Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Seeing ‘Avatar’ In 2-D Would Be Like Taking Your Mom to the Prom

I mean, sure, you were there for the Big Event, but you were certainly not getting the full experience.

Avatar, the latest movie (in fact, the first in 12 years?!) from James Cameron  , the Director of the movie that for, I suspect, only a short time longer, holds the world record for highest box office gross in its initial run, Titanic, as well as big money makers like Terminator 2 and Aliens, is a movie that you simply must see in a darkened theater, and, unless you lack two functioning eyes, in 3-D.

Granted, with stunning high definition screens in more and more homes all the time, it is sure to be a show-off-your-home-theater Blu-Ray disc later this year, too, but to miss this one in the theaters would be a real shame.

There are only a handful of movies that have come along throughout the 115 year history of motion pictures that you can point to and honestly say

“That movie broke new ground.” 

Much as I was skeptical from the initial previews, I have to happily admit, Cameron really pulled off something spectacular here.

I doubt Avatar will be widely praised for its writing or acting, but it succeeds on several levels that really do change the game going forward.

First, you have to think about the fact that the film (or perhaps “the digital file” is the more appropriate term, to paraphrase Robert Rodriguez) exists at all.  With a reported production budget of ~$230 million, it is one of a very small number of cinematic projects of that budget magnitude. 

Cameron, the reigning “King of the World” in terms of tremendous commercial clout at the box office, thanks most particularly to the $1.8 billion returned on the $200 million investment in Titanic, is perhaps the only director who could get this project green lighted with a budget that high. 

The only other films to come close to that price tag, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End, maybe those last few Star Wars movies, were proven marketing vehicles that were virtually guaranteed to put up huge box office numbers, and therefore easily offset their own budget risk.  

Think about it:
Steven Spielberg? Without Indiana Jones or E.T. in the movie?
George Lucas?  Without Star Wars or Indiana Jones?
Peter Jackson?  Without any hobbits or King Kong?
Sam Raimi?  Without Spiderman?
Michael Bay?  Without Megan Fox, er, uh, Optimus Prime?
Gore Verbiniski?  Without Jack Sparrow?
Robert Zemeckis?  Without Marty McFly and Doc Brown or Forrest Gump?

I doubt that anyone else could have easily pulled together the kind of financing this thing took. 

And, consider, too, that the film required substantial investment and invention of new technology in order to be shot at all (or, perhaps “captured” is the more appropriate term).  Cameron has a long history of being on the cutting edge of filmmaking technology and special effects, and, like Lucas, Spielberg, Jackson and Zemeckis, has a knack for consistently making such massive undertakings broadly appealing and therefore remarkably profitable.

One thing worth noting is that even though there is no pre-existing literary, TV or film property that provides Avatar with a built-in audience, it is a genre picture.  This is significant, because when you look at the movies that have ushered in new eras of technical innovation and sophistication (think of the advent of Dolby Stereo and motion control photography with the first Star Wars movie, or bullet time and wire work in The Matrix, or the rapid, coarse cutting style of the Bourne movies), they are, invariably, genre pictures.  Science Fiction in particular boasts the highest number of innovative effects films, for obvious reasons, and that is certainly the genre that Avatar is most closely aligned with, although it clearly has elements of war movies, disaster flicks, fantasy and westerns woven through it as well.

So there is the question of what Avatar’s success means for the film industry.  In its second weekend, which is when most blockbusters begin their rapid decline in box office grosses, Avatar not only held on to #1 with a very modest decline in box office receipts, but did so even as the new Sherlock Holmes film had the biggest Christmas Day opening of any movie in history, and by a wide margin at that.  These are clear signs that Avatar has legs and that the word of mouth is excellent.  Clearly, it will be among the top grossing films of all time, and therefore, it will be hugely influential.

Here are some key industry outcomes that I can easily predict:

1) Arguably, the most significant impact Avatar will have on the industry at large is that it demonstrates that 3-D is no longer easy to classify as merely a gimmick or novelty, but that it can be effectively used to enhance the story and to actually help the audience suspend disbelief rather than being used to flaunt the movie’s unbelievability literally right in the audience’s face. 

There are only a small handful of shots that stand out as traditional “3-D shots” in terms of the “oooh aaah” factor, but the entire viewing experience is tremendously enhanced throughout because of the depth and richness to which the 3-D treats the viewer’s eye.  As the title of this post notes, seeing the film in 2-D would be the cinematic equivalent of taking your mom to the prom.  Sure, you could, but… Why would you want to? 

Just a few years after they were heralded as new heights of computer generated imagery, Star Wars Episodes I-III, The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, and Jurassic Park will quickly begin to feel quaint and technically obsolete.

2) As Weta Digital spearheaded the special effects work on the production, following on their successes with the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong among others, the “little” effects shop Peter Jackson founded to create shots for Heavenly Creatures back in 1993, has now firmly and undeniably  cemented their position as the primary competition to George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, by creating a true masterpiece of special effects directed by a major filmmaker other than Jackson himself. 

ILM will almost certainly react by trying to best Avatar in their next major outing, and it is not hard to imagine George Lucas commissioning a further effects revamp of his core Star Wars films to adapt them to 3-D viewing in order to avoid them being too quickly made to look obsolete, the way older Sci-Fi movies do nowadays.

3) Lastly, as alluded to earlier in this post, with any luck the film industry will recognize that it is okay to be more daring with their investments.  For two decades now, a vastly disproportionate amount of investment has gone into making movies that were retellings of pre-existing works of art, either movies themselves, or books, comics, TV shows, and the sequels thereto.  Avatar’s box office success will hopefully remind the major studios that Hollywood can make a mint by making us crave something we have not seen before.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not so simple-minded that I don’t see the influences that are sprinkled throughout Avatar.  In Hollywood-speak, you might call it “Dances With Wolves meets Disney’s Pocahontas, crossed with Star Wars: Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and it’s in 3-D!”  or any of a thousand other ridiculous shorthand summaries like that.  But, nevertheless, the Navi people, their language, the botanical life on the planet Pandora, all of these are examples of rich imagination and universe-creation that should inspire interesting work in the next several years from all levels of the entertainment industry.

To sum up: 

Go see it. 

In 3-D. 

Already saw it?  What did you think?

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