FILM / The Last Detail: The incredible adventures of morph

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The Independent Culture
HOW strange, in a way, that Robert Zemeckis's new movie, a movie of a rare euphoric grossness, of a positively glutinous bad taste, should bear as elegant and tragic a title as Death Becomes Her - reminiscent as it is of the title which has always seemed to me the most beautiful in the entire history of the language, O'Neill's Mourning Becomes Electra.

The source of that beauty is of course the slightly off-putting ambiguity of the word become when employed, as here, in its secondary sense of suit or fit or be becoming. And the source, in its turn, of the ambiguity is that for most of us that secondary sense still sits so oddly on our own tongues that when we see it in a title we tend to 'read' the more obvious meaning first before mentally correcting it.

Yet the incorrect meaning turns out, after all, to be curiously appropriate to Zemeckis's movie, to the extravagant use it makes of special effects and in particular 'morphing', the computerised process whereby matter can be induced to undergo, before one's very (dazzled) eyes, virtually any transformation the director desires. Morphing, precisely, is all about 'becoming', about evolving, about changing from one state of being to another, about, as the name itself suggests, metamorphosis.

Thus Meryl Streep's neck - a neck which, for the purposes of the plot, becomes so malleable and buttery she can mould it with her own two hands like a potter at his wheel - is seen to stretch, twist and distend before gratefully sinking into the hollow between her shoulders with a nice pneumatic plop. Thus, before our very eyes, her wrinkles uncrease themselves, the wattle under her chin tucks itself out of sight, the lines under her eyes erase themselves as though with a Magic Marker. A waxy caricature of herself when we initially encounter her, she becomes beautiful again in an instant.

One day, it's said, the technique will be capable of resuscitating performers like Garbo and Monroe and reinserting them, 'live', in some new movie. But, watching Death Becomes Her, an even more vertiginous notion occurred to me. If morphing can, with such total conviction, such absolute 'realism', cause a beautiful actress to become plain on screen, then cause her, still on screen, to become beautiful all over again, if it can so freely knead and bend the human face to its will, might it not also be made to create expressions on a face where none previously existed? Might the process not, in short, be applied to the face of some chronically inexpressive actor - a Tom Cruise, say, or (but perhaps this is asking too much even of state- of-the-art technology) a Chuck Norris - and cause him, if only for the duration of a single performance, to become a good one?