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Maybe I Don’t Want the Game to Change

January 4, 2010

“Game-changer” seems to be the favorite term to describe Avatar. Will this usher in a new era of moviemaking? Seamless integration of live actors and digital scenery, anything the director can imagine, and all of it jumping off the screen and right into your lap in three totally realistic dimensions? Maybe so, but the question I have to ask is, do we really want that?

Don’t get all up-in-arms, Avatar fans. I’m not saying it was a bad movie or that I didn’t like it. There were pieces of the story I could quibble with, but I still enjoyed it. For me personally, special effects are about the last reason to see a movie, but I won’t deny that this was an impressive visual experience. I just don’t necessarily want other movies to try to imitate it.

My two favorite movies of 2009 were Moon and The Hurt Locker, which were both fairly low-budget and limited-release. I’m not seriously worried that the independent filmmakers will totally disappear, but I do think that as Hollywood budgets go up, it gets harder for the small studios to reach an audience. This also impacts the independent theaters where those smaller films tend to live. Those theaters tend not to have the state-of-the-art projectors and sound that the multiplex chains use, so the risk is that the independent theaters and films become sort of ghetto-ized (if they aren’t already).

Ironically, I think there’s a parallel to be drawn between Avatar and the low-budget A Scanner Darkly, in terms of how the technology links to the story. A Scanner Darkly was filmed using rotoscope animation so it has a distinctive look to it. But the director didn’t use that technique just for the heck of it. The main characters are all basically on drugs, so everything they see is distorted and doesn’t quite look real. The animation gives the audience that same sensation, helping them identify with the uncertainties the characters face. Similarly, Avatar is about characters getting immersed in an alien world, and the 3D effects let the audience share that experience. You could frame the movie as being about how the avatar “pilots” who go out and experience the planet appreciate it more than the people who stay locked up inside and only watch out the window. In that way, the 3D basically tells the audience who the good guys are. Thus the technology has a valid purpose in this movie. That doesn’t mean that it would be valid, useful, or even desirable in most other movies.

The biggest argument against changing the game actually came during the previews before I saw Avatar. Every 3D movie I guess is obligated to have previews of upcoming 3D movies no matter what, but apparently the pickings were slim this time. After a couple of fairly benign animated movies for kids, they previewed a horror movie about piranhas. This thing looked spectacularly bad. The whole audience was basically laughing at it, although I don’t think it was a parody (and even if it was, it was more stupid than actually funny). But on top of that, the 3D effects were really poorly done, with stuff just floating all over the place instead of creating a true sense of depth. So what I’m afraid of is that the next wave of movies is going to have more piranhas than avatars.

This is not to say that no one should try to do what Avatar did. It’s good for artists to take risks and try new things, even if they don’t always pay off. It’s also not to say that we would be better off without an Avatar to raise the bar. I’m sure Michael Bay and friends are planning new extravaganzas to inflict on the viewing public, but they would be doing that regardless. Where the risk lies is with the Hollywood bigwigs who just have to make their mark on a project, who end up wrecking a perfectly good movie because they insisted that the director make it more like Avatar. That’s what I’m not looking forward to. So it’s not so much that the game is changing, it’s that new games are being added to the menu, and you need to recognize what game you should be playing.

As if anyone in Hollywood would ever listen to me.

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