Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of the 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics

reviewed by Chad Newsom


Turnock, Julie A., Plastic Reality: Special Effects, Technology, and the Emergence of the 1970s Blockbuster Aesthetics. New York: Columbia University Press, 2015.


Julie A. Turnock’s Plastic Reality is a well-written, remarkable achievement that works on at least three different, yet interconnected, levels: as an argument, as an unwritten history, and as a pedagogical tool. She begins by identifying an area of scholarly neglect—special effects—and states her argument clearly and early. She writes, “Many contemporary critics’ and academics’ own resistance to the development of special effects-intensive cinema means we have largely lost the divergent and unexpected contexts out of which those films arose in the 1970s” (2-3). Critics and scholars frequently make a division in the New Hollywood era between auteur directors, such as Martin Scorsese, Peter Bogdanovich, and Arthur Penn, and filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, who created the monster we call blockbuster, or high-concept, cinema. Turnock remarks that films like “Star Wars often [stand] as the prototype for the noisy overproduced, expensive, juvenile Hollywood blockbuster that pushed out the more ‘mature’ and ‘sophisticated’ films by American auteurs such as Hal Ashby, Robert Altman, and Sidney Lumet, leaving the cinematic field to fourteen-year-olds and toy manufacturers” (108). Yet Turnock cautions that we should not judge blockbuster filmmaking based on what it has become in contemporary Hollywood, but should instead view the origin of this trend within its historical context: “Rather than dismissing films and filmmakers of this era for putting style before substance, it is more productive to recognize the substance of the style” (112). Turnock acknowledges, however, the difficulty of viewing the early work of Spielberg and Lucas without considering their more recent progeny. For example, I write this review at a moment when the marketing push for Disney’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) approaches its apex: the new franchise entry is used not only to sell the obvious (toys), but also to promote products as diverse as Campbell’s soup, duct tape, a cellphone service, and macaroni-and-cheese. It is incredibly difficult to view high-concept/blockbuster cinema as anything but the cynical dream of a marketing executive, but the exceptional feat of Turnock’s book is that it helps historicize an object of study we can easily dismiss—or, as Andrew Britton would argue, a filmmaking mode that itself encourages us to not take it seriously.

Turnock suggests that we should see New Hollywood auteur filmmaking and 1970s sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters as part of a continuum, at least at the level of intention:

This book will argue that rather than moving away from “New Hollywood” auteurist filmmaking, the mid- to late 1970s science fiction and fantasy blockbusters exemplify an elaboration of that ethos by allowing the filmmakers to more fully express their own personal vision through the effects work. New Hollywood auteurs believed the effort that went into developing these complex techniques was a parallel strategy that helped shape   the diegesis of the 1970s auteur’s “worldview” and demonstrated the power of the cinema not only to mold and bend reality but indeed to display alternative potential realties (2).

If we understand what motivated the rise of special effects aesthetics, then we will have a more accurate view of what these filmmakers hoped to accomplish by intentionally shifting Hollywood filmmaking away from traditional storytelling to an increased emphasis on visual style created through special effects.

To support her argument, Turnock uses two major case studies, Star Wars (1977) and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), to elaborate on the book’s central topic, what she terms “the expanded blockbuster.” For Turnock, the expanded blockbuster involves adapting the techniques of West Coast avant-garde cinema to commercial filmmaking in order to lessen the importance of narrative and elevate the visceral impact of watching a movie. In the expanded blockbuster, narrative becomes a “structure for ordering audiovisual sensations and effects,” and “narrative’s role shift[s] to become another area of potential attraction, instead of the primary organizing factor of the diegesis” (107). She defines the “expanded blockbuster” precisely:

Instead of conveying ideas through didactic scripts and novelistic “themes,” the expanded    blockbuster would take its cue from Kubrick’s 2001: it would be picture-oriented, or express its ideas and narration visually, on a more visceral and sensual level. And [the filmmakers’] most impassioned dream was that these films would remain in the creative hands of auteurist filmmakers, not corrupted by the corporate studio hierarchy (113).

Too often, Turnock suggests, our discussion of effects-heavy movies becomes “entangled and muddied by evaluative approaches” because we apply traditional Hollywood continuity style criteria (where style is subordinate to story) to discussing FX-laden movies (108). Thus, we often cannot talk meaningfully about these films because we judge them by criteria they don’t aspire to. Contra the viewpoint of critics such as Robin Wood and Andrew Britton, Lucas and Spielberg did not destroy Hollywood storytelling—they just wanted to make something different and explore how movies could harness technology to offer a new type of experience. And just as we do not judge an 1894 Edison short by the same aesthetic standards as a studio-era Hollywood film, we must do the same for evaluating special-effects blockbusters.

Turnock’s work maintains its argumentative thread throughout, but two other aspects enhance its status as an important, necessary book. First, she brings together multiple histories to help support her notion of the expanded blockbuster: the history of special effects (from the studio-era to the 1980s, and even to the present day in the conclusion), an overview of major effects houses (both independent ones and the development of Lucasfilm/ILM), a discussion of major figures (Douglas Trumbull, Linwood Dunn, John Dykstra) and the crucial, unexplored link between Hollywood special effects and West Coast experimental filmmaking (Jordan Belson, Pat O’Neill, John and James Whitney). She links blockbuster movies to experimental filmmaking and its desire to explore the non-narrative possibilities of cinema, including “stylization, graphic dynamism, immersion, or kineticism” (28). Those who worked in Hollywood special effects “turned to 1960s and 1970s experimental films—in particular, West Coast experimental animation and its greater attention to the materiality of the filmstrip and the manipulation of the film frame on the negative” (28). A great deal of this historical information comes from interviews Turnock herself conducted with industry practitioners, a method that helps bring attention to labor whose effects appear onscreen, but whose artistry is rarely acknowledged.

The above description might sound like too much for one book, but Turnock consistently ties these histories to her argument while simultaneously providing a thorough introduction for readers (like myself) unfamiliar with the history of special effects. Thus, the book has immense pedagogical value, and it should become the go-to resource for humanities scholars who need a clear explanation of how special effects work. She not only defines techniques like process photography, opticals, rotoscoping, and motion control, but also provides accompanying illustrations. At the same time, the book never gets bogged down with technical description, and her discussion of technique is always tied to film style and to the consideration of the effects of those techniques, the different kinds of cinematic worlds, visions, and meanings special effects enable filmmakers to create and enact.

Turnock’s work is essential: if we care about film style—the range of filmmaking choices that produce the meaning and impact of what we see onscreen—then we need to understand special effects because “there is virtually no such thing [today] as a film untouched by a significant amount of special effects work” (26). Thus, Turnock offers not only a revisionist history of the Hollywood blockbuster, but also a primer for appreciating and understanding the images that fill our screens and command both our attention and, frequently, our affection.



Chad Newsom is a professor in the cinema studies program at the Savannah College of Art and Design. He teaches courses on classical Hollywood cinema, film analysis, and film theory. He’s currently researching and writing about child stardom.