Back again for another highly opinionated — some might even say downright cranky — look at some element of the fantasy genre. You’ve been warned!
SHOULD DIRECTORS GET A “DO-OVER” ON THEIR MOVIES’ SPECIAL EFFECTS?
Last weekend, I watched Star Trek: The Motion Picture. For years, I was one of its few defenders, mostly because I really liked the twist about who “V-ger” turned out to be.
Well, I was wrong before. It’s pretty much a terrible movie. There’s, um, no story: it’s two and a half hours of the Enterprise flying into a cloud.
But I did notice one thing: the special effects were pretty darn good for 1979, when the movie was released.
Indeed, they looked a little too good.
Sure enough, upon a little investigation, I discovered that the director, Robert Wise (yes, the Sound of Music guy), did a “re-edit” in 2001, redoing most of the special effects with CGI. This is now the version that’s available on DVD.
This is a really, really bad idea.
Movies are moments in time: cultural snapshots. Everything about them — their pacing, their style of acting, and, yes, their special effects — reflects the time in which they were made. A couple of months ago, I watched the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Total Recall, keeping in mind that its state-of-the-art (at the time) special effects were jaw-dropping.
Let’s just say they’re not jaw-dropping anymore. In fact, they’re downright laughable — especially the final scene when Schwarzenegger and Rachel Ticotin are outside on the planet without face-masks and their eyeballs start to burst.
And this was only 1990!
But seeing this was fascinating to me. In fact, this is a very large part of the pleasure of movies for me: seeing how times, and perspectives, change. This is impossible if the movie itself has changed since you watched it the first time. One of the great pleasures we derive from movies ceases to be.
Besides, special effects are constantly improving by leaps and bounds, and it’s a fool’s errand for a director to keep them updated. Where does it stop? Re-editing a movie every ten years?
Which, of course, brings us to Star Wars.
In 1997, George Lucas famously reedited the original trilogy, adding new (old) footage and GCI effects that he said were much closer to his original vision.
At the time, he said:
There will only be one [version]. And it won’t be what I would call the “rough cut,” it’ll be the “final cut.” The other one will be some sort of interesting artifact that people will look at and say, “There was an earlier draft of this.” The same thing happens with plays and earlier drafts of books. In essence, films never get finished, they get abandoned. At some point, you’re dragged off the picture kicking and screaming while somebody says, “Okay, it’s done.” That isn’t really the way it should work.
And at the time, I agreed with him enthusiastically. I loved the new edit. Wow, look how big Mos Eisley is now! Whoa, that’s a new scene of Jabba with Han next to the Millennium Falcon!
But like virtually every decision Lucas has made since about 1982, he just couldn’t have been more wrong, could he? Movies do get finished — they have to be. And that’s exactly the way it should work.
Why? Well, have you tried watching the 1997 re-edits lately? I have, and it’s the same great 1970s/1980s movies you remember — with a bunch of very incredibly outdated 1997 CGI thrown in.
In other words, special effects have since changed again, and now the movies look clunky. Not just that, they feel confused. Is this a movie from 1977? 1997?
Okay, sure, maybe it’s one thing to do another “cut” of the film, like James Cameron did with his 1996 version of Aliens, even adding back original footage that had to be cut for a theatrical release due to time constraints. In the case of Aliens, learning about Ripley’s dead daughter does make the movie much richer. Peter Jackson’s additions to The Lord of the Rings made those movies richer too.
And obviously these movies have to be re-mastered for Blu-Ray releases. Frankly, I respect these directors enough to let them tinker with their babies a bit — providing they keep the original look, tone, and internal consistency of the original movie.
But literally re-doing the special effects and completely changing scenes, as both George Lucas and Robert Wise did with their movies?
As trendy as it’s been, it’s a terrible idea. And as the years go by, it will become increasingly obvious just how terrible it is.
Well, this week’s flame has sputtered out, but join me again next time when I promise I won’t be nearly so cranky.
Oh, who am I kidding?!
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