Special defects: Gene gives movie technology a digital salute

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By Gene Weingarten
Sunday, January 24, 2010

See what I did there? Wasn't that absolutely breathtaking?

No? Good, then maybe you agree with me. But we seem to be in the minority, because as I write this, "Avatar" is breaking box office records. This movie's plot is as thin as a soup made by boiling a single mosquito. But it does have blue people with tails who fly around on pterodactyls!

"Avatar" has even eclipsed the early box office revenue of "2012," a doomsday film best described as the story of what happens when the surface of Earth is drowned under 4 billion gallons of insipid movie cliche. The dialogue is as wooden as a No. 2 pencil, "No. 2" being the operative phrase. But ... you get to see an ocean liner plow into Mount Everest!

Remember when it used to be thrilling to watch a movie like "The Great Escape" because you knew that Steve McQueen did his own motorcycle stunts? The real heroes of action dramas are no longer swashbucklers like McQueen. They are pale, pimpled people with overbites, cubicle-bound technogeeks skilled at computer-generated imagery (CGI), a science that has made it possible to realistically create absolutely anything. Why settle for merely watching someone explode when you can make all his organs squirt out through one nostril?

The problem is that when absolutely anything is possible, absolutely nothing is special.

This appalling trend is actually a throwback to the very earliest years of the movies, when pioneer directors had the slap-to-the-forehead revelation that you can do things on film that you cannot do onstage. They went bonkers. The first films were often one long special effect; one of the most famous of these early films culminates in an interminable sequence where mourners run after a hearse in moon-bounce slow motion until the hearse crashes, the casket pops open and a magician emerges who, with waves of a wand, makes each of the people, and finally himself, disappear. It was total idiocy, but it held 1920s audiences spellbound. Of course, 1920s audiences would have been held spellbound by an auto-flush toilet.

Eventually, we grew up. Hit movies became plot-driven and rich in characters; increasingly sophisticated audiences demanded it. But now, thanks to CGI, we're infants again.

Until just the other day, I was ready to blame this all on men. Men have always been on the cutting edge of explosive stupidity; it was a man, after all, who invented the "potato bazooka," in which hairspray, a match and a length of PVC pipe can propel a humble tuber the length of a football field and into a teenager's eyeball. The potato bazooka is the spiritual forebear of CGI.

My solution for what ails the movie industry was to ban all men from directing any films for the next 20 years; sure, we'll wind up with a lot of movies about saucy, flat-chested women exacting psychological revenge against men who have been simply beastly to them. But it would be a small price to pay for the extermination of the Avatar Syndrome.

Now, I'm not sure even this radical solution will work. I just saw a list of the most popular TV commercials of the last year. The one the public voted the best, hands down, was one no guy would vote for, meaning the ladies alone must have put this over the top: It's a commercial for Evian water that consists, in its entirety, of babies in diapers, break dancing. On roller skates.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com, and join him for a live discussion Tuesday at 12 ET.


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