From Tarkovsky to Marvel: Has digital cinema destroyed realism in the realm of science fiction?
“Reality is not art, but a realist art is one that can create an integral aesthetic of reality.” – André Bazin
Technological advancements have revolutionised almost all sectors of modern society and film has certainly not been an exception. From its physical origins, we have entered the digital age of cinema. Anyone who is familiar with the CGI infested genre of contemporary films will know that they do not resemble their predecessors, films that were rooted in realism. Has this shift contributed to the advancement of artistic achievements or has it limited them?
Last year, fans all over the world were outraged when acclaimed auteur Martin Scorsese criticised the popular Marvel franchise: “I tried, you know?” the director said when asked if he had seen Marvel’s movies. “But that’s not cinema. Honestly, the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.”
To be fair, science fiction is a genre which is antithetical to realism and needs digital manipulation to display its own brand of reality. Marvel movies, in particular, have managed to engage audiences with their larger-than-life action heroes and special effects. Before the pandemic hit, crowds regularly filled theatres to cheer at the abundance of visual effects flying out of Iron Man’s digitally fabricated suit and the algorithmic worlds in the universe. The art of mise-en-scène has been replaced by lines of computer code and the versatile green screen.
Science fiction films of the past did not have access to any of these devices and they managed to transcend realism by venturing into the realm of surrealism. Visual narrative is an important aspect of cinema (if not the most) but at what point is the narrative consumed by the spectacle of special effects? In the book Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: [The Seduction of Reality], author Stephen Prince wrote that “visual effects [have] become more assertive” and “the results often challenged the primacy of narrative”.
Works that break this binary of reality and fantasy with a poetic force are the ones that deserve recognition. The surreal explorations of something as ordinary as personal identity in Hiroshi Teshigahara’s 1966 film The Face of Another is a result of complete mastery over the medium and so is Tarkovsky’s 1979 magnum opus, Stalker. Tarkovsky shrouds the brashness of the sci-fi genre with a rich atmosphere of philosophical maturity. Stalker’s self-destructive desire threatens to destroy all of our preconceived notions but holds back with the graceful restraint of poetic totality. His camera glides over the radioactive wasteland as he slowly punctures some of the mysteries of the universe.
To this day, David Lynch has not revealed how he made the baby in his 1977 film Eraserhead, the beautifully imperfect product of a fiercely original artistic vision. On a budget of $10,000, Lynch managed to create a dystopian vision which looks much more real than many contemporary films built with extensive digital technology. Scorsese was right about his criticism of Marvel in certain regards, the primary one being the consumer experience. According to the filmmaker, the films are “market-researched, audience-tested, vetted, modified, revetted and remodified until they’re ready for consumption”. This is the biggest danger that new films are succumbing to, catering to the audience but forgetting to make an artistic statement of their own. They are enjoyable but they have nothing to say, employing calculated techniques without any of the risks involved with making great art.
It is not right to dismiss the use of digital technology in films altogether. David Fincher’s 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a perfect example of the masterful application of special effects, using them on a character to chronicle a beautiful reversal of entropy. Fincher used a combination of “partial sets and bluescreen environments” and in one scene with the characters “the country house behind them is a CG object, and the beautiful sunset and sky before them is a digital matte painting. The lake was real but its placid surface was digitally altered to add currents of motion appropriate for the scene’s dramatic context”. In such cases, visual effects contribute towards an organic process of surrealism, rooted in reality.
“They’re [their] own new art form. Cinema now is changing. We have so many venues, there are so many ways to make films,” Scorsese said of the VFX genre of films. It is true that art is a process of constant evolution and cinema must learn to embrace the changes in form but it is also important to not get lost in them. Replacing the old with the new is essential for any art form to stay relevant. However, the new can only replace the old if they show us something revelatory. It is regrettable that, for the most part, they are only trying to distract us.