The special effect occupies a unique space, albeit an almost always pre-defined one which is rarely deviated from.
Unlike other constructions of illusion and artifice, the job of the SFX maestro is never to actually trick. Their job is ostensibly to create an illusion as real as possible, yet only for window-dressing fictions which will never be seen as anything but. In the cinema, no right-thinking viewer is going to believe that they’re watching real zombies/murder/hurricanes, even if that was exactly what they were doing. It could be argued that the more convincing the fantasy, the easier to digest and therefore all the less affecting. I think this is because the brain has a smaller distance to travel. Conversely, we often find the cheaper and overtly ‘fake’ effects more unnerving, harder to swallow and ultimately more effective. It’s a crude slight of hand, engineering a situation in which our imaginations do the legwork. It’s Paul McCarthy’s ketchup and mayonnaise, it’s Romero’s orange paint, it’s Dr Who‘s whole menagerie of kitchen-sink grotesqueries.
The Life Aquatic‘s stop-motion sea creatures side-stepped many of the usual pre-requistes of the special effect, functioning as they did as some kind of spectacular non-spectacle. Anderson trod a thin line between creating an (admittedly visually) impressive extension of his film’s (all of his films) shaky internal logic, and violently preventing the audience from engaging with that logic whatsoever (it could be argued that it’s not only the film’s seahorses that are guilty of this). As it’s a Wes Anderson film, my point’s in danger of being hopelessly cluttered by other issues of artifice and fantasy linked inextricably to that director. I just found the creatures interesting as an example of special effects existing outside of their usual parameters. They could be used to pose questions about how and why these things are used – I’d give Anderson the benefit of the doubt (whatever else I think of his latest film) and merit him with tossing them over as well.