Hollywood special effects may be a bigger draw than real-life volcanos or sharks for the nation’s science museums, but “Special Effects” is little more than a run-of-the-mill “how they did it” show made unique by being shot in the 70mm Imax proc-ess. Produced by the “Nova” unit of WGBH Boston, pic opened in half a dozen specially equipped U.S. theaters on the Fourth of July, with bookings throughout the country and around the world scheduled through next year.
While pic has definite entertainment value, this look at the history and science of special effects is superficial. Opening hook sums it all up: We see a clip from the classic 1933 “King Kong” and then cut to a full-screen modern rendering of the climactic shootout. Breathtaking sequence ends with the revelation that much of it was in miniature, but no further detail about what made it work.
A brief history of onscreen special effects follows, rightly noting that it all began with Georges Melies. But subsequent work is barely touched on, and such f/x landmarks as “The Ten Commandments” and “2001: A Space Odyssey” aren’t mentioned at all. That’s so narrator John Lithgow can inform viewers that the “turning point” for special effects was “Star Wars” in 1977.
While that case can be made, it seems more like a bow to the generosity of George Lucas’ Industrial Light & Magic in coop-erating with the docu, and to young viewers’ belief that movies were invented with “Star Wars.” The section on the sci-fi epic is linked to the new effects being shot for its 1997 re-release.
Sequence on the pyrotechnics of “Independence Day” succeeds, as we see effects wiz Joe Viskocil plot to blow up a model of the White House. Here we get a very good sense of how such an effect is constructed.
The second half of this 40-minute ride is less successful. The imminent “Kazaam,” with Shaquille O’Neal, is used to dem-onstrate blue-screen image replacement, but we get little explanation about how it works. There’s also the risk that “Kazaam” may fizzle, quickly dating the documentary.
Final sequence on animatronics and computer graphic imagery is a mixed bag, focusing on the animals of “Jumanji.” The animatronic stuff, greatly simplified, is informative, but the CGI material doesn’t leave the viewer with much more info than that it’s done with computers and involves a lot of work.
Docu should satisfy the family audience that will see it in museum settings from L.A. and Boston to the Hague, Taiwan and Paris. Viewers hoping for something with a little more substance on how f/x are achieved will be disappointed to find that “Special Effects” is largely special effects.