The Lone Ranger (2013), Tonto (Johnny Depp)

The surprising reason the failure of The Lone Ranger will have huge implications to sci-fi movies.

By now, everyone knows that The Lone Ranger is a huge flop. It made $48.9 million in five days and the film reportedly cost a whopping $250 million.

You're probably thinking, "Who cares? I wasn't going to see that movie anyway." But you should. We all should.  As an avid science fiction fan, I realized it could have huge implications on sci-fi and superhero movies. Why?

Surprisingly enough, it's all about CGI. It's not the fact that they cast a (mostly) white actor as a Native American. It's not the massive budget since most sci-fi movies have massive budgets. No, the main reason you need to care is director Gore Verbinski doesn't use CGI for some action scenes, and this is the most often mentioned reason for the huge budget overruns that threatened to shut the production down.

With this movie failing, we'll see more films relying on CGI. Gore Verbinski insisted on doing many of the stunts for real with massive period trains they built from scratch. That's expensive. They could have used CGI trains and actors instead of using in-camera, or practical, effects. But Verbinski wanted it to look real, and he didn't feel CGI would cut it.

I loved Man of Steel, but it uses too much CGI. It never feels real. The first time Superman flew, it killed the realism the film had up at that point.

Compare that to Superman (1978) where all the flying looked and felt completely real. You really do believe a man can fly. The makers of that film were so determined to make it real that the first flying test was shooting a dummy out of a cannon. It didn't work, but they tried.

I'm not against CGI. There are some action scenes and creatures that are impossible without it, but it has limits. CGI is not good enough for things that we know are real. Like having a guy walk across the room.

Let's use Man of Steel for another example. Remember the mute brute Non (Jack O'Halloran) in Superman? Compare him to the CGI Nam-Ek in Man of Steel. Which felt more real?

Some of the greatest science fiction movie scenes have been done using practical effects. For example, The Matrix' bullet time scene. King Kong's climb up the Empire State Building. Batman barreling through the streets of Gotham City. Science fiction movies are going to demand more fantastical action scenes. So, the future of Hollywood could be more CGI and less practical effects. Which is sad.

Hollywood is going to point to The Lone Ranger's practical effects for the failure instead of blaming the horrible script, almost three-hour running time, and ridiculous action scenes. Make up artists and practical effects houses like "Stan Winston School" (that created massive dinosaurs robots for Jurassic Park) could go away forever.

Hopefully, CGI gets better by then.

Do you think science fiction movies are helped or hurt by more CGI? What do you think the failure of The Lone Ranger will change movies in the future?

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Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

It used to be that CGI cost more, not less.
I think we'll continue to see more and more CGI no matter what. But every year there are improvements. Long as the artists continue, then hopefully it will blend seamlessly in future films.

mmilam said...

Sorry, I can't go see Lone Ranger to support something that has nothing to do with the quality of the film. Lone Ranger is bad because the story is horrible, same goes for Man Of Steel (although it made it's money back I suspect because he is more emotional and violent, which is supposed to be "deep")

Pat Dilloway said...

I would agree that too much CGI is a bad thing. You'd have thought with the failure of John Carter Disney would have been more careful with how its money is spent on a "blockbuster" picture. Really they ought to just stop making 19th Century-based action movies. It just doesn't seem to go well for them

mmilam said...

If they could do better scripts, the worry wouldn't be whether the cgi is real or not.

TS Hendrik said...

Yeah, I hate the over dependence on CGI, but studios have got into a mode of making cheap horror and big event films as their lead revenue. They'll pour money into the films that they know will get tickets sold. Which is a direct result of movie goers voting with their wallets for these films. As such, I lament more for the smaller films that get quashed rather than any superhero film having to switch up effects.

Big budget doesn't mean they'll look better either. When you take a film like District 9 which looked better than so many 200 million dollar budget films, and contrast that it was done for 30 million, than you have to say it's not solely in the hands of the studios. Rather see directors with fresh ideas take a budget and use a little creativity.

Course I also see practical effect as having more of a comeback than might be thought. As the industry continues to spin its wheels in many regards, more and more films are being made independently thanks to a generation of accessible cameras. Heck, anyone with an iPhone can make a movie now. And in these cases everything is getting used.

I don't lament the failing of The Lone Ranger. A crap film should be called on it. It's a waste of a property that actually could have worked in someone else's hands. I don't see it being the death knoll for non-CGI effects either. But perhaps more damage to an industry that's increasingly looking at international before domestic, as their source of revenue. Westerns aren't popular overseas, so that's where the real killing is going to come for this film. It dies on all legs.

Great article. Very thought provoking.

jeremy [retro] said...

throw away the scripts to have more cgi work, is always a bad idea... we want both. sadly if they in hollywood don't understand that, films will be missed and waited for for the home screen. i get the same excitement anymore on the little screen as i do on the big. i won't be paying for them to shove "digital" in my face and the story is secondary. why the lone ranger didn't rank bigger, unknown lead to well-known second... people want to endure a film with a familiar face. game changer is that they tried to save it with depp's mug everywhere, but it was not called "tonto".. just like alice was not called "mad-hatter". they too gave away way too much in the trailer, make it a mystery not hey "look how cool, tonto is"...


The budget of a film has no bearing on what the public portrays the film to be. A good story is a good story. Effects shouldn't sell the film. Trailers get people excited about going, but too much is being revealed nowadays. By the time you go to see the movie you've seen all the good parts. Much like going to see a comedy and coming out of the theater saying I saw all the funny parts before I watched it.
If The Lone Ranger has taught Hollywood anything we will have to wait to find out.

MPax said...

CGI won't be going anywhere, especially not for sci-fi. Funny how it now costs less.

Maurice Mitchell said...

The artists are getting better Alex and CGI is here to stay. I just hope the SFX artists keep doing great work too.

Maurice Mitchell said...

A lot of great scripts never make it to film and a lot of garbage makes it because it fits a formula Mmilam. CGI or not, "you can't polish a turd" as Van Peeples used to say.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Maybe Lone Ranger will make money back on video Jeremy. Who would you have cast as Line Ranger?

Maurice Mitchell said...

TS, it is surprising how many formulaic movies make enough money to be a hit. Gore said he wanted to reinvent the western, but it just didn't work. Do you think Hollywood will ever stop thinking big budget means good?

Maurice Mitchell said...

It is funny Mpax. Early CGI was so expensive even a few minutes of CGI like TRON cost a fortune.

Maurice Mitchell said...

It is ridiculous David. I always look for new clips in trailers. If the clips are all the same that usually means they ran out of good stuff. Is there anything you look for in a trailer?

Maurice Mitchell said...

Old school Westerns are a hard sell these days Pat. The last good Western was "Unforgiven." A lot of people are comparing this film to"John Carter."

Maurice Mitchell said...

Goth Superman.

jeremy [retro] said...

Johnny Depp, Clive Owen, Me!!


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