R.A.H. (againstathorn) wrote,
R.A.H.
againstathorn

Special Effects in Sci-Fi Movies - Old & New

I've noticed people often use the word "hokey" to describe the special effects generally found in old 50s and 60s era monster/sci-fi movies.

Sure, if the term is used in reference one of Bert I. Gordon's efforts (Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Spider vs. the Earth (1957), ect.) or something like The Killer Shrews (1959) or Robot Monster (1953), then hokey might be an appropriate, even complimentary, description. However, I get the feeling people also mean it to include some of the era's more innovative movies like Tarantula (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1963), or even techniques like Harryhausen's stop-motion "Dynamation," and I think to classify these as hokey is a bit unfair and demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the talent and craftsmanship that went into creating these works.

Furthermore, some folks seem to use the term as a way to flippantly cast off whatever doesn't meet the standards of today's digital special effects. That really boils me!

Awhile back we watched Pacific Rim (2013), a remarkable sci-fi/action film which contained some absolutely breathtaking visuals using cutting edge CGI. It's a finely crafted commercial product designed for today's sensibilities, just as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953) was a finely crafted commercial product for the sensibilities of the early 1950s. Having seen both films, I feel more of a connection with the special effects exhibited in the latter, whereas those in the former, while spectacular in their own right, seem made with tools well beyond my interest or understanding. In that respect, it's like comparing the photomontages of Jerry Uelsmann to the work today's leading digital imaging artists. It's apples and oranges, and everyone has their own preference.

Conversely, the respective audiences for both Sharknado (2013) and Spider vs. The Earth (1958) probably considered each movie to be of *ahem* inferior quality compared to other sci-fi films available at the time.

Special effects ultimately lend an aesthetic to the piece which resonates with viewers, whether favorably or otherwise. Say what you will about the hilarious puppet constructed for The Beast with a Million Eyes (1955), but at least it looked tangible, and for me that felt important.

So what am I actually getting at? Well, special effects in movies function as more than just simple entertainment, and presenting objects of fantasy in crisp photo realism isn't always the end goal. In some cases, the execution of special effects, even if notably flawed, contributes a feel to the story just as much as the dialogue or direction.

For Cold War era sci-fi movies, many of which contained a desperate plea for human beings to stop the nuclear arms race or risk destroying the world altogether, perhaps it's appropriate that the filmmakers used rubber face masks and plastic robot costumes instead of more sensational effects. Sometimes a bit of "hokey" can lend an urgency to the underlining message of a film.


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