(Contains major spoilers for Lexx season two, Spider-Man 2, Superman the Movie, and minor spoilers for Alien, Aliens, Die Hard and Die Hard 4, and both versions of The Day the Earth Stood Still.
Has a swear word.
May contain traces of nuts.)
One of the issues I’m having an increasing problem with is size. Movies and television are both guilty, and I’m just a bit over it.
Once the scale of a thing exceeds a certain level, it’s hard to maintain a comfortable suspension of disbelief. Now that doesn’t have to just be about physical size, it can be able the scale of a concept, or the way the action or drama is built.
Hollywood doesn’t seem to quite get this, and by way of example I’ll pull out one of the many, many pointless remakes. The one I’m thinking of is The Day the Earth Stood Still, with Keanu Reeves. Let’s forget about all the ways in which it’s emotionally wrong, and the way they stuffed up Klaatu’s character, and simply look at Gort.
In the original film, Gort is about 8 feet tall. That’s a big humanoid shape, but it’s at a level we can still comprehend. There are plenty of people around who are 6 feet tall, and enough folks hitting the 7 foot mark that 8 doesn’t feel like an enormous stretch. Gort was played by a man called Lock Martin who was 7′ 7″ tall (about 2.3m), so he was only a bit shorter than the metal man he portrayed. By the time you factor in the boots and the helmet, you’re hitting 8 feet.
Being a man in a suit, Martin was always right there on the set and with the other actors, so they could shoot him effectively and we always had a solid sense of size and scale. In the remake, Gort is 28 feet tall. Now that’s not massive, but it does make it far too big to be a believable human size. So there’s one strike against the suspension of disbelief. Then, instead of going with forced perspective or a big physical prop, they chose to go with a computer graphic version of Gort. And that was the second beating our belief took.
I’m a fan of computer graphics. I love them. I have worked hard to get something looking photo-realistic, or at least close to it. CG is a fabulous tool, and it can give you amazing results, but to get those results requires a hell of a lot of work, and it often seems to be that Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand that.
There’s an old adage, “I can do it fast, I can do it well, or I can do it cheap. Pick any two.” I have the feeling that the studio execs keep sitting there when told this and whining, “But I want all three!” over and over again. Inevitably it feels as if they go for fast and cheap.
There’s no reason Gort couldn’t have looked totally believable as a giant robot, but the CG wasn’t good enough for that. Plus, and I’ll be coming back to this point again and again, bigger isn’t necessarily more threatening or scary, often it’s just bigger. Worse, it usually steps some way beyond our comprehension.
Gort in the original wasn’t huge, but he was believably big and he had the power to destroy whatever he wished. This is beautifully illustrated in the film as he first takes out some guns, then moves on to the bigger stuff. As his targets get bigger, without over-playing it, they successfully have the audience questioning just how powerful the robot actually is. And the genius of it was an element they took from the original short story – the robot rarely moves. Most of the time he doesn’t need to move.
Maybe it’s just me, but I find something that is small and powerful a lot more impressive. Based on what we saw on screen in the original, by the end of the film I could believe Gort walking away from a bomb blast totally unharmed.
Some of that is Robert Wise’s direction, and the cleverness of the writing, and some comes down to the film making me believe in the first place. Part of that belief is because in most shots of the ship, the robot is a constant presence.
Now, it’s not like the CG bot couldn’t have been in more of the movie, assuming they wanted to pay the extra money to have it composited in and animated, but because we weren’t dealing with a real prop, and it was so big, there’s not a lot of material showing it with humans around it. I actually looked online for shots of the robot in scale with people and I couldn’t find a single still shot giving a decent sense of perspective.
That’s a real issue from a story telling point of view. It doesn’t give the audience time to fully comprehend the scale. The audience needs time to adjust to things they instinctively know are impossible. If they aren’t given that time, you may be able to wow them with a few moments, but they won’t necessarily believe in what they’re seeing.
Now, it’s not just The Day The Earth Stood Still that does this. There are a number of films that make the same mistake, and some television shows do it as well.
Another victim of the bigger-is-better mind-set are the stakes. Rather than telling a nice, tight little story, with a scale we can comprehend, all too often we get end of the world scenarios. Since coming back to our screens, Doctor Who has been particularly guilty of this. It’s the end of the world , the end of the universe, the end of time… There’s been fourteen of those sorts of stories in the six seasons since the show returned, and to a fair degree those concepts just become words.
The original series took eleven seasons to hit the same number, and of course the original tended to build those ideas up over a month or more.
Having a world in danger because someone is going to take it over is a scale that works, because one can imagine it thanks to it being shown in bite-sized pieces that represent what is happening everywhere else. Telling a small part of a bigger tale has been a successful story telling technique for a very long time. It works because it puts everything at a level the audience can associate with.
However, once you start talking about actually destroying a whole planet, it’s just too big. There’s no scale to that that we can comfortably get our heads around. It can be done, but it needs lead time to get the audience accepting of the idea first. In fact what sells it in the original Star Wars is first seeing Leia’s reaction to the news her planet’s going to be destroyed to make a point, followed by the actual build-up to firing – it’s not that quick and easy to blow up a planet. The other thing that sells it isn’t actually seeing the planet go boom, but seeing Obi Wan Kenobi’s reaction and description of what he experienced. It’s brought back to a personal level of reaction, albeit a mystical one.
And when you up the ante to being universal in scope, or talking about the end of time, that’s several orders of magnitude harder to pull off. But it has been done. The TV series Lexx actually manages to destroy an entire universe over the course of its second season, and pulls off the scale of the idea. How? By building up to it throughout the season.
First we’re treated to the destruction of smaller structures, then we build up to whole planets, then we get a story in which someone realises that the stars are going out, then we actually see what is happening to the stars, and finally we get to see what has become of the universe. This is done on a small budget, with very, very basic effects. It works because the scale gets built up over time, and we’re shown the destruction at increasing levels, giving us time to understand it.
The quality of the effects work doesn’t matter so much, because we’ve already bought into the story they’re being used to tell. So the effects are doing exactly what they should be doing – helping to tell the story. And because we’ve had time to comprehend the scale, they don’t have to be super-duper, photo realistic, CGI masterpieces for us to believe in what’s meant to be happening.
The other area where bigger is not always better is action and stunts. We are far more likely to believe in the action of a hero who is human than one who is super-human. Naturally there are exceptions to this, which I’ll come to.
The reason the first Die Hard movie was such a success was that after years of the seemingly indestructible Schwarzenegger and Stallone, here we had Bruce Willis. He’s not big and muscley. He’s the guy on the street, he’s fallible, and he can be hurt. At one point he gets glass in his foot, and as an audience we can fully understand how nasty that is – we’ve all had cuts, and most of us will have stood on something sharp at least once in our lives. He limps from that point on. He’s been injured by that same sort of thing that would have one of us limping, and so we believe.
Yes, the film has some big stunts. But only after we’ve had a reasonable amount of time to fully identify with John McClane as a human being as the action builds, which allows us to forget how unlikely some of it is, and just go with the story.
While Die Hard 4 is a reasonable film, the Willis character has become a superman. He can duck cars that are flipping over him and basically do anything. Oh he doesn’t do it easily, but the scale of the things he’s up against is beyond belief. Given a lot of that action relies of compositing and the ever present CG, there’s a hell of a lot that needs to be ignored consciously and subconsciously before we can just accept the story.
The protagonist has to be human. They have to show recognisable and believable emotional reactions. McClane does that in the first Die Hard, he’s scared, he can be hurt, a couple of victories make him cocky, so then he makes mistakes.
Ripley is a frail, believable human being through the first two Alien films, and her reactions help ground the movies in reality. She’s scared, angry, decisive, vengeful, caring, brave, intelligent, and able to improvise. All that work only falls down at the end of the second movie when she pulls off an incredible physical feat that people can’t believe. But then the film comes solidly back to its emotional core, and while we don’t forget super-Ripley, we ignore it because we’re happy the woman we love and respect finally has some closure.
That emotional core, that identification, is what makes the train sequence of the second Sam Raimi Spider-Man film work. Peter Parker is already a pretty human character, even though he has super powers. Then we get the battle on the train as he’s desperately fighting to save people. Yes, he pulls off some incredible saves, but then we get to two core moments of the whole scene.
The train is out of control, it’s going to crash and be destroyed. He gets in front of the train and starts shooting out webs to try and slow it down. He’s having to hold the webs with his hands and using his own body to slow the out of control vehicle.
The film-makers cleverly made sure his mask was off by this point, so we get to see the pain on his face and his sheer determination not to fail.. No-one can know what it’s like to try and stop a train this way, but because Peter has already established himself as a genuine person before this, we can’t help but imagine his pain and admire him as he shows his bravery and concern for the lives of these people.
He stops the train, and then collapses. And here’s the other moment that we identify with – the people on the train stop him from falling. They bring him in and we hear the comment, ‘he’s just a kid, no older than my son.’ Their lives have been saved by a youngster.
Doctor Octopus turns up, wanting Spider-Man, and the people step in front of our exhausted hero. He’s hurt, helpless. He saved them, now they’ll protect him. We identify with Peter Parker and the people he’s just saved.
It’s one of the best moments from any superhero movie ever made, and what sells it is the emotions and the fact we identify with virtually everyone. We understand their motivations, we understand what they’re willing to put themselves through, and so the scale of the heroics don’t matter – it’s all part of the story and the characters’ emotional journeys.
Meanwhile, the end of the first Christopher Reeve Superman movie suffers because of the scale of the save. Lois Lane is dead. Superman, overcome with rage and grief, flies screaming up into the sky and… starts flying around the planet anti-clockwise and reverses time, using that to save Lois’ life.
WTF? No seriously, WTfuckingF?! While we fully understand the emotion, at no point previously do we even get a hint that he has this level of power. There’s no build up, just a sudden, unbelievably massively epic save that doesn’t really fit with the rest of the movie.
What’s worse, it introduces an ability that would actually be kind of handy later but then gets ignored. It’s to the credit of the film-makers and Reeves’ acting that this moment doesn’t completely ruin the film with its sheer ridiculousness. But Reeves sells despair, frustration, anger, and determination as he defeats time and causality to save the day.
Then after it’s done, we get back to the smaller level and the emotions of the characters, rather than the scale. But it does say something about the size of the McGuffin that the idea and its silliness has entered popular culture.
Bigger does not equal better, more extreme action does not make for more effective action, special effects won’t save poor writing, and if we can’t believe in the characters or story, we don’t really care about what happens.
There’s a reason some films stand the test of time, why some episodes of a television show are considered classic, and it’s not to do with effects, big action, or implausibly huge stakes – the ones that worked made you believe in what was happening, and care about the stakes.
Make the audience believe and care, and that’s most of the battle won right there.
The rest is just icing.
1. For “End of the World” I only went for stories in which all human life would be wiped off the planet, or the planet would be destroyed. If I’d counted humans being enslaved, the numbers would have been higher. The count was a quick and dirty one, so I may have missed or added one. Point is, it’s rather a lot, especially when most stories are told in a single 45 min episode.
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I’ve long said that “Special effects do not a movie make” but this is a good pointer to why. The comments on scale are well made.