Hollywood's turn against digital effects

The first reason practical effects have become a calling card is as old as Hollywood. Movies are a faddish, self-quoting business. At one time, the stark lighting effects of the German Expressionists were the visual rage. Later, it was the helicopter shot or the zoom. Any new tool, once used promiscuously, becomes a cliché. As time goes by, a director rediscovers the tool, and what was once cliché becomes an homage to a distant and more cultured time. This is what has happened to the last, pre-digital wave of effects. They are now happily vintage. “Seeing the way the technology has evolved,” Hamill said of “The Force Awakens,” “and yet keeping one foot in the pre-digital world.”

Indeed, if there’s such a thing as blockbuster auteurism, the use of practical effects has become one of its chief articles. Christopher Nolan praises Stanley Kubrick’s practical sets and his trust of the audience to absorb a single image without frenzied cutting. Abrams wants to be the young George Lucas, who tried to get R2-D2 to work in the (real) desert. Michael Bay’s film-school teacher, Jeanine Basinger, once told me she read his “Transformers” movies not as C.G.I. splatter paint but as a form of Abstract Expressionism. Scoff all you want. But it makes Bay sound like he’s engaging with movie history rather than ending it.

Touting your movie’s wood, concrete, and steel is an implicit promise of restraint. I didn’t go totally wild, the filmmaker is telling the audience, not like Peter Jackson did in the “Hobbit” trilogy. (“The special effects thing, the genie, was out of the bottle, and it has him,” Viggo Mortensen complained.) Or you could read the reëmbrace of practical tools as the freedom from restraint: the director dove headfirst into the computer and ultimately found it as limiting as the tools of the eighties.