The New CGI Effect

The Matrix didn’t have me. I’ve noticed a disturbing and annoying trend in the big blockbuster epics in the last couple years, and it happened again in The Matrix: Revolutions.

The following may contain minor spoilers for the new Matrix movie, but the discussion goes beyond that one movie. It’s a fairly safe read even if you haven’t seen it, as I don’t detail specific turning points in the plot. Oh heck — you die-hards have already seen it. Twice.

When creating conflict in fiction, there’s a point of diminishing returns when it comes to heaping opposition on to the good guys. If the enemy is strong, you create tension. If the enemy is overwhelming, you can have the viewer on the edge of their seat. There’s a limit to this effect, however. If the enemy is so completely overwhelming that “our side” has no hope in hell of even coming close to defeating them, the tension tends to evaporate.

The Matrix: Revolutions has an extended battle in the middle wherein bazillions of the attack-machines (I believe the characters refer to them as “squids”) are swarming into the human city of Zion. In an attempt to awe the viewer, the directors pour so many of these machines into the battle that the mass of them almost appear to flow like water; you can barely distinguish individual squids because there are so very many of them, and they’re moving so fast.

The humans’ weapons are giant man-shaped robots with machine guns. Each such robot is controlled by a single operator seated in the abdomen. Throughout the battle, the humans are pouring massive amounts of ammunition into the squids. We’re continually watching the dead squids fall like rain out of the swarm. Unfortunately for the humans, there are so many squids that this never even seems to make a dent in the onslaught.

When a battle scene reaches this point, it suddenly ceases to matter. The viewer knows that the battle is not going to decide the story. It can’t, because there’s no possibility that the humans can beat them in a straight shooting match; they must win some other way. The shooting battle becomes just so much filler, and we start looking around for the other plotlines that are actually going to advance the movie. (It was funny… as the movie progressed I started imagining the following conversation going on somewhere behind the front lines: “How many of them are there?” “Infinite, Sir!” “How many have we killed?” “Three billion four hundred sixty-eight thousand eight hundred and two, Sir!” “How many are left?” “Um… still Infinite, Sir!”) The extreme nature of the movie was spoofing itself.

The other problem is that this type of storytelling becomes far more concerned with numbers than individuals, and you lose the human element. With the recent advances in CGI effects in moviemaking, this is becoming more of a problem. We see it here, we saw it in the (anti)climactic battle scene in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. With the existence of technology that makes turning a hundred extras into an army of 100,000 as easy as cut-and-past, we’re going to keep seeing it in more and more movies until Hollywood once again remembers that the effects must serve the story.

Preceding the movie, I saw a trailer for the upcoming movie Troy. In it we see a Greek(?) warship sailing along. Slowly the camera pans back… now we see three… then five… ten… twenty… fifty… one hundred…. The camera is going faster now. Five hundred. A thousand. Back and back and back until the screen is completely filled with an endless armada of pinprick-sized ships stretching to the horizon. In the darkness I hear someone laugh and mutter, “I don’t think there were that many ships in the World then.” They’re probably right.

To quote the oh-so-wise-and-deep Matrix slogan, “everything that has a beginning, has an end.” Hopefully this trend will end — at least until the next big breakthrough in movie effects comes along (“Smell-O-Vision” perhaps? “Magic Eye” The Movie?). I almost entirely stopped watching TV a few years back. Movies may be next. What a shame.

3 Responses to “The New CGI Effect”

  1. Strider Says:

    Quick clarification: I liked the first Matrix movie. The second was decent, even though it abandoned many of the key points of the first. The third had very little going for it, which retroactively spoils the second; as the open-ended second will never have a satisfactory conclusion.

  2. Dan Janowak Says:

    So what you are saying is that Hollywood has a new toy or several. I guess that we just have to wait for the entrenched wonder bringers to fade to black so that a real story teller can once again climb to center stage. Once the technology is more widespread a storyteller can gain access to it more easily.

  3. Dan Janowak Says:

    Roughly 1400 BC Minoan crete fell to an army that sailed to it.

    200 years later a Greek Army sailed to Troy.

    700 BC the Phoenicians had the first dedicated warships, the bireme. 300 years later the trireme was developed AND became the mainstay of the armada. The trireme was also the first warship to be so specialized that it could only do one thing and that didn’t include doubling as a military transport, although they did engage in boarding manuevers.

    When the Persian Empire invaded Greece the second time, it brought 400 warships and was surprised to find a similar number of Athenian triremes waiting for it even though Athens was a single city state. They were also surprised to find 300 Spartans hold off their entire army at Thermopylae. But the Persian army of some tens of thousands was supplied via ships not a land caravan. It is a lot harder to raid the food when it is surrounded by 400 warships. So the Persians probably had upwards of 700 ships with them and possibly 1000.

    This was considerably after Troy. At the time of troy biremes and triremes did not exist. It was just a bunch of boats carrying a bunch of heavily armed and armored men (of that age).

    It is also noteworthy that when the Persians came to crush the Athenian navy, they were better trained and had better built triremes that were faster and more manueverable. But the Athenians were fighting on home turf, fighting for their lives, and they lured the Persians into waters that had no manueverability and the trap was sprung.

    Because triremes and crew don’t carry supplies to last more than a couple days, they tend to land each night so that when battles do come they don’t have to land each night, they can land each third night or whatever. This is how the Spartans later defeated Athens around 400 BC. They destroyed the Athenian Navy while it was beached.

    But back to Troy. The ‘war’ ships were not single purpose warships. More likely the fleet was like the D-Day invasion without the warships. Anything that was sea worthy.

    Of course in that day when a neighboring city asked for reinforcements you sent them 9 or 10 men.

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