The Supercilious Side Effects of F/X

What really sets off my allergies this time of year—the start of blockbuster season—is the inflorescence of cinephilia. The welcome boom of meticulously sound-edited explosions is met by a countervailing chorus of gassy ­Criterion collectors huffing out their blanket disdain for special effects. “The VFX industry is broken!” “CGI is going backward!” “The worm guys in Men in Black: International looked way better in the original!” (Get neuralyzed, twerps. Since when did the fourth movie in a commodity sci-fi franchise ever care about outvisualizing the first?) Their complaint is either idiotic, disingenuous, or both. Idiotic because virtual simulacra have never popped more eyeballs. Beyond the tools showcased by big-budget effects-fests, like ray tracing and VR filmmaking inside Unity gaming engines, even the best of what the snoots call realist cineMAH exploits VFX—from the scene extensions in Parasite and the backgrounds in Roma to the editing stitch-ups of 1917 and Dunkirk. It’s disingenuous, meanwhile, because these complainers are so inconsistent. They point and guffaw at a de-aged Will Smith, a marvel of a digitized human, but when a shabby Mona Lisa deepfake moves her quasi-smiling lips? They scream and flee faster than fin-de-siècle theatergoers at the arrival of a train. How does it make sense to trash-talk Hollywood breakthroughs while simultaneously prophesying the end times at the flicker of a face swap? Because, in truth, cinephiles don’t hate special effects. They’re scared of them. In the pits of their fraudulent souls, they fear that, someday soon, they’ll no longer be able to tell real from fake. Reality check: They already can’t.


This article appears in the May issue. Subscribe now.


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