I’ve been meaning to get back to movie writing lately, but I haven’t yet found a site that wants me writing for them. I figured I’d get some practice in anyway — whenever I go see a movie, I’ll get a review up for you here. If you know of a site looking for an LA-based writer that wouldn’t mind posting the occasional review, drop me an email at mike (at) mikeschramm dawt com.

When they first started showing off motion pictures to audiences (so the likely apocryphal story goes), they projected a film of a train coming down the tracks on the screen, and the earliest of moviegoers, uncertain of what they were seeing, dove out of their seats to get out of the way. Nowadays, we laugh at their antiquity — it was just a movie, obviously. It couldn’t hurt them. But the fact remains that we trust our senses, and James Cameron’s latest years-in-the-making, overbudget-and-yet-worth-it epic proves that we’re getting better than ever at fooling them.

Before I saw the movie (in 3D and IMAX of course — the only way to see a movie that has been constructed for exactly that experience, something that will become much more common if the previews they showed before have anything to say about it), I read it compared to Jurassic Park, and that’s as apt a comparison as I can think of. I saw Jurassic Park the very first day it came out back in 1990 (one of my schoolmates won a pair of tickets in our classroom, and I convinced him we were best buddies enough to take me), and that movie delivered on what it promised: you really, truly saw dinosaurs as you’d never seen them before. Since then, lots of the paleontological theories that fed Spielberg’s vision have actually been disproven (turns out T-rex did see more than just motion), but those images were so strong and so well-constructed that even though we knew those things were CGI, those of us who saw that movie on the big screen and hear the word “dinosaur” will keep that image. At least until someone else comes along and does it better.

And that’s what Avatar does extremely well. Not create dinosaurs, but create things that never existed for us at all, in large and clustered bunches. Aliens, creatures, glowy plants, giant trees, huge canyons, floating islands, mech suits, double-bladed hovercopters, newfangled computer UIs and interfaces, theoretical engineering in action, humanoid products of genetic science, a virtual Zoe Saldana (actually, I have no idea how much of that last one was actually in the movie*, but if nothing else, she did a great voice acting job). The alien world of Pandora is full of things, and all of it is immensely believable and meticulously created in IMAX-sized, clear as day, perfectly produced 3D. For Jurassic Park, Spielberg went and talked to all of the top dino-related minds in the world to make sure his vision was completely and absolutely correct. For Avatar, Cameron is the top Pandora-related mind in the world, and he’s got Weta and Stan Winston and ILM to make sure it all works exactly right.

And that vision holds throughout. I saw a Tron poster here in LA while driving to the movie theater, and I thought of that teaser, and how we don’t really believe something on screen is real until we see it destroyed. When those Tron cycles are speeding around, they look like what you’d expect CGI Tron cycles to look like, which is basically what they looked like in the first movie. But at the end, when that bike flies up into the air and disintegrates into all of its mechanical and messy parts, you start to believe that cycle was actually real, and start to think about the mechanics behind it. Likewise, without spoiling anything, Cameron shows you the beautiful and amazing world of Pandora, and then proceeds to rip it apart, and it makes the whole thing even more believable. Sure, the Navi look cool. But just wait until you see them riding on the backs of alien horses and dodging missiles in bullet time with a crazy explosion in the background! You’ll believe an alien can fight a mech!

And that’s where Avatar’s only problem lies — it’s an incredible movie, an amazing spectacle, and definitely a masterwork by a filmmaker who’s racking up quite a few of them. But in the end, it’s still only a Cameron movie. This is the guy who made Terminator 2, and Aliens (Sigourney Weaver plays a nice role in this one, but it just reminds you that Cameron is still directing everything), and True Lies, and as incredibly real as Pandora is, it almost feels boxed in by the fact that it’s presented in a sci-fi action movie. The story is good, and the dialog serves its purpose, but you almost wish you could just explore the world without the epic battle for freedom getting in the way. Sure, it’s time for the hero to make a rousing speech, but could you maybe move the camera back behind that hill over there? The rest of this world is full of such amazing things, I’m sure there’s something incredible behind that bush!

If you showed this movie to one of those folks who’d never heard of movies before — you sat them down in the stadium seating inside the surround sound theater with the three story screen and put those little glasses on their head, despite their objections — the experience would do nothing less than change their life. “That was incredible,” they’d say afterwards. “I can’t believe such a place exists! We must go there, and meet the Navi, and study their planet! Such wonders there are! Such awesome life! Such a universe that we live in!”

And I think you’d be a little disappointed to have to look down at them and be forced to explain the obvious: “Those creatures were all generated by calculating machines. Those people aren’t real, they’re actors standing in front of green screens. And that place, full of the most fantastic and alien things ever shown on screen, doesn’t exist. It’s just a movie. Two hours’ entertainment over a holiday weekend. Leave your popcorn on the floor, and let’s go back out to the lobby.”

*The last part of this conversation between James Cameron and Peter Jackson says that Zoe Saldana was very much in the movie. That’s interesting to me — according to these two guys, actors very much have a place in a world full of computer-generated images.

Posted on Wednesday, December 23rd, 2009 at 2:37 am. Filed under general.
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