TO MAKE EFFECTS SPECIAL, PRACTICE RESTRAINT; TODAY’S TECH-SAVVY HOLLYWOOD MAY BE LOSING SIGHT OF THE MOST IMPORTANT ELEMENT OF FILMMAKING; THE STORY

IF THE BEGINNING of the millennium were to be judged by its cinematic output, future anthropologists might as well leave the 2001 reels to molder in the time capsule.

Yes, there have been moments of theatrical innovation, thought and levity: “Memento” is among the handful of films that I eagerly sought and enjoyed. Still, 2001 looks pretty lean when compared to just four years ago, when we thought the oeuvre of independent films would take over a bottom-line Hollywood. (Then again, if Tinseltown types can barely speak English, French might be asking a bit too much.)

Blame, if it must be assessed, can be laid on many doorsteps. In our digital age, I’ll take on a pre-Industrial Revolution attitude and blame technology more specifically, special effects that have become overwrought, pervasive and an obsessive end unto themselves.

Now lest you think I’m one step away from taking a hammer to my Compaq Deskpro, I actually spent some of my professional years toiling away on a PC CD-ROM game based on a major television and movie franchise (the latest incarnation of which was recently canceled on UPN). So I have borne witness to the inarticulate delight engineers take in their pixel-by-pixel re-creation of mankind’s most basic functions (walking) and most unrealized visions (defending the galaxy against alien incursions). I understood the animator on a recent prime-time newsmagazine who glowed about “Final Fantasy IV” and its brethren, and crowing about a day when he could “control” his own being, rendering the ordinary three-dimensional model somewhat moot.

That, my good friends, is celluloid cloning, nothing more than digital puppetry. That has been the problem with many movies of late. In their fascination with the process, filmmakers have lost sight of the differences between effects that aid human performance, those that overwhelm it and those that supplant it.

Even pioneers in computer graphics have lost control over their own Frankensteins: Producer Steven Spielberg let his dinosaurs run amok in “Jurassic Park III” without dictating to the directorial caretakers of his franchise the importance of storytelling. George Lucas, who defended his 1999 “Star Wars” prequel “The Phantom Menace” by basically telling audiences to get a life and that the story line of the original wasn’t that strong anyway, carefully nurtured his unholy creature Jar Jar Binks while he fed high-caliber flesh-and-blood actors only snippets of badly written dialogue.

Alfred Hitchcock once famously described actors as cattle. (He later clarified that comparison by saying, “I said they should be treated like cattle.”) Yet Hitchcock rounded up memorable, haunting performances from his livestock while pushing further and further into the realm of special effects. The clambering, desperate escape across Mount Rushmore in “North by Northwest” was a marvel in its day, but Hitchcock also evinced a delicate legerdemain in movies such as “Suspicion.” When Cary Grant suspected of murderous proclivities carries a glass of milk up the stairs to his wife, the otherwise wholesome drink literally takes on a glow of menace.

In contemporary films, computers can do more tricks than just inventive props and lighting, and, in moderation, often do those tricks very well. Although you wouldn’t know it, last year’s “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” marks a technological achievement. To seep the Depression-era comedy with sepia-tinted nostalgia, every frame was color-corrected, a first in moviemaking and a lesson in subtlety. “Shrek,” despite a tendency to mistake flatulence jokes for clever humor, is entirely done in computer graphics, but the personalities and postmodern fairy-tale qualities haven’t been excised. After dubbing the dialogue in his Canadian-speak, Mike Myers returned to the filmmakers, suggesting a Scottish burr. DreamWorks redubbed the film for another $4 million an investment that has proven more credible than Jerry Bruckheimer’s expensive schmaltz-fest “Pearl Harbor.”

Sometimes, the best special effect is restraint. Alejandro Amenabar commented in a recent interview, “These days, many horror films turn out to be a parade of special effects.” The success of his recent release “The Others” is that it’s not a spectacle that floats by, only to be instantly forgotten when the next sequined spectacular comes along. It helps that the Spanish writer and director has a spectacular cast and a message to deliver in this case, the need to relinquish rigidity in one’s beliefs in the face of contradiction. “The Others” brings to mind that otherworldly tale from two summers back, “The Sixth Sense” a marvel of pacing, acting and storytelling.

Many, like myself, go to action films for visceral entertainment, but the explosions and car crashes have become overblown fireworks. Part of the phenomenon of “The Matrix” lay in the fresh notion of the human body itself as a special effect. Audiences have flooded theaters for a passable “Rush Hour 2” and an embarrassingly miserable “Kiss of the Dragon,” but at least they fulfill the need for street-level, life-sized, hands-on miracles. Sure, Ang Lee tossed wires into “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but that only emphasized the astounding grace of someone pushing the limits of the human form. For every seething crowd who despised Jar Jar, there were teeming masses that were sorry to see Darth Maul go.

There exists a term, incidentally, for the animated actor: the synthespian. Have we in the 21st century become that reductionist? Maybe Lucas’ ludicrous title for his next “Star Wars” prequel, “Attack of the Clones,” portends a more ominous cinematic future than we realize.

“There is no terror in the bang,” Hitchcock once said, “only in the anticipation of it.” Hitchcock understood more than actors: He understood the audience. We can only hope for as much consideration.

Events editor Vera H-C Chan can be reached at vchan@cctimes.com or 925-977-8428.

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