Im not a big fan of this image.

Whether it turns out to be a blockbuster or a bomb (I’m betting on it hitting big), there’s no doubt that next week’s release of Avatar is the last major Science Fiction event of the year in a year that has already had an amazing number of “important” genre films, whether it’s the action over substance of Transformers 2, the quiet subtlety of Moon, or the amazing blend of action and substantial themes in District 9.

Surprisingly it’s the action films that usually the far more dense plots. The stories behind Transformers 2 and the latest Star Trek film make little or no sense logically, but they’re deep nonsense. Transformers is about a secret message imprinted on the brain of a human that contains the secret to finding an artifact hidden by ancient robots with the potential to wipe out our sun. Star Trek is a story of multidimensional revenge that involves super-explosive red liquid, time travel, alternate realities, and the wholesale destruction of planets. It’s safe to bet that Sex in the City 2 won’t involve any red liquids more powerful than a bottle of wine…

But as compelling as all these different plot elements may be to imagine, they don’t really drive story, they drive spectacle. And the core of any modern Science Fiction film is the promise that (like the gun on the mantle) if a crazy idea is discussed in act one you’re going to see it in act three. So if someone mentions that a new starship comes with a weapon that “can punch a hole through the universe” then we had damn well better see that rip in the fabric of space/time by the end of the film, or we’re going to leave disappointed.

IO9 recently asked whether or not this abundance of CGI is “ruining movies”. While that’s an interesting way to look at the problem, I think the real question is much more subtle: How do we feel about the genre being hijacked by all this spectacle?

Hardcore fans often have a problem with spectacle being used an end in itself instead of a means to an end because we’re narrative nerds. We want a world we can inhabit through the characters.

It’s all good and well to have a 45 minute laser sword battle on a lava flow, but what matters more is what’s at stake for Ben and Anakin, especially if you already know how that fight is going to turn out. Ultimately its more compelling to see them fighting as an old man and a seven foot tall black-clad monster because we know Ben is battling to gain some time for Luke to escape. Having the old Jedi explain that he’s going to win the fight by losing it is just icing on the cake.

From a Hollywood point of view it’s also problem they can take all the way to the bank, since selling images don’t depend on the audience being able to make a genuine connection with anything but a big, fat explosion.

But like casual sex and comic books in the 90s, you end up feeling unfulfilled. The other challenge of spectacle is more nuanced, and so far, I think, mostly un-discussed. Lawrence Miles, on his Doctor Who blog, wrote a number of fascinating essays (since deleted, as he’s a bit eccentric) discussing the subtle differences between spectacle and narrative. His main point (as I see it) is that when we see computer generated imagery appear on our screens we immediately shift into a different mode as a viewer. On a subconscious level we recognize that we’re seeing something designed to be perceived as something other than narrative media.

Here’s how he described it:

Any CGI monster is by definition going to be regarded as a Special Effect rather than a natural part of the story. The advantage of a “real” monster, whether it’s a Dalek, a gasmask-zombie, or even a Muppet, is that it stops being bizarre after the first couple of minutes. The audience begins to treat it as a normal element of the story-world, and accepts it as a given fact, which means that we find the programme much more engaging. Whereas the point of a computer sprite will always be to make the viewer say “gosh, wow, look!”, and the result of this is usually a series of set-pieces in which the episode shows off the CGI as much as possible whether we care about it or not.

And that has an impact on how we perceive all visual media. Spectacle what people mean when they describe something as a popcorn film: the moment when you’re supposed to turn off your mind and experience what is happening in an almost purely visual sense.

Like the uncanny valley, the shift from narrative to spectacular perception isn’t a discrete moment: it’s a sliding scale, starting at the point when our minds begin to shift from engaging with the characters and their motivations to giving up any pretense of caring for the emotional impact and simply going along with a purely visual “wow factor” of modern visual entertainment.  As an example start with the pure Shakespearean stage action of Julius Ceasar, then the BBC version of I, Claudius, head into HBO’s Rome, through Ridley Scott’s Gladiator, and finally into Clash of the Titans, which seems poised to copy 300’s method of showing myth as a parade of impossibly perfect human forms and escalating boss fights.

Unlike story, which is about judging an experience against our own lives, we evaluate spectacle on its own merits, almost entirely outside of the context of any narrative we’re watching it in. Most of us have any real emotional bond to the Transformers beyond a happy haze of nostalgia, making it a perfect spectacle delivery vehicle. It’s nerd pornography: express the idea as fantastically as possible, then fill in the cracks with any spare plot you have lying around. The only common human experience we need is a pair of eyes.

Maybe I’m over-simplifying it, but the more I think about CGI and spectacle as something other than story and characters, especially in the context of other visual media such as comics and video games, the more it seems to make sense.

I’d love to have an ongoing conversation on the idea of “the spectacular shift”, maybe even finding a better name for it… so please if you have some thoughts, tell me what you think in the comments.

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