many films to come out in the past few decades seemed to be leaning a little too much on this readily available tool. Stephen Sommers’ movies like The Mummy Returns (2001) and Van Helsing (2004) and Michael

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)—miniatures and composite shots and maybe backlighting.

Bay’s Transformers movies (2007, 2009, 2011) are exhausting to watch. Too much wispy, plastic, pristine CGI crammed into the seams. Maybe Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001, 2002, 2003) worked a little bit better because we weren’t always focused on them and there were enough scale models and interesting characters to pull us in. But then think on the suspenseless cartooniness of The Hobbit (2013, 2014 so far) movies. The CG is better, but now it’s used even more than in The Lord of the Rings movies. I don’t know about you, but too much special effects sucks me out of the action.

Legend (1985)---makeup and prosthetics.

Legend (1985)—makeup and prosthetics.

In addition to just being poorly written, acted, directed, etc. the Star Wars prequels (1999, 2002, 2005) are overloaded with CGI special effects. My brain can’t take it all at once. I remember watching Episode I in the theaters and just being baffled at why Lucas didn’t just make a cartoon. It seems there’s just less imagination when all of the questions can be answered by computers. It’s convenient one-stop shopping and that means any bozo can get at the goodies. Which is not to say that the artists behind the new trends are less gifted. The best in the business, like always, are spectacular treasures to be celebrated.

Older techniques were used sparingly and had to be incorporated more innovatively because they were expensive, difficult, and sometimes might not always be convincing. Had they been cheaper and overused and overstuffed then perhaps we would see them in the same light as we do bombastic CGI overuse.

Fitzcarraldo (1982)

Fitzcarraldo (1982)—no special effect. Actually dragged a ferry over a mountain in the jungle.

Perhaps my biggest grievance from the latest special effects trend is that CGI has eclipsed so many other means to create the illusions I love. I miss matte paintings, backlighting, stop-motion, and puppets. I’m not the biggest fan of Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984), but imagine if all the creatures were CG. I couldn’t imagine it being nearly as creepy or gritty. Imagine Jim Henson’s Labyrinth (1986) the same way. If Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1985) were made today you can bet they wouldn’t build a real boat and drag over a mountain (probably less people would have died too). And you can forget Akira Kurosawa’s torching of an entire castle set for Ran (1985) or Andrei Tarkovsky burning down a house twice for The Sacrifice (1986).

Safety Last (192

Safety Last (1923)—no special effect. Trick angle and safety mattress out of frame.

Why did Lucas feel the need to make a Star Wars: Special Edition (which, you may notice, highlights some extremely poorly aged CGI special effects juxtaposed with the old puppets and prosthetics that still look pretty great today)? And why did Spielberg screw around with E.T. by injecting the already wonderfully expressive face with cartoonish CG “enhancements?” I’m with Quentin Tarantino on this one: CGI car crashes are boring and ugly. Where’s the grit? I like grit in my movies. I love the asymmetry and dirt and dimension. Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (1988) blows Time Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (2010) out of the water (though that probably wasn’t too hard). CGI may be cheaper and easier, but it’s less fun to look at for me personally. Maybe it is simply a love affair for glorious expensive excess on my part, but if it is excess they wish to throw at me I’d like it to at least be real and have true substance. That’s what I’m paying for.

Maybe it’s me but I just could not find the appeal of Avatar (2009).

Empire Strikes Back (1980)---miniatures and stop-motion.

Empire Strikes Back (1980)—miniatures and stop-motion.

It all really boils down to personal preference, I guess. CGI very often looks cartoony to me. I feel more detached by the illusion because I just know that deep down nothing happened. When a digital spaceship blows up there’s nothing for me to cling to. When a three-dimensional model of a spaceship blows up it’s thrilling to me because something that had actual matter has been destroyed (and my brain knows the difference). I like the character and texture of the older special effects. It’s purely an aesthetic choice, but film is about aesthetics.

Jason and the Argonauts (19)---stop-motion miniatures composite.

Jason and the Argonauts (1963)—stop-motion miniatures composite.

In the end all special effects do the same thing. They try to fool us into believing the impossible but today’s cynical audience isn’t fooled by any process. We will always know when it’s fake. A CGI Godzilla or King Kong doesn’t fool me more than a rubber suit or stop-motion miniature…yet I admire the pioneering craft more in the old-fashioned processes. Some have told me that “old” special effects are dated and cheesy. This can be the case sometimes, but bad puppets and prosthetics can be charming. Bad CGI doesn’t hold that same charm for me. The creatures manufactured through special effects (CG or otherwise) are never going to trick us into believing they’re real off the screen. But something from the Jim Henson’s workshop has a rather unique mystique in that it might still be around but dormant in some old warehouse and the creatures from The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (2005) are simply confined to some digital space on several computers. Return of the Jedi’s (1983) Rancor and the giant scorpion from Honey, I Shrunk the Kids (1989) seem more real and interesting to me than most of the digital monsters thrown at audiences today.

Hausu (1977)---composites, animations, etc.

Hausu (1977)—composites, animations, etc.

It’s not that I’m against technological progress (entirely), but I do think it might be appropriate to question it and reminisce on the magical times shared between traditional effects. When Barry Levinson’s Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) came out, people were dazzled by the stained-glass window knight that sprung to life because of CGI. Jurassic Park (1993) works splendidly as it is, combining digital effects with life-size animatronics, but that was back when CGI was new and exciting and used sparingly to fill in the gaps that would be too difficult to produce another way. James Cameron’s Terminator 2 (1991) and Chuck Russell’s The Mask (1994) worked great too but today CGI can come off as a bit of a cheap crutch and its novelty is gone. . . for me at least. Imagine if Burton’s Wonderland was made with every digital character done via stop-motion (this was what a lot of us thought it was going to be a few years back). It’s a personal preference, but the aesthetic of CGI sometimes runs the risk of being flat and boring. I don’t like my movies to look like video games. I like it more real and present. Remember, for every filmmaker who utilizes the latest technologies afforded to him with cunning and craft there are countless hacks who butcher the blessings and produce lackluster products with meaningless, artless piffle.

Jurassic Park (1993)---large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Jurassic Park (1993)—large-scale puppets and animatronics, and CGI.

Consider this: the original Clash of the Titans (1981) feels personal like classic Ray Harryhausen whereas the 2010 remake looks and feels like every recent bad overblown Hollywood special effects extravaganza.

I don’t hate CGI. I think there are plenty of times when it is effective and cool, but as it becomes cheaper and more accessible I see more and more of it and the spectacle it once was is no more. It’s ho-hum and standard now. A lot of new films have become visually boring because of their over-reliance on CGI. And special effects should never be boring.

The Two Towers (2002)---CGI

The Two Towers (2002)—CGI

We will never have the time back when movie magic was largely a mystery. Studios used to be cagey and not like to reveal how the illusions were done. Now every movie comes with at least a few documentaries on how it was all done. Jaws (1975) may be a clunky robot shark, but we get that it’s a big, scary shark and that’s all the film needs it to do. A CG shark could be just as distracting (consider 1999′s Deep Blue Sea). Would Spartacus’ army be more believable as a CGI onslaught or as flesh and blood actors as they are in the 1960 film?

Is it bad to know how the trick is done? No. Not if your a magician. But the audience likes to be fooled. They like to keep guessing and looking for the seams. At least I do.

Lost in Space (1998)---CGI

Lost in Space (1998)—CGI

What do other people think? I’m curious. Am I just too old-fashioned and finicky for my own good? What movies get you? What are some of your favorite movie special effects?

[update] Here’s an interesting effects reel for Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). Mixes a few different techniques quite effectively, I think.  http://blogs.indiewire.com/theplaylist/watch-impressive-vfx-reel-for-wes-andersons-the-grand-budapest-hotel-20140428

Originally published for “The Alternative Chronicle” July 5, 2010.