We were treated to the first images from the upcoming big-screen adaptation of Wicked, one of the most popular musicals in Broadway history. The shots gave us a glimpse of stars Cynthia Erivo and Ariana Grande in-character as Elphaba and Glinda, the witches of Frank Baum’s Oz novels who grow from friends to enemies in the face of political uprising. But good luck if you’re actually able to discern anything from these pictures, which are lit with all of the vibrancy of grey paint.
You weren’t told the whole story. What happens when you veer off the Yellow Brick Road? Here is your very FIRST LOOK of #WickedMovie … currently in production in Oz. ðŸŒªï¸ðŸ«§ðŸ§¹@WickedMovie @UniversalPics pic.twitter.com/pKdTTmi6kD— Jon M. Chu (@jonmchu) April 16, 2023
John M. Chu, who is directing both films (and no, there’s no dang reason for Wicked of all shows to be a two-part cinematic saga), already responded to a tweet about the stills’ lighting with a link to images of the fabulously technicolour sets. So, perhaps this is just a desaturated first glimpse to set the tone and not reveal too much. Still, you can’t blame people for worrying, right? It’s not as though those images are the exception to the current rule of cinematographic preferences. Every bloody film looks like this now and it sucks.
Hollywood blockbusters have become beholden to this false notion of realism. We’ve seen it dominate the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which has paved the path for everyone else to eagerly follow. As VFX become ever-more sophisticated, able to replicate almost every aspect of life down to the smallest detail, studios want to use this technology to establish a new aesthetic status quo. This is partly because audiences instinctively gravitate towards that which we perceive to be ‘real.’ We seek the familiar, those signs of something tangible, which is why we’re so unnerved by examples of the uncanny valley. Such CGI displays are admittedly impressive, but only when the FX teams have been given the appropriate time and budget to exact their visions, and that’s become increasingly difficult to exact when studios starve effects groups of resources and overwork their underpaid staff into oblivion.
Everything is realism now. Superheroes. Space operas. Talking lions. The last one is of particular note for why this direction is limited in its scope. Jon Favreau’s ‘live-action’ remake of The Lion King certainly looked good when not in motion. Yet the moment the characters talked, the illusion was shattered. It didn’t help that making these beautifully expressive and character-heavy cartoons into ‘real’ animals stripped them of humour, pathos, and creative spark. Sure, it looked close to life, but why? Who were the fans of The Lion King who watched it and thought, ‘I wish this was less interesting’? Of course, my criticisms don’t exactly gel with the film’s astonishing commercial performance, but its cultural footprint is non-existent compared to the original.
The aching focus on realism starves cinema (and modern prestige TV) of its creative potential. Every tool is there to help tell the story. You can do whatever you want with a movie but now the restrictions feel more smothering than ever. Imagine if Argento’s Suspiria was dinged for its lighting being too fantastical, or if the Wachowski sisters’ Speed Racer was forced to look like a Gran Turismo game. It’s seen as some sort of creative victory that genre fiction is now taken more seriously than ever, as ingrained in our cultural DNA as the mythos of the Greek gods once were millennia ago. But why does that mean we have to tell these stories with the portentous stylings of a war film?
It doesn’t help that, half the time, we can’t bloody see what’s going on. This is another side-effect of the realism problem, this idea that being able to actually look at the thing we’ve paid to watch would compromise the verisimilitude of the narrative. Consider how the latest Hellraiser film, which is pretty solid, is so poorly lit that you can barely see the Cenobites, and compare that to the first film from the ’80s, where the creatures in all their grotesque beauty are on full display. I know which one made a bigger impression on me. Sometimes, the shadows are terrifying, but the skill of implication pioneered by horror films like Cat People has been sorely abused in too many films. The Marvel films don’t dim the lights to create tension or unease. They just do it to hide shoddy filmmaking.
I’ve heard some Wicked fans claim that the film should be bleak because the story is much darker than it often gets credit for. That is true, to an extent. While it’s not as politically torrid or adult as the Gregory Maguire novel it’s based on, it does centre on an Oz where an Apartheid-style system of discrimination keeps an entire species separate from humans. Elphaba essentially becomes a terrorist in the eyes of the government (I’m so fascinated to see how general audiences react when they realize just how weird this peppy musical’s plot actually is.) Yet the idea that a grim story is incompatible with a vibrant aesthetic is just daft. Look at Akira Kurosawa’s Ran or Hitchcock’s Vertigo or any number of Dario Argento films. What better way to dissect the true range of human pain than by using all the colours in your palate?
Here’s hoping that the final version of Wicked doesn’t look like it was dipped in weak coffee because this trend is tedious and exemplifies the least interesting fetishes of modern cinema. If nothing else, we can pray that this is merely another trend that studios will get sick of, like the omnipresence of shaky-cam in the mid-to-late 2000s. Is it so bad to want to be able to see what’s on the screen?