Diamond slot formation

I’ve no idea if the BBC’s adaptation of His Dark Materials got a substantial injection of budget for its third (and final) season. The series is suddenly able to commit to visuals that were frustratingly missing or inconsistent in the first two years. Daemons are now onscreen almost as much as their human counterparts. Harpies and armoured bears and Gallivespians abound. The Mulefa are in the show, and they kind of rule. It’s odd to think of any show getting such an investment when its days are numbered (and, clearly, its past successes modest), but whoever was in charge of this thing clearly decided to do it right for the final brace. Bravo.

Now, the Gallivespians have lost their dragonfly mounts, and the Mulefa are reconfigured to something much more like a terrestrial quadruped (two legs in front, two in the back), which feels like a shame, mostly because — of all the beings from Philip Pullman’s legendarium — the Mulefa were the ones I could not wait to actually see. I’ll keep waiting. I was listening to a podcast this week (sometimes I do that!) which made clear that some of the VFX choices on the BBC series were simply a matter of putting their chips on the right numbers (half-human half-CGI angels, for example, was the kind of compromise that redirected the funds that allowed them to accomplish the harpies). The redesign of the Mulefa, on the other hand, was about a subtler art, one that gets altogether forgotten, it seems, in most conversations about mainstream VFX projects: the subtle art of not getting in the story’s way.

In the books, the Mulefa are quadrupeds, but Mary Malone (superbly played by Simone Kirby in the series and who, in the final episodes, easily becomes the show’s cleanup hitter) immediately notices that their spinal configuration is fundamentally different from the quadrupeds from our world. Mulefa (indeed, all the creatures in their world, none of the rest of which we see in the TV series) do not have two forelegs and two hind legs; they have a leg in the front and a leg in the back, and a leg on either side. They have giant claws at the end of each foot, and those claws stab through large, oiled seedpods to give them their ambulation. I could not help but picture the Wheelers from Walter March’s excellent Return to Oz.

Listening to Russell Dodgson on the finale episode of His Darker Materials, I realized that I’d failed to make one critical connection between my Wheelers-sense and the realities of making an adaptation of His Dark Materials for a visual medium: the Wheelers were terrifying, and the Mulefa must be anything but. Rendering the Mulefa in the manner described in Pullman’s novel would of course be possible with CGI, but that would not necessarily make it advisable for a story with limited time and resources, and where economy of expression is at a premium. In other words: if Mary rolls into Mulefa world and Atal is not immediately beguiling and adorable, you are losing story time and audience attention in the efforts to get back to something that is easily, wordlessly achievable with a single design choice: make the Mulefa immediately beguiling and adorable, rather than uncanny, alien, and wild. The Mulefa in the books are a thematic and philosophical point about evolution and the wonders of creation; the show can, and must, make those points in other ways, if it chooses to focus on them at all.

As I said: I feel like this thought process is indicative of some basic storytelling rigour that we don’t discuss much anymore. Since the advent of CGI — or, more directly, since the advent of CGI-accelerated worldbuilding, where you can have pretty much anything, if you have the money to pay for it — the question of how you want to direct the audience’s attention, especially in a world of unlimited wonders, gets lost. Unlimited wonders are distracting — and to paraphrase a sane man, a lot of spectacle films seem to have gotten so caught up in whether or not they could do something that they stop asking whether or not they should.

Naturally, this leads me to think about Avatar: The Way of Water, which is swimming (sorry!) in both potential interpretations of the problem. On the one hand, clearly, the largest part of Cameron’s creative project is to render a landscape so rich with verisimilitude that the mind ultimately short-circuits and stops trying to interpret what it is seeing as an illusion. (Cinema is always an illusion; a near-naked blue eight-year-old holding her breath underwater on the planet Pandora just has a lot less to hide behind.) Cameron’s intention is no small feat: for all the affordance we give him and his team for the lush, eye-watering reality of the underwater realms of Pandora which are the centrepieces of The Way of Water, the simpler and more incredible trick is hiding in plain sight: the blue people, themselves. The Way of Water is a film with far less human characters, or conventionally-shot sequences, than its predecessor; it is, for all intents and purposes, an animated film, or as much an animated film as Ralph Bakshi’s The Lord of the Rings, i.e. a majority-animated effort that happens to contain some shots that were conventionally filmed. And yet, another facet of Cameron’s creative project is that this is not an animated film, and that we are meant to read it as live action, even though it is anything but. Our lead characters are meant to read as “real,” even though they are anything but, and even though the images on the screen are reminding us of that fact, all the time — because the characters in question are gigantic skinny blue people.

And yet, it works. (“And yet, it moves.”) It works in every moment The Way of Water spends with the Sully children, who take over the majority of the aspirational / exploratory adventuring this time around; it is Lo’ak and Kiri and Tuk who go through the game-tutorial sessions on how to hold their breath underwater and ride on space dolphins. The movie is effectively YA, which probably explains why Film Twitter still insists it is very unlikely that anyone would seriously like these movies. ($2.2 billion later, we see how useful Film Twitter’s sense of reality is, when weighed against the reality of how and why movies exist, and connect with audiences.) YA, as a genre, succeeds by being simple, identifiable, and inspiring about identity and finding one’s place in the world, even if that world is an alien one, and you are an alien blue person yourself. (Or even, in the story’s rendering, an alien blue person half-breed, with four fingers instead of three.) The Way of Water won me over the second I realized I actually cared what happened to these irritating, feuding teenagers — that I wasn’t looking at the giant space-whale’s queues (they’re there, but not doted upon), but wondering what it would be like if Lo’ak and his space whale buddy, two outcasts against the world, took a notion to attack that mean Australian bloke on the whaler hydrofoil. And then I found out!

And yet in spite of all this, it’s simultaneously impossible to watch a film like The Way of Water and to have my brain completely short-circuited so as to read the film as real. Little details keep pulling me back to the part of my brain that is impressed that all of this was generated by visual effects teams at all; I wouldn’t be here writing this, if not. I’ve seen the film twice now and both times, when Kiri is having her seizure and being tended to by Ronal and Neytiri, I have been astonished by a single shot of the fine peachfuzz dusted across the alien blue girl’s hyperventilating belly; I have been astonished not because peachfuzz is not normally found on a child’s belly, but because my brain always goes “holy shit, they rendered peachfuzz?” which, in turn, strikes against everything I think this film is, or should be, trying to do in the realm of verisimilitude. Or, to put it another way, the peachfuzz on Kiri’s belly is absolutely an act of verisimilitude: it’s just one that is so unexpected and so gorgeously-realized that it immediately breaks the illusion, by dint of being too incredible not to be noticed.

I genuinely do not know if James Cameron would be happy or frustrated that I noticed it. Probably neither — he seems a pretty chill dude these days, for a guy whose intensity could also be more broadly filed under “zero chill” — but I’d love to ask him. When is the pursuit of “real” working in your favour, as a storyteller; and when is it just a self-created obstacle to overcome in the pursuit of your audience’s experience?

On the subject of self-created obstacles: woof, Ant-Man Quantumania is bad. It’s bad for most, if not all, the reasons The Way of Water is good, plus some accidental collisions besides. For example: The Way of Water having made the aforementioned $2.2 billion, it stands to reason that every single person going to see Quantumania this weekend is aware that it is possible to screen a film in 3-D that is bright, and in focus, and visually legible. For Marvel, and (in my case, the much-loathed) Cineplex to be doing otherwise in Quantumania‘s case, then, is starting to feel very close to fraud.

My stance on the Marvel Cinematic Universe since very near the beginning has been that its defining attribute, the secret of its success, is not so much particular performances or storylines or directors or characters (though it can certainly be those, in many cases), but its quality control. Much like Pixar, the first fifteen (!) years of the Marvel Studios project felt like their baseline strength was in the machined rigour of their approach to each individual part. The mix was always very precise, and the planks of the secret formulation were always there. I couldn’t even tell you what each of those planks are — if I could, I’d be Kevin Feige — but I can give you some examples: flawless, charm-first casting decisions. Supporting characters who “pop” (and sometimes steal the whole picture). Snarky, sitcom-style writing that conceals an unexpected commitment to heart. And so forth.

Well, whoever is on QC at Marvel Studios took the last year off. That’s the only conclusion I can draw after Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, Black Panther: Wakanda Forever, and now Quantumania. (I am personally leaving Thor: Love and Thunder off the list because Thor is both my boy and my girl; but, I don’t think anyone who would include that film on this list would be wrong, per se.) These films are no longer paying attention to the mandatories, the minimum viable products, that built the MCU in the first place. Each of these examples has been haphazardly written, but not till Quantumania did that trend bottom out into outright laziness and, potentially, incompetence. This most recent film is the first one where none of the internal pieces seem to connect, and none of the characters have anything to do, and the whole thing feels like a gallery show for the CGI. Which would be fine, I guess, if the CGI weren’t also horrible.

I can’t recall the last time a wildly expensive, big screen fantasy movie whiffed it on the level at which Quantumania screws up the visuals. I haven’t googled it, but my guess would be that Peyton Reed — fresh off the visual monstrosity that is the second season of The Mandalorian — really liked ILM’s video wall, and decided to shoot an entire movie against it. The film is dank, fuzzy, and completely uncommitted to the idea of showing off the world it has created — which, I’d have to assume given the lack of any actual storytelling in the writing, was at least theoretically the point? But nope, Quantumania has neither: no story, no visuals. It is the anti-Avatar, and the two films coming so hot on the heels of one another only further bolsters the strength of Cameron’s creative project, and the sharpness of the decline of Feige’s.

There is an ancient debate among comic book readers. Comic books, of course, are a dual art form: they are both writing, and visual art. So the question stands thus: can you stay with a badly-written comic with gorgeous artwork; and/or can you stay with a spectacular piece of writing whose artwork isn’t up to snuff?

There isn’t a right answer. I learned long ago that in my case, however, I tilt slightly towards the artwork; a great story poorly drawn is more likely to have me giving up a book than the other way around. This extends to film; a lot of writing about film (even the MCU) tends to conveniently forget film’s nature as a visual medium, and the degree to which what’s happening on the screen is as important, and sometimes more important, than what’s happening in the screenplay. (The fact that “the screenplay” is often reduced down to “the dialogue” is another issue, but a discussion for another time.)

Now, Marvel movies have never been benchmark-setters in visualization. That’s not one of the planks of their secret formula, believe it or not, and we can prove it by noting the times when the visuals do punch above their weight (Ragnarok; Black Panther; that one shot of Cap facing off Thanos in Endgame) and everyone consequently loses their minds with surprise. More often than not, Marvel movies look like TV that’s been lit for the broadest possible downstream outputs of platforms and devices, which is because that’s basically what it is. There’s nothing wrong with this, either: it worked for fifteen years, and built the strongest brand currently standing in the film industry. But these things have lost the plot on what was working, even when the visuals weren’t. Even Feige seems to have noticed, pushing The Marvels back six months and slowing the gravy pipe of Disney+ television series to a crawl after the new-episode-a-week-for-two-years that we’ve endured across 2021 and 2022. No one will come right out and say “course correction;” and if the course never corrects, we’ll all just move on anyway, and nothing will be lost. But boy. The brand that every other franchise desperately wants to be just got shown up in both directions; both by a lunatic billionaire, machine-tooling his alien fantasy playground for so long that everyone (once again) decided to bet against him; and on the other side by a show made on scraps and the bones of a great story, and a very dedicated team of people deciding where to place their bets for maximum story value. Rigour and discipline in both cases, winning the day.