Tuesday, October 05, 2021

CoronaVirus CoVidEo Corner: Plague Film Bonanza: Part 5

Weirdo that I am, I'm commemorating the CoVid19 lockdown by watching plague movies, and because I love you, I'm writing them up for you, readers, and I'll end the series with a nice best-of countdown!

If you aren't up to date on the series, the rules for inclusion or the scoring, I'll put a recap at the bottom of this post, or you can read the full description and official rules at the table of contents page.

I... I kind of ran out of gas on this blog series, probably because as the pandemic got worse, watching plague movies stopped being quite so fun, but every half-finished blog post in my draft file bugs me, so here's a chance to move one from "unpublished" to "published"

Other installments:

Go Back to Part 1 
Films reviewed:
(Carriers (2009)

Deranged (연가시) (2012)
Patient Zero (2018)
Outbreak (1995)
The Bay (2012)
Perfect Sense (2011)

Go Back to Part 2
감기 (The Flu)
Black Death
Pontypool
Extinction: The GMO Chronicles
괴물 (The Host)
Viral (2016)
The Girl With All the Gifts

Go Back to Part 3
And The Band Played On (1993)
12 Monkeys (1995)
Cabin Fever (2002)
Planet of the Apes Trilogy (2011-2017)
World War Z (2013)
Contagion (2011)

Go Back to Part 4
Antiviral (2012)
Maggie (2015)
10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)
Pandemic (2016)
Stephen King's The Stand (1994)
28 Days Later (2002) / 28 Weeks Later (2007) duology
The Invasion (2007)

CoVideo Corner sidebar: Social Distancing Edition:

This post discusses a set of films about claustrophobia, isolation, boredom and helplessness: the feelings we're all feeling during our stay-at-home quarantines and self-isolation.




In This Episode (Part 5)

The Crazies (2009 and 1973)
Day of Resurrection/Virus: The End (Fukkatsu No Hi) (1980)
The Andromeda Strain (1971)
REC (2007)
Blindness (2008)


The Crazies (2009) (IMDB Page) and 1973 (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: George Romero, creator of the modern zombie film with "Night of the Living Dead," took another kick at horror/plague can with the 1973 original, and produced the remake in 2010. An airplane crashes outside a small town, releasing a bioweapon government scientists have been working on into the water supply of a very small town. The infection causes people to either die or become extremely violent.

In both versions, the military sets up a perimeter to try to quarantine the town, and things turn really, really sour. For some reason the military wants to get everybody into the school gym for quarantine (sounds like a rotten idea if the infection makes everyone attack each other), which gives the military (and the filmmakers) an excuse to roam all over town in search of extreme situations. We follow different townsfolk and military personnel as the "Crazies" virus (nicknamed "Trixie") goes to work. Things get pretty ugly. The 2010 version follows Timothy Olyphant’s small-town sheriff character close enough that the film has a protagonist, which can’t really be said for the original.

Scoring: 1973 DNF. Night of the Living Dead was better, but a lot of fans of old horror and exploitation films have a soft spot for The Crazies as well. I'll be honest, I didn't feel the film made the most of its premise, it failed to create a real mood of menace or dread, and the gore was dialed down compared to your average zombie attack. There's something about 70s and 80s movies of this type -- there are just so many scenes of someone in military garb shouting "Shut down the thing" into a walkie talkie, while somebody else in a different outfit shouts, "You can't shut down the thing, dammit!" It started with a lot of shouting, and ended with a lot of shooting, but lacked a clear, compelling protagonist and amounted to quite a bit less than the sum of its parts, in my opinion.

Scoring: 2010 DNF/DQ’d. The 2010 film is a little slicker and better acted, and the imagery is quite a bit better. There is a bit with a pitchfork that’s quite well-done, and a set piece set in a car wash that is very silly, and people with the rage virus get more or less disgusting-looking, depending on how well the protagonist knows them. Now, I love me some late ‘00s Timothy Olyphant, but 2010 Crazies still never quite amounts to something impressive. These films are way better-made than Cabin Fever, but the 1973 version was not compelling, and the 2010 version was more of a monster movie than a plague movie, really, so given that it wasn't a great film to begin with, I'm not giving it a full write-up: it’s either DNF as a plague film, or DQ’d because it’s a monster movie.

Both films seem to be trying to make a point about government overreach -- as the military tries to contain the breakout, they herd people into fenced cages in 2010, and confine them in a school gym and confiscate their guns in 1973, but this muddles any thematic coherence the film might have had, because if the disease makes the infected do what they do in this film, the military is very much right to contain the outbreak at all costs, and the group (both films have one) who tries to escape the quarantine is incredibly reckless and irresponsible. The 2010 film commits the sin of multiple sudden-noise+hand-appears-out-of-nowhere startling the viewer, only for that person to turn out to be a friend. Bad enough once. There is also at least one, and possibly more, scenes where a character we like is in a bad situation, about to be killed by a baddie, only for them to be shot from offscreen by a character we hadn’t known was nearby. The sauce is too weak to forgive the story’s shortcomings.


Day of Resurrection (1980) (Fukkatsu No Hi)

The Skinny:
The most expensive Japanese film ever made at the time. It tells the story of a virus created by the military that makes other pathogens much more deadly, and kills all life on earth, except the inhabitants of a few Antarctic research stations. The Cold War finally over, the researchers try to imagine life repopulating the earth after the virus has died away, only to realize US and Russia have set up automated nuclear launches deterrents to a nuclear attack, and that these automatic launches might be triggered by a coming earthquake. A few researchers and a submarine crew must go to Washington to turn off the automated retaliation machine before it leads to an automated nuclear exchange between all-dead USA and Russia that would irradiate the earth and perhaps end even chance live eventually makes a comeback.

The Good: There's something nostalgic about watching Cold War films in 2020, I admit. Jaw-clenched men in military garb shouting "Cancel the code red" at each other, gazing off in the middle distance and musing, "It could be the end of life itself, Mr. President" -- there's just something so cheesy and quaint about it now, even though in the 70s and 80s the stakes were so high. The film is competently acted and directed, a little slow, and gives the plague mostly superficial treatment as part of the premise for the drama happening at the Antarctic station.

This film was headed for a DNF until one scene so ludicrous it approached the sublime. An Antarctic station crew is trying desperately to find someone, anyone, still alive on the rest of the planet, and end up talking with a five-year-old who got scared, went on his dad's short wave radio, but doesn't know to let go of the broadcast button when he finishes talking, meaning that people can't reply to him. There's about a three minute scene of scientists and doctors huddled around a radio microphone, shouting "TOBY LET GO OF THE SWITCH" at a five-year-old who can't hear them. Of all the different ways to portray the world ending, they chose this.

Enjoy it with me.




The Bad: The film's premise is a little silly, and it ends on a serious downer. I guess the film's supposed to be a warning about nuclear weapons? Really, it doesn't seem to know whether it wants to be a plague film, describing the outbreak of the plague, or a "stuck in isolation" film about the people at the Antarctic station: the characters we meet and care about are just about all at the research stations, or dead in the first half of the film, yet the climactic conflict to be resolved involves a trip to Washington to shut off an armageddon machine, disconnected from almost all of the characters we cared about, rather than some problem that must be solved at the research stations. As the scientists decide what to do about the future, the women (there are 8 women on the Antarctic stations, at about a 100-1 man-to-woman ratio) agree to some pretty damn awful living conditions for the sake of the preservation of the human race, in a gross scene that doesn't fit the rest of the movie, and sure sounds like a middle-aged man writing out his sexual fantasy, more than something a group of women would actually agree to. The storyline jumps around between places, groups of characters, and time a lot, skipping around from before the breakout, to during, to the Antarctic bases' long stay and search for a cure, to the point that it feels like the story got away from the filmmakers, or the editor perhaps.

Scoring:
Frightening: This film starts out as a political drama, turns into a survival drama, and ends weirdly. None of the marks it's aiming for are trying to scare the audience. It's frightening that the Cold War led USA and Russia down such horrifying paths to find an advantage over each other, but especially now that the Cold War (as it was then) is over, the film and its stakes don't really hit the mark any more in 2020. 1/5

Scary: The scariest it gets is people coughing, and grossest part of the film isn't anything disease-related, but the women of the Antarctic stations agreeing to lend out their wombs to all the men of the research stations for the sake of the human race. There aren't any jumps or gross-outs: this film is not going for that audience. As I said, I probably would have turned it off if not for the unintentional comedy of the Toby scene, which got me to watch the rest of the film, but not to love it. 1/5

Plausible: The origin of the plague, the idea that USA and Russia might have been engaging in a biological warfare weapons race, the cloak and dagger around how the virus got developed, and got loose, are all ideas/plots/schemes/fears I've heard before in the context of the Cold War, and the idea that a reckless scientist would be the one to invent the pathogen that gets us isn't farfetched enough. We don't get too many details about the type or progress of the plague, and what we do find out is described in a few exposition lines rather than dramatized interestingly, but it's believable that a couple of diseases could interact with each other to create something much worse, or that low temperatures could make a deadly virus go dormant. 3/5

Awesome: This film is a real period piece, for its music and acting, the slower pacing than we get in films today, and for the Cold War context. It's been long enough since USSR fell that it's getting hard to remember just how scary the nuclear arms race was at the time. Moreover, as I said in "the bad" above, the film seems to be unsure of what it is, and not enough of the spaghetti they're throwing at the wall sticks. It was competently made, the short wave radio scene is transcendent, and peak Olivia Hussey sure was something, but none of that was enough to save the film. 2/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? You can't really tease more when you've already killed the entire human race save a few dozen, so... nope.

Verdict: If you're going to watch a film where the entire world gets wiped out, The Stand's "what comes after" is more interesting than this.

Total Score: 7/20


The Andromeda Strain (1971) (IMDB Page)
The Skinny: One of the older films on the plague viewing list, but also one of the very plaguiest, The Andromeda Strain is about a group of crack scientists sent into a deep underground scientific lab to study a virus that has wiped out an isolated American village.

The Good: This film probably gets into the details of how scientists would investigate a virus in more detail than any other film in this series: robot arms moving samples around airtight laboratories, computer scans revealing screens of data (in old timey 1970s beep boop green text on black screen style), and detailed discussion of how the virus reproduces, its size, what it feeds on, and how it kills, mean that if you really do read books on epidemiology for fun, this is the plague movie for you. There are a bunch of Very Smart Men (and a woman!) with PhDs gritting their teeth and making Very Important Decisions, and it's kind of charming, but anachronistic (in 2021) how much faith this film shows in science and the scientific method. It wasn't a problem with the science that led Covid to be as devastating as it has been.

The Bad: If you don't read books on epidemiology for fun, this film is a little dry. There are long scenes showing, for example, a robot arm moving animal cages around and exposing them to the virus. The scientists all wear identical red jumpsuits, so a few of the characters kind of blur together, and the way the plot hinges around certain protocols being followed or not, and a bit of a contrivance for the reasons a key piece of information doesn't come to light... well, I suppose it's better than Jake Gyllenhaal in VR glasses punching a virus in the jaw, but again, the film suffers from slow pacing and does a lot of explaining. Sure, every film from the '70s is a slow burn to the MTV-addled attention spans of 2021 movie viewers, but... this one is too, and maybe it's not them, it's me... but given that you, dear reader, probably also have an MTV-addled attention span, be warned.

Scoring:
Frightening: Nah. This film isn't really frightening. You sense academically that the virus is deadly, for one thing by how many precautions the characters take to avoid it (though those precautions slow the action waaay down). The animation and graphics used to represent the andromeda virus are also '70s nifty, and create a few moments of "whoa. It's coming!" but they don't linger enough to count as frightening. 1/5

Scary: There are a few mild gross-outs when investigators discover dead virus victims with entirely coagulated blood, and during the science testing a few animals are shown dying of the virus, but the purpose of this film is not to make us gasp in horror at the disease, but to marvel at the cleverness of those who unlock it secrets (and the writer who came up with it all). 2/5

Plausible: The idea that scientists would be doing science somewhat like this in a super-fancy underground science lab: plausible. The idea that the government has a super-fancy underground science lab and a set of disease investigation protocols including a pre-selected crack team of virus experts standing by for the call? Less plausible, especially after how the pandemic unfolded since 2020. They put a baby on a four-foot-high flat stretcher, keep it there for days, and he never once falls off. The science of the virus and the investigation are very well-thought-through, as they were in the Michael Crichton book. This film lives or dies on whether you think its investigation and results are plausible, and they mostly are.  4/5

Awesome: If '70s competence porn is your thing, there's lots to love here, and yeah, the details of the virus and the investigation are so thorough there's a ring of authenticity that if space viruses came down to threaten the earth, they might work this way, but yeah, it's also 70s cinema with the pacing and style that entails. 3/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? The virus escapes containment, but because of things they learn during the investigation, that turns out not to be much of a concern, so yes and no: no points awarded or deducted.

Verdict: The more you know and care about scientific process and epidemiology, the more you'll enjoy this film. The only other films in this series that come close to the level of detail in explaining the workings of their plagues are The Girl With All the Gifts and Pontypool, and of them, Pontypool has the best zinger at the end. It is very very sciencey, and very very plaguey.

Total Score: 10/20 ... perhaps I weighted scary/frightening a little heavy on my scale if the most sciencey and the most plaguey film in the set can only manage a middling score. Than again... it's my series, so I'll score for the things I like, by gum!



[REC] (2007) (IMDB Page

The Skinny: In this Spanish found footage film, a young news reporter follows a fire department call into a building where people are getting sick. While inside, authorities lock down the building, stopping anyone from escaping while a zombie-like infection spreads through the population of building tenants. This film was a huge success, spawning three sequels as well as the shitty tribute of an inferior English language Hollywood remake (which was alright, but close to a shot-for-shot remake, and if I recall correctly, lacked the manic energy of the original). It could qualify as more a zombie movie than a plague movie, but the fact that a lot of my readers are currently in quarantine, lockdown, or under stay at home orders of varying degrees of severity make it relevant enough for inclusion.

The Good: This film does a good job at slowly escalating tension and fear. Even more, the directing and acting strike me as realistic, simply because if there were a zombie breakout an apartment building, people would be losing their shit and the actors in this film actually show fear and panic. When something happens, people are all shouting at the same time, the cameraman doesn't know where to point, and three people have three different ideas about what to do. Most people wouldn't stay cool and turn into Vin Diesel zombie slayers in this situation, and even police and rescue workers are shouting, panicking and making rash decisions. The film does a few tropes well -- the creepy kid, the harmless old lady gone wrong, and the ending, in an attic, mostly in the dark, is a pretty darn great ending, probably good enough on its own to justify sequels and remakes.

The Bad: To be honest, all the usual reservations about found footage films apply. The premise -- that it's a professional cameraman -- helps sell the idea that camerawork should be mostly good, and there are a few haunting images that fit seamlessly into the story -- my favorite is when a character shouts for her friend down a spiral stairwell, and about ten zombies in the stairwell at different levels all look up, and all start climbing -- but there are also places where the shaky camera and dancing flashlight beams mean that horror reveals are too short, murky, or unsatisfying. It's a hard balance to reveal
just enough to be scary, but leave the rest to the imagination, but films that use found footage shaky cameras to skimp out on horror reveals are a bugbear of mine. This film had about 70% as many really frightening images as it could have, in my opinion.

Scoring:
Frightening: Yes! The way this film turns a perfectly ordinary living area into a house of horrors is very well done, the suspicion that you never know what your neighbors are really doing is a good foothold for terror, and the idea of not being able to escape as things curdle is real and effective. The ever-escalating creepouts and scares make this film a very good variation on the Blair Witch Project template. Showing the raw fear of the building tenants slowly increase makes the frights work, and the cast really sells it. 4/5

Scary: Yes! The film bends its own zombie rules - the speed at which people turn into zombies keeps increasing - and the explanation of the whole thing is perfunctory at best, but there are enough surprises, things jumping out of shadows, and gross or startling images that the film takes the viewer where it wants them to go. Good use of light and darkness to set up surprises and increase suspense means that there are jumps, but none of them are cheap. 5/5

Plausible: Explanations or origins are barely better than hand-waves, but I it was refreshing that there
wasn't a "how do they know all these things/how did they find out so quickly and correctly?" character explaining things, the way Jeffrey Wright's character in Invasion or Hallorann in The Shining or Gottleib and Geiszler in Pacific Rim seem to always have a theory, or know something, or pop in with a bit of exposition, and always be correct. They point a camera around a creepy science lab and zoom in on some creepy newspaper clippings, but nothing is ever fully, or even partly, explained. It is fully believable frightened local authorities would quarantine a building and let everyone inside fester. Every zombie film is preposterous from the very premise, but this film was chaotic and fun and scary enough that it earns a little slack just for being fun. 2/5

Awesome: I've mentioned things like
people who know what's going on; a lot of films also spend screen time on the public official whose choices make things worse, and part of me was waiting for them to come along and clarify the situation. They never did, and for all the unanswered questions, I  actually appreciate how limited and narrow this film's focus was: we only see what the single cameraman recorded, we only know what the characters inside the building know. This film is a concise, adrenaline spike of chaos, panic and fear, and then it's over, and that's enough. It delivers what it promised. 4/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? Even though there are sequels, this film does not end with a tacky sequelbait scene. Plus one point.

Verdict: The film succeeds by knowing what it is, what its audience wants, and delivering that. The found footage genre has some inherent drawbacks, but I didn't find myself getting annoyed by them, because of the film's excellent pacing, tight narrative focus, and an excellent performance by Manuela Velasco.

Total Score: 16/20 A taut, tightly focused, scary film about small spaces. It might be hard to watch for someone quarantined themselves, but the film delivers on its promise and follows through its premise. It doesn't always make
sense, but between the pacing, the energy, and the scares, that doesn't matter.





Blindness (2008) (IMDB Page)

The Skinny: A mysterious infectious disease causes people to suddenly "white out" and lose their vision. Julianne Moore's husband, an optometrist, is exposed very early, so she travels into quarantine with him, while still sighted, to take care of him. Quarantine gets pretty rough as more suddenly-blind people arrive in the quarantine facility, and then, as the rest of the world goes blind, too, resources get scarce and the quarantine wards begin to compete. As the only sighted person in quarantine, Julianne Moore has some hard choices to make about how to use her sighted advantage over the other quarantinees. The first third of the film explores the spread of the plague a little, as Danny Glover describes what happened to the people in quarantine, and the middle of the film retells a Lord of the Flies type story of humans becoming shitty in shitty circumstances, and then the final third of the film introduces the theme of finding hope and home in dire situations.

The Good: Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo are two of my favorite actors to watch, so that is a pretty durn good start! According to wikipedia, about 700 actors had to be trained to act blind for the scenes in quarantine, and wandering around the city. The film is interestingly made, with some interesting visuals and excellent incorporation of music throughout.

The Bad: Trigger warning for sexual violence. Some of the men in the shitty quarantine ward do classic shitty man behavior, and the film is not shy about showing that, but at least also shows its impact and consequences, both on the victims and on the perpetrators. There is very little explanation of what is happening, or why, and the progress of the plague and its workings are less interesting to the filmmakers than how the film's characters react to it. That can be fine, but then I wish the scene-writing had drawn the characters' personalities and their choices in sharper relief. As it is, the film is almost an abstracted series of moods and ruminations rather than a character or acting-driven story... again, which is fine, but perhaps an underuse of Mark Ruffalo, Julianne Moore, Danny Glover, etc.'s talent as actors. Moreover, the final third of the film, where Julianne Moore (the characters are never named) and a few of her friends escape the quarantine and explore their benighted city, seems like almost an entirely different genre of film than the first part, the quarantine drama.

You're gonna have to get all the way off my back...
(source: pitch meeting)
Meanwhile, Julianne Moore seems to be the only person in the entire city, or perhaps the entire world, who retains her sight, and short of "that's just the premise of the film, so..." that's not explained or examined either.


Scoring:
Frightening: This isn't a scary plague film in either sense. The moods, the feeling of being hedged in and helpless in quarantine, the gross feeling as humans start being shitty, and keep getting shittier: this movie has some downer spots, but none of them are really frightening. The most haunting part, for me, was when Julianne Moore and a few of her closest wandered out of the quarantine, and wandered through the city trying to find food or safety: one of the group falls one step behind, reaches his hand out in the wrong direction to touch the back of the person ahead in line, and ends up getting separated from the group through simple bad luck and happenstance: he goes from being a part of the group, protected by numbers, to just another vulnerable, solitary soul in a city of lost souls. Just like that. 1/5

Scary: Other than the horror of sexual violence, as well as some physical violence with a knife, there aren't jump-scares or gross-outs here. Where it does get horrific are in the predatory behaviors of the men who control the food in quarantine, and out in the city, where if it seems like you have food, you'll get mobbed by groping, lurching bodies trying to grab at whatever you have, like those scenes in a zombie movie where hundreds of zombie hands reach through a doorway and pull a person back through. Also, there is a short scene of dogs eating the bodies of dead humans in the street. Gross, but a sharp underscore of the idea human life has no value once society has broken down. 2/5

Plausible: It's kind of a "Lord of the Flies" vision of what would happen if everyone lost their sight at once, but to be honest, none of the gross behaviors we see people do seem beyond imagination. And in the midst of that, effort is also made to show that the characters do continue to form and develop their relationships, and do those other, lovely things that humans do, too. 3/5

Awesome: As I said, any film with Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo and Danny Glover is off to a good start. The film gives an interesting and well-realized portrayal of an interesting premise and, while I wouldn't say it's fun or always enjoyable, there are interesting things going on throughout. The initial dramatic tension that comes of Julianne Moore being able to see when nobody else can doesn't really yield much story-wise: she operates more as an observer and audience stand-in than as the story's driving energy, though she thoroughly refutes the idea that "In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man (or woman) is king." The film is careful to include little moments of human connection, intimacy, spontaneity and surprise, for example when it rains and suddenly all the lost humans groping for food take a moment to enjoy the water pouring over them. On the other hand, with few exceptions, the film is not beautiful to see: colors are washed out, and almost every scene is full of clutter and human squalor, cruelty or desperation. If you are into films showing a lot of people down on their luck and heading toward bottom, people who don't know how to groom because they can't see mirrors, this film is for you. 3/5

But Wait, There's More! Stinger? None.

Verdict:
Perfect Sense was the uplifting art film about plague and loss of our senses. This one was the dark, cynical one. If you like that dark edge, Blindness isn't a pretty look at humanity, but it's well-made in its bleak vision of human isolation and meanness.

Total Score: 9/20 That seems about right for a film with some good bits, but slow pacing and parts that were hard to watch.



Series Recap:
Weirdo that I am, I'm commemorating the CoVid19 lockdown by watching plague movies, and because I love you, I'm writing them up for you, readers, and I'll end the series with a nice best-of countdown!

To sum up the ground rules:

Qualifying:
It has to be a film. There might be some great plague television out there, but I have a kid: binge watching six TV series that are too scary to share with my kid this week is off the table. It has to be a narrative film, not a documentary.

The film has to be about a plague or viral infection. That is, the film has to put significant attention on what the infectious agent is, how it spreads or works, and what can be done about the infection. If the response is "we need to hide from/kill all the zombies" it's not really a plague film: it's a zombie film. If the response is "we can beat this if we discover and exploit a weakness in how the virus spreads" then it's a plague film. (So, World War Z: yes; Dawn of the Dead: no.) There's a little wiggle room here, and I'll be making some calls. Deal with it.

Scoring:
Films that fail to hold my attention get a DNF (Did Not Finish)

Films that hold my attention are scored on four dimensions:
Frightening (is it the kind of scary that's moody, builds up, and stays with you afterward?)
Scary (is it the kind of scary that makes you jump in your seat, or wish you'd eaten a smaller lunch? Surprises and gross-outs get points in this category.)
Plausible (does the plague, and people's response to it, seem realistic, as if it could possibly happen?)
Awesome (is it a good movie? Does it hit its marks?)
Each of these dimensions will be scored out of five.
Finally, for bonus demerits/points:
"But wait, there's more!" stinger - does the film end by hinting that the infection is on its way to a sequel new location? You know...the montage where the contaminated water ends up at a bottling factory while ominous music plays? Yah those are cheesy, and I will be docking points for them, depending on the amount of cheesiness.

It's unlikely that any film will get a 20/20 on this scale, because frightening, scary and plausible are usually a trade-off: films that make me jump like a cat usually don't also make me fear door handles, and a film that does both probably asks for a big suspension of disbelief in the plausibility category.

Friday, October 01, 2021

Things are Rozy in Korea's Uncanny Valley

Every so often, one of those "weird news" stories leaks out of Asia about a celebrity who's entirely virtual. Lately, there's been a dancing girl on TV and bus ads, as well as posters on the sides of city buses, called Rozy. Here's what she looks like.


Source

Here's how she moves (youtube)

I've been intrigued by the idea of virtual humans, VR humans, brains in computers and computer generated people for as long as I can remember, so this caught my eye, and it's funny how little media coverage I've seen about it, given that for a few weeks there, she was playing in the ad rotation of every single bus's ad/announcement TV. A few months ago, one of my radio pals talked about this topic on air, and mentioned a name that sent me down a google rabbit hole.


(a lot of this info was from this blog post)

You see, here in Korea, there's a surprisingly long history of artificial celebrities: all the way back in the late 1990s, there was 아담 (Adam - fitting name for the first male cyber celebrity) nicknamed 사이버 가수 (사이버 = the phonetic spelling of cyber; 가수 means singer).

Source: Tumblr

The music of his I've heard was mostly bog standard ballad stuff, but hey: give it a listen.



It's weird to think of it now, but Adam really was a sensation in 1998. This Youtuber has made a very nice little history of animated, virtual popstars). Notice how stiff his movements are -- that's a sticking point especially for early lifelike or kind of lifelike animation -- but my buddy says she had his poster up in her room, and hey: look at that perfectly formed nose, right?

One thing that interests me about this "animated human" and "robots imitating humans" thing is something called the "Uncanny Valley" -- back in 1970, robotics professor Masahiro Mori predicted that as human-imitating creations got closer and closer to resembling humans, humans would respond to them in more positive, familiar or friendly ways... up to a certain point. Once a robot or simulation of a human got TOO similar, it would flip from being cute to weird and off-putting, to the point that the imitation was perfect, and we'd respond exactly as to a normal person.

If you think of some famous examples of robots and computer animated humans in pop culture, you'll see that the theory bears out.

A few examples:

The very, very non-human robots in Interstellar
...they were weird in a cool way and we couldn't look away. They were like an IQ puzzle that told jokes. We laughed at the sarcastic one.

Think also of the very non-human droids in Star-Wars, like R2D2 and BB8 that could never ever be mistaken for a human, and whom we adore.

Then think of the way the characters move in 2001's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which just bit off more than it could chew trying to create 100% cgi characters for an entire movie, it was a daring move, but it flopped, because the characters' movements were off-putting. They were so realistic...but not realistic enough. CGI at this period always looked to me like gravity didn't affect it properly, as if it floated above things. 


Think of the creepy animatronic talking robots whose lips move all wrong...


The most famous example of the uncanny valley is almost certainly The Polar Express, which is just two hours of cringe every Christmas. The characters are so alien. The way they move through space, the way their faces imitate normal facial expressions but miss. Their faces move but there clearly aren't muscles beneath the skin. It's just... ug.


Does your heart feel warm?

Once you get close enough to human, we start focusing on the ways the thing is different instead of similar, and it's really hard for non-humans to pass that test.

I think this is why Pixar very smartly dialed back the realism: instead of trying to be photo-real, they created human characters that looked like caricature drawings, or moving action figures (which was an ingeniously perfect fit, of course, for The Incredibles) -- these characters weren't human enough to make us go "weird" but definitely human enough to make us go "cute."




Exactly in the sweet spot.

It was a long time between 2001's Polar Express and the next attempt to pass off a fully animated, fully human-looking character. James Cameron made non-humans move as if they were affected by gravity in 2009's Avatar, but didn't do it with actual humans; Ex Machina (2014) [one of my favorite movies about AI] did some very clever stuff combining a human actor with robotic CGI (this "VFX Artists React to Bad & Great CGI" video shows three video effects artists discussing what they did well); the Marvel Cinematic Universe edged closer and closer to really lifelike with their remarkable de-aging technology seen first in Civil War (2016) [notice him moving to the foreground -- daring viewers to admire the effects work] and then used it to entirely recreate a young Princess Leia and Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by the late actor Peter Cushing) in Star Wars: Rogue One later that year...

And even here, they got... 99% of the way there... but that last one percent made people go, "ug"

Making nonhumans look and move like humans is hard.

You know Disney's got bottomless pockets, and they're still trying -- de-aging Samuel Jackson for the entire Captain Marvel movie worked out, and when someone doesn't need to look human, they've got it down pat -- when Thanos lays Hulk out, it looks like it hurts.



Now to be honest... superhero action is probably one of the easier places to replace everything with CGI -- fast cuts, fast moving body parts, noise and chaos: you can hide a bit of bad animation in a blur if you need to.
But there is nowhere to hide in a Kpop music video: one of the hardest things to animate is dancing, because it has to have gravity, it needs to stay within the bounds of what normal humans can do, a human limb changing direction on the right beat of a song takes timing, and not only that, it has to look attractive! Meanwhile, characters get a lot of facial closeups, and in a two second closeup, they'd better show us three or four facial expressions. Making one facial expression is hard for CGI, but stringing several together as happens in every Kpop video close-up? Yikes.

So you've got to admire the attempt, even as you suppress the willies.

And willies are the word for this first attempt by animation studio Pulse 9. A made-up, digital-only kpop group called Eternity sings a song called "I'm Real." The lyrics are the "robot trying to trick us into believing its human" equivalent of me walking into my son's school saying "Hello fellow youths. Why don't you say hello to your hep-cat new youthful friend. Let's listen to a Drake on TikTok. DAB!" (oh gawd READ THE LYRICS)

Brace for cringes, and watch this:



So that was...

(side note: here's a write-up below their Youtube video:
<Prologue> 
AIA, a mysterious planet-- distant and parallel to the Earth. 
AIA is inhabited by aliens called AIAN, who resemble humans on Earth. 
In the center of AIA lies the Red Crystal Flower, which protects AIA’s glorious civilization and happiness with its vibrant energy.
Thanks to the flower, AIANs were able to preserve their youths and lives for eternity.
However, the flower started to wilt. Not even the greatest intelligence and technology was enough to confront this crisis.
After years of struggle, the AIANs came across Earth and found out that the key to restoring life and energy was ‘love’.
In order to save their beloved civilization, AIA elected 22 agents who would learn the language of love from the humans.
[I’m Real]
During their debut, Yeorum, Sujin, Hyejin, Seoa and Minji carry out their first mission: to signal AIAN’s appearance to the human civilization in hopes of communicating with them.

I don't know that every AI character needs a back story, you know? And especially not, uh, this, which should have stayed in the animator's personal notebook.

But after that video and its reception... check out their follow-up offering.



That... given the starting point... that went from a faceplant to very nearly a flex. 

Now, there is Rozy, the AI instagram model from the opening video. (here's her instagram) She looks fake in... maybe 3 out of every five pictures on her instagram... and I'm sure that ratio will improve. An interesting thing they're doing now is giving these virtual models and 'grammers little blemishes so they don't seem too perfect (like Adam above) -- Rozy closes her eyes in this adorkable way when she smiles sometimes, and she has freckles. 

But she can also dance like this.




AI modeling and deep learning are getting closer and closer to human -- last year, a Korean company revived the voice of beloved singer Kim Kwang Seok by training an AI to imitate his pronounciation and intonation, and getting the AI to perform a hit song that was composed years after Kim Kwang Seok had died. It really sounds like him.


Next on the bucket list, I'm sure, is show all Meryl Streep's films to an AI (or maybe they'll aim lower and start with Steven Seagal)

and see if they can't get a credible acting performance with CGI only.

I don't know how much of the music video above was purely AI generated, and how much of it was based on models, but... I mean, imagine being able to do another Die Hard with 1988 Bruce Willis as the lead. Imagine never again having to hunt for the actor to play the next Batman, or James Bond, or telling more Luke Skywalker/Han Solo/Princess Leia stories, or bringing back the impossible-to-re-cast Indiana Jones? The money is definitely on the table for whomever gets this tech right.

There are a few big advantages virtual stars have over real celebrities, too. They'll never get in a celebrity beef, grope a secretary, trash a hotel room, get caught using slurs on camera a week before the film opens, or deny the holocaust at a press event. They don't need to sleep, they don't have labor rights, won't refuse a request because of exhaustion, pride or dignity, don't have (accidental) wardrobe malfunctions, don't care about royalty payments, and they don't need travel time between engagements. 

Sounds like the perfect employee, except that... I have a friend on twitter who feeds his kids with voice acting. I'd really hate for the TV, radio and video game companies he works with to go "Eh. We can do it cheaper and 98% as good with an AI now." It'd really suck if culture and entertainment turned into just another place where the powerful get more powerful, and everyone else loses even the little leverage they once had. (and the other ethical concerns: using AI generated images of actual people in pornography, which goes in a LOT of creepy directions, or using AI generated images of deceased people without their consent, which goes in a lot of ghoulish directions -- ever wanted a Roman Holiday sequel starring Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn? Ick ick ick...but those two issues deserve entire blog posts of their own)

I don't know if AI will ever be smart enough to win an acting award -- in the same way that substitute meat works in sausage but would be hard-pressed replicate the varying textures of a t-bone steak, perhaps AI generated characters will never be more than a gimmick, but I can't imagine entertainers are happy to have competition that doesn't need pay or breaks breathing down their neck. I know that animated characters can have charm... though that might just be the voice actors, and I know that underestimating what computers can do has not worked out well for doubters in the past.

And if we're talking about AIs imitating humans, we've got to also consider deep fakes, and what that's going to do to the media: sure, an AI character from scratch is hard to do, but creating a spitting image from scans of a human model? This technology is already here, and it's kind of scary how good it is, as Trey Parker and Matt Stone (the South Park guys) show us with this web series:


Readers: what do you think? Are we out of the uncanny valley yet? Is there an all CGI character in a movie that looks like a human (no green skin or whatever) and has solved the problems they've had so far? Will computer generated performances ever replace actors, voiceovers, singers, or dancers, or will they always be a gimmick? If they carve out a corner of the industry, what comes next?