The Base Exchange here in Misawa Japan featured a three-disc blu ray set of movies from Warner Bros. and Paramount in the electronics department a few weeks ago. In regards to the former studio, one of the sets included: Contact, Red Planet, and 2010: The Year We Make Contact. Excluding discussion on Robert Zemeckis’ well-acted but a little too drawn out Contact, my attention here is focused on 2010 and Red Planet. Red Planet is less than 20% on Rotten Tomatoes and rightly so for its uninspired plot and PBS Kids equivalent character development. But the most disappointing aspect of Red Planet is its atrocious art direction and special effects. The $80 million dollar Red Planet features 32 bit PlayStation 1 special effects that take the audience out of the story instead of into the story. 2010: The Year We Make Contact preceded Red Planet by 16 years but comes damn close to the pioneering effects and set design of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. I have to admit that I still find Kubrick’s legendary science fiction piece to be too drawn out and at times pretentious. Take for instance the 16-minute space walk sequence: Yes, we (the audience) get it!!! HAL 9000 is watching man needing to breathe and methodically think out their next move. HAL 9000 is observing all of this thinking that man is a simple maintenance person to upkeep HAL 9000’s superior being. But can we just get on with the movie already! But in regards to the 70mm photography and Douglass Trumball’s ground-breaking special effects, all set on a wonderful art direction palette, nothing (not even Avatar) comes close to the visual aura of 2001: A Space Odyssey.
My personal favorite visual seen of 2001 is the scene where the explorers approach the Monolith at the moon excavation site. Although 44 years have past since this scene was shot; the lighting, turf, metallic-like support beams, and camera work still has the audience convinced that mankind is marching towards uncovering their next stage of evolution.
Christopher Nolan has often cited Blade Runner and 2001: A Space Odyssey as inspiration on the visuals of his Batman franchise and Inception. The rotating corridor on the Discovery space station in 2001 inspired the rotating hallway sequence in Inception. Nolan’s special effects supervisor and art director Chris Corbould and Guy Hendrix Dyas respectively, are amongst the top experts in their respective fields. Nolan, Spielberg, and Duncan Jones are filmmakers that believe CGI should be used only in situations that in-camera effects couldn’t be executed. These filmmakers realize that practical effects are indeed time consuming, but the attention to detail will warrant multiple viewings of their films and inspire future filmmakers to surpass previous accomplishments. Practical effects and unyielding cinematography are perfect compliments to the palette known as Art Direction.
I first appreciated art direction at age 10 while viewing James Cameron’s Aliens on VHS. The set design looked metallic and organic, giving the futuristic story a living horror museum aura. Blu Ray editions of Aliens, 2001, and Blade Runner have actually enhanced the blu ray experience. I use the word actually because often blu ray enhances the poor set-design and CGI of less meticulously made movies. And meticulousness often can trump a low budget. The 2009 Moon was made on a 5 million dollar budget and is much more pleasant to the eye than Red Planet, Sphere, and Mission To Mars.
Prometheus, Christopher Nolan's Entire Batman Trilogy, and Skyfall are amongst 2012 films that are receiving highly detailed large-scale books dedicated to their art direction two weeks after their theatrical releases. Below are the front covers of the books and they are available for pre-order at Amazon and Barnes and Noble.