One of the greatest pleasures of moviegoing is the “Whoa…” moment. It’s that point in a movie where something so amazing happens your jaw drops to the floor and your brain momentarily ceases all rational function. Sometimes it comes about because of some incredible plot twist, though that’s quite rare. Usually it’s the product of an incredible image, often aided by special effects, that stretches the definition of awe and cool. But how do these moments come about, and has the proliferation of CGI killed off the “Whoa…” moment?
Let me answer those questions in reverse order. No, CGI has killed nothing. That’s because visual effects alone do not a “Whoa…” moment make. Such moments have always been a rarity. Having your mind blown by what you see on screen usually comes down to a sense of the achievement behind the camera which sells a new idea of reality on screen. One of the best examples in the history of cinema is this scene from Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park:
The CGI doesn’t even look that amazing these days. It holds up well enough, but only well enough. Yet, after all these years, the moment I see those dinosaurs I get goosebumps. The technical feat was impressive for its time, but somehow knowing its an effect only adds to the brilliance of the moment. That’s because it’s not just the effect itself, it’s the idea of the effect. The build-up. The pay-off. The image of dinosaurs in modern times. It all comes together and the illusion is sold in my heart even when my head tells me it’s not real.
But there is some truth to the notion that CGI effects have become too easy. I never get goosebumps watching Transformers. Sure, the big damn robots are cool, and I admire the effects work, but it all ends up feeling like a cheat. Like somebody just drew a cartoon. Of course that building in Transformers 3 falls over, it’s CGI! Practical effects have an advantage in this regard. There hasn’t been a better “Whoa…” moment in the last decade than this scene from Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight:
There’s just no getting around how damn cool that scene is. He flips a fucking truck! A real truck! He flips it!!! Holy shit. The prologue to The Dark Knight Rises that was featured at IMAX presentations of Mission: Impossible 4 had similar epic scale practical effects that are completely mind-blowing. Oh, and that Dubai sequence in Mission: Impossible 4? Same deal. Sure, they digitally removed cables and wires, but at the end of the day, you’ve got a camera looking out over the the tallest building in the world with Tom “Crazy SOB” Cruise hanging off the side. “Whoa…”
Computer effects can still be mind-blowing, though. Take, for example, the shot in The Matrix when the helicopter crashes into the building creating a shockwave of glass. It’s just so damn cool. Even fully animated can do it. The single take chase sequence in Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin was absolutely insane. It can’t even be discounted by the fact that it’s animated. The sheer choreography of it is near-impossible to process. It’s phenomenal.
These kinds of scenes are what made me fall in love with movies to begin with. These are the moments where illusion becomes reality and my brain cracks. The only proper response is “Whoa…”
What are your favourite “Whoa…” moments in cinema? Are there older films that still do it for you? Are you completely unimpressed by CGI?