One thing I learned in visual effects school a little while ago, is that being able to create a good explosion is regarded as something like the ultimate proof of craftsmanship. This goes for physical effects – when the special effects boys get to play with real fire, and the rest of the cast and crew hopes they know what they are doing. And it also goes for digital effects: controlling the simulated physics of a myriad tiny particles flying in all directions in a manner that makes it look realistically chaotic without being completely unstructured, puts the brains and ingenuity of the computer wizards to the test.
This may be one reason that explosions in genre movies seem to be taking on a life of their own, an element of technical virtuosity that justifies its existence by sheer spectacle, without much relation to any pressing needs on the side of the plot.
As is often the case with technical virtuosity which is better appreciated by one’s professional peers than by the average audience, the wow factor eventually wears off. I have yawned my way through many a stereotypical explosion ridden showdown of a movie that started out with a perfectly good promise of having something to say in terms of storyline and characterization – but then got entangled in a self-serving visual effects fest that left any attempt to make some sort of point, dangling in the air unresolved. Avatar, anyone?
More troubling than the boredom of the audience, however, is the fact that explosions in movies are supposed to be “cool”. There is an undeniable element of visual interest in those dramatic bursts of fire that fill the screen with their unpredictable fractal patterns. It has become an aesthetic and intellectual game to play around with the genre conventions that have evolved around it, to create ever more stunning patterns, ever more ingenuous and surprizing occasions for having a nice big explosion.
Explosions are not cool. Explosions are dreadful events that kill people and leave those who survive with scars for life, whether physical or mental, or both. Explosions are the ongoing nightmare of my parent’s generation – mine still suffer, seven decades later, from the lasting psychological effects of their childhood experience of WWII air raids, and the devastation, the human brutality, the hunger and deprivation that followed in their wake. Plenty of cool explosions there, much more realistic than in the movies.
My own teenage years were overshadowed by the perpetual, and very real dread of waking up one morning and finding that the atomic war had started. Eyewitnesses have been raving about the awe-inspiring sight of the mushroom cloud, when the first A-bomb was tested. The bomb that blasted the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki into their constituent atoms.
Or ask the children of Gaza. When we see the kind of images that have been filling the airwaves and my Facebook feed for the last couple of weeks, do most people still register that these are not movie explosions? Or how come people sit and argue about whose fault it is, when the only possible, humane reaction ought to be to stop. Just. Stop. There is nothing – but nothing – that justifies dropping bombs on children. Ever. Fullstop. I stop here, words fail me for this.
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