Eye Candy Debate: Plot Vs Special Effects
Earlier this year, friends of mine were trying to get me to come and see the film Transformers 4. Knowing that Michael Bay is awful, Mark Wahlberg is a bad actor, and that this would be the 3rd sequel to a movie about cars and trucks transforming into robots that fight — a movie series based off a cartoon that’s based off toys for children — I passed. But what usually follows is one of the worst arguments on this subject that it’s used to try to convince me to see it:
“It’s just eye candy, man. Who cares about the plot?”
I don’t. If it’s just eye candy, fine, I don’t care. I can watch robots fight, but what I can’t watch is characters that are meaningless spending 90 minutes explaining the plot. The most recent Transformers film was almost 3 hours. 165 minutes of robots fighting that could’ve been 90 minutes long (that’s how much actual fighting was in the movie).
It’s not even that it’s robots fighting, either. In these movies, when the robots fight, you can barely tell what the hell is going on. It looks like a powerful tornado hit a massive garbage dump and someone filmed it as explosions going on. I can’t tell who the hell is winning, or what I should even care.
Look at the image below of a Transformer. Is that its arm? Is that a leg? I don’t know what’s going on.
Eye candy that’s bloated, makes no sense, and tries way too hard to give you a plot when it obviously lacks one is worse than a little bit of meaningful eye candy that ties into an actual plot.
An example of the latter would be the movie Inception. Let’s check out the effect shot comparisons between Transformers 4 and Inception:
- Inception has 500 visual effects shots in the film (Batman Begins had 620 in comparison, and THAT’S MINOR CGI used in the industry).
- Transformers 4 has 90 MINUTES of special effects in the film. That’s half the film.
Can you remember a shot in the film that’s memorable enough to leave a lasting impression? No? That’s because there isn’t one worth remembering. You vaguely remember an explosion in slow-mo, but it might be a different Transformers film.
If you think about Inception, there are many, but they happen because they are essential to the plot. The effects are “special” because they are necessary. When a filmmaker just uses them as a cheat instead of actually filming something in real-time, it gets boring and no longer “special.” Take a look at this scene from Inception. The only reason everything in this scene happens is because of the Gravity changes in the van the cast is sleeping on on the level above. The van flips, and the dream starts spinning and effecting that level of the dream. It’s part of the plot.
The misuse of special effects really became noticeable in 1999. The Matrix and Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace came out.
The Matrix shocked everyone by winning the Oscars for special effects rather than Star Wars. Why? Star Wars lost why it was such a revolutionary film. Pointless action movies, and incoherent plot, and special effects that looked great, but were pointless other than showing off.
The Matrix created new effects to fit the plot. The Wachowski’s were huge fans of Japanese anime movies and the film techniques that could only be done with animation. They wrote a brilliant script and world and placed memorable special effects in the film that made the plot even stronger since they could pull it off.
The sequels were not so great because all the studio wanted was special effects and a story they didn’t want to tell yet. What The Wachowski’s really wanted to do is make a prequel (As seen animated in The Animatrix), and then a tighter sequel to finish it off. Instead we got the bloated Zion scene, the cool yet ridiculous car chase scene, and that terrible fight scene with Neo versus hundreds of Smith’s.
Most of it looked great, but as with the long action scenes in the Transformers movies, or the opening space action video game scene of Star Wars: Episode III… It just felt like they were stretching it out and had no real meaning. Neo could’ve just flown away, which makes the advice to run from agents in the first movie mean more no matter how powerful you are. He couldn’t beat them, so just run.
Look at the beginning of Star Wars: Episode III: It starts off with the audience having no idea what’s happening. The first rule I learned in story telling is that the opening scene in a movie/show/book sets the tone. This opening scene doesn’t do anything but make you feel like you walked in late to the movie:
Special effects are great, but only when it furthers the narrative storytelling of your movie. Imagine when you first see T-Rex in Jurassic Park. You saw earlier in the movie the big dinosaurs that made you gasp and wonder. That was SPECIAL and introduced the main characters to them and proved that they’re real. It’s never been done before at that point in time.
Then the T-Rex comes in later and really blows your mind. The movie only has around 15 minutes of dinosaurs in the movie, most of it is practical animatronic with about 6 minutes being CGI when it’s impossible not to use it. That’s why it still looks good 20 years later. That’s why Terminator 2 still looks good to this very day. The special effects were used only when absolutely necessary to the plot. They didn’t write in scenes just to show off special effects. An example of that is the movie Twister, where the entire movie is written specifically to show off CGI.
If you want to give me the special effects in bulk, that’s fine. I will become desensitized to it and will just pick apart how awful the movie is. But you want to give me special effects that help along a great story, then I’m all for that.
FOLLOW JEFF SORENSEN ON TWITTER
Jeff Sorensen is an author, writer and occasional comedian living in Detroit, Michigan. You can look for more of his work on The Huffington Post, UPROXX, BGR and by just looking up his name.