I've always had an uneasy feeling about the mass destruction scenes in Hollywood films for a while. Even in films with realistic CGI and physics, these scenes just look wrong. More importantly, they look boring. I had no idea why. However, after having seen Godzilla vs Kong a couple of months ago in a theatre, I started thinking about this seriously, and seem to have come up with some sort of explanation.
So why do they look so boring? It has something to do with being realistic, but not the destruction being realistic. It's all about the cause and consequences being realistic. No matter how realistic the effects are, it won't have an emotional impact if:
- The monsters are too big to be afraid of
- The things being destroyed are too unrelated to be cared about
- The shots are too wide and cloudy to cover individual human victims
In other words, with extremely powerful hardware and software at disposal, the canvas is wider than ever, making humans disappear.
People behind these movies apparently think bigger the monster deeper the fear is (or appreciation, if the monster is a hero). False. It's true that I'll be afraid of a T-Rex more than an elephant, but if you come up with a movie monster that is as big as an entire continent, I'll stop caring. Maybe because I know I don't stand a chance. Or simply because human brain is too small to process size in such a scale. With each instalment in monster franchises introducing bigger-than-ever creatures, I'm pretty sure Hollywood will soon have to find larger planets to base the plot on. And I'll care less. Yes, it's the Uncanny Valley of size vs impact.
Coming to the second and third points, I find myself in a place where I usually don't want to be: preferring emotional success over technical achievements. I don't want to be doing that because many such critics don't realize the effort went into creating the effects for these movies. They think you get Jurassic Park or The Mummy with a single click of a computer mouse, without any planning, research or artistic intervention at all. Even with movies like Godzilla vs Kong, the involvement may not be trivial. I've heard that the CGI people put CG furniture inside the CG buildings to be thrown into the air when the monsters demolish the buildings. But that's when we wish the same level of detail had went into the story itself.
All the villains in The Terminator, Jurassic Park and King Kong were chasing the people we cared about. The destructions were only part of that. And even so, the destructions could be related. Every destruction in Jurassic Park was performed on a symbol that represented safety (the fence), technology (the computer) or evolution (the skeleton). More importantly, all of these characters and symbols were established well before any action was going on. This is why the destruction scenes in recent monster movies have zero emotional impact, no matter how many skyscrapers are brought down to dust. These buildings mean nothing to the plot.
Okay, forget it and just let the monsters demolish the whole city. Now what's irritating is that the movies present it like it just happens. All the focus is on the dust, fire and smoke. Sometimes you see a group of total strangers running and screaming, or the protagonists simply witnessing the fight. Compare that with War of the Worlds (2005), which featured alien invasion and had a lot of destruction, but all the focus was given to how it all affected real people, including the characters we cared about.
So the rule is simple: destroy things that the audience care about, and limit everything to a scale that can be cared about.