Until recently, I had a sure-fire way of sparking classroom discussion on the history of special effects. In my teaching capacity, I'd ask college students to remember their seminal magic moments: the movie tricks that really blew them away.
I've had a bunch. There was the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which blew my six year-old mind. There was Jerry Lewis's Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation in The Nutty Professor, which scared me sleepless. The towering inferno of Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty. The flying monkeys on black-and-white TV broadcasts of The Wizard of Oz. Then, momentously, the first glimpse of armed gorillas on horseback in the original Planet of the Apes, which prompted the same reaction from me as it did from Don Draper's son in Mad Men: “Gee-zuz.”
These were the moments that branded my brain and sealed my destiny as a lifelong movie nerd. And for the longest time, students seemed to have their own: Some would cite the silent vastness of space in 2001, others the hovering immensity of the mothership in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. And more of them than I could ever count name-checked Star Wars, a movie that did for their generation what King Kong had done for my dad's during the Depression.
But recently, the question yielded zip. A cough or two, some shuffling in seats.
“Really?” I said. “Nothing?”
A hand rose and a student replied: “It's kind of hard to say when you've been raised on that stuff. I guess it doesn't have the same impact.”
But of course, how could it? I was staring at my very first class of wall-to-wall post CGI students, who'd grown up fully immersed in digital imagery. James Cameron's T2 was already on late-night TV when they were born, about the time of Jurassic Park's release, so they were too young to see The Matrix when it first opened. For them, the term “special effect” was quaint holdover of another era. Mine.
So a pop-cultural Rubicon is crossed. Special effects, key components of what historically made movies magical, have lost most of their magic because they have become so realistic and commonplace. A scan of the current movie menu suggests there'd be hardly any movies at all without CGI. You can choose from skyline-flattening monsters (Godzilla), multiple superheroes (X-Men: Days of Future Past), rampaging alien robots (Transformers: Age of Extinction), rampaging alien bug-thingies (Edge of Tomorrow) and yes, even armed gorillas on horseback (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes). And you might wonder: Is it still worth the money and parking hassle, and is there any chance you'll experience the giddy sensations you love about the movies?
There might be good news. When movies have reached the point where nothing imaginable is beyond computerized visualization, other forms of creativity may be poised for a renaissance. Indeed, that might already have happened. Consider the most frequent complaint about the recent Godzilla – that the monsters were more fully developed than the human characters. Others compared the sheer narrative complexity of X-Men, a comic-book movie, to the intricacy of a Philip K. Dick story. And note the praise for the current Planet of the Apes movie: It's actually about something, a slice of state-of-the-art pulp that resonates in the contemporary moment.
The 12-year-old in me might have wept at the prospect of mainstream movies trafficking so heavily in superheroes, sea monsters and angry monkeys, but that boy has had his fill. And I doubt he's alone, even among less grizzled viewers.
In fact, it's possible that this surfeit of sensory overstimulation has contributed to the recent surge in TV excellence. Movies once provided all the drama, intelligence and adult entertainment that TV lacked; now that situation has almost completely flipped. Not only do Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire, True Detective and Game of Thrones provide characters and storytelling depth that Hollywood movies seem to have lost, but they've become the best place to watch that most old-school of theatrical movie attractions: acting.
Case in point: On Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston delivered one of the most accomplished performances in the history of TV; in Godzilla, he had less screen time than it took to run the closing credits. And can anyone remember another year when the Academy Award for Best Actor was handed to someone (Matthew McConaughey) who was turning in an Oscar-calibre performance on TV (True Detective) the very same night? The best back-to-basics commercial moviemaking – story plus camera plus editing – hasn't disappeared, it's just fled the megaplex.
So while a part of me mourns for the passing of the old, low-tech movie magic, and pines nostalgically for the primal sensation of seeing those giant squids, mounted apes and flaming witches for the first time, there's another part that says bring on the boredom. It could restore the magic, without the tricks.