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The Main Reason Why CGI-Heavy Movies are Highly Unmemorable

March 30, 2021 10 comments

Almost a decade ago, I had written a couple of posts about how the rapidly decreasing cost of photo-realistic CGI was changing the production of even low-budget films and TV shows. As it often turns out, I was right and the last decade has seen a huge increase in the use of various types of CGI- especially in low-budget films and TV shows. However this huge increase in use of CGI has gone hand-in-hand a highly problematic trend. The vast majority of movies and TV shows produced in past decade (actually more like 15 years) have been very unmemorable.

To some extent, this is caused by studios milking their “intellectual properties” beyond a point of return (X-Men, Star Wars, Marvel Franchise etc). However even novel “properties” such as ‘Black Panther’ or less-milked one such as ‘Aladdin’, ‘The Lion King’ etc don’t have the long legs unlike similar ones in past. Let me explain this with a couple of examples. See.. the original Star Wars or first Jurassic Park movie created a huge franchise. Moreover anybody who has seen them can easily remember and retell the overall story arc a couple of decades after having last watched it. The Same applies for first Matrix movie, Back to the Future etc. Now try doing the the same for most top 10 movies for each year in the past decade or more.

How many fondly remember the Avatar, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, 2012, Up, The Twilight Saga: New Moon or Avengers: Endgame, The Lion King, Spider-Man: Far From Home, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker or Aladdin. Now compare the general apathy for financially successful films from past decade to the cultural impact of far less financially successful ones from past such as Porky’s, Revenge of Nerds, American Pie or even The Breakfast Club. How come low-budget sex comedies from 1980s and 1990s have had a far bigger cultural impact than carefully designed movies costing 200 million bucks a piece? Heck, the original Austin Powers movie has had a far bigger cultural impact than Avatar.

Well.. here is one possible explanation. Let me ask you something.. how many of you have seen a real life tights-clad “Superhero”, Godzilla, King-Kong, Dinosaur, Zombie, Goblin, Elf, Hobbit, Wizard or any of the stuff which studios spent tens of millions on when making those movies. How many of you have seen real-life examples of people doing what they do in those “Superhero” movies? Have you seen multiple buildings destroyed close up? Are you starting to see what I am getting at? Now contrast this to the fact that we all have seen and interacted with tons of people who are thin, fat, hot, ugly, nice and assholes.

All entertainment (oral stories, written literature, movies, TV shows, video games etc) require people to partially suspend their belief in reality. However, the ability of entertainment to connect with their audience requires that they are well-grounded in relatable reality at some level. The first nine seasons of ‘The Simpsons’ connected so well with their audience because the motivations and behavior of characters were grounded in relatable reality. Of course, you can go to the other extreme and have something which is almost unmoored from reality such as ‘Phineas and Ferb’, ‘Family Guy’, ‘Animaniacs’ etc. But there is a very good reason why almost all of the unrealistic stuff has historically been either cartoons, puppets or farce.

Until the early 2000s, the relatively high cost and poor realism of CGI forced movie directors, producers and editors to restrict their use and focus on story and character development. In such movies, CGI played a supporting role to the core of the story. That is why the original Jaws, Star Wars, Jurassic Park type movies feel far more real than their later sequels. They were centered around relatable human characters rather than special effects and characters without any analogue in real-life. The thing is.. over the long-term, people will only care about and remember stuff which has some connection to their reality, even if it is in the form of a parody or farce. The rest is just easily forgotten spectacle.

To make matters worse, movies and shows which are almost entirely based in visual spectacle age far more poorly than those that are not. This is why, for example, rewatching the newer batch of Star Wars films feels so bland when compared to original Star Wars trilogy. Heck.. watching them on a 4K TV is closer to watching a splashy but poorly-acted cinema-school productions than something which resembling movies which cost over 100 million, a piece, to produce. I have a feeling that this MBA and financialism-based model of making movies, TV shows and video games is not sustainable – even in the medium term. On the bright side, very few will remember this phase of the entertainment industry in future.

What do you think? Comments?