Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Dark Side of Digital Effects

So happy New Year, everyone! On to my pointless ramblings....

This afternoon, my wife, her brother, and I went to see King Kong. I have to admit, I had some pretty high expectations. For the past three years, the Lord of the Rings special extended edition box sets have been very high on my Christmas lists. I think that Peter Jackson is a wizard when it comes to film making, and so I figured that if anyone could breathe life into the original black-and-white Kong, it was him.

Sadly, I'm disappointed. While there was nothing technically wrong with Jackson's Kong, I have to say, it left a sour taste in my mouth.

Why? The length. Three and a half hours. Why the heck did Peter think this movie needed to be that long?

Granted, the original was rather two-dimensional (maybe even one, depending on how you count). It's clear from watching it that no one knew much of anything about apes. It was not politcally correct, and sure, it needed a little emotional subtext. And yes, the old black-and-white's effects are laughable by today's standards. It could stand a good update.

But three and a half hours?

To put it in perspective, my brother-in-law commented afterwards that by the time Adrian Brody, Jack Black, and Naomi Watts find Kong in this version, the original would have been over. There's some perspective for you.

The problem, Mr. Jackosn, is that you lost perspective on why people would go to this movie. We go to see Kong climb the Empire State Building and then get shot off of it. Maybe we go to see him wrestle a few dinosaurs as well. But it's the last scene that's the selling point.

I think what happened was that Jackson has been seduced by the Dark Side of Digital Effects (named in honor of the person who was first seduced by it, George Lucas). Jackson decided that since he could create dinosaurs that were more photorealistic than the ones in Jurassic Park, because he could render hideous bugs the size of schnauzers, because he could recreate a scene from Bambi using an immense ape, he should.

That's the danger of digital effects. When everything is possible, people tend to lose themselves.

It's the same thing that destroyed the Star Wars prequel trilogy. George could suddenly create the rich world that had been banging around in his head. The problem with that was, he tried to substitute that for more traditional and necessary components of movie making like plot and characterization and, dare I say, acting. Instead of getting a gripping story with memorable characters, we got a lot of flashign digital lights and teeth shattering THX loud noises.

Peter Jackson almost crossed into the same territory. Almost. He was able to get some good performances out of Watts, Brody, and Jack Black's eyebrows. He was able to add some subtext to his story that Lucas never got in the prequels. But that doesn't excuse the mammoth length to this monster movie.

There's a handy dictum that today's filmmakers, especially those making big-budget, tentpole blockbusters, should repeat. They should make it their mantra:

Just because I can do it doesn't mean that I should.

If Jackson had kept that in mind, maybe we would have had a trimmer, slimmer, speedier Kong.