Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Film: Fantastic Fabrications vs Real Reality

A few days ago I watched William Friedkin's Sorcerer (1977). One thing struck me most: it was a refreshing reminder of what witnessing a 'real' movie stunt feels like; a spectre that is seldom seen in modern cinema. This led me to conclude that the impressiveness of what can be achieved by the ingenuity of computers will never match the effectiveness of the ‘real’ stunt.

One particular moment in Sorcerer convinced me of the superiority of the 'real' over CGI's fantastic fabrications. In a tense scene lasting 8 minutes, filmed in a jungle during a violent tropical storm, a batch of huge trucks carrying nitro-glycerine drive over a weak wood-and-rope bridge that hangs precariously a foot or two above a raging, swollen river. Everything is real: real trucks, real bridge, real river and a real tropical storm.

What’s also impressive is, instead of stunt drivers and studio based close ups, the late Roy Scheider - among some other established actors - is driving one of the trucks. It's unbelievable. You just don't see that nowadays - unless you count Jackie Chan.

Now compare the truck-over-the-bridge scene in Sorcerer to a scene in X Men Origins: Wolverine (2009). The climactic fight scene revolves around three characters fighting on top of a colossal chimney that's in the process of collapsing. It is an impressive spectacle, no doubt, but CGI is by its very nature fake, so it maybe great to look at but it fails to reach the level of what it would have been like if Liev Schreiber, Hugh Jackman and the other guy were really on top of a collapsing chimney.

The problem is we know all too well from behind-the-scenes extras on DVDs that they were probably safely tucked up in studio at room temp, against a green screen with props and runners serving their every need. This makes it harder to suspend belief and easier to acknowledge that the reality of X Men is a lame shame compared to Sorcerer's 'real' relentless ambition.

My point basically is, if a film really wants to impress and awe an audience, bigger special effects won’t work as effectively as a real stunt. Such stunts were in films much more often a few decades ago, think about the Smokey and the Bandit (1977-83) and Cannonball Run (1981-89) trilogies for example. And when such stunts are done these days there's a fuss, as if it's something new. A recent example of this would be the hype that surrounded Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007). It was refreshing (and breathtaking) to see a dangerous stunt where a lady was crawling on a bonnet of a car travelling above the speed limit once again on the screen. Bravo!

[This is an edited version. The unedited version can be found at]

[The bridge sequence can be found at]

1 comment:

  1. Great post, Andy. My brother, Mark Strange, likes to keep it real in his film-making. All the fight scenes in his most recent films (especially `Underground') were very real, revealing the talent of cast and crew. Mark has also worked with Jackie Chan. Now there's an incredible guy with a lifetime of crazy fight stunts behind him.