Everybody has their own favorite flavors when it comes to film. Myself, I’m partial to outer space-oriented science fiction films of the late 70’s and early 80’s. Around that time, the big studios began to look at science fiction, effects-heavy flicks as being something more than a passing fancy of matinee audiences and started throwing serious money at directors and producers to give the audiences a more visual thrill than the cop dramas and dark comedies that had reigned thru the 70’s.
So finally writers, directors, and producers could start fleshing out the sorts of stories that could previously only have been made by restricting them to animation. A thermonuclear explosion of creativity blew up all over the Hollywood landscape, giving us some of the most unforgettable and iconic imagery in our culture today.
Here are four films from that golden era that can teach us some damn important lessons in using visual effects to tell a good science fiction narrative:
Tron is looney-tunes crazy. From the concept through the screenplay to the visual effects, this was a movie that came like an electronic bolt from the blue. What makes Tron so important is not merely the game-changing visual effects, but the way they were used to create an utterly convincing and alien landscape. Tron was effing brave. Watch this movie again and try and work out what the creators were thinking when they made the choices they made.
2. STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE.
A lot of people love to hate the first Star Trek film, but I’ll admit I have a soft spot for it. Its a long, sprawling epic sort of film, and its on the list here because I’ve always thought the director Robert Wise and his team did a fantastic job of making the Enterprise virtually a silent character in the story. The effects shots do a bang-up job of not only presenting space and starships in an exciting way, but in really making the audience feel that the Enterprise is a real ship with an inside and an outside. Go watch Star Trek the Motion Picture again and just marvel at V’Ger, too.
3. STAR TREK: THE WRATH OF KAHN.
Yeah, I’m listing it separately. This is because this film is so different from the first Trek film that it was almost a reboot at a time when none of us knew what a ‘reboot’ was. In some ways, Wrath of Khan is the best picture on this list: A riveting, personal story. Brilliant explorations of the characters. And of course, kick-ass sci-fi effects that don’t merely dazzle us with lights and wooshes, but are pulled together to make what is really a simple revenge story an edge-of-your-seat blockbuster. The ship models are beautiful. The composition of the space scenes are full of tension and drama. Unlike many other Trek films to follow, the space battles weren’t just wooshing and random shooting; every single phaser blast changed the story. Genius film.
4. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK.
Obviously, all the original Star Wars films were epic, but I’m listing only Empire here because out of all three of the original films its the one which I think really achieved the full potential for how great special effects could be in telling a story, and shows so clearly how they can, if done with care and love, take a good story to the next level of awesome. Watch Empire over and over again (again, because like me, you’ve already seen it eleventy hundred times.). Look for how subtly matte paintings are used to flesh out and expand the action and the dialogue…and Empire has some of the most iconic and stunning matte paintings ever produced. Look carefully at how the elements of the snowspeeders, the AT-ATs, and the ground troops were composited together. Watch this movie very, very carefully.
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