Itʼs fairly well known among movie lovers that when George Lucas was planning his climactic Death Star battle in Star Wars, he first assembled clips from previous war movies – The Dam Busters, The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and Battle of Britain – to plot the manoeuvres of his X-wings and Imperial fighters. Indeed, Lucas could draw on an entire era of Twentieth Century cinema which featured exhilarating scenes of air combat, and warbird buffs like me will always have a soft spot for these films: The Dam Busters (1955), The Blue Max (1965), Battle of Britain (1969), Tora, Tora, Tora (1970), Catch-22 (1970), Aces High (1976), the TV series Baa Baa Black Sheep (1976-1978), Memphis Belle (1990), and The Tuskeegee Airmen (1995).
Not all of these were brilliant works of art, certainly, but regarding them today I am struck by a crucial distinction between them and contemporary aviation-centred works like Pearl Harbor (2000), the TV documentary series Dogfights (2005- ), Flyboys (2006), Red Tails (2012), and Martin Scorceseʼs The Aviator (2004). The older pictures actually showed real aircraft in flight, while the modern development of Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) permits directors to devise aerial sequences digitally, with very little genuine flying footage. This innovation is understandable, of course – planes are expensive to operate and potentially dangerous to photograph in mid-air, especially if the machines on camera are vintage bombers and fighters piloted to replicate historic battles in the skies. CGI is safer, cheaper, and allows filmmakers to depict many more Spitfires, Mitsubishi Zeroes, or B-17s than the handful which exist as flying specimens today.
The problem is that CGI also permits a visual dexterity that would be completely impossible if the camera was trained on physical objects moving through the air, and by exploiting this potential many recent “flying” scenes look conspicuously faked. In Pearl Harbor, bombs and torpedoes were tracked by point-of-view angles all the way to their targets, while in The Aviator the viewer was swirled around young Howard Hughes (Leonardo DeCaprio) directing the spectacular dogfights of Hellʼs Angels from an open cockpit. In Red Tails, P-51 Mustangs and Messerschmitt 262s fly and explode headlong into the screen, and in the German-made The Red Baron (2008) the “camera“ pulls back from close-ups of aces at the controls to panoramic vistas of entire squadrons zooming through the clouds. No human cinematographer could capture the same subjects with the same freedom of movement. However realistic the planes and their backgrounds are made to appear, their placement in the frame gives their simulation away.
For all its technical possibilities, CGI has strangely flattened the movie-watching experience. In the same sense that Photoshop can ridiculously beautify portraits of ordinary people, and in the same sense that AutoTune can tweak the vocals of inept singers to sound on-key, CGI can falsify representations of real things so that they bear no resemblance to our mental concepts of what theyʼre authentically supposed to look like. Veteran movie people say that the best special effects are the ones you donʼt notice, but in Pearl Harbor and Flyboys you canʼt not notice them. The language of cinema relies both on the spectatorʼs ability to accept illusions (theyʼre just moving pictures, after all), and a back-of-the-mind awareness that illusion – simulations, recreations, re-enactments – is exactly what cinema is. CGI talks over that language. Battle of Britain and Memphis Belle made use of models and rear projection (where the actors perform in front of a background screen), but they also employed functioning aircraft to “act“ before analog cameras. Dogfights and Red Tails, by contrast, are more like immersive video games where every element is the product of a state-of-the-art software program, which is in fact the case. The irony is that when George Lucas referenced World War II movies for Star Wars, the results were believable in a futuristic sort of way, whereas todayʼs scenes of air fighting seem to reference the dazzling gimmickry of Star Wars, and are barely believable at all.