Jumping the Gun: The Downfalls of Going for the Gimmick Effect

Pat: What makes a summer blockbuster? Is it just a special effects extravaganza or does there have to be more to it?

It really depends on the person. However, everything from a dystopian world of robots to a young Patrick Stuart has been rendered in computer graphics (CG).

In recent years, the most successful action blockbusters have relied less on special effects for the sake of special effects. Instead, as CG becomes more advanced, it has taken on some subtlety, both aesthetically and in its implementation.

While the ’90s introduced moviegoers to special effects, filmmakers have been refining special effects every summer for at least half of the last decade. Of course, refinement comes naturally from use, but in particular there is an observable trend in the early and mid-2000s of filmmakers using CG for the sake of it; that is, they have created films around a particular special effects gimmick just to try it out on the silver screen.

George Lucas’ “Star Wars” prequels in 1999, 2002 and 2006 are perhaps the best examples of this. ‘Episode I’ could be said to start the trend while ‘Episode III’ finished it. There’s no doubt that an explosive pod race or a lightsaber battle on a molten river are exciting and entertaining, and that’s enough for a lot of people. Still, Lucas wasted so much of his production time on frippery that he lost the narrative charm of the original “Star Wars” films.

Films like 2004’s “The Day After Tomorrow” took cues from Lucas’ films. Was there much more to that movie than an exercise in CG weather catastrophes? Not really. The same could be said of other so-called summer blockbusters, such as 2003’s “The Core” and the two ‘Matrix’ sequels.

Some might point to the original ‘Matrix’ as a first instance of this trend. The Wachowski brothers did show filmmakers how to use bullet time, but the trick to the movie’s success was not its effects. The movie’s real high point was a smart and compelling story that used special effects believably and logically to advance the exposition.

The best summer blockbusters avoid getting fragged by their own explosiveness.

Shapan: I’ve always been a firm believer that stories are what make my favorite movies, unless I’m going into an action movie that’s been explicitly advertised for its action. Don’t get me wrong; explosions pump my testosterone just like any other dude, but what people want underlies all the cheesy effects. Some movies might get by on an opening box office weekend because their movies look shiny and the gimmicks look cute, but ultimately, real staying power depends on your story.

A good example of this is with the Batman movies. The summer of 1997 sadly brought “Batman & Robin” to the world, which grinded out every gimmick in the book to fit into one dull movie. Not only was there George Clooney to portray a wise-cracking Batman with more one-liners than you can imagine, but also (at the time) blow-em-up superstar Arnold Schwarzenegger portraying Mr. Freeze, an interesting character diluted into a boring brute.

The special effects of freezing a city weren’t enough to win back a crowd that had already been lost in what has to be the worst ensemble cast the Batman franchise has ever put together. The film debuted well in the box office but faced sharp declines in the weekends following.

Meanwhile, Director Christopher Nolan’s reboot of the franchise relies little on special effects and more on the effective story. “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Knight” both focus on dark, deep stories told with excellent direction and a fantastic cast. The characters are much more realistic and relatable, while the story, rather than the explosions or tacky jokes, are what drove the movies. Both movies are critically acclaimed and held up in the box office for extended periods of time. “The Dark Knight,” in particular, smashed quite a few box office records and ended up as the second-highest grossing North American film behind “Titanic.”

Gimmicks are never what win people over. Even a movie like “Titanic,” which had plenty of effects for its climactic ending, will be remembered because of its love story. A whole lot of cracks in a boat would’ve done little if you had no reason to root for the main characters, though most guys might’ve had enough of all the sap by the end of the movie.

But with technology advancing along with filmmaking, overindulgence in special effects is inevitable. There are bound to be more and more film purists as all of these two-bit blockbusters come out, purists that are craving for a time when the story took precedence, not only because it could, but because that’s what making movies was all about.

There was once a time when special effects were unheard of and movies were cherished for their simplicity. Let’s hope that time hasn’t been forgotten in the past, or exploded along with everything else.