Friday, July 6, 2007

CGI vs. CGI (Or, Dueling Directors)

I confess: I may have a problem. Twice this week I have driven twenty miles to see a movie on one of the only five digital screens in the metroplex area. In my defense, however, these two movies are by their very nature the epitomy of digital cinema. The first, Transformers, the huge special effects action movie directed by Michael Bay; and the second, Ratatouille, the latest Pixar CGI animated movie, directed by Brad Bird.

Of course, it wasn't a fair match from the start. Michael Bay's pedigree includes such great filmic triumphs as Armageddon, The Rock, Bad Boys (I and II), Pearl Harbor, and The Island. On the other hand, Brad Bird is one of my favorite directors (in animation, there is no one better), who has created actual classics, in The Iron Giant and The Incredibles.

It says a lot that a word has been coined specifically to describe Michael Bay's directiorial style: Bayhem. He creates fantastic, hard-hitting action sequences; as far as pure adrenaline-rushes, there are few better than Bay. One of the things I have actually liked about his style (this may sound like a back-handed compliment; perhaps it is) is his use of sound effects. He very effectively uses sound to convey a convincing sense of mass in his digital creations (for instance, the big steel barbell that goes bouncing down the highway in The Island, or the giant robots in Transformers), something that other filmmakers lack. Unfortunately he almost universally lacks the same convincing realism in his character and story development, and that's where his movies fall apart for me. The CGI in Transformers is among the best I have seen, virtually flawless in both the characters themselves and their integration into the scenes, and the action scenes are intense and exciting. What is strange about the movie though is that his simple drama scenes also feel rapid-fire, fast-paced and intense; it has the odd effect of diminishing the impact of the action sequences. It's a very exciting movie; on the other hand, the story doesn't so much flow as tumble to its unfortunately inevitable conclusion and that, to me, is a flaw. Another flaw of note: for what most will perceive as a movie directed at children, there is a surprising amount of blatant crudeness and intense violence.

Brad Bird, on the other hand: The Iron Giant succeeded where virtually all other children's movies (though granted, I wouldn't recommend the movie for young children) have failed, by creating an honestly and realistically characterized little boy in an equally emotionally resonant story; The Incredibles, likewise, was flashy and exciting without sacrificing engaging characters. To call Ratatouille a visual feast would be to make an egregious pun; unfortunately, there is no other way to describe it: the animation is exquisite. Fortunately, the story and the storytelling hold up their end as well. Bird manages to make the animation serve his story rather than overpower it, and (surprisingly, but rightly) glosses over some plot points that might have distracted, in order to remain focused on the relationships in his story. I am only mildly surprised to say that Ratatouille is the best movie I have seen this year.

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