Monday, December 28, 2009

The Future of Film?

Anyone who's ever seen a movie where the characters watch three-dimensional holograms pop in front of them like a couple of the Star Wars movies must have, at least at one point, wondered what it would be like to watch something like that instead of the normal flat images one sees on TV or on our movie screens.

While we aren't exactly there, 3-D films, as I understand it, are supposed to bridge the gap between this world and that. Hollywood currently has at least three major proponents of the new 3-D movement that started earlier this millenium. George Lucas, whether or not the 3-D images in his Star Wars films were his not-so-subtle endorsement of the format, has often talked about re-releasing all six films in the format. Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis, since abandoning live-action film making for motion capture films, has released all three of his movies in 3-D or IMAX 3-D format. James Cameron has been quoted as having said something to the effect that we experience life in 3-D, and that it makes perfect sense that we should experience the movies in such a way as well. While I certainly don't begrudge them their passion, especially considering that between them they have over a hundred years of filmmaking experience, I'm not yet a hundred percent sure I share it.

I've only seen two 3-D movies, after all. I suppose I'm glad I missed the 3-D movies of the 1980s (and of the 1950s) because from what I've heard they wouldn't have given me a whole lot of enthusiasm for the format, especially the horror movies. The closest I ever got to old-fashioned 3-D was a comic book, and apart from the novelty of it, it was not the least bit impressive. The red and blue glasses basically robbed the comic book of most of its color.

My first experience with the format, A Christmas Carol, was, to be honest, not an entirely pleasant experience. I liked the movie and some of the 3-D effects, but walked out of the theater with a headache. Also, it cost significantly more than it would have in 2-D and in truth, as entertaining as the 3-D effects were, they did nothing to propel the story. Based on that experience and on my sister's feedback from Up, where she basically said it didn't add anything to the overall story, I wondered if some of the internet haters were right all along and that 3-D really is nothing more than a fad.

That changed with my second 3-D movie experience: Avatar. I've written about this film here and elsewhere ( so there's no need to belabor the point that I had a great time.

The point, though, is that suddenly 3-D made sense to me. I have yet to see the film in any other format (or more than once, for that matter) but when I walked out of the theater, apart from not having a headache, I was convinced that had I not seen the film in 3-D IMAX, the experience would have been somehow diminished. I certainly won't attempt to pass this off as any kind of gospel truth but if nothing else, I've been convinced that I've just seen a glimpse of how the future of film should look.

Of course, I can't ignore the fact that IMAX 3-D is just too expensive to watch on a regular basis, but it is a cold hard fact that the experience is not one which can be replicated by any mainstream home entertainment system and therefore, barring the financial concern, gives a compelling argument for steering clear of the bootleg DVDs and catching movies in the theaters.

Maybe not every film will look quite as good as Avatar did in IMAX 3-D, but every medium and every format needs a benchmark. Also, there's a lot of room for improvement on Avatar's storytelling angle, so maybe we'll soon have a filmmaker dazzle us with both a scintillating story and dazzling effects. Peter Jackson pulled it off not too long ago, after all. I find myself eagerly awaiting Tintin, and would gladly save up for the 3-D version if there will be one. Such is my faith in both the filmmaker and the format in its current incarnation.

The future of movies looks pretty bright to me.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

When Pocahontas Turned Blue and John Dunbar Became a Paraplegic

I'm gonna say this right up front: I absolutely loved James Cameron's Avatar. I still remember walking into Titanic eleven years ago expecting the most moving, profoundly romantic experience I could have had at the time and walking out thinking "ehh." I experienced no such disappointment with Avatar, and it wasn't even necessarily because my expectations were lowered.

I think the comparisons between Avatar and works like Dances With Wolves, John Carter of Mars and even Pocahontas began the moment the story was disclosed to the general public. I suppose it didn't help that not everyone was sold on the way the fantastical aliens populating Cameron's new world, Pandora, looked. "Thundersmurf" became a popular internet slur for them. In true fanboy fashion, the bashing commenced though thanks to the fact that I actually had things to do this time around I didn't bother to indulge my usual masochistic urges of reading message board after message board full of venom.

Like I posted some months ago, this was probably Cameron's first ever brush with internet fanboys, and I wondered how he, or the studio backing him, would take it, even though Fox is no stranger to internet brickbats. They didn't really seem to give a shit what the usual "basement dwellers" had to say.

Still, upon watching the film I understood why none of the story or "Thundersmurf" revelations even mattered. I think it was genius, in fact, of Cameron and the film's marketing team to get that stuff out of the way as early as possible because none of it really give the audience any idea of what the movie is all about, and that is the realization of a world beyond imagining.

Cameron's Pandora, the new world he created, is the star of Avatar. Its hills, mountains, trees, birds and bees, all of which is both familiar and new at the same time. In terms of environments, I've only ever seen such visual innovation in a Hayao Miyazaki movie, Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, but that was hand-drawn animation and was, by comparison, not nearly as challenging to render. That world did not face the challenge of making the viewers believe that what they were seeing was real. Cameron basically took the massive proceeds and virtually unlimited street-cred he'd picked up from Titanic, and cashed it ALL in making this unbelievable feast for the senses.

The consensus on this film is that the story is weak but the visuals make up for it. That, I feel, is an oversimplification. While I will readily concede that the story is not the most original ever to be written, it could have been done a lot worse. Titanic, for all its Oscars and accolades, had its fair share of truly rancid dialogue (and in fact its screenplay was conspicuously snubbed by the Academy back then) but down the line nobody seems to be complaining. Somehow, what Cameron had achieved back then with the digital sinking ship and the massive production, managed to overshadow what he had not, and in my humble opinion, that happens to be the case here.

Avatar comes across as a largely visceral experience when, like its main character Jake Sully, we are introduced to Pandora in all of its untamed glory. It's enough, for me, that he establishes the reason why human beings would want to despoil such splendor, and the science behind the titular avatars. As caricatured as the evil corporate types and their redneck henchmen may seem, we as a race would be sadly delusional if we refused to acknowledge that such people actually exist in real life. Life is not as simple as "humans are bad, while nature is good" but the themes in Avatar definitely remain relevant, no matter how heavy-handed their application may be. Seeing what corporations and the need for profit has driven people to do on this planet makes their actions in Avatar completely believable and as they ravaged Pandora I, for one, felt genuinely saddened because like I said, Pandora is the real star of the movie.

I remember feeling lousy during the first hour or so of Titanic with all of its uplifting music, bright lighting and the digitally-rendered version of that magnificent ship plowing through the Atlantic because I knew well beforehand that it would all end in tragedy. In Avatar In contrast, I could not be quite so sure what Pandora's fate would be even after it was all over (yes, there is the possibility of a sequel). Pandora is a world I wanted to survive, and I think that was what made the movie for me.

The debate on the merits of this film, I'm sure, will go on and on, which I think will be a hallmark of this film's greatness, i.e. that it is and will continue to be talked about for years to come, but to my mind, at least, the debate is settled: for all its flaws, and there are several of them, this was easily one of my more memorable moviegoing experiences. Sure it unpretentiously borrows from Dances with Wolves and other works of fiction besides, but what it adds is something which must be seen to be believed.