Thursday, May 11, 2017

The goosebumps I didn't get

This post is not exclusively about Goosebumps, but rather, an opportunity to discuss something that has been bothering me for a while, that others have talked about plenty and I have probably talked about in this space myself. Goosebumps was just a reminder of the thing that’s been bugging me, and it had the benefit of providing me a good headline for this piece.

The problem with Goosebumps, which I watched on Wednesday night, and movies of its ilk is that they just don’t wow us anymore. They don’t provide – you guessed it – goosebumps.

The goosebumps we once got from effects-driven movies have all but dissipated in recent years. Goosebumps the movie was just the most recent example.

Although you’re likely familiar with it, I’ll give you a quick description of this movie anyway. The best way to describe it is as a mash up of Jumanji, Night at the Museum, Gremlins, and even something like Ruby Sparks (though the reason for that last is a bit of a spoiler, so I won’t go into it). The concept is that the creations of author R.L. Stine – a real person played here by Jack Black – are real beasties that are trapped inside his locked books, Jumanji-style. When they escape, they create havoc, because what else would they do?

There was a time when we would have been awed just by the ability to create digital beasties that escaped from books and took a small Delaware town by storm. Even if the writing was not great, which it usually isn’t in movies like this, the visuals would be enough to get you geeked out. What would we see? How would we see it? What cinematic marvels would be newly unveiled to us, things that we never knew before might be possible?

Well, digital effects have progressed so much, and become so available to the common man relatively inexpensively, that the movies that contain them – the movies that used to give us goosebumps – have become commonplace. Instead of one movie per year where creatures materialize out of books, you have six. And that’s joining the six movies set in Middle Earth (or similar), the six movies set in outer space, and the six major disaster movies in which familiar landmarks collapse before our eyes.


I consider this one of the greatest losses of my life as a cinephile. Few things seems like a more tragic frittering of the magic of motion pictures.

The thing is, I don’t know what they could have done differently.

It might have been possible not to saturate us with digital effects, such that not only was everything and anything possible, but we saw anything and everything be possible in almost every movie. But you can understand why any individual studio or visionary director might be hesitant to forfeit their right to use those effects in their movie. Once those effects existed, and could be made to look really great, they were a tool that would remain valuable right up until the moment of overexposure. And it was impossible to know when that moment might arrive, so get it while the getting’s good.

But that moment has arrived. It’s here. And I don’t know if it’s ever leaving.

I guess we’re probably just ready for a new paradigm shift. You know, VR, something like that. That’s the next great technological leap that we can ride, then chew up and spit out. And now it almost feels like it can’t get here fast enough.

So what is a person’s refuge?

Why, movies that don’t require visual effects, of course.

I’m not in a position to do any tabulating now, but I’d venture that in the past three to five years, my yearly top 20 has become almost totally devoid of effects-driven movies. Now, the logic that this is related entirely to digital oversaturation is a bit specious, since writing in movies with significant digital effects tends to be pretty weak. And because of the significant investment in the effects, they can’t afford to take risks in the plot, lest they offend some important segment of their anticipated audience. So these movies end up being bland. As ambitious as they may be in their visual approach, they are that safe in narrative, and truth be told, they are probably not as ambitious visually as they are opportunistic.

But back in the good old days, films that relied on the possibilities of digital effects would regularly grace my top 10, be it Titanic or Starship Troopers or Cloverfield or Gravity. And I guess Gravity was not that long ago, but that’s because Gravity was doing something new. There’s a lot less new nowadays. As recently as 2015, Star Wars: The Force Awakens was knocking on the door of my top 10, but that had a whole other set of things going for it, which didn’t have anything to do whether Snoke or Maz Kanata looked good. Which they didn’t, really.

Can visual effects make a comeback?

Who’s to say. I mean, I do have affection for some of these movies. Last year, for example, I was quite taken with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. The reliance by that film on digital effects was heavy.

History is littered with examples of one phenomenon running its course and being replaced by another, one that makes everything feel fresh again, one that we may not have even been anticipating when it snuck up and bit us. I mean, we won’t be stuck with comic book movies forever, either. At least, you wouldn’t think.

So I’ve got my arms open, wide, just waiting for something to come along and renew the fundamental cinematic aspect of creating magic before our eyes.

And maybe the next type of magic will give me goosebumps again. 

1 comment:

Wendell Ottley said...

I totally hear where you're coming from. However, I would mention a few things to counter your sentiments. For starters, part of the issue is you, as a viewer. Like a lot of us, you're more mature than you were when those big effects movies knocked yourself off with just their visuals. You're looking for more out of the films you watch. The writing is more important to you than it once was. The stories need to be engaging. Great effects are nice, but as I am fond of saying, pretty pictures alone do not make a good film.

The other thing I would say is these movies always have, and always will, wow plenty of people. Sure, we might be ready for whatever is next in terms of special effects, but movies driven by them have always been hampered by inferior writing, as a whole. Yet, year after year for as long as I can remember, those are the movies that bring in bucketloads of money while the films most of us critic-types laud as the best often struggle to turn a profit.

Goosebumps itself was solid, but nothing about it was exceptional, including its effects. Therefore, it was hurt by the proliferation of fx driven fare. Had this movie with the same visuals been made thirty years ago, it would've been groundbreaking. However, being released when it was, it's a fun flick, but not particularly memorable.

Great, thought provoking article.