Is this wizardry being used promiscuously, or is it just a new color on the special-effects palette that audiences will learn to accept, much as they accept the painted backgrounds of Rome in movies such as Ben-Hur?
Understand that we adore Gladiator, the new Spartacus-on-steroids epic starring Russell Crowe. (Audiences adore it too: In just 10 days, it racked up $73 million at the box office.) The film palpitates with the throb of heroes, the thrill of battle, the thrall of the Roman Empire.
That said, sequences of the Colosseum, where the gladiatorial swordplay takes place - and which should be the film's centerpiece - make the arena look about as realistic as an urban landscape in the video game Sim City. In Malta, set designers rebuilt 40 percent of the Roman landmark while keystroke virtuosos digitized in the rest.
For some, the CGI produced the unintentional effect of one of those 18th-century canvases on which the architecture in the background is perfunctorily painted and the figures in the foreground are the work of the master. In Gladiator, the disjunction between the flatness of the computer simulations and the texture of the performances is profound. The picture just goes dead in spots.
"I was put off by some of the shots," says Leonard Maltin, Entertainment Tonight film critic, who enjoyed the movie despite a bout of CGI syndrome. "When so much of a film is realistic, it's jarring to see a shot that's so plainly unreal."
This puts Maltin in the distinct minority, says Doug Wick, Gladiator's producer. Wick read thousands of preview cards and states: "I would argue that 99.9 percent of the audience were not taken out of the movie by the CGI, and that what distracts [the rest] are failures of story and performance, not failures of CGI."
Some would argue that Gladiator's story and performances are so strong that they succeed despite CGI. For them, if you're aware of the sleight of hand, the illusionist isn't doing his magic.
That attitude is shared by respected cinematographer Garrett Brown, who hasn't yet seen Gladiator, but who "has trouble, artistically and psychologically" with some CGI effects in recent movies.
"I found Phantom Menace sterile beyond belief," complains Brown, the Steadicam inventor who worked with George Lucas on Return of the Jedi. "It felt hermetically sealed." For Brown, Phantom's pod-race sequence - that fuel-injected chariot match - was undermined by the cyberspace airlessness of an arena in which the spectators were digitized.
"I have unmixed feelings about this," Brown says. "No movie actor is likely to stand in the arena and confront 50,000 extras again, because it's easier and cheaper to hit six keystrokes and simulate an audience." What's lost are the drama and the juice that such moments give an actor - and thus the moviegoer.
Never mind that for a performer, acting against a neutral "blue screen" that later gets merged with CGI is like being on the set with an invisible costar whose performance is phoned in later. Wick, whose previous film was Stuart Little, which combined live action with animatronic and computer-generated effects, says with a laugh, "Geena Davis spent the entire shoot talking to her hand."
When Brown pronounces that CGI represents "a sea change of filmmaking," take him literally. The buzz on the techie grapevine, he says, is that in the forthcoming The Perfect Storm, opening June 30, "the ocean is all digitally created, because the digital footage tested better [with preview audiences] than sequences of an actual tsunami." (Phone calls to distributor Warner Bros. to confirm this were not returned, although the tidal wave is definitely a product of the computer wizards.)
Could it be that CGI syndrome is a generational thing, and that those who grew up with video games and computers don't find it intrusive? That's a laugh, says Jonathan Brown, 30, and a cinematographer like his father, Garrett. The younger Brown observes: "While I was watching U-571, some of the computer-augmented explosions reminded me of Atari computer graphics.
"My call on it is if I'm fooled, I don't care how they got the effect. For me, Forrest Gump was a seamless integration of effects with story, putting Tom Hanks in the frame with the president, showing Gary Sinise as an amputee. But in Titanic, when they did the flyover of the deck and I saw cartoon characters walking around, I just giggled."
Exactly, says Maltin, who compared the pre-digitized and final versions of Gladiator with his film class at the University of Southern California. "There were so many action effects in the film that I was completely unaware of. Those are my favorite special effects: The ones you don't know are there."
It could be, though, that Gladiator director Ridley Scott, who previously conjured the worlds of Alien and Blade Runner, is using CGI as much for metaphoric effect as for realism.
The computer permits Scott to create a Colosseum - the original downtown stadium, as it were - that looks as if it were built yesterday. When Scott's camera swoops over the arena in a move virtually patented by NFL Films, he telegraphs to the contemporary audience that the gladiatorial games were the Super Bowls of their day.
Toy or tool, at this point in its evolution CGI is still in its infancy, suggests Robert A. Harris, the film restorer who brought Spartacus and Lawrence of Arabia back to life.
"I don't have a problem with Gladiator, which I enjoyed," Harris says. "Yet while viewing the film I was strangely put off by the CGI work. The bottom line, I would surmise, is that with these computer effects we're all still in a learning period."
CGI is all smoke and mirrors, to be sure. But it's not doing the job if the smoke is getting in the moviegoers' eyes.
Carrie Rickey's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org