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Blog | Uncanny Valley Snapped

Thanos (Josh Brolin) in Avengers: Infinity War

After watching Avengers: Infinity War again earlier this week thanks to the digital version of the film finally (legally) becoming available to download in the UK, it struck me how much a film that features numerous alien races manages to avoid the 'Uncanny Valley'.

For those who don’t know, the Uncanny Valley is "suggests humanoid objects which appear almost, but not exactly, like real human beings elicit uncanny, or strangely familiar, feelings of eeriness and revulsion in observers." (thanks Wikipedia)

In other words, if a robot or CGI human looked cartoonish or wasn’t trying to mirror reality, people are generally fine with it. However, human brains are trained to recognise all kinds of details that don’t consciously register, so whenever you see a CGI human and can’t quite work out why it looks odd, but you just know it does, that’s the Uncanny Valley at work.

It’s the reason why the complete digital re-construction of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher’s faces superimposed on other actors in Rogue One look ‘off’, while the de-ageing of various actors in the Marvel Studios films are so astonishing because they don’t cause that same reaction in the majority of audiences.

Hell, Ant-Man and the Wasp really pushed this technology to its limits with extensive scenes of Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer and Laurence Fishburne being made to appear younger and looking practically flawless, while still needing the facial subtleties of the performance to come across and be believable.

It’s also almost certainly part of the reason why there hasn’t been a Captain Marvel trailer just yet, with Samuel L Jackson, Clark Gregg, Lee Pace and Djimon Hounsou all needing to be de-aged significantly - and for extended periods of time across an entire film, not just a few scenes either.

The reason I bring all this up is to recognise how well the central character of Infinity War was depicted. Yes, I’m talking about Thanos – the eight-foot tall, musclebound, purple-skinned alien who immediately became one of the most memorably successful villains in movie history with a snap of his fingers.

He’s certainly humanoid in shape, but unquestionably a non-human - yet as a digital character’s, his physical presence is unquestionable. Yes, there are always some who will say they can spot the seams, but - to the overwhelming majority of general audiences – Thanos was entirely accepted by people as an actual person existing and sharing the same scenes with actual flesh and blood actors.

You only have to look at Steppenwolf in Justice League to see how easily CGI characters can suffer if not done well enough, but Thanos is the new high bar to be matched now when it comes to 100% digital characters.

The reason I’d choose him over characters like the also-incredible apes from the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy is the fact that Thanos is so close to human in form, movement and expression.

The Apes films have an advantage too, in the fact that humans aren’t wired quite the same way to see flaws in how the digital apes appear in comparison to people – the fact that a distinctly human-like character in Thanos moved, emoted and acted without invoking the Uncanny Valley feeling in audiences is an incredible achievement.

I think Andy Serkis has been robbed of multiple nominations, and possibly awards too, because of the digital nature of characters like Caesar, and I’m sure Josh Brolin will suffer the same neglect despite being one of the best villains in years, impressing critics who disliked Infinity War with his fantastic performance.

Of course, this comes back to one of the same issues as the problems with a category for best popular film, with the majority of the Academy’s voters being older than the majority of movie audiences and simply not keeping up with how film-making has changed so drastically over the past decade.

I imagine more and more films will feature completely CGI characters in the future, but the fact that Marvel Studios have effectively defeated the Uncanny Valley already is a feat that I think is worthy of acknowledgement, although likely to go unappreciated.

I desperately want to know how Thanos’ story ends, but I already know that the performance from Josh Brolin and the various digital artists creating the Mad Titan will once again give us a character audiences will completely accept as real as any other actor in the film, a triumph for Thanos that no group of heroes can ever undo.



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