Monday, July 15, 2013

Imitation of Life (3): A World Past

In my last apocalyptic article, I presented computer-generated imagery as a threat to the photographic image, but what can be so dangerous with CGI?

As previously discussed, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, James Cameron stages a duel between these two forms of images, CGI vs moving photography. The T-1000 (Robert Patrick), the new Terminator made of liquid metal, is an almost perfect representation of CGI: the T-1000 can morph with its environment or imitate a human body, and he’s a fluid entity, able to metamorphose into almost any shape he wants. Just like CGI, the T-1000 exhibits the appearances of the real object he transforms into, but it’s no more than that, an appearance, because he’s unbound by most of the physical laws that would normally defined this object; the T-1000 looks like reality, but does not act at all like reality as we know it (he can pass through metal bars or reconstitute itself once melted). This is as far as the comparison can go though, because the robot is still a concrete being, made of metal, unlike CGI and its nature as digital information living in some hard drive. Even so, Cameron found in the T-1000 an apt representation of the metamorphic abilities of CGI and its desire to imitate the realism of the photographic image. In one of the most frightening scene of the movie, the T-1000 becomes the floor behind an unsuspecting guard in the asylum: for a moment, we perceive him as if he was a real floor, just like a floor in a movie can be made with CGI. The T-1000 acted as a sort of prophecy about the future of the CGI image, a prediction now fully realized: we cannot know anymore if the environments the characters move in are a real, physical space, a digitally created one, or a mix of both. Nowadays, all floors may hide a T-1000.

On the opposite front, there’s the original Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger), a big, slow, solid machine that moves through space and time following the same physical laws as we do... except for the time travel part, but I mean that he has to move from one place to another by using his legs moving at a natural speed, or that he cannot walk through a wall except by breaking it. In comparison with the T-1000, he’s an artefact from the past, a glorious reminder of an obsolete technology. Actually, he may not be so obsolete, since the Terminator, the old-school special effects conceived around the particularity of the photographic image, destroys the T-1000, the evil CGI. In this way, the movie explicitly argues for the pre-eminence of the photographic over CGI – but at the same time, Terminator 2 was an obvious showcase for the possibilities of CGI, a technological landmark in this domain. I have no proof other than my own experience for this, but I’m pretty sure that in the mind of the audience (and the movie industry), the T-1000 made a greater impression than the Terminator. In the fiction, the T-1000 came from the future in order to erase the past, and indeed, for the audience, he was a vision of the future, of what movies could become; maybe we didn’t immediately understood, though, that this new technology does create an image without a past, which complicates, when incorporated into film, our perception of the photographic image as a “world past”.