Monday, January 11, 2010

Bad Movie Night: Avatar (IMAX)

My Wife and A Tale of Two Planets

Over the weekend, the wife, The Machete and I were finally able to get get tickets for the Imax version of James Cameron's Avatar. Both The Machete and I were blown away by "our" version of Avatar and its innovative 3-D effects which left us feeling immersed in a beautiful, living alien world.

The Wife, however, suffers from a serious Astigmatism - a holdover from childhood surgery to correct a lazy eye (which reappears when she drinks too much). Her movie experience was much different, to say the least, as she was unable to experience the new 3-D technology. Her 2-D version of Avatar was a rehashed conglomeration of Dances with Wolves, Titanic, Aliens, and Fern Gully among others.

The Machete and my version of Avatar:

Like this, only REAL

I had heard nothing but good things about this movie over the last few weeks from several of my most trusted sources, including my friends over at LastBestAngryMan and Soul Kerfuffle. In fact, SK, who hates all things involved with going to the movies (and fun in general) said the experience reintroduced him to cinema when a little girl in the audience tried to reach out and grab a floating wisp.

In my opinion, my friends, many critics and the boatloads of money Avatar is taking to the bank are dead-on correct. This movie introduces game-changing film technology. Instead of just sitting back and watching a 2-D story take place on screen, the 3-D film places you on a moving platform where you watch live-action theater in an alien world. The landscape, characters, creatures and technology are all beautiful and very real. This isn't your parent's 3-D movie experience.

The three dimensional effects were accomplished using new camera technology and techniques created specifically for Avatar. It's impressive. My personal favorite involved strapping cameras to the "alien" actor's heads to capture their facial expressions while they performed. This footage was then digitally enhanced and applied to the CGI characters to great effect. And by "to great effect" I mean the alien Na'Vi looked as real and emotionally complex as any live actor I've ever seen in heavy makeup. The 3-D aspect adds not only dimensional depth, but emotional depth to the characters as well; you can distinctly see how they feel because the transfer from "real" actor to "CGI" actor was so crisp.

This is impressive. Also, The Machete had some very "descriptive"
opinions of both Zoe Saldana and Neytiri. I will not go into detail.

The story itself was interesting, yet not particularly new, and you can see where it draws directly from other sources for inspiration. LBAM told me of a conversation he had with SK regarding this. They agreed (I think) that to use this technology effectively, you couldn't really have a shiny new story - you need something familiar so the groundbreaking effects aren't lost. I agree wholeheartedly.

Tangent Warning: somewhere along the line, James Cameron went to a movie exec and said something like "Hey, can you finance my next movie? I'm going to remake Dances with Wolves in space with a touch of Fern Gully and the robot suits from Aliens, except with giant machine guns. Oh yeah, it's going to be $300,000,000, CGI and in 3-D." And they greenlighted it. Hollywood, home of swinging for the fences, but I digress...

The casting and performance followed in step with the plot. Every major character's performance was strong enough, but also very familiar - no iconic character boundaries were broken. Don't think of this as a negative - I think this again was intentional. The new technology highlights the ability to turn recognizable actors playing recognizable roles into something far more (and Sweet baby Jesus does it).

I feel the best example of this was Sigourney Weaver who just about stole every scene she was in, both human and alien versions, while doing what she does best - delivering smartass, poignant dialog. However, the digital production crew was able to take the recognizable Weaver and turn her into a 10-foot tall, blue alien version of herself. The power of the 3-D technology is clear when you realize the Na'Vi version of Weaver has the exact same familiar smirk and swagger as the real version - every expression was captured and transferred with minimal (if any) error.

The Machete also had similar opinions about Sigourney
Weaver as one of the Na'Vi as he did about Zoe Saldana.

Beyond the comfortable characters and familiar story, however, the setting was the star of this film. The lush world of Pandora in Avatar, when viewed in all it's three-dimensional "holy crap that's CGI" majesty, is absolutely mesmerizing. At times you almost feel like you can reach out and touch one of the glowing wisps flying by your head or feel the moss under your feet. As I said above, you feel like you're on a moving platform traveling through an unfamiliar yet exotically beautiful alien terrain.

All in all, I think this was the point of having all the familiar plot lines and characters (and even the score, which The Wife pointed out). Taking these recognizable aspects and putting them in a new, foreign, yet realistic 3-D environment highlights just how impressive this technology is. It can take stories and characters we know and remodel them to involve the audience where they actually feel like they're in the movie. It truly takes a Thor's Hammer to the reality line.

The Wife's version of Avatar:

This is pretty much what my wife saw.

30 seconds into Avatar, I leaned over to The Wife, adorned in giant yellow 3-D glasses and heard the phrase I was dreading: "this isn't working for me." She was worried for the weeks leading up to the movie that she wouldn't be able to use the 3-D glasses. That unfortunately turned out to be the case because of her astigmatism.

Instead of being transported to the gorgeous jungles of Pandora, she sat in the theater next to me watching yet another "outsider learns from people he's supposed to infiltrate" movie similar to Dances with Wolves. Instead of seeing the way new dimensions added to the CGI characters' expression and emotions, she saw more computer animation on par with Gollum from Lord of the Rings trilogy. Instead of seeing how the colors blended and moved together, she just saw lots of fluorescents and brights on a flat screen. Instead of experiencing something familiar in a completely new and original (and at times mind-blowing) light, her eyes just hurt.

In other words, while sitting in the audience, she missed Avatar. Trying to explain to her the "point" of the technology is like trying to explain certain colors to someone who is colorblind - they just can't perceive it. And that sucks because it was awesome. Yeah, The Wife, I am talking directly to you!

Seriously though, and all joking aside, I hope that there is a way for people with an astigmatism to begin to experience this technology soon because they are really missing out on a directorial tool that can make the audience feel like they're in another world. And since WETA (pretty much Peter Jackson's personal effects team) worked with this technology on Avatar, you have to hope they'll use it for The Hobbit. And I don't want to keep trying to explain to The Wife how cool Smaug looks.


At January 19, 2010 at 12:13 PM , Blogger Merik said...

I too suffer with astigmatism, which probably explains why I didn't get on so well with the 3D either. Not so bad as you describe your wifes experience but it still caused be discomfort and eye strain.

That being said, I still really enjoyed it. So much that I really want to see it again in normal 2D so I can enjoy the film withouth the distraction of the eye strain and occasional disorientation.

I'm not trying to have a go at 3D cinema, far from it. In principle I think it's brilliant, it just doesnt work for for my eyes.

My point is, that I think that you sell Avatar short if you say it needs to have the 3D to be any good. It is a magnificent visual spectacle in either format. Yes, it's a story that's been done before, but it it's still a good one.


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