Spotlight : May 1996

A Look at the '80's and '90's
A Commentary on the State of Effects Films
By Todd Vaziri

As a moviegoer who grew up in the 1980's, I find myself looking back on that decade with a sense of nostalgia. Maybe I'm just becoming a bitter old man, but I feel that visual effects films have made a turn for the worse in the 1990's. The action and sci-fi films of the '90's simply do not have the same impact on moviegoers than films of the '80's. Although the images are becoming more fantastic and extraordinary, the plotlines and characters are becoming less engaging and interesting.

Call the '80's whatever you want (the decade of greed, the decade of Reaganism), but Hollywood certainly delivered audiences terrific escapist entertainment that not only featured wonderful images, but remarkable, memorable characters. Think of the films released in the '80's: BLADE RUNNER, two STAR WARS films, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, BACK TO THE FUTURE, ROBOCOP, ALIENS, E.T., THE ABYSS, DIE HARD... just to name a few. These films are considered modern-day classics, each of them giving their respective genres new life and excitement. In the case of DIE HARD, the filmmakers inadvertendly created a new movie genre. Who can deny that one of the best chase scenes ever filmed occurs in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK? BLADE RUNNER has become a sci-fi institution. ALIENS, like its prequel, combined horror and sci-fi to a new level, adding a layer of humanity to its storyline. E.T. proved that special effects and fantasy can be combined with a touching, human story about friendship.

The reign of the '80's ended with the release of James Cameron's THE ABYSS, now heralded as a sci-fi classic. Then came the 1990's.

Motion picture studios, looking for the global, 'sure-thing' $300 million film, began to pump tens of millions of dollars into star-driven blockbusters. The result? Very few memorable movies. Most of these films made enormous amounts of money for the stars and studios, but none can compare to the character-driven films of the '80's. Let's take a look at some of the biggest action/sci-fi films of the 1990's.

TOTAL RECALL (1990) was a monumental disappointment. Paul Verhoeven's over-the-top direction led to needless, excessive violence, wholly exaggerated performances, and an ending that no one likes. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who put the movie into production in the first place, is miscast as Quaid, the everyman who gets involved in an interplanetary conspiracy. Based on the original script, this film could have been a masterpiece in the grand tradition of Alfred Hitchcock. However, it became an entertaining--yet frustrating--film.

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY (1991) will probably be regarded as the best of its genre of the early 1990's. James Cameron's followup to his wildly creative THE TERMINATOR was explosive in its action and drama. I believe that T2 ranks with one of the best sequels of all time, and if I have any criticism of the film, it is the fact that it is a sequel in the first place. Carolco, once again betting on a 'sure-thing' pumped almost $100 million into T2, and every penny was worth it. However, with all of its positive points, will T2 be remembered? Putting visual effects aside for a moment, will T2 be remembered in the same way THE TERMINATOR is remembered?

DEATH BECOMES HER (1992) was Robert Zemeckis' dark comedy about the fountain of youth and immortality. The script certainly had its moments, but let's face it. The film was Zemeckis' and Ken Ralston's $40 million experiment for FORREST GUMP. Walking out of the theatre, people only remember the amazing visuals, and not the characters with which they were associated. DEATH BECOMES HER is yet another example of pouring enormous amounts of money at visual effects and actors and not spending time making an engaging film.

JURASSIC PARK (1993) was another visual effects extravaganza, revolutionizing the use of CG characters and elevating animatronic characters to a new level. But where was the story? Where were the characters? Steven Spielberg was obviously more interested in making the T-Rex scenes exciting than having the audience care about Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler. A riveting book was transformed into eye-candy. The images were extraordinary; however, the experience was less than extraordinary.

Of course there were plenty more: Sylvester Stallone's twin bill of JUDGE DREDD and DEMOLITION MAN both were forgettable films. No one can agree whether or not ALIEN 3 or BRAM STOKER'S DRACULA are good films. On the action side, the biggest films were sequels, or more DIE HARD rip-offs: PASSENGER 57, UNDER SIEGE and DIE HARD 2.

And then there's WATERWORLD. The quintessential action/sci-fi film of the '90's: over budget, cardboard characters, great visual effects. Sure, the images looked fantastic, but no emotional bond between the viewer and characters ever was created.

What are the directors of those great films of the '80's doing now? James Cameron directed TRUE LIES, an exciting action film with many controversial themes. Spielberg directed the lackluster HOOK and JURASSIC PARK. John McTiernan directed the much maligned LAST ACTION HERO and MEDICINE MAN. Ridley Scott has abandoned the genre all together with THELMA & LOUISE and WHITE SQUALL. And Paul Verhoeven is wasting his talent with films like SHOWGIRLS.

Let's look at 1995's biggest effects films: CASPER, CONGO, BABE, BATMAN FOREVER, WATERWORLD, APOLLO 13 and SPECIES. With the exception of BABE and APOLLO 13, will any of these films be remembered for their gripping drama? Let's be frank here--CASPER, CONGO and SPECIES were really bad films.

Could 1996 turn the tide? Will studios begin making engaging, memorable character-driven films that feature a lot of cool special effects and action?

The hope that 1996 will begin a new era of great effects films is exactly why INDEPENDENCE DAY is easily the most talked about film of the year. How can anyone see the trailer for that film and not want to see it? I am hoping that Roland Emmerich has put together a screenplay that is worthy of the visual effects being produced for the film. (Of course, this is the same Roland Emmerich who made the beautiful-looking STARGATE, and wrote lines of dialogue such as "Say hello to King Tut, asshole!" But I remain optimistic.)

The fact remains that studios and directors must spend more time on their characters and story. The visual effects industry is booming in the '90's, with more fantastic images being produced each year. Unfortunately, the films cannot wholly depend on the visual effects. The finest marriage between technology and story in the 1990's must be TOY STORY. But that's a whole other story...

Supermodels on Deep Space Nine

The VFX HQ focuses exclusively on visual effects for motion pictures, but all rules were meant to be broken. Television's syndicated Star Trek: Deep Space Nine aired an episode called "Shattered Mirror" which featured some of the best motion control work ever seen on television. The starship Defiant weaved its way through Klingon Battle Cruisers and Birds of Prey with elegance. DS9 and its sister show, Star Trek: Voyager frequently use computer generated starships, supplied by Amblin Imaging and Santa Barbara Studios. However, the final space sequence of the episode was brilliantly handled completely with motion control models. Who says that CG is taking over the world?

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