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Technology Reigns Supreme In Summer Of Fx

Fri., Aug. 9, 1996

Computerized Hollywood is giving the world new ways to dream, or perchance to live through waking nightmares.

From singing cockroaches to massive, hovering spaceships, cybertricks have been vying with one another to knock out moviegoers’ eyes all summer long.

The special-effects craze, born in George Lucas’ “Star Wars” and his Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) special-effects house, has gotten so mad that even the first Skywalker trilogy is not safe from “enhancement.” Entertainment Weekly reports that Lucas is rejiggering scenes involving Jabba the Hutt in “The Empire Strikes Back,” which will be re-released along with the first and third chapters, “Star Wars” and “Return of the Jedi,” in the winter of 1997.

“Independence Day,” the summer’s big hit, marks a huge comeback for 20th Century Fox, which also looks forward to a second windfall from the “Star Wars” films and the start of a second trilogy in 1999. But Fox will have plenty of rivals, as Hollywood goes all-out in the realms of science fiction and disaster movies.

The big F/X boom - which this summer has levitated livestock in a massive funnel cloud, tossed Tom Cruise aboard a high-speed Chunnel train and cloned Michael Keaton - reaches into nearly every film. Earlier movie years delivered eye-popping effects too: especially in the spectaculars of James Cameron, most memorably the shimmering water slinky in “The Abyss” and the liquescent metal humanoid in “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”

But no summer has ever rivaled this one. Blockbuster after blockbuster demonstrated that hard-drive technology reigns supreme in a new Hollywood that prizes digital artists as much as, or even more than, acting. Wired, a fat, glossy computer journal with splashy “Toy Story” graphics, recently headlined this story: “The New Hollywood: Silicon Replaces Superstars.”

Consider the summer’s lineup, beginning with “Twister” and its airborne cows and trucks. Next came “Mission: Impossible” and its fantastic helicopter-train rendezvous. The half-forgotten “The Arrival” featured impressive aliens whose knees bend creepily backward, while “Dragonheart” filled the screen with a fire-breathing reptile with the voice of Sean Connery.

“The Phantom” served up only modest special effects, which perhaps put a lid on its profits, but “The Rock,” which opened the same weekend, abounded in cinematic trickery, including a villain blown away aboard a missile. “The Cable Guy” also suffered from a lack of computerized magic, but “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” gloried in its milling crowd scenes, and “Eraser” propelled Arnold Schwarzenegger through a dazzling leap into a jet blast and free-fall, not all of which was stunt work. Then came Eddie Murphy, whose acting combined brilliantly with digital trickery in “The Nutty Professor.”

But it remained for “Independence Day,” the highly promoted “ID4,” to blow away the competition with a kaleidoscope of sometimes-layered special effects that made for great “how-they-did-it” television segments. Oddly enough, “Phenomenon,” released the same day, managed to hold its own through the power of an actor, John Travolta.

“Courage Under Fire,” like “Phenomenon,” was driven by its characters, although it took advantage of state-of-the-art technology for its war scenes. And “Multiplicity,” as with Murphy in “The Nutty Professor,” worked more because of Keaton’s powers of transformation than through the camera’s ability to put four of him in the same shot. More F/X fests followed. Some were impressive, like “The Frighteners,” with its pulsing walls and flying black wraith of death. Some were dumb, like “Kazaam,” or tiresome, like the live-action “The Adventures of Pinocchio.”

Computer effects competed so fiercely on big screens that even a 4-year-old Jackie Chan stunt show like “Supercop” or the pairing of Woody Harrelson and Randy Quaid in “Kingpin,” as a “Dumb and Dumber” team, seem oddly refreshing, especially when contrasted with musical-comedy cockroaches in “Joe’s Apartment.”

There is something scary, even nightmarish, about the possibility that leading players no longer need to be humans who demand, and get, $20 million a picture (with no guarantee of success, as with “Striptease,” and, to a lesser extent, “The Cable Guy”). Yet while computers certainly will manufacture sets, wild rides and countless other trompes l’oeil, flesh-and-blood, or “carbon-based,” actors and actresses will not go gently into movie retirement homes. Hollywood was built on the star system, and the media today care even more about what Bruce Willis and Demi Moore do off-screen that what they do on camera (especially in the case of her faltering career, which might be called Demi’s demise).

As the prominence of Willis and Moore suggests, today’s stars are not what they were during the heyday of the likes of the fictional Norma Desmond, who sings in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” “we gave the world new ways to dream.” Desmond underlines the mystical power of the larger-than-life human image in the ironic, sad “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

Before sound, before 3-D, before Cinemascope and Panavision, before Sensurround and THX, people, gifted and beautiful, captured the minds and hearts of the innocents and sophisticates who crowded into glorious, gorgeous movie palaces.

Charlie Chaplin danced like Nijinsky but better, because he was so much funnier. Buster Keaton’s stunts, done with minimal studio fakery, still have the power to amaze with their ineffable combination of sad-faced self-absorption and effortless derring-do. And Douglas Fairbanks’ ripping ride down a sail in “The Black Pirate” or one-handed stand stab of a “poignard” in “The Three Musketeers” have no peers, certainly not in the enhanced stunt work of the muscle-bound Schwarzenegger or the nimble but hardly dazzling Cruise.

As the movies gain in technical expertise, they also lose their greatest strength: the power of humans to fill audiences with wonder. “ID4” and other “ride” extravaganzas are fun to watch. But they can’t begin to touch the old ways to dream.


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