Avengers: Age of Ultron opened this month as the box office steamroller it was destined to be. Much of the critical response to the film has been lukewarm, however, citing the bloated visual effects action sequences as a source of lethargy. This is hardly a new sentiment. As early as 2006, a discussion began in the media that continues sporadically: when will audiences finally grow weary of the visual effects reign of terror?
The box office indicates that the answer may be never. When looking at a list of the worldwide top grossing films of all time, there is not a single film that is not reliant on effects work. (Even Mama Mia, which clocked in at 97, employed a visual effects crew—yes, many of those idyllic Greek island vistas were the product of green screens and compositors.) Meanwhile, the popularity of superhero films affirms there is a global audience with an essentially unending appetite for them. And yet there is the sense right now in the critical establishment that the spectacle of movies has reached an untenable pitch of over-the-top effects-driven destruction, and that the people who make these effects are in fact responsible for the downward slide of the art of cinema.
A recent article in Variety, "Avengers and the Age of CGI Overkill in Hollywood," outlines the general principle: somehow the technology is to blame here. It's too profitable and too easy. Those who wield the power can't help but keep pushing the VFX button, and it has ruined the movies. But decrying the use of visual effects in movies fails to look at the multi-national global complex that now comprises film financing. Not only does the Variety article fail to assign any responsibility to the director of the latest Avengers film, it does not even begin to allude to the economic forces that are driving these decisions. Incidentally, these same economic forces keep VFX houses perpetually in the red, and far away from making the financial and artistic decisions that comprise the content they are contracted to generate.
Pitting artistry against technology implies that filmmaking is one thing and "CGI wizardry" is something else. It also reflects an ignorance about just how pervasive image manipulation is in everything we watch—Birdman being the latest film to be touted as an intelligent critique of the glut of franchise films, even as it too was a product of the same sophisticated VFX those films employ. There is no argument here over the fact that action sequences have become overly long, brainless, and punishing to watch. But rather than holding filmmakers responsible for the way in which they use the VFX tools available to them, critics imply it is the medium itself that is culpable, as if it can only be used in one way: a shock and awe campaign beating audiences into submission.
Blaming computers for the dumbing down of movies has become a journalistic trope
This discussion is partially attributable to the age old tension between high and low art forms; the argument over what appeals to the masses versus what has intellectual value. It also speaks to our growing ambivalence about living in an increasingly technological world. We are attracted to technology, even though we may not always understand it. At times we feel beholden to it. But, with entertainment media being inextricably invested in the financial success of the Hollywood establishment if not, at times, its mouthpiece, there may be something even more sinister happening beneath the surface of the debate.
The international subsidies-driven business model under which VFX companies operate has been well documented. In pursuit of tax rebates offered by various governments to produce films in their jurisdiction, studios insist that VFX companies open branches in these locations or reduce their bids by the amount of the subsidy in question. Even as studios, directors, and audiences demand the latest in cutting edge technology, VFX houses must underbid one another to get the work and many have been shuttered due to operational losses in the wake of explosive blockbuster budgets. The cost of research and development, shrinking schedules, and the unlimited changes that are the building blocks of every tentpole film, are shouldered entirely by VFX houses. Devaluing their product in the public discourse has become part of a larger strategy towards keeping costs down and profits squarely in the pockets of studios.
In 2010, James Cameron's Avatar became the highest grossing film of all time just 41 days after its release, raking in an incredible $2.7 billion by the end of its run. Weta Digital, the VFX studio that created the majority of the visual effects, along with Lightstorm Entertainment, invested years in developing the tools and talent necessary to create Cameron's almost entirely computer generated vision, with the cost of making the film rumored to be upwards of $500 million. Cameron had promised to show the world what visual effects could do and he succeeded. The results were universally lauded as visually stunning and unparalleled.
Yet, rather famously, the film and Cameron were snubbed that year at the Academy Awards, both for Best Picture and Best Director. The blame was laid at the feet of the critical success of The Hurt Locker. However, awarding Avatar the Academy's highest honor would have been acknowledging visual effects as not only lucrative, but high art as well, worthy of its astronomical price tag. And that was a bargaining chip Hollywood was unwilling to concede to an industry it continues to hold hostage with threats of outsourcing to unskilled laborers around the globe.
As the debate surrounding what visual effects are worth rages on, it is clear that the studios themselves have an interest in perpetuating the myth that VFX are the product of clinical assembly lines and the results are equally lifeless and mechanical. Blaming computers for the dumbing down of movies has become a journalistic trope that is bandied about to squeeze the one part of the Hollywood machine that has no union or organizational skill to push back. The right hand asserts they are something not worth paying top dollar for, while the left lines up an interminable roster of VFX-based box office juggernauts for the foreseeable future. Even as big budget franchises continue to dominate the box office, the studios will do whatever it takes to keep costs down until audiences truly do tire of their superhero agenda.