If the historians of the future try to pinpoint the exact moment when the term “digital fur” became ubiquitous in our culture, they might eventually identify the evening of July 18, when the “Cats” trailer premiered online just as the first public screenings of Disney’s “The Lion King” remake were unspooling across the country.
Here were two state-of-the-art endeavors, using computer-generated fur — by all accounts an enormously difficult and time-consuming special effects undertaking — toward extremely different ends. On one side was a new version of a 1994 animated family classic that had been digitally engineered to look like a real adventure set among real lions in a real, albeit unidentified, stretch of Africa. On the other, a bizarre trailer for a surreal musical, set at night in an imaginary city, featuring real actors and singers and dancers (Taylor Swift! James Corden! Judi Dench!) as cat people traipsing around in human-ish bodies covered in seemingly real fur.
And while “The Lion King” has become a gargantuan hit, many critics find themselves wondering what’s ultimately so special about a movie that tries to weld the original’s “Hamlet”-by-way-of-“Bambi” melodrama onto something that, after all those effects, looks as if it could just be another wildlife special (though one with a higher budget than the company’s own DisneyNature documentary series). “The Lion King” seems diminished when it enters the real world — even if that world isn’t technically real at all — perhaps because it’s not actually meant to be a story about lions, but an allegory about people.
And — brace yourselves — “Cats” isn’t actually about cats either. The jury is out on how Tom Hooper’s completed movie will fare when it opens in December, and how faithful it will be to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s lavish, nutty theatrical extravaganza of the 1980s. To its credit, unlike “The Lion King,” “Cats” has not tried to make its feline characters in any way realistic. Still, one does wonder what, exactly, they were going for. Watching the clips of these actors covered in photorealistic fur, I can’t help thinking that all that effects work has resulted in something not too different from the goofy feline costumes worn by the performers in the recorded version of the stage show broadcast (and later released on home video) in 1998.
To put it another way: Why try so hard to be realistic when, in many cases, fakery is part of the fun? Movies have always had to walk a fine line between the magical and the real. Cinema is built around the suspension of disbelief, but each era seems to have its own idea of what that entails.
Once upon a time, special effects were used primarily to astound us with sights we’d never seen before. But in recent years, with our screens increasingly dominated by fantasy epics, sci-fi spectacles and superhero antics, the idea of astonishment seems to have gone out the window. We can watch armies of mutants fighting on the outer edges of space with barely a shrug. “I feel like we’re in a moment now when there’s a loss of wonder,” the director Guillermo del Toro, who once owned his own special effects house, told me when I interviewed him last year for an article about the many struggles of the VFX industry.
The movies have gone from showing us things we’ve never seen before and convincing us it’s all real to showing us things we have seen before and convincing us it’s not real. “The Lion King” becomes, in a way, more impressive when you learn that those lions and hyenas were all created with computers. We admire the effort and the science, and all that they portend, while the sovereign work of art itself becomes a mere distraction in a broader narrative of technological progress.
To be sure, hype about special effects and fancy new technology has always been used to sell movies, an art form that itself started, after all, as a fancy new technology. But the carnival barkers of yore promised us wonders we’d never witnessed before, even if they didn’t always deliver on that promise. Today’s carnival barkers allure us with, well, things we see every day. I’m reminded of all those tech “disrupters” who keep reverse-engineering things that already exist.
To that end, Hollywood has been hard at work trying to create photorealistic fake actors who will be indistinguishable from real performers. “Digital humans are often thought of as the holy grail,” the special-effects journalist Ian Failes told me last year. The industry has been laying the groundwork for this with advances in de-aging and other developments, giving us younger versions of stars who are now middle-aged, old or sometimes even dead. This fall, Will Smith will battle a digitally created, time-traveling younger version of himself in Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man.” The results might be interesting, and the industry will be watching closely.
But even if the film succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest dreams, what will have been proven? And will the movie be that much more emotionally engaging than Rian Johnson’s 2012 hit “Looper,” in which a time-traveling Bruce Willis battled a younger version of himself, who was simply played by another actor, Joseph Gordon-Levitt? Somehow, audiences were able to make the imaginative leap required to accept two very different looking actors as the same person at different stages of his life.
Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” will feature Robert De Niro playing a character at multiple points in his life, with de-aging technology used to create a younger version of him. Many of us are understandably excited about De Niro and Scorsese reuniting after nearly 25 years. But it’s also worth remembering that in “The Godfather, Part II” (1974), De Niro himself played a young Vito Corleone, a character made popular by Marlon Brando in “The Godfather” just two years earlier. No computers were required, and somehow, audiences managed to not be confused or bothered by De Niro replacing Brando. One might even say they were enchanted: De Niro won a best supporting actor Oscar for his troubles, and his performance has passed into legend.
That said, sometimes digital humans can lead to moments of genuine pathos. At the end of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” many of us were moved by the sight of a young Carrie Fisher, who died a few days after the movie was released in 2016. Maybe it was because the film was ending on a cliffhanger after killing off most of its cast. Maybe it was because the moment evoked memories of the original “Star Wars.” Or maybe — just maybe — it was because, by giving us this image for just a few seconds, the film reminded us of the very passage of time, and of the fact that we can’t go back again. For one brief shining second, technology showed us what wasn’t possible. And it was beautiful.