Calm down Granddad! Harrison Ford has gone all Jack White on us, bemoaning the ghastly state of modern action movies. The man who, to be fair, played Indiana Jones and was the coolest thing in Star Wars has decided that most of them suck and it’s all because of CGI.
Witness his relentless truthbombing at the Los Angeles Times: “I think what a lot of action movies lose these days, especially the ones that deal with fantasy, is you stop caring at some point because you’ve lost human scale. With the CGI, suddenly there’s a thousand enemies instead of six – the army goes off into the horizon. You don’t need that.”
And there was me thinking that bad movies were bad movies because of a bad script, bad acting and bad direction. Whatever the context of Harrison’s comments, it’s hard not to feel a little chafed. This feels depressingly like the moment when Paul Weller moaned on about all that bloody dance music.
Of course, it’s one of the most basic tenets of storytelling that less is often more. A complete lack of resources does wonders for the imagination. If you can’t show the monster, it forces you to write your way into creating a thrill in more intriguing ways. It’s why the old Doctor Whos were so genius because the producers were forced to innovate. The new Doctor Whos are genius for much the same reasons – there still isn’t any money. But they at least have enough money for a few well-chosen CGI shots, and they embellish the genius no end.
Hollywood is different. Hollywood has money. So yes, a bad film-maker can rely on daubings of CGI to paper over the cracks of where a story should be. An even worse film-maker would do the CGI badly so you can tell it’s CGI.
Guess what, there are lots of bad films out there. There always were. But to claim that the technology is making it worse rather than, say, a uninventive reliance on sequels and remakes and an accelerating obsession with the bottom line, is just plain wrong. It’s just useful tool. The internet isn’t a mean invention in and of itself just because people often use it for meanness. A knife isn’t in and of itself a murder weapon just because people some people use it to kill other people. And CGI effects aren’t killing a genre just because some people use it badly.
Personally I have a thing for spaceships. Huge bloody great armies of them. I love a good alien invasion because, done well, it’s a story about how humanity is forced to band together and put aside the things that we fight wars or bitch about in the office over and accept that we are all human. We have to because if we don’t there’s a huge bloody great army of spaceships coming to blow us away. That’s a good story. Attack The Block, out this week, is a good-but-not-great example.
But as we know, spaceships aren’t real and we haven’t met any aliens yet. And with respect to the brilliant production designers on Star Wars, we have the technology now to do them better than you could in 1977. And actually, a thousand enemies is actually better than six if the story demands it, because it means the stakes are higher. It makes the story better. Harrison Ford should know this, he was in Star Wars.
Meanwhile, technology has widened the scope of what cinema can achieve.The reason there are so many superhero movies around at the moment is that cinema has finally come to a point where it recreate what those brilliant imaginations could previously only do in comic books. It took Superman 40 years to reach the big screen. It took Kick-Ass less than two. And people can’t get enough of them. Without CGI, a lovely story like Avatar, basically a simple ecology fable, could never have been told in such an artful way. Without CGI, Tron Legacy would merely have been a disappointing sequel to a classic movie rather than a disappointing sequel to a classic movie with quite stunning visuals that you could lose yourself for two hours.
Harrison knows all this stuff, he’s Harrison Bloody Ford. One suspects he might be taking it out on all the effects because everybody thought Indiana Jones And The Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull was such a let down. Somebody should probably point out to him that it went deeper than that.