Fifteen Hundred years after the birth of Christ, Christopher Columbus’ trip to the States reconfirmed what the Ancient Greeks knew and the Dark Ages lost; the Earth ISN’T FLAT. In 2009, fifty four years after the birth of cinema’s 21st Century Messiah, another JC – James Cameron – and ‘Avatar’ confirmed to me that the future of cinema IS FLAT or at least 2-D.
Avatar is a technological tour de force, a world created entirely through computer generated ingenuity meshing real people, live action, and an environment and species that reside completely in cyberspace. Anybody who’s seen Terminator 1 and 2, Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, and Titanic knows he can string together a story, albeit sometimes one a bit longer than your backside might like. Avatar is a massively accomplished film directed by a man who not only knows how to show narrative and character but is also technologically in a class of his own. Cameron doesn’t just understand the process that makes things happen, he creates them, including being involved in the construction of the cameras that shot Avatar. He’s a very clever, talented, successful man, which are only three reasons for us mere mortals to dislike him, but let’s not be too unfair to the ‘King of The World’ who’s given us some great movie moments over the last quarter of a century.
Avatar is no different, taking us on a journey with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) a paraplegic marine who’s given the opportunity to replace his dead brother in the Avatar programme on the distant world of Pandora. The planet has caught the interest of Earth, and Big Business in particular, as it possesses vast reserves of a wonderful new power source known as Unobtanium (Yes, that’s its name). Evil corporations plan to either negotiate with the planet’s ten-foot tall blue natives known as the N’avi or take the precious ore by force. Their plan runs aground when Sully undergoes a change of heart, shifting from an uncaring gung-ho marine in the employ of big business to an eco-conscious tree-hugging (almost literally) friend of the environment.
Any ordinary person would find that a full time concern, but Jake also manages to fall in love, learn to fly one of the planet’s winged creatures, and start an insurrection backed by the N’avi population and sympathetic humans. This makes for an action-packed two and three quarter hours, which, on screentime alone, separates it from the cinematic flotsam that is Transformers 2 and 2012. What elevates it even further beyond such average fare is the Director’s reputation and his promise to deliver ground-breaking 3D cinema featuring the most realistic CGI possible, employing the fifth most powerful computer in the world and introducing a new technique for creating photorealistic CGI characters called E-motion.
It’s a big boast and, at this moment, Avatar has become the fourth highest grossing film ever made. But “3D cinema that threatens to end the reign of boring old flat unimaginative 2D cinema forever”? I don’t think so.
There are two reasons why I left the cinema not truly thinking I was seeing the next age of cinema, unlike when I came out of Star Wars or Terminator 2 or Jurassic Park. To me all three were cinematic leaps - in Star Wars the dogfights in space were groundbreaking, in T-2 the morphing revolutionary, and Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs left me wondering if there was anything you couldn’t create with the right computer fx package – but strangely Avatar didn’t leave me with that same sense of ‘wow’.
Maybe I’m just getting old, but I think the problem is this: CGI, when used right and in a collaborative process with live action and/or animatronics, can be awesome; but throw in a little too much and something in my brain registers it as false. There’s some little alarm telling me that, while people have spent a great deal of time and effort on this, it’s still just a really well rendered videogame. Once that happens I never find it as engaging as when my mind remains tricked.
Avatar’s CGI is superior to any of the new Star Wars movies, and the CGI melded with live action - particularly the lab sequences – are amazing. But throw in phosphorescent fauna, day-glo dinosaurs, and tinted alien basketball players with mohicans and my mind’s ringing alarm bells big time. I know they’re creating a fantastical place, but sorry, it just doesn’t look ‘real’. Maybe if some of it was I’d be more convinced, like the jaw dropping storm sequence in Peter Weir’s ‘Master and Commander’.
My other bugbear is 3D being constantly heralded as the saviour of cinema. I’m aware the cinema industry has a two-fold interest in this working. It creates an exciting new way of experiencing films and, possibly more importantly, thwarts film piracy and increases revenue. Videoing a 3D film only creates an unwatchable image while cinemas can charge more to view a 3D product. These may be cynical reasons to push the new technology, but they’re not why I’m so sceptical about 3D Cinema.
My problem is this: real life 3D means you’re there. Cinema 3D means you’re there occasionally. 3D technology has clearly improved from the days of the flimsy red/blue glasses (which I still possess having seen ‘Jaws 3D’, ‘Friday the 13th Part 3′ in 3D, and ‘Space-Hunter Adventures in the Forbidden Zone 3D’ , and no, that wasn’t a porn flick) but, while it’s no longer a headache-inducing experience, I’m left with the same conclusion: it’s still a gimmick.
I am not a luddite and have little inclination towards throwing my shoes at 3D projectors in the faint hope of clogging up their internal mechanisms and maintaining 2D hegemony. Firstly because the projector’s probably digital and possess very few moving parts, and secondly because footwear’s expensive.
It’s also not through ignorance. Over the last year I’ve sat through ‘Up’, ‘Bolt’, ‘Monsters Vs Aliens’ and ‘My Bloody Valentine’ - one brilliant, two good, and one bloody awful. What struck me about all of them (apart from paying more to wear the glasses) was the overriding sense that, barring a couple of shots in the film where I thought “ooh that was in 3D”, it wasn’t a completely immersive experience and left me wondering if it might have been more enjoyable just to have watched and appreciated the film for what it was – a film.
Cameron does some nice subtle stuff with 3D - certainly pushing it beyond what’s gone before - but it’s still intermittent, and he’s a director with carte blanche at the top of his game. Most of what will follow for the next ten years will be less of the same. To underline the point, ever since T-2 (now made an astonishing seventeen years ago) have you seen better morphing in a film that uses that technology? Didn’t think so. You’ve seen the best now dread the rest, and remember you’re paying extra for the so-called 3D revolution.
I do, however, have my own idea of how to make cinema going a more immersive experience. I saw Avatar in 2D at my local multi-screen and 3D at the BFI IMAX. I genuinely felt I could concentrate on the spectacle of the story more on boring old 2D, but enjoyed the filmgoing experience more in 3D. The difference was the people watching the film, because seeing a movie at the BFI IMAX is an event in itself, and the audience tend to be great because they’re there to see the film and not act like arseholes, which unfortunately wasn’t the case when watching it in 2D at my local multi-screen fleapit. So if the movie industry really wants to know how to make cinema a more enjoyable experience for the fee-paying public, develop a system that makes the cinema an idiot-free zone.