Note: This post has way too many spoilers.
Hollywood first turned to CGI to fill in the necessary gaps—some water effects here, a spaceship there. Now, the relative ubiquity of CGI has filmmakers scrambling to conduct crazier car crashes, bigger explosions, more fantastical scenery, and more physics-defying stunts, all trying to outdo the last. The visual effects that once awed audiences are now seen as necessary to attract them in the first place.
CGI has undeniably set cinema free, allowing animals to talk, worlds to be magical, and sparks to fly out of people’s hands, but it has also run into a number of problems. The disconcertingly dead-eyed children in the animated Christmas classic THE POLAR EXPRESS dipped into the uncanny valley. The saturated, computer-made wonderland of OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL was described as a “hyperactive coloring book” by film critic Armond White. And the over-the-top, cartoonish CGI in X-MEN: APOCALYPSE left me yawning. Watching a blue guy crumble a building by pointing a finger at it just doesn’t cut it for me anymore. By shifting focus to the dazzling CGI, the latest X-Men installment suffers from its lack of narrative structure, suspense, and realism.
CGI essentially allows for anything to do anything, which screenwriter Simon Kinberg took to the extreme. In the opening scene, we get our first glimpse of the En Sabah Nur, or Apocalypse, adapted from the comics. He’s a stocky, grotesque blue hulk with a rumbling voice and, weirdly, a British accent. Apocalypse rules Ancient Egypt until his traitors bury him alive while he’s trying to transfer his consciousness into a younger man’s body to take his powers.
Thousands of years later, he’s awoken by his followers. We watch some sort of luminescent golden liquid travel through ridges in the stone towards the dormant Apocalypse, lying deep underground.
The mystical, computer-generated movement somehow causes him to open his eyes and gasp. He’s in good condition when he wakes up in 1983—no need to crack his back or stretch his hamstrings after sleeping for millennia. His powers are still intact: he can fly, heal quickly, enhance other mutants’ powers, teleport, move objects, manipulate walls to absorb people, run sand through people’s necks…
His goal is to destroy the world (to cleanse mankind) with the recruited “four horsemen” and the kidnapped Professor X. He doesn’t have the power to control the entire world’s minds, yet, so he plans to extract that from the professor. Our new band of mutants (Mystique, Beast, Quicksilver, and the young Jean Grey, Cyclops, and Nightcrawler) must, well, stop him.
During the climax of the movie, we again watch the liquid substance flow through a makeshift pyramid constructed by Apocalypse out of nearby buildings, which is supposed to allow him to take Xavier’s powers of mind-control. He and the chained Charles Xavier lie on stone beds next to each other, and the liquid approaches the professor. (The transfiguration is interrupted when Nightcrawler poofs in and teleports Xavier back to the jet.)
The autonomous molten gold was one way pretty CGI was used in this movie to seemingly further the plot. We hear nothing of how this magical process works: What does it do? Where does the liquid come from? Will Charles die or change bodies if it goes to completion? And does it have to occur inside a pyramid? Granted, superhero movies rarely make total scientific sense, but this still felt contrived.
Besides to show off the superheroes’ powers, X-MEN: APOCALYPSE attempts to use CGI for shock factor or suspense, but it amounts to a screen full of actors dramatically waving their arms around and shots of imaginary infrastructure breaking apart unrealistically. Technically, the world is hanging in the balance, and last I checked, that’s about seven billion lives. But even our heroes look utterly bored.
Not to mention the CGI itself wasn’t too realistic. It looks like the mutants are traveling through a video game or a Disney Channel Original Movie. Maybe it was intended to be reminiscent of a comic-book feel?
CGI allows for the ultimate stakes: the end of the world, everyone getting wiped out, the culmination of 200,000 years of homo sapiens gone in a whirlwind of on-screen, worldwide destruction. Yet there’s not a single worried eyebrow or drop of nervous sweat, in the heroes or in the audience.
In the final showdown, we know what will happen: Apocalypse, even though he’s practically all-powerful, will be killed. Professor X will be shaved, I mean saved. It’s just a matter of watching them shoot colorful light out of their hands (or eyes), waiting until that moment when it seems like the X-Men are losing control and hope, and then something inexplicably saves them and finally brings it all to an end.
After easily subduing Apocalypse’s teammates, everyone gets their own fair shot at Apocalypse himself—Quicksilver physically abuses him, Mystique slices his neck, Xavier has an imaginary punching match with him, and Cyclops and Magneto blast stuff at him. (There must be a reason he didn’t just teleport himself to the other side of the world during any of this, right?)
Next comes Jean’s shining moment. She somehow walks on air and then unleashes the Phoenix (from…her mind?), surrounding herself in a bright red aura and destroying Apocalypse with what seems to look like very powerful wind.
And everything is back to normal, and Magneto and Jean rebuild the school together under bright sunshine.
One of the many problems with X-MEN: APOCALYPSE is that it never offers a full, or at least plausible, solution to its dilemma with the all-powerful villain. It uses CGI as if it were some magical cure-all potion, disguised as Apocalypse’s powers or Jean’s Phoenix.
Apocalypse needs to die? Ok, Jean’ll wait a bit and then bring out the big guns.
Magneto, are you fed up with your coworkers? Fine, Apocalypse will sink them into the solid concrete.
This could be fine if it weren’t so inconsistent. In the last battle, Apocalypse holds Mystique by the throat for what feels like ages without even trying to kill her, and he doesn’t employ any of his powers against the mutants except his ability to create a force field to deflect metal objects. CGI allowed him to have flashy, memorable, and nearly unbounded power on the silver screen…until it’s time for him to go down, that is.
The movie at least skips over the usual evil villain monologue rant about all the trouble he or she went to chasing their goals and how everything’s finally going to fall into place, thanks to the dumb, but admirably brave heroes who showed up and played right into their hands and don’t bother fighting because evil has finally triumphed, plus a few forced cackles thrown in.
But that’s because there was no strategy or mystery in Apocalypse’s plans at all. It was a no-frills plot where all he wanted was to wipe the world clean with the addition of Xavier’s powers. So our heroes travel to Xavier’s location, take him back, and with a short interlude of a chat between Mystique and Magneto about how he’s not alone, kill Apocalypse by overwhelming him.
Audiences love to watch the underdog win. That’s the charm in movies like HOME ALONE, ZOOTOPIA, KARATE KID, the Harry Potter series, and THE HUNGER GAMES— the protagonists win fair and square because they strategized, they were clever, and they worked hard. APOCALYPSE sidesteps all of that. It sets up a god-like super-super-villain and then waves its CGI wand.
With all the character introductions, random Wolverine appearance, twenty-minute-long final battle sequence, intermittent shots of men in official-looking suits sitting in front of screens appearing somewhat concerned about the imminent destruction of the world, and the kickass Quicksilver scene, there’s no room at all in the two-and-a-half-hour movie for the volatile human-mutant relations that have been brewing throughout earlier X-Men films. They had explored the parallels to the Civil Rights movement through the Magneto versus Professor X dynamic and the plight of queer people through the mutant discrimination. X-2 had cleverly thrown a toss at gay people’s struggles when a mutant’s mother gently asked him, “Bobby, have you tried…not being a mutant?”
Most of the allusions and social messages that gave the X-Men franchise its deeper meaning, which other superhero movies have only just begun to approach, have been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage in APOCALYPSE. At most we see Magneto accidentally reveal himself by stopping a large metal object from crushing a coworker, causing the police to go after him and kill his daughter when she exhibits her own powers. And early on Jean tells Scott that the other mutants are scared of her, but that doesn’t exactly fit the allegory posed by earlier films.
And it’s all CGI’s fault. Just kidding. Of course, CGI isn’t the cause of plot holes, flat acting, and lack of imagination—it’s the distraction from them. It attempts to take over the spotlight, pushing more human stories to the side, eating up screen time and budgets. It’s a temptation that the APOCALYPSE filmmakers fell for.
Film critic Armond White argues that “we are suffering from digital effects overload, plain and simple.” In his article titled “Cinema Is About Humanity, Not Fireballs,” he says, “Technological excess has overwhelmed narrative meaning. This digital grandstanding suffocates what I—and D.W. Griffith and Andre Bazin and past generations of theorists, critics and cinematic practitioners—once considered the essence of cinema: nature and the human face … It almost seems as if Hollywood’s emphasis on digital effects aims to turn moviegoers into children rather than aesthetically responsive viewers.”
Although I don’t completely agree with his statement, APOCALYPSE could be filed under its evidence. The film’s digitally-animated sequences were fed to me like cotton candy: fluffy and sweet, but only for a few seconds. They came at the expense of a well-developed narrative arc and original storytelling.
CGI clearly allows filmmakers to broaden stories beyond this world, and that’s a great thing. Without it, we wouldn’t have the rising genre of thought-provoking sci-fi including INTERSTELLAR and ARRIVAL, the feel-good experience of FROZEN and every Pixar film, the realistic visual effects of THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON … I could go on.
LOGAN, the new Wolverine movie coming out in 2017, appears to signal a new dawn of superhero movies, with fewer external CGI explosions and more individual exploration and character-driven storylines. LOGAN isn’t propelled by plot devices like our heroes in APOCALYPSE. The trailer hints that the tragedies he’ll face won’t be glossed over like the death of Scott Summer’s brother was. He has tough choices to make with serious consequences. We will watch him suffer emotional and physical distress, and we’ll stand by him when he struggles with his future and defeats his villain (without pulling out some Phoenix-type deus ex machina, I hope). That is how you captivate audiences–not with a cacophony of CGI.