by Lindsay Macdonald
The weather’s biting, the lights are up, and the tourists are out for that time of year again under the Paris Ferris wheel, beckoning men, women, girls, boys, Santas and his not-so-magical capitalist helpers to the full kitsch glory of a readymade Winter Wonderland.
We welcome now a time of sharing and baking and Christmas card-making by the light of our tinsel-strewn trees. Families bond over decorating, hot coco, and a shared inability to escape in the cold.
Lest we nestle too long at home, however, in unprofitable familial communion, Hollywood brings us its annual gift: the CGI family movie. From Narnia to Hogwarts to the digital North Pole, big-budget special effects whisk us away to the biggerbrighterbetter colors of its techie-chic matter-less universe.
Like a ride in Santa’s sleigh, we as movie-goers get to see some pretty cool stuff, discovering hobbits and house elves and blue eco-conscious aliens like bright eye candy to our month-long turkey hangover. But then just as a compass goes crazy when it hits the poles, CGI´s GPS every so often short-circuits, going from the heart-warming to bone-chilling at the speed of the Polar Express.
Enter Uncanny Valley. It was winter 2004, while watching The Polar Express, when I first found myself stranded here, among what looked like the undead cousins of bygone Christmas specials. At the snow-covered tippity-top of the world where no one can hear a child scream, it was as if jolly claymation Santa from Burl Ive’s Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer fell off a cliff to be digitally resuscitated as undead Nazi Santa of Uncanny Valley.
So just what on God’s green Earth is Uncanny Valley? Uncanny Valley is a place that appears on no map, features on no earthly GPS, but will very likely revisit your nightmares depending on how good you’ve been to the film business this Christmas season (with goodness here being inversely proportional to a sound, untroubled sleep).
In the study of robotics, scientists discovered a strange phenomenon. They found that the more a robot looked and seemed human, the more we liked the robot. Thus R2D2’s cantankerous charm. This relationship remains positive as the robot looks more and more human, with our affection and empathy for it progressing with increasing human likeness. However, something happens when the robot approaches near-humanity, and, just like poor once-jolly bygone claymation Santa, the robot falls off a strange kind of cliff, hurdling from affection to disgust. Once we reach exact human likeness, the line shoots back from disgust to highest affection, leaving in its wake an eerie below-the ground dead zone known as Uncanny valley, where cute, kind-of-real animated humans suddenly fall to weird-eyed digital Un-death. With Polar Express, Hollywood’s first zombie Santa is born.
Zombie appearances continued past many a Christmas season, particularly notable at Quidditch matches in early Harry Potter movies, in the lamentable A Christmas Carol of Robert Zemeckis, and, for the adults among us, as Brad Pitt’s head as Benjamin Button.
Thus years before the zombie’s sexy, somewhat cooler cousin the Vampire caught on to tweens and soccer moms dazzled by Edward’s oh-so-pale abs and Bella’s codependent moodiness, kids have been eating their Christmas turkey alongside Hollywood’s digitally undead. Like all good zombies, these uncanny un-humans capture both the mind-blowing and the mindless of big-budget digital effects. Sure they’re out to please, but they’re mostly out to feed, and whole families with weakened willpowers and wallets out for the holidays are their golden ticket.
So this Christmas bust out the popcorn, take off the gloves, ready your wallet and steady your pulse. This sleigh is heading due north, Destination Christmas. Next stop: Uncanny Valley.