Remember in the 70s, when the first Superman movie was coming out, and the posters and ads all were saying, “You will believe that a man can fly”? Well, we watched it, and it was a little better than the old black and white TV shows with the overweight, middle-aged superman who was obviously lying on a barstool while they rear-projected clouds going behind him, but we didn’t believe a man could fly. That really wasn’t what it was about anyway. I mean, if you wanted to fly, you could get in a 747 and fly. Flying wasn’t really that big a deal. Falling, now there’s something that will get your attention. From the time Harold Lloyd hung off the hands of that giant clock over New York gravity has been the driving device in action movies. Why? Because we’re all afraid of falling. We’ve all fallen short distances: off our bikes, off a stepladder, off our barstool, and gravity pretty much showed us that gravity was something we should be afraid of. But not any more.
It’s like this:When movies were first invented, and someone had the bright idea of exhibiting them to the public, the stories were full of people going from place to place. If a guy went to the drug store, you saw him go to the drug store, you saw him moving because they could show you him moving. Eventually things settled down and people just started telling stories again, and the scenes made the story move, but not necessarily in a kinetic way. Well, I think we’re in a similar place with computer generated graphics. The guys who do CG have realized that they are no longer bound by the rules of the physical world, they no longer have to obey the laws of physics – anyone and anything can fly now, and look completely real doing it, and it’s just a swell way to fill up that big-ass screen, to have people flying from one side to the other, and they are so excited about being able to do it, they are doing it to death.
I’ve just returned from watching the movie Van Helsing, and in Van Helsing, everyone can fly, supernaturally endowed or not, gravity just doesn’t seem to have any effect on anyone. Within ten minutes of the movie opening, Hugh Jackman falls from the Cathedral at Notre Dame twice, and remains quite unharmed due to some distinctively cartoon physics and clever rope work, five minutes later Kate Beckensale is dropped first about fifty feet onto a three-story building, then falls off the building, swings, face-first into a tree, falls thirty-feet down the tree, hitting every branch on the way down, then is swept into the sky by a vampire and dropped through the roof of a second building, falls through three floors, then gets up, brushes herself off, and proceeds to run up the wall and do a back-flip that takes her a good twelve feet off the floor. Nice vertical leap. Kate and Hugh, by the way, although very well conditioned, are human characters. Don’t even get me started with the flying vampires, the mini-vampires with the three-foot wingspan taking off into the sky with full-grown humans in tow…
As I said, everyone, more or less, can fly. And no one, regardless of good or bad guy, seems to sustain injury from a fall, regardless of the distance.
Now I’m buying that Van Helsing is a sort of James Bond for the Vatican. I’m buying that Dracula has financed Dr. Frankenstein so that he can bring his creepy little gargoyle children to life with that old Frankenstein fire. And I’m even buying that somehow werewolves figure into the story for some reason other than we get to watch them change. I’m buying all this stuff, despite the fact that Dracula looks a lot like a singer from a bad 80s Goth band – think Robert Smith only less masculine – Give Robert Smith some Boy George hair and you’re there, and despite that they have Kate Beckensale dressed in Prince’s outfit from the Purple Rain tour, and that somehow, through the magic of make-up, they have managed to make one of the most beautiful women in the business look like a Russian truck-stop hooker, I’m buying it all. But when the physics go completely awry, when big heavy things don’t behave like big heavy things, when everyone in the movie can spontaneously swing on improvised, mile-long cables and hit their mark perfectly, well hell, what’s the use? It just becomes stupid.
I don’t know whether to blame Superman, or Crouching Tiger, or Spiderman, but somewhere we forgot that just because you can do something on film, doesn’t mean that you should do something on film. And I’m talking to you guys who are doing the bestiality porn as well, by the way. Just because you like armadillos and pink vinyl does not mean that you need to share your passion.) I’ve recently watched The Hulk, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Hellboy, and all of these have suffered from the same “screw the physics let’s fill up the screen with shit happening” flaw. And all left me a little exhausted, and completely unengaged. The dialogue, when there was dialogue, was simply a seque to the next gravity-defying feat. And the thing is, I know these guys in CG work their asses off to get the physics right. That is, to get hair to move like hair, to blend the motion and perspective of the characters and their environments. In other words, they aren’t making mistakes on the execution basis, it’s on the conceptual basis. Consequently, we end up watching a very elaborate and shiny roadrunner cartoon. ( Half-way through Van Helsing I was expecting an anvil to fall on Hugh Jackman or for Kate Beckensale to strap on some Acme Rocket Shoes.) Frankly, the whole experience just tires me out, and I’m not the least bit concerned about any of the characters. (Although, once again, the Frankenstein monster turns out to be the most sympathetic character, and he’s stitched together from cold-cuts.) I wanted, I so wanted to like this movie. Instead I found myself wanting some comedy or drama or something besides motion.
Don’t believe me? Who played the kid in Terminator 3? Don’t remember do you? How about that twenty-minute fight scene between Keanu and thousands of Agent Smiths in Matrix 2. Could you have gotten the idea from say, the first thirty or so seconds of unlimited Smiths and invulnerable Neo? That’s all I’m saying. I’m hoping that the movies will mature past the sense of motion for motion’s sake, the same way that the elaborate Buzby Berkely musicals of the 30s, with their giant wedding cakes full of dancers in top hats and tails, or swimming pools full of synchronized thighs, gave way to musical storytelling like South Pacific and The King and I. Let’s hope. I’m exhausted.
Oh yeah, I also bought a new power drill today. I dropped the old one on the concrete floor in the garage and it broke. BECAUSE IN REALITY, GRAVITY HURTS