Once upon a time, the story was all there was for a movie. Some of my all-time favorites: A Philadelphia Story, Maltese Falcon, The Godfather. None of these had special effects. But then Star Wars happened and suddenly special effects were good enough to add to a story instead of be a distraction. For the next decade and a half special effects and stories intermixed comfortably.
In 1991 Steven Spielberg released Jurassic Park. The world was never the same. I remember going to that movie opening weekend and being absolutely amazed at the special effects. It was the first time in my memory that the special effects were so good they were seamless. (More than 20 years later they still hold up.) The only limitation was physical, since that movie was made with physical dinosaurs, animatronic and stop-action. That lasted a couple more years as Toy Story came out and once again I remember being floored by it. Computer special effects that rivaled real life. That scene when Buzz loses his arm, the top view down to the tile floor… I swear I’ve been in that house.
That was 1995, almost 20 years ago. In those years it seems the special effects have only gotten better, often at the expense of a great story. The action directors we love the most, the J.J. Abrams’, the Josh Whedon’s, still instill good stories with awesome special effects but it seems like stories have been generally lost in the shuffle.
We’ve reached a point, though, where special effects have gotten so good and so prevalent that every movie has some special effects in it. Now when I see special effects I don’t get excited about the effects anymore. Special effects, in essence, have become commoditized. And when anything become commoditized, something else has to take hold to get consumers to buy.
And that’s why I think, over the next decade, we will see stories take center stage again. Special effects no longer pack in the customers. It’ll have to be the story that drives customers to the theaters.