To this day, I Am Legend feels like a good movie that could have been truly great. The only thing that let it down was for me, quite frankly, a stupidly bizarre move to use CGI for the mutated zombie/vampire humans. It turns the movie into a damn cartoon once they make their first appearance. It just didn’t need to be done and I cannot figure out why it was. Surely using actors (with the occasional exception of the movie’s climax) would have been so much cheaper? Make up effects are excellent these days and detailed make-up would only have been needed for a few key bad guys. Instead, we got these rubbery bald things with overly extending mouths (I guess the mutation made their bones elastic too). Will Smith was an acting powerhouse in that thing and without his performance I would have called the whole thing laughable. To this day it still bugs me, the over-reliance of CGI when it simply doesn’t work.
When Independence Day was released way back in the day, it was a huge leap forward for special effects, used to create something on an epic scale. Yes it may look dated now, but back then it took the world by storm. Even then, they still used a man in a suit for the Alien creature, complete with alien goo and prosthetics, and that scene was very effective. Why? Because it was there. On the set. Tangible. In person for the actors to react to. I don’t know why, but the movie-making ethos nowadays is “look, see how good CGI is these days, it looks so realistic, look what we can do! We can collapse skyscrapers, create entire armies of Orcs, even regular animals don’t need to be used on set!”.
What bugs me is the fact we KNOW it’s CGI. Yes, it’s clever and it looks very effective/pretty/epic, but we simply cannot connect with it on an emotional level. Yes, I understand CGI is needed to accomplish things that are just impossible to do practically, but before that came along, film-makers had no choice. They relied on the skill and ingenuity of the special effects department under their command.
Take three movies from last few years. Man of Steel was a great reboot and take on Superman, good story, great cast, but by the time the final fight ended, I had simply had enough of watching building after building collapse. I didn’t care, because I knew it wasn’t real. Compare this to The Dark Knight, where the Joker blows up the hospital. It grabbed me, it impressed me and I was engaged on that so much more, because I could tell it was a real, practical stunt, one that had been done as a necessity of the story, not just thrown in there because it looked good.
Another case in point, the new Hobbit movies. Again, great quality entertainment and a wonderful world brought back to us again from the genius that is Peter Jackson, but I just can’t connect with these movies like I did with Lord of the Rings. I don’t know the whole deal of course, but I think LOTR was made on a more modest budget to the one given to Jackson this time. To be honest, I was way more impressed with the visuals of LOTR because it was a wonderful combination of CGI and models, man-in-suit creatures and unbelievable craftsmanship from the set-makers. The Hobbit movies are very polished, very clever and accomplished, but there seems to be a fraction of the practicality involved this time. The end fight of Fellowship between Aragorn and Lurtz was simply amazing, he scared the crap out of me because he was there and you were concerned for the hero. What’s more was the thought that they had a fight coming to them where they faced thousands of these things. The Hobbit has the White Orc, but he is CGI, just like the other Orcs, and I am simply not bothered as much, because in the back of my mind you know they aren’t really there.
In the decades to come, I truly believe it will be the classics, before the advent of CGI that will be cherished. Look at Avatar, hardly anybody talks about that now. It might cause a stir again when the sequels show up, but give it a year after the DVD release and it will soon fade our of memory. Now, look at the legacy and enduring fondness for something like Ghostbusters, celebrating its 30th Anniversary this year, made on a shoestring with not an ounce of CGI in sight, yet people adore it. Even horror movies go the same way; Dog Soldiers and The Descent are two of my favourites of recent years. Why? Because they are practical and rely on the art of practical, clever film-making to entertain the audience. I can only hope that movies start to embrace this ethos once again and realise that CGI isn’t the answer to all special effects.