At the moment, Disney's mega-expensive effects epic Oz the Great and Powerful is on track to be a big hit this weekend. And while that's certainly good news for the movie business, it might not be so great for actual movies. If Oz is a big boffo smash it will only further solidify the industry's commitment to hyper-computerized 3D filmmaking, an unpleasant stylistic trend that's increasingly not seeming like a trend at all. How long until any semblance of the real is gone?
I've already complained about this in my review of Oz, so I may sound like a bit of a broken record, harping on and on about the emptiness and woodenness of overly CGI'd movies, but the thing is this over-reliance on computer spectacle really is doing a number on movies. Look what it did to the once-wonderful world of Peter Jackson. The Hobbit came whirring out like a automaton drone dome to be lost in the wilds of the uncanny valley forever. Sure, it was also hobbled by its narrative failures, just like Oz is, but the remoteness of both films' digital aesthetics certainly created the (cowardly) lion's share of the problems. With Oz in particular, the siren song of limitless digital effects lured director Sam Raimi in completely the wrong direction, down the same path that led Tim Burton to Alice and Wonderland and its digital incoherency. Of course, the prospect of creating an entire world where literally anything is possible must have appealed to these directors, but something is lost in the journey between thought and execution with this technology, too many processes and algorithms make everything brittle, inert.
That's not what Oz should be, nor Wonderland, nor Middle Earth, nor anywhere else that's supposed to thrill and enchant and transport. In Oz's particular case, whether Raimi likes it or not we're going to be comparing this film to The Wizard of Oz, because that movie is a classic marvel of filmic inventiveness and design. Perhaps Raimi and his effects team assumed that they were doing the same thing, using the technology of the day to wow audiences with dazzling images. But the 1939 crew was using paint and props and backdrops and other tangible things. There's a charm in that quaintness, a lasting idea that Oz is a land that looks a little staged, a little tacked together. I'm sure that wasn't the filmmakers' original intent, of course, but nonetheless The Wizard of Oz survives today partly because of that gum-and-gumption appeal. But these contemporary filmmakers have godlike powers at their fingertips, and so they tend to overindulge. (For example, why is the first part of Oz, the one set in sepia-tone Kansas, all done up with computer graphics? Why not just film the damn thing somewhere that looks like Kansas?) In a blind pursuit to top what the other guy just did, they become only concerned with whether they can instead of whether they should. (To borrow a line from Jurassic Park, a fine example of using computer wizardry in efficient and unintrusive ways, which is of course coming to a theater near you in 3D next month.) Does Oz really need to be all faked? Does the world of Bilbo and friends need to be in distracting 3D? These are aesthetic questions, germane to their specific films, that these directors don't seem to be asking themselves, so preoccupied are they with pulling new tricks with all their cool new toys. They also don't bother much with story, figuring that we'll be too dazzled to notice.
I keep imagining what Oz the Great and Powerful would have looked like had they done more location filming or simply employed a lighter touch with all the synthesized stuff. It could have been something truly wonderful, something like Jurassic Park or District 9, movies that nimbly used the technology of their day without completely giving themselves over to its power. These movies are textured and alive in a way that nothing in Alice in Wonderland, drab and remote as all the effects made that movie. Perhaps the best example of this blend is what Peter Jackson did with his wondrous Lord of the Rings trilogy, seamlessly blending real-life South Island vistas with computer wizardry. And those movies were made over ten years ago! How have we gotten to a place where things look worse? Sure, The Hobbit also did location filming in New Zealand, but there was that ever-present added smear of CGI, mixing terribly with the 3D, that completely block you from having an immersive experience. But the movie went and made a billion dollars anyway, so there's nothing to really stop Jackson or anyone else from doing it again. It's dispiriting and it makes me worry about the future of epic filmmaking. I'm sure some geniuses will come along and grace us with something incredible every so often — Ang Lee came close with the mostly computer animated Life of Pi — but the increasing frequency of these soulless digital romps through nothingness does not spell good things for the future of moviegoing. Thanks a lot, James Cameron. And George Lucas. And Robert Zemeckis.
I'm sad that this had to be our return to Oz. (Well, this is our Return to Oz, but you know what I mean.) A place once vibrant and transporting and silly in a homey way has been turned into a slick moneymaking machine like so much corporate digitize-by-numbers work before it. Disney had something potentially great here and all they did with it was try to make it like Alice in Wonderland. Not good old Alice in Wonderland, new terrible Alice in Wonderland. Which, OK, fine, made a billion dollars, just like The Hobbit. But who thinks those movies are classics? Nobody. How far will they go down in movie history? Not very. Well, they might be seen as signposts on the way to something bad; they could certainly play a part in a sad, dark history. But they won't be parts of the beloved canon, because there's nothing to hold onto, it's all smooth and featureless. Ultimately these studios are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on movies only they will remember.