Thursday, July 6, 2017

Animals in the Uncanny Valley

At the end of these hot and humid days, I watch movies in the dark. The night after watching Mad Max: Fury Road, I saw Jurassic World (2015) on DVD. The movie opens with a scene showing a CGI bird of an unidentifiable species. (I think it's supposed to be a jay.) Here's something I have come to understand about moviemakers: they think we're stupid. They don't realize that moviegoers might know something about birds, or paleontology, or human behavior, or any other subject, and that we might notice when they--the moviemakers--come up with some kind of BS. Anyway, the bird is fake, made by CGI, and does not look or act like a real bird. I have also seen CGI wolves and horses. I'm sure there have been other fake animals in movies.

A few months ago, I wrote about the uncanny valley, that place where human beings recoil from something that looks human but is obviously not human. An animated Shrek is okay because he doesn't and isn't supposed to look human. An animated Peter Cushing is creepy and repulsive, however. Animals are not human, but we have affinity with animals. We know they're alive. We recognize in them some of the same experiences, sensations, and feelings we have in ourselves. We know that they suffer and feel pain, that they wish to live and thrive and enjoy life and the company of their own species. (I will never forget the sight of a group of barn swallows playing a game with a floating feather as they circled a pond on an Indiana farm.) No, they are not human, but we know them and recognize them. We also recognize things that are not animals but that are supposed to look like animals. Toy animals are okay. Animals made by conventional animation are okay. But CGI animals are not okay. They inhabit the uncanny valley, and they are wrong and creepy and disturbing. Dinosaurs and imaginary animals are different because we don't have any experience with them, but CGI animals are creepy and should not be in movies. I would ask moviemakers instead: why don't you just get the real thing?

I have other complaints about Jurassic World. I'll start with the deficient and inaccurate science in the movie. I have already talked about the bird species that doesn't exist. But what about the dinosaur that breaks out of its eggs using a talon rather than an egg tooth? Or the map showing how dinosaurs migrated or expanded their ranges, yet the map is of the modern world? I'm sure there are other problems with the science in the movie, but they're not as obvious as the problems with technology. For example, if the dinosaur handlers can implant a tracking device in each dinosaur, why can't they just insert a small, remotely controlled explosive device or at least a tranquilizer capsule for use in case of disaster? And what about the cellphone system on the island? Why doesn't everybody who works there know everything instantly by automatic message? Why do they have to call each other? Why isn't there complete, foolproof cellphone coverage across the entire island? And why does one of the characters use a cellphone that looks like it came out the 1990s? Is that some kind of radio or walkie-talkie? Why? And why do they go after the dinosaurs on foot? Haven't they ever heard of a tank or an armored vehicle?

But the worst part of the movie--the surest sign that the moviemakers think we're stupid--is the disregard shown by the screenwriters for their characters. As an example, Chris Pratt's character is smart and able. I was never even mildly convinced that he would be attracted to the stupid, shallow, annoying character played by Bryce Dallas Howard. Worse yet--really the worst part of the whole movie for me--is the use of an idiot plot device whereby Chris Pratt's character very conspicuously disarms himself not once but twice before the top dinosaur appears. His weapon has a shoulder strap. He can free his hands while still carrying it. Yet he sets it on the ground. This is an insult to the character and to us. It's a sign not only of the screenwriters' contempt for us but also of their intervening in their story by forcing their characters to do things that are out of character simply for the sake of the plot. And not only for the sake of the plot but for the sake of their not having to work harder to figure out how to make their plot work better. This happens way too often in movies and it has to stop. Maybe moviemakers should have small, remotely controlled explosive devices implanted in them for when they misbehave.

Finally, Jurassic World reminds me of Aliens. Once again, a large corporation and/or the military is the villain. That didn't bother me very much, but I'll note that Vincent D'Onofrio gets it like Paul Reiser got it in Aliens. Do moviemakers, who work for large corporations, have any sense that when they kill off corporate functionaries in their movies, they may actually be killing off representations of themselves?

In November 1930, Weird Tales published "A Million Years After" by Katherine Metcalf Roof, a story in which two burglars steal and accidentally hatch a brontosaurus egg. The great dinosaur goes on a rampage, of course, before meeting the fate of all rampaging dinosaurs. No, there is nothing new under the sun. Cover art by C.C. Senf.

Text copyright 2017 Terence E. Hanley

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