When someone says CGI is “good”, by “good”, they usually mean “it looks real.”
But what if “bad” CGI— AKA: CGI that looks like CGI — is good for a specific movie?
Audiences tend to reject interpretations that suggest a piece of art might strive to pull off what could be (mis)construed as “bad.” Well, muddying conventional good/bad rubrics is my specialty!
Even so, not even I can match the bonanza of good-bad muddying that is Moonfall. Its painfully-digitized CGI is one of the more obvious indicators that we’re in the territory of intentional Mystery Theatre 3000. Like Roger Corman before it, Moonfall‘s CGI places the movie in the proud lineage of shlock sci-fi, and nothing’s more b-movie than “b-ad” visual effects.
Now how about movies that use “unrealistic” CGI for thematic purposes?
Two recent examples:
Bruno Dumont’s France explores the relationship between truth/reality and performance/artifice within the hell-scape that is modern media. A political shock-jockey’s life unravels after she gets so caught up in the theatrics of her vocation that she loses sight of where her on-air persona ends and her offscreen identity begins. To capture the pervasiveness of this blurring, every time she sets foot in a car, the driving scenes look straight out of the Golden Age of Hollywood, when anyone with eyes could see that the movies were shot on studio backlots. In an era defined by engaging with reality through screens, a woman who contributes to this madness can’t escape the appearance that her very existence is nothing but screens; when she’s supposed to be moving through the real world, she’s still surrounded on all sides by 0s-and-1s bullshit.
France shares a key theme with Nightmare Alley: is identity nothing more than performance art? Can we separate who we are from how we’re perceived, including self-perception? And is the deliberate artifice of art an appropriate method to delve into such fakery, or is it tantamount to a dog chasing its own tail? Like France, Nightmare Alley harkens back to the Golden Age of Hollywood, with a crucial element distinguishing between then and now: digital! There’s a visual dissonance always at play, between the period then and the technological now, acting as a constant reminder of the characters’ cognitive dissonance rooted in the interrelated thorniness of perception, conception, and perpetual manipulation.
AKA: the human condition.
So if “truth” can be viewed as synthetic in the “real” world, then perhaps “bad” CGI is truer to life than whatever we prefer to call “good”?