Hollywood and the CGI Problem (Alien Covenant case study)
Hollywood cinema is in essence a whole different beast to any other kind of media content. The term Hollywood blockbuster instantly generates an image of a huge set, big explosions and A-list talent. So how with such big budgets, incredibly talented filmmakers and great on screen talent do they still make so many mistakes?
Okay so perhaps that statement is a bit unfair, Hollywood after all does make some great films, sometimes anyway. My real problem with mainstream blockbusters is the over use of CGI. In some ways CGI is one of the greatest revelations to ever come out of filmmaking. You have access to such incredible storytelling tools that allow you to shape new worlds and even create complex characters. However as great as it sounds on paper, the usage of CGI is in essence one of the biggest problems with a lot of new releases.
So recently I went to see Alien Covenant (which is why I decided to use it as my main reference), I’m a big fan of the original Alien film and quite enjoy the whole spectacle of it. I went in with an open mind and expected to see some good monster movie moments and hopefully even jump out of my seat a little.
What I got was instead two and a half hours of CGI indulgence, an unbelievable CGI alien and a bunch of completely uninteresting characters. *SPOILERS*
The film began very similarly to every other alien film, travellers in space search for a new planet to colonise. However their ship gets damaged, someone dies and then suddenly we’re expected to care for the main character, Daniels. The film bludgeons you into thinking she has any sort of development and skips over any attention to detail before reminding us that we’re watching a space movie. The designs are great, don’t get me wrong, the space ship is cool but generally, it’s the CGI specialists going ‘hey look what we can do’; for me, that’s just not what a movie is about.
Sure it’s perfectly fine to show off and make a huge spectacle, isn’t that part of the wonder of cinema?
Yes of course it is, but I think the most important thing in any movie should still boil down to strong characters and a good well-presented story. So why not focus on the storytelling and then focus on the special effects you can use to bring that story to life? For me this felt very much a story that had been slotted into a CGI extravaganza and just did not engage with me as an audience member.
There were a lot of facepalm moments in the cinema for me watching this film, of which I mean I was literally sat there shaking my head and wondering what on earth they were thinking. The final scene I’ll mention is a scene where we see two Michael Fassbenders interacting with themselves (himself?) Well pure moment of indulgence, we get the camera move as the two play an instrument together. At this moment I just imaged a team of effects artists working away for weeks to pull off this (common) trickery and patting themselves on the back for thinking of it. Well that’s the other downside of CGI, when you’ve seen a trick once, it seldom impresses again.
*Spoiler* so diving in with the next scene to bother me; when we see the ‘birth’ of an Alien. The usual thing happens, the alien bursts out and then suddenly we get a lot of wide shots showing every detail of the alien. Well what’s wrong with that you’re asking? Well firstly, a wide shot just doesn’t scare you. In Alien, the xenomorph is mostly obscured, blended in with the details on the ship and uses darkness and shadows to conceal itself.
This new (or old?) xenomorph is the complete opposite. It walks around, we get to have a good hard look at it throughout the movie and I just felt, disappointed. Again CGI spectacle has replaced not only the ability to be afraid of the monster in a monster movie, but it also just downright slaps you in the face.
Alien Covenant (2017)
If you think back to one of the greatest monster movies of all time; Jaws (1975) you will see a prime example of how obscuring the monster builds the tension and suspense.
In this scene everything alludes to the shark being out there somewhere beneath the surface of the water. As an audience member watching this scene we in essence, become the shark. We know what is coming and unfortunately, Chrissie does not… Using the darkness of the scene and thrashing shots of Chrissie to allude to the shark is more than enough to tell the audience that hey, there’s a massive shark chomping on her legs right now. In this case, less was so much more. This subtlety is something that a lot of modern films just don’t seem to grasp anymore. Film studios seem to think that More is More and that Less, just isn’t worth doing.
The main reason that we don’t see much of the shark in jaws was actually because of technical limitations of the prop shark. This meant that Spielberg had to be creative in the way he presented the shark and I think made it more impactful. If they had made Jaws in 2017 we would feel quite differently about the film.
I was actually lucky enough to work on Justice League last summer and got to work with some really amazing, talented people. However the film set was a prime example of CGI gone mad. Almost every set was entirely made up of green screen, certain ‘built’ elements were created but on the whole, it almost made your eyes water.
Unfortunately I’m sworn to silence about the inner details of the filming but it was generally everything you imagine Hollywood cinema to be. Trailers, big action scenes and yes, special effects left right and centre.
Having worked on a lot of indie feature films where we have been on location or in a built studio set it’s almost like two completely different worlds. I think part of the charm of independent cinema is that it doesn’t have the budgets to compete with the green worlds of CGI. That’s not to say indie films can’t pull of Sci-fi and Action genres, because they can. Look at the films of Ex-machina and Monsters, two sci-fi indie films that broke a lot of moulds in the world of CGI expectations in independent films.
The Making of Ex Machina https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XqFsn8FvejE
Hollywood seems to believe that audiences don’t like realism and needs everything to be shown in the most graphic way possible. Going back to the original Alien, I think the xenomorph only appears on screen for a total of around 4 minutes and doesn’t even appear in the film until an hour in. That’s a 3 hours movie with just 4 whole minutes of alien action; let that sink in for just a moment…
I think overall CGI will have an ever increasing presence within Hollywood cinema and more so in independent cinema as the tools become more affordable and even more consumer friendly. As with all technological advances I hope that Hollywood finds a way to put a new ‘spin’ on their on screen trickery and perhaps one day we will get to see another xenomorph that can inspire the same terror as in the 1979 original!