Saoirse Ronan is a special effect all by herself. She's only 15 years old, and she looks it, dressed in jeans and a shrunken striped cardigan for an interview in Toronto on Thursday. Her limbs are long and skinny, her silky blond hair is a little staticky, and her oval face is pale and fine-boned. Born in New York but raised in Ireland - her first name, pronounced "Sur-shuh," means "freedom," and her father is the actor Paul Ronan ( Veronica Guerin ) - she speaks with a musical Irish accent that's unlike any she has used on screen.
But it's the look in her sky-blue, almond-shaped eyes that's the real grabber: intelligence coupled with an old-soul otherworldliness. The combination made her perfect to play both Benji McGarvie, a Victorian-era con girl, in 2007's Death Defying Acts , and Briony Tallis, a budding writer in Atonement (also 2007), which netted Ronan a best-supporting-actress Oscar nomination at age 13.
It also makes her ideal to play Susie Salmon, a Pennsylvania teenager who watches the aftermath of her murder from her personal heaven, in Peter Jackson's The Lovely Bones , opening Friday. In the film, based on the best-selling novel by Alice Sebold, Susie exists in a boundless, cotton-candy, computer-generated afterworld. She's only dimly aware of how she died - we see her life in flashbacks - and unable to comfort her grieving parents (Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz), grandmother (Susan Sarandon) and sister Rose McIver, who was interviewed with Ronan. (The two snuggled sweetly together on a sofa, finishing the other's thoughts; at one point Ronan idly played with a strand of McIver's hair).
Ronan expertly communicates both Susie's human panic and her post-mortem wafting, even though she had to do much of her acting alone, in front of a blue screen. "They showed me a bit of artwork of how it would look, and it was described pretty well in the script," she said. "And during the takes Pete would talk to me about what was going on around me, so I was able to react to that. When I look at it now, there's quite a few scenes where it's all about the landscape, how things are shifting and changing. But when I was doing it, it was just me."
"Quite a few scenes" is an understatement. Jackson is an intensely visual director (he previously lavished his paint box on King Kong and The Lord of the Rings trilogy), and at times his fantastical heaven can overwhelm what's happening down on earth. It's a problem a lot of directors seem to be having these days: The wealth of what's available to them via CGI - like a bottomless box of toys - may actually be distracting them from the story the toys are allegedly being deployed to tell.
Look at Avatar , for example. Writer/director James Cameron's 3-D extravaganza may well break the $1.84-billion worldwide box-office record set by 1997's Titanic , also by Cameron. (He was the first director to have a movie cross the $1-billion mark, and now he's got two.) But though Avatar 's visual effects have a mind-boggling depth and density, its plot about a primitive society threatened by military-industrial forces is almost 100-per-cent recycled. (As a friend put it, "They spent $300-million, and that's the best story they could come up with?")
When I look at it now, there's quite a few scenes where it's all about the landscape, how things are shifting and changing. But when I was doing it, it was just me.
Or take The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus . Terry Gilliam is another voraciously visual director, and his latest is crammed with psychedelic fantasy worlds. Unfortunately, Gilliam forgot to imagine a coherent story. Key plot points are mumbled in master shots, and characters travel willy-nilly between states of being, until there are no stakes to care about. Halfway through I gave up trying to force it to make sense, and resigned myself to watching a slide show of images rather than a movie.
Regular readers of this column know how much I loathed Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen , the top-grossing film of '09 until Avatar came along. Regarding its attention to visuals versus story, let's just say that even if you put a gun to my head, I could not tell you who the Fallen were, much less the nature of their Revenge. And I bet that most people who saw Fast & Furious and G.I. Joe: the Rise of Cobra (which each grossed over $150-million) couldn't tell me their plots, either.
It's almost as if big-budget directors have decided that story is beneath them - that since character development and dialogue don't cost any extra money to film, and since any sap with a credit card and an HD camera can convey a narrative, coherence is something only the little guys need to worry about.
Several mega-directors are addressing this problem by buying established stories to display their trinkets in. Guy Ritchie tarted up Sherlock Holmes with a bunch of CGI, as did Robert Zemeckis in 2009's animated, 3-D A Christmas Carol . As well, all the trailers that played before Avatar were old dogs using new tricks. Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief , due in February, retools ancient Greek myths. Robin Hood , due in May, soups up its familiar story with epic battle scenes courtesy of director Ridley Scott and star Russell Crowe (the duo behind Gladiator ). Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland , due in March, applies 3-D and star Johnny Depp to the already trippy tale. (Alice's phrase "stuff and nonsense" seems apt here: The more stuff a film has, the more its story can be nonsense.)
Regardless of how prominent the visuals are in The Lovely Bones , however, as an actor Ronan felt well cared for by Jackson. He arranged for the cast to spend two weeks together before filming so they could jell as a family. They went bowling, and sang karaoke at the wrap party - though Jackson spent most of that night playing video games.
"Pete is a big kid," Ronan said. "We went to his house, and they do this laser tag thing. He plays games. He's got a passion for having fun." On set, he'd leap to his feet, cup of tea always in hand, to act out scenes for Ronan and McIver. "He's always there. He gives you so much," Ronan said.
Most importantly for Ronan, Jackson decided that one set of images would not be in his movie: the scene of Susie's rape and murder. "From the off, Pete didn't want to make a movie where you see a child being sexually assaulted and murdered," she said. "It's happened a lot in movies where it completely overwhelms the story, and the story is so much more than that. That was the deal-maker for me."
What good storytellers know - and what CGI-lovers sometimes forget - is that what you don't show can be as powerful as what you do.