The "uncanny valley" theory may explain why people are unsettled by digital representations of themselves in films like Spielberg's Adventures of Tintin
What is it that’s so creepy about Tintin’s new face? Is it the unnerving experience of realizing, years after enjoying the Tintin comic books during childhood, that the Belgian journalist and sometimes detective is a weirdo who narrates his whole life to his dog and lives in a fully realized version of the Jump-to-Conclusions mat from Office Space? Possibly, but that’s likely just a sign of having become a mentally healthy grown up.
Steven Spielberg’s Adventures of Tintin may at first be shocking for Tintin nostalgists, who, in their appreciation of Herge’s myriad literary references and charmingly literal sense of humor, forgot that the books were still often a mishmash of adventure genres, loaded with absurd, highly kinetic action, and illogical coincidences. In that respect, The Adventures of Tintin is as faithful an adaptation as one could expect, its cast endlessly tumbling head over heels through city street-car chases, pirate ships, and Arabian ports in search of lost treasure. It's true that the original creator’s subtlety is lost. But action is what sells, and all this would be fine with the average American movie-goer, if not for one glaring flaw.
Regardless of whether they enjoyed the movie, many critics have found Tintin himself to be just a little bit "creepy" or "unsettling." Here at The Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky called the film's character's "disturbingly plastic." Maybe that helps explain the relatively soft $22.3 million domestic box-office haul over the long holiday weekend.
Instead of trying to bring to life Herge’s beautiful artwork, Spielberg and co. have opted to bring the movie into the 3D era using trendy motion-capture technique to recreate Tintin and his friends. Tintin’s original face, while barebones, never suffered for a lack of expression. It’s now outfitted with an alien and unfamiliar visage, his plastic skin dotted with pores and subtle wrinkles (one can’t help but recall Homer Simpson’s terror at the vision of a real-world Bart and Lisa). While all the characters sport some kind of cartoonish features—especially their ears and noses—their photorealistic eyes are somehow blank. It’s especially odd considering that it is the goal of animation to exaggerate features into even more outrageous modes of expression. Perfect mimicry in itself pointless. In bringing them to life, Spielberg has made the characters dead.
It begs the question of why Spielberg, presumably a student of film and aware of how CGI characters have been received before, didn’t simply go with a live-action adaptation. History has proven audiences to be rather skittish around digital representations of themselves. Non-human entities like Andy Serkis’ Golum or Caesar from Rise of the Planet of the Apes have had no problem wooing viewers. It’s only when they attempt to mimic reality, instead of warp and play with it like the friendly caricatures of the Pixar universe do, that they fail. Take a look, for example, at Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which boasted ultra-realistic hair and facial modeling but flopped at the box office. Or think back to The Polar Express (a.k.a. Mr. Mustache’s Creepy Kiddie Abduction Train), the motion-captured cast of which one reviewer called "soul dead."
These characters, along with the cast of Tintin, sit comfortably at the bottom of the fabled uncanny valley, the robotics principle that states that the closer an artificial character or mannequin comes to resembling a human face without actually pulling it off, the more unsettling its presence will become. All kinds of reasons have been given for this phenomenon, from the incongruence between appearance and motion, to an evolutionary trigger against those who appear sickly or defective.
But supposing we did achieve perfect a computer generated replica of reality. What would be the point? Pixar, the studio that can safely be declared the leader in the field of emotive animation, has realized the pitfalls and avoided creeping out audiences by wisely heading away from photorealism. Just look at Carl and Russell from 2009’s Up. In reality, they barely even qualify as human, and yet their characters work well on screen because they are the animated embodiments of emotions, not people. Spielberg decided not to follow. Instead he’s stuck at the bottom of the uncanny valley with Tintin staring back at him through his dead eyes.