I can’t make this point any clearer or easier to understand: even if the hero of your movie actually is a special effect, the audience will not relate to him if he looks like a special effect. For that reason, more than any other, I predict that Ghost Rider is going to crash and burn in the theaters, in much the same way that Ang Lee’s Hulk did a few years ago.
It doesn’t help that Nicolas Cage has a supernatural ability even stranger than the power to turn into a flaming-headed spectre of vengeance: despite being a reasonably talented actor, Cage somehow lacks any shred of actual charisma. He can portray emotions, help us get inside a character’s head, and obviously has a grasp of standard thespian skills. But visually, he comes across as a nebbish, a little shrimp with a receding hairline. Despite being 6'1" (185 cm), he often manages to look around 5'9" or so (only 175 cm) — maybe it’s the way he seems to hunch his head down into his shoulders. Aurally, his voice has that nasal, whining quality that provokes annoyance almost as much as sympathy — and certainly doesn’t say “hero” (except, perhaps, an unexpected or unwilling one).
Cage’s best-received roles to date have been ones like his appearances in Adaptation and Leaving Las Vegas, that didn’t require him to be an action hero or conventionally handsome. Indeed, such offbeat, thoughtful art-house pictures give him the room to stretch his acting chops and really show his skills. When he has to anchor an action movie, the results are often forgettable (consider National Treasure); when they succeed at all (as in Gone In 60 Seconds), he’s invariably a reluctant everyman forced into a leading role by circumstance.
However, the makers of Ghost Rider claim that when making it, they kept the words “It’s a love story” pinned to the wall in their office, and are focusing on the love story between Johnny Blaze and his childhood friend Roxanne. Casting Cage as a romantic leading man is an even worse disaster than casting him as a heroic action lead. Gone In 60 Seconds is instructive here: while Cage was able to quite convincingly put forth the persona of Randall “Memphis” Raines, car thief extraordinaire who was willing to leave the business just to avoid being a bad influence on his beloved younger brother (and then come back for one last job, just to save that selfsame brother)... despite making all that believable, Cage simply could not keep from looking ridiculous when he tried to flirt with Angelina Jolie’s character “Sway”.
But all that is merely digression. Yes, casting Nicolas Cage as the hero’s secret identity was a bad idea; he hasn’t got the charisma to carry a movie as either an action lead or a romantic lead. But really, Cage is only the secret identity. The real hero is the flaming-headed demon of vengeance, Ghost Rider. He is the one who really has to carry the movie, and if Cage has appearance problems, they’re nothing compared to the Rider’s.
Quite simply, the Rider looks fake.
He looks like a computer-generated special effect. The flames don't move quite right, and there isn't enough detail on the jacket’s leather or the chain that he swings around with such gusto and then wraps around his torso like a bandolier. The chain’s motion seems not to have any mass, or any friction between the links — in fact, the motion looks like it’s one, single, abstract curve with a texture mapped onto it that happens to look like chain links. Which may be easier for the computer to model — and I’m sure someone will try to excuse it by pointing out the chain is obviously animated by magic rather than physics — but the facts remain:
Real chains don’t move like that. Real leather has wrinkles, and a fine grain, and other details to its texture. I can’t put into words what’s wrong with the flames, but as a fire-dancer, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at flames, and the ones around Ghost Rider’s skull just aren’t quite right. They look computer-generated, not real.
I don’t usually notice special-effects flaws. I’m not one of those effects perfectionists who notices little details like matte lines — and my friends who are special-effects aficionados have found that pointing out such minor flaws to me usually elicits nothing more than a shrug. Even if an effect is somewhat imperfect, it’s not a huge deal; as a one-time actor, I consider things like the stars’ performances (and the plot) to be much more crucial. I would rarely predict that a movie will fail because it’s got bad effects.
But in this case, the special effects are one of the star performances. No matter how much motion-capture they use to make the Rider move like Nicolas Cage, his flames, jacket and chains will still look like cheap fakery every moment he’s on the screen. Despite my apathy about special effects, I can’t help but notice how bad the Rider looks, even on a computer screen’s QuickTime playback. I can only imagine how obvious the effects will be on a movie screen.
If the Ghost Rider team are silly enough to skimp on the special effects that portray their hero — the guy who is the title of the film, for Pete’s sake — then they’re probably silly enough to make a few more elementary blunders that will become apparent once the movie hits the theaters. (Indeed, rather than just “apparent”, more flaws in Ghost Rider may well become “blindingly obvious”.) I can’t yet predict just what those blunders are, but I’ll predict right now that they will exist.
And I absolutely predict that Ghost Rider will be Marvel’s biggest movie flop since Hulk — and for much the same reason.
Kai MacTane is the Freak Nation’s webmaster. Though he doesn’t ride a motorcycle or read Ghost Rider comics, he has been known to wear a leather jacket, and used to even have chains dangling from it. In between keeping this site running, maintaining a day job as a front-end developer, and moonlighting as a goth-industrial DJ, he likes to occasionally get some sleep. Hey, everyone needs a hobby.