Monday, December 21, 2009


Movies have sure come a long way since Tron.

Mrs. Speculator being finished with her classes this semester, we decided to take in a movie for the first time in months. It turns out that we both had doubts about Avatar, based on the commercials for it, but we went to see it anyway, just to get out of the house if nothing else. We didn't reckon on how far out of the house we were going to end up going.

Let's just get this out of the way up front. Avatar is a brilliantly conceived and made film, lush with the possibilities of cinema and technology. It is breathtakingly gorgeous, astonishing and mouth-droppingly realized. The commercials for the movie are on a small screen and only 2-D, taking away from the power and, I have to say it, majesty of James Cameron's vision. But in 3-D and on a big screen (and I imagine the bigger the better), this is an epic and powerful movie that has relatively minor issues which only seem important after you walk out of the theatre.

When computers and cinema first began to interface, the plots of the movies very often had to explain away the clunkiness of what was onscreen. The computer parts of Tron took place in a mainframe, so of course everything was drawn in straight lines and didn't appear very "natural." And the space sequences of The Last Starfighter were copied onto an arcade game as a plot device, so of course they looked very similar. Slowly, over time, the CGI work in movies became another tool in the box, a tool whose success was determined by how much it didn't stand out. And now James Cameron has successfully wedded 3-D and motion capture and CGI into a movie whose world is so immersive that you are forced to forget the gee-whizziness of how he did it and just experience the world. I don't recall a single instance of the old 3-D standby, where weapons or people (or juggler's balls in House of Wax) come flying out of the screen at you; instead the 3-D works as your vision works: things are closer to you than other things and perspective works. It is how vision works outside of the movie theatre, and then Cameron wields this powerful tool in what I believe is the first successful rendering of a planetary romance in cinema history.

Planetary romance is a sub-genre of speculative fiction that deals with exotic planets and attempts at human interaction on them. The standard plot of planetary romance is that the traveler spends about half the story learning about life and survival on the exotic planet and then is faced with a crisis, usually having to do with his continued existence in the exotic locale—sometimes the protagonist must fight to remain at his new home and sometimes the hero must fight just to survive. For the reader, the strength of these stories is the detail that goes into the world-building, the creation of an alien biology that is both marvelous and consistent at the same time. Often, the exotic environment becomes a character in its own right.

The story Dune has a lot of elements of planetary romance in it. Herbert spends a great deal of time having Paul learn about life on a desert planet, deftly handling the sometimes catalog-like descriptions of planetary romance by having Paul fight for survival and learning the life of the Fremen. And as should be expected from the economy of story-telling, if an exotic element is introduced and described, you are likely to see it come back later in the story. The problem with adaptations of Dune to cinema is that they are never immersive enough. The desert life affects everything on Arrakis and often movies just sort of use it as a touchstone rather than making it a theme of the story. And I believe that this because, in part, there was no really effective way to capture it, until now.

Cameron introduces us to the world of Pandora (damn allegorical names of planets), a jungle world that humans have decided to exploit for a powerful mineral that has been named "unobtainium" is a pique of irony. Giovani Ribisi's the corporate shill, tells Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) that it is worth "20 million per kilo," setting up the conflict that drives the rest of the movie. Unfortunately, Pandora is inhabited by the tall blue catlike Na'vi, a people who are attuned to their planet's biospehere and (to drive the point mercilessly) use bows unerringly, have feathers in their clothing, and wear face paint when they go to war. But Pandora is poisonous to humans, so scientist Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) creates the avatar process, where human/Na'vi hybrids are created and somehow a human's consciousness is transferred into them via some sort of computerized remote link (the process of how the human gets to the exotic locale is never terribly important to a planetary romance). These machinations, however, are merely prelude to the explorations of Pandora and her people that they facilitate. Jake becomes an avatar and explores the planet, its biology, and finally its culture.

True to the best planetary romance traditions, Jake accidentally gets lost in the new world and is forced to try to survive on his own, generally making a hash of it until rescued by the lovely princess Neytiri (Zoe Soldana). But this faithfulness to the tropes of the genre slips into the background as Pandora moves into the foreground. Cameron and his crew had to have spent untold hours working out the biology of Pandora, and having it make sense while making it devastatingly beautiful in its exoticness. With Neytiri as his guide, Jake first learns to survive, then to thrive on Pandora. The fauna he finds there is tantalizingly similar to life on Earth, but different enough to invoke awe. And all of it is astonishingly realized via the seamless interaction of CGI, motion capture and 3-D. I have never been so totally immersed in an environment in any film, never been so captivated by landscapes and dioramas. Sadly, the creatures have names that are gibberish to the viewer, so I can only describe the hammer-headed rhinoceros thingies and the six-legged cat-like predator that hunts them without referring to them by how the Na'vi call them. Fully half of the film is spent travelling around the planet and learning to admire and love it as the Na'vi do. It is these moments wherein lies the power of Avatar. Suddenly there seems to be nothing impossible for movies to portray, and its potential takes up as much of the after-movie conversations as do any other aspect of it.

But a successful popular movie cannot be satisfied with being only a catalog of an exotic place, a travelogue. The conflict is established—humans want unobtainium and, wouldn't you know it, the biggest deposit of it is under the holiest of Navi shrines, the Tree of Souls. And suddenly Jake has to decide which is more important, human need or (talk about your loaded question) the right of sentient creatures to their own lives and way of life. The allegory becomes heavy-handed, with Ribisi yelling things like "It's a jungle; there are more trees!" and the grim military commander (Stephen Lang) describing the Na'vi's defense of their own planet as acts of terrorism. So Avatar falls back on other tropes in its second half—the greed of the corporate world and how it affects worldview, the advanced technological warrior versus the native fighting on his home ground and with his own weapons, the outsider human taking a role of leadership with the native warriors. The second half proceeds exactly as you would expect with no surprises, especially to a well-read speculative fiction fan. Nonetheless, Cameron's new technologies still make these rote scenes spectacular, and the battle scenes are beautiful and terrible all at once.

And everything ends up exactly like you would expect, which isn't a bad thing because, really, the movie is just a means of conveying the awesome new tools that Cameron has brought to the table. It just so happens that the story is better than the plots of Tron or The Last Starfighter, and so the focus can be more on the story than on the tools that bring them to life.

Avatar is ground-breaking and a high-water mark for the power available to storytellers. The result is that not only do I have a wonderful experience to try to hold on to, but I now so desperately want this technology applied to other projects. Rumor has it that Andrew Stanton is doing similar things with John Carter of Mars (without the 3-D) and so a story I grew up loving and a film I have been partially dreading suddenly becomes potentially far more powerful. I would love to see Dune attempted again with these tools in hand. And then the other stories that need filming become possible—imagine an immersive Ringworld or Rendezvous with Rama. If you are a fan of speculative fiction or of movies (or of both), you owe it to yourself to see Avatar. You must see it in 3-D, because I cannot imagine the 2-D version will have anywhere near the same power. And you need to see it on a big screen. Waiting for this to come to DVD will simply not be sufficient unless Cameron has somehow worked out how to funnel all the movie's power to a 40-inch 2-D screen.

I've seen the future, and it's exciting.

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