The Best Movie Critic + review

A word about Mocap 3-D CGI Extravaganzas!!!!

Two interesting stories dropped online on Friday, one on /FILM concerning the closure of Robert Zemeckis' motion capture studio at Disney and the other on Cinematical concerning David Fincher's continuing efforts to revive the Heavy Metal franchise. It took a few minutes to click with me that both of these articles are essentially about the same thing: How do motion capture, digital effects, 3-D, and other 'groundbreaking' cinematic effects move forward as an art and as a method of storytelling?

Robert Zemeckis – of Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Rodger Rabbit fame – has been at the motion capture game for the better part of the last decade with always-notable-but-usually-disappointing projects The Polar Express, Beowulf, and The Christmas Carol. Zemeckis obvious has the passion, the gumption, and the know-how to push motion capture forward, and the progress he has made from Polar Express to Christmas Carol is worth celebrating. The joke with Zemeckis mocap movies has always been that the characters have “dead eyes,” existing in the uncanny valley between cartoon and photorealism but too close to the latter to watch comfortably for an entire movie. This emptiness in the eyes isn't just a CGI issue, however. It's indicative of Zemeckis' problem from the start, even before all that motion capture business: he just doesn't have anything to say, and all of the cool hi-tek toys in the world won't help you if you don't have anything to say. I love Back to the Future, but there's nothing really going on there besides just having a little fun. And Back to the Future is by far the most compelling and fitting material Zemeckis has worked with. Put him up against Charles Dickens and watch as vapid superficiality takes center stage.

I know that Dickens' Christmas Carol is a perennial that will be remade over and over again until the end of time (though I'm very skeptical that anyone will ever surpass the brilliant 1951 version with Alastair Sim as Scrooge). But why Zemeckis pegged Christmas Carol as a 3D motion capture CGI extravaganza is beyond me. Truth be told, it turns out it was beyond him, too, as he apparently found every scenario from the book so boring he spends most of the time shrinking Jim Carrey so he can be chased by rats and stuff. Watching Jim Carrey be blown into outerspace is apparently more interesting and worthwhile than most of the important dialogue and plot points in the movie.

I should stop, though. I'm kicking the man while he's down. The fact is, Disney decided that Zemeckis' movies were costing more than they were bringing in and announced their intention to close his studio in 2011. And, yes it is sad to hear about anyone losing their job these days. I know great things to come in in the world of motion capture will owe a debt to his work, but I just can't get that bummed out by the news of the studio closure. Zemeckis lost track (perhaps he was never on track) of all the great stuff we go to movies for in favor of empty spectacle.

Speaking of empty spectacle, another news item hit the wire almost simultaneously: David Fincher – who also excels more at sensationalism than pathos – is shopping around an idea for a new Heavy Metal movie. He wants to do it as a large scale all CGI animated 3D super-event, but one that maintains the erotica-sci-fi-horror smarm of the magazine and 1981 cult classic. He already has James Cameron, Zack Snyder, and Gore Verbinski interested in directing individual segments. I've complained about Avatar past the expiration date for complaining about Avatar. Zack Snyder took two source materials near and dear to my heart (Dawn of the Dead and Watchmen) and made unwatchable movies out of them. Verbinski's Pirates of the Carabbean movies... I actually kind of enjoy in a popcorn-y way, so he gets a pass. The point is, none of these guys is out making challenging, thought-provoking movies. But the idea of them bringing a billion dollar-edition of Heavy Metal to the big screen seems like a match made in heaven to me. Why try to make computer animated, motion capture, super hi-tech gadgetry movies into 'movies to be taken seriously?' Why not just let them be what they are: adolescent male fantasy, little boys playing with big toys. So while I don't adore Fincher, Cameron, Snyder, or Verbinski, I would die to see their take on Heavy Metal, with all the 3-D, 5-D, motion capture, mind control, smell-o-vision, rumble-seats they can throw at me. And best of all, I have absolutely zero sentimental attachment to the Heavy Metal source material, so I won't be hurt if they screw it up.

I think that's exactly what I hate about Zemeckis. His tech-fests are no place for Dickens, nor Beowulf, nor Christmas nostalgia. It's the place for the rowdiest, bumpinest, genre party animals in the room. Would you remake It's A Wonderful Life in CGI 3D? Well, Zemekis probably would, but that's not the point. Let's see some more stuff like Heavy Metal hit the pipeline. And get Zemeckis hooked up with Fincher to direct a Heavy Metal segment, already. He could use a bit of face time with some dudes who have their heads screwed on straight concerning the type of story you do all-CGI. And they could teach him that if you're going to make empty spectacle, make EMPTY SPECTACLE!!
-Ben

p.s. For the love of god, please let Paul Verhoeven direct a segment.

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A word about Mocap 3-D CGI Extravaganzas!!!! + review