Over the last week I’ve watched two films; the latest Spider Man film, Homecoming released this year and Wolfen, a cult horror film from 1981.Both are good films in their own ways with Homecoming following the Marvel formula down to a tee, while Wolfen is an interesting eco-horror film from Michael Wadleigh who directed Woodstock. If you’ve not heard of it check it out as Albert Finney turns in a nice performance, Wadleigh uses the then new Steadicam to brilliant effect, James Horner tries out his Wrath of Khan score and there’s some nice nasty gore.
While watching Wolfen after Homecoming one scene on both films showed how film-making has changed in the 35 years between films. Both have crucial scenes of exposition and plot that act to push on character too but there’s a difference and here’s why.
There’s a scene in Homecoming after the ferry scene where Peter Parker is bollocked by Tony Stark who feels let down by Peter. There’s a lot going on in this scene and is arguably, the dramatic crux of the film. Both Downey and Holland turn in good performances but have a look at the scene…
The CGI backgrounds jar to the point where the brain doesn’t accept the unreality of the setting of the scene as it tries to process it so what should be the key scene is muted because it’s directed so blandly thanks to the reliance on CGI. At every point in this scene it is clearly two actors in a studio in front of a green screen. Now take this scene from Wolfen where Albert Finney climbs Manhattan Bridge in again, a crucial dramatic scene.
No green screen, just a pair of actors on top of a very, very, very high bridge with the wind in their hair and the incredible background of a very real New York City behind them. Now both are good scenes but what one looks and feels better? It isn’t the one that looks bland.
CGI is a tool. It can help enhance a film, but it has also become a crutch which is a shame as films start to look less like works of cinema than just extended cut-scenes. CGI should help film the unfilmable not just make it so actors just react in studios to as little external stimulus as possible. Look at the Wolfen scene again, both Finney and an incredibly young Edward James Olmos are using their environment to help make their performances, and the scene, better. Holland and Downey are reading their lines and doing the best they can but there’s only so much they can do.
Perhaps filmmakers will return to the idea of filming in the real world wherever they can, but with studios so keen to churn out ‘product’ it seems CGI will continue to be used when better, even cheaper options are available just because they can.