A computer cannot understand flesh.
It must be taught to understand flesh.
Well, apparently the computers still haven’t learned their lesson.
Exhibit A is The Wolfman (2010), a horror film featuring some truly fine performances, a decent screenplay, a solid thematic subtext, and an appropriate degree of reverence for its celebrated source material: the 1941, Lon Chaney Jr./Curt Siodmak The Wolfman.
For all of these many and much-appreciated virtues (including an intriguing leitmotif regarding the Biblical tale of the Prodigal Son), this Joe Johnston film ultimately flounders due to the largely-unnecessary bells and whistles of the troubled production: namely inadequate special effect presentation.
I don’t often write at length about special effects in my reviews, you may have noticed. Effects rarely make or break a picture as far as I’m concerned.The Wolfman is a rare exception. Here, the effects succeed only in taking the audience completely out of the human dimension of the narrative, and are never responsible for generating a single scare.
Now, I’m not trying to be cranky or overly nostalgic for “the good old days” here.
On the contrary, my trusty eyes inform me straight — especially when I watch a film like The Wolfman — that something is definitely wrong; that something is not true or authentic. The practical effects are fine in the film…quite good actually. But then, the digitized Wolfman starts leaping from London rooftop to rooftop like Halle Berry in Pitof’s Catwoman (2004) and there is a fatal disconnect for me. I’m watching bad effects, not a character. Suddenly, I lose my investment in the story, in the outcome of the tale.
This Wolfman’s hair doesn’t ruffle right. He doesn’t displace atmosphere believably. He has no feeling of weight, of Earthly gravity. He is not…photo-real. And yet even monsters must obey the dictates of gravity, right? They can’t run faster than The Flash or jump higher than Superman. Some of the battle effects here between dueling wolves are bafflingly rendered in fast-motion as well, which make the monsters appear even less impressive; even more cut-rate. Fast-motion traditionally denotes comedy; it creates the opposite impression as the one desired here. The audience doesn’t think “power.” It thinks…”lame…they had to speed up the footage because the effects are so terrible.”
Perhaps most importantly, the Wolf Men in this film move in a show-offy sort of over-the-top manner that not only defies physics, but exposes the important character flaw of the programmers who create such cinematic creatures. Just because they can make their computerized monsters do a thing — like leap tall buildings in a single bound — does not mean that they should do such a thing. These computer jockeys get carried away, and reality is sacrificed for ostensible thrills.
But again, the horror genre concerns those things about our human existence that make us uncomfortable about ourselves, that make our blood run cold. Our skin is our layer of protection from the world, and also our connection to it. The blood running in our veins throbs and pulses…and nourishes us. Good horror often concerns the way our bodies are subverted or damaged or changed by outside forces. So horror is — for lack of a better word — organic. The Wolfman is perhaps the most organic of horrors as it concerns a man whose body is subverted from the inside; from a contaminated bite. Throw in computer-generated effects — with all their problems in gravity and movement and realism — and some essential characteristic of the genre is sacrificed, or at the very least, mitigated.
The Wolfman, which down to the lavish costumes makes a sincere effort to remain in the classic mold of its progenitor, shoots itself in the foot time and time again by reaching for the bells and whistles, the big digital shots, when they simply aren’t necessary, especially given the quality of Rick Baker’s practical effects. The film lingers on several shots of a full moon, and even a shot of a prowling camera approaching a full moon through gnarled trees. All these shots are largely CGI too. Even the suffusing fog of the moors seems, largely, digital. Again, this may seem like nitpicking, but computers shouldn’t be used as substitute for legitimate “atmosphere.” Atmosphere isn’t something you can fix in post. I wish it were.
The result of these fakey computer shots, which stick out like a sore thumb, is that every time the film goes to effects sequences, the audience feels a jarring effect. It’s like you’re watching two movies.
No, scratch that. One movie and one cartoon.
The transformation effects featured in the film — for the most part — are terrible CGI. The result is that they do not appear as authentic as the work vetted in An American Werewolf in London back in 1981. That climactic transformation, created without benefit of computer generated imagery, both captured and transmitted the agonizing, bone crushing and skin-twisting nature of the human-to-werewolf change. Digital morphing — literally the smooth shaping of one face into another — simply can’t express, again, the pure physicality of such a transformation.
If the bells are difficult to stomach here, the whistles are just as bad. The soundtrack by Danny Elfman (which had some problems, I understand…) is woefully inappropriate to the action. It is overdone to the point of lunacy; as if hoping desperately, somehow, to wring some sense of emotion, investment or involvement out of the fleshless, heartless effects sequences. I like Danny Elfman and consider him highly talented, but the music in The Wolfman feels as out-of-place as the CG effects. It feels desperate.
Benecio Del Toro is quite good in the film as Lawrence Talbot, the man who becomes the werewolf, and Emily Blunt, who plays Gwen, becomes more lovely and winsome, literally, by the moment. By the end of the movie she is absolutely gorgeous…and totally involving to watch. These actors seem to understand the name of the game so far as The Wolfman’s underlying meaning: that men either repress or release their wolves; and women, often, are the only ones that can save them from that inner beast unloosed. Del Toro and Blunt play their scenes with restraint and dignity and deserve heaps of praise for their sober, human performances. They are grown-ups playing grown-up parts (which isn’t entirely common in the era of Twilight), but the movie doesn’t trust them to carry the film’s message. So The Wolfman throws CGI action scenes at us instead.
The cinematography here is strong at moments, certainly. There’s a terrific and enticing shot of Gwen’s neck and chest…her heaving bosom, as it were, in close-up. You can almost feel her blood pumping right beneath the unblemished skin…and that’s the point of this drama, and this review. She’s real. She’s flesh. She’s tangible. Lawrence wants her…and the animal inside him wants her. This shot is more honest and more effective in transmitting the subtext of the film (men = wolves) than CGI playtime on the roof with Wolfie.
I don’t blame Joe Johnston, a man whose work on The Rocketeer (1991) and even Jurassic Park III (2001) I admired. The problems that diminish The Wolfman are the problems, by and large, that plague Hollywood today. In particular, studios seem afraid to let big “event” movies actually be about…well, anything…let alone human beings and their problems. They don’t “trust” the story of The Wolfman, the story of a man cursed and tormented by the animal inside, and so action scenes, special effects and a driving score get slathered on to lard up a sense of audience involvement with the material.
Horror movies had a great year in 2009, so I’m not just dissing the new out of some misplaced sense that what is old is better, a priori. I don’t even believe that. But I also don’t believe that Hollywood has yet learned the lesson of Godzilla (1998). That — if you’re making a serious monster movie — the filmmakers must decide how they feel about their monster; so that we, as audience members, also know how to feel. Was it just bad luck that Lawrence became a werewolf? Was it fate? Or was it something else? What does Lawrence think about this? Is he cursed or just unlucky?
Computers still can’t understand the flesh, so if CGI is indeed the mode of the future, we better teach ’em and teach ’em fast, or we’ll get more films of tremendous promise and botched execution, like The Wolfman.
I think we need a flesh comprehension program called No Computer Left Behind. Or something.