The End of Spectacle in an "Era of Casual Magic"

Solid piece over at the Dissolve by Matt Singer, drawing in turn on an equally impressive essay by HitFlix's Drew McWeeny (aka Moriarty, late of Ain't It Cool News). Singer, a lifelong Spider-Man fan, saw the new movie and found himself oddly unmoved, observing that Marc Webb had made the best-looking movie about the character yet, though he adds that "it's unlikely anyone will notice."

Certainly The Amazing Spider-Man 2 will make a lot of money. And audiences will no doubt enjoy the film's impressive visuals while they're watching them. But will they dwell on them for even a second after they leave the theater? A year from now, will they be able to distinguish between Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Amazing Spider-Man 1, or even the old Spider-Man series by Sam Raimi? Will they have any kind of impact on anyone at all? Probably not.

Singer's take is that as movies have become increasingly reliant on incredible CGI sequences, their effect on viewers has become weirdly flat. Whereas 2001, the original Star Wars movies, Jurassic Park, or Lord of the Rings could provide astonishing visuals the likes of which no one had seen in a movie before, today's spectacles are oddly workaday. They're incredibly well-done for the most part, but they don't evoke any real sense of wonder or imagination. In McWeeny's "era of casual magic," even films that would have been B-movies just 20 or 30 years ago are made by armies of artists using the very latest technology. The cumulative result is that all those otherworldly vistas, lifelike creatures, and superhuman feats tend to become indistinguishable from one another. He quotes McWeeny as saying that big budget blockbusters have become the cinematic equivalent of an ice cream-only diet:

There is nothing more dangerous to storytellers than the idea of an audience that is incapable of awe anymore, and yet that's what our studio system seems determined to create. It's like putting someone on an all ice cream diet. If you forced someone to eat ice cream breakfast, lunch, and dinner without any interruption, that person would eventually learn to detest ice cream. The thought of it would make them physically ill. You would destroy it for them.

In both cases, Singer and McWeeny's prescription for "empty calorie" filmmaking isn't so much a turn against effects-based movies as a plea for more intelligent uses of the techniques and better storytelling, citing examples of movies like Under The Skin and Only God Forgives in which advanced technology was pervasive but largely invisible. (I'd throw in Grand Budapest Hotel, which is full of quaint visual effects that look old-fashioned and handmade but were mostly CGI.) It's hard to argue against this critique, though on some level I have to wonder if it isn't also a kind of middle-aged Gen-X grumbling. When I was a kid, there was a huge backlash against effects-based genre movies by critics who argued that Lucas and Spielberg had ruined American cinema, though people my age rejected that as old fogeyism. Now that effects franchises have become the default setting for most studio productions, and those kids have grown up, is it possible that they've become more jaded about the things they used to love?