Sunday, January 10, 2010

Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades: Avatar


2-D or not 2-D, that is the question posed by Avatar – whether ‘tis nobler to let our minds suffer the projectile slings and arrows of the Na’vi in 3-D, thereby justifying the outrageous fortune spent by director James Cameron in his attempt to revolutionize that format, or to fold our arms in response to Avatar’s recycled yet supposedly groundbreaking gimmicky techniques, and by opposing them hope to end them. At least, I thought that was the question. Having seen the movie in both formats, however, I can confidently report that there should be no debate. Both versions of Avatar, obviously, are based on a screenplay by Cameron that includes some of the most cringe-worthy dialogue of the year. Both versions, obviously, are populated by B-movie archetypes that have barely a hint of B-movie charm. Both versions, obviously, involve a plot that is at times too similar to 1990’s Dances With Wolves, causing the movie to suffer not from a lack of originality so much as a dated racial sensitivity. Meanwhile, only one version of Avatar is, at least in places, an utter joy to behold, a rapturous spectacle. That’s Avatar in 3-D. In the standard 2-D format, Avatar is, well, flat.

Let me go no further without making it clear that I am stunned to be taking this position, which of course means that I was stunned by my reactions to Avatar’s 3-D and 2-D formats. Though raised on the original Star Wars trilogy, I am by no means a fan of excessive special effects, particularly if it’s CGI. (That’s probably part of the reason that I continue to adore that original Star Wars trilogy, by the way, because by today’s standards it’s refreshingly flesh-and-blood and brick-and-mortar.) Also, I am turned off by movies in which the story or theme seems secondary to special effects exhibitionism. If that weren’t enough, I’ve always been suspicious of 3-D, believing, as Roger Ebert articulated so perfectly in 2008, that any time an “object” leaps off the screen “it creates a fatal break in the illusion of the film.” Given those positions, Avatar didn’t seem to be for me, in either format, but especially in 3-D. Even if I wasn’t actively bothered by Avatar’s 3-D gimmickry, I figured I’d at least be indifferent to it. Instead, I was dazzled. Indeed, Avatar in 3-D reminded me of what it was like to discover those Star Wars pictures all those years ago. What I was seeing was rousingly out-of-this-world and surprisingly of this world at the same time. Avatar in 3-D makes the fantastic feel familiar.

That's why it works. Avatar avoids the assaultive projectile approach that is usually the format’s bread and butter. Cameron doesn’t seek to make the audience duck for cover. Not often, anyway. I flinched from a projectile exactly once, and the moment was there and gone so quickly that it hardly registered. Instead, Cameron uses 3-D to create depth, unfolding his adventure within a space that feels more like a stage than a frame. It takes a little getting used to, to be sure, but what’s clever about Avatar’s story – and this is the only praise I’ll give it – is that it works in harmony with the technology that brings it to life. This is, remember, a movie about a paraplegic Marine who is given the virtual-realistic experience of inhabiting a fully functional alien body. Thus, as we are getting our bearings, so is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Thereafter, the audience and the main character are likewise aligned in the exploration of the planet Pandora – each of us seeing something not quite like anything we’ve seen before. It’s a thrill for all parties. At one point Jake, in his avatar body, is running through the jungle, but he keeps falling behind his Na’vi friend, Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri, because he can’t resist his desire to touch everything around him. From an audience perspective, it’s hard to blame him. Pandora is genuinely exotic. We’re in no great hurry to move on either.

But this is only true in 3-D. In 2-D, Jake’s giddiness with Pandora is his alone. In the traditional format, Pandora doesn’t distinguish itself as something new but looks like almost every other CGI spectacle we’ve experienced over the past decade, and so the thrill is gone. In 2-D Pandora feels artificial. In contrast, Cameron’s 3-D compositions are so convincing – so, dare I say, realistic – that within 30 minutes I almost forgot I was watching a 3-D movie. (Note: I wear glasses to the theater anyway, so wearing a pair of 3-D glasses wasn’t a distraction.) I thought this feeling of normalcy might actually be a mark against the 3-D version and the price tag attached (as in, “What exactly am I paying extra for?”). But then I saw Avatar in 2-D and was astounded at how unconvincing it is. Indeed, the CGI characters and landscapes seem thin and weightless in 2-D. And whereas the 3-D Pandora has depth, the 2-D Pandora routinely has one dominant item in focus and a lot of blurriness beyond it (which is usually the knock against 3-D pictures). And so it is that in 3-D Jake and Neytiri effectively run along a massive tree branch as the rest of Pandora forms a dense and diverse backdrop behind them, while in 2-D Jake and Neytriti run along a shelf made to look like a tree branch as the rest of Pandora sits flat on a greenscreen behind them. The jaw-dropping difference between the two versions first announces itself in terms of visual legitimacy but then reinforces itself in terms of mental and emotional connectivity. Without the unusual sensory arousal of 3-D, the 2-D version of Avatar cannot overcome its lack of humor, Sigourney Weaver’s embarrassing performance or any of the film’s tragic dialogue. (Sometimes Avatar combines all three, such as the supposed-to-be-funny moment in which Weaver’s Dr. Grace Augustine, in a Na’vi body, looks at Jake and says “Who’d you expect, numbnuts!”)

I must make it clear, if you haven’t figured it out already, that Avatar’s potency cannot last. To see it in 2-D is to miss the very thing that makes it special, which means that once the Avatar leaves theaters (for the moment the only place most audiences can experience the film in 3-D) it’s as good as dead. But Avatar’s short shelf life is attributable to more than just that. Right now the movie wows due to the preeminence of its 3-D techniques. As soon as another movie surpasses Avatar’s 3-D magnificence, this movie will seem uselessly primitive. Oh, Avatar will live on, as a sometimes rousing little adventure fantasy, but it will be just that. It will no longer be exceptional. (Cameron must enjoy his time on the mountaintop while he can, or get busy looking for higher summits.) And yet, for all the movie’s faults, which I suspect will only become more apparent and legendary over time, Avatar will always be special to me for a very significant reason: This is the movie that convinced me that 3-D can be more than just a gimmick. It’s the movie that convinced me that, yes, 3-D is the future. Don’t get me wrong, 2-D is the future, too. It won’t go away, nor should it. But after spending years thinking that none of my favorite 2-D movies could be improved in 3-D, now I’m not so sure. In Avatar I don’t see an all-around great movie. I see the next cinematic frontier. I will no longer pretend to know what we'll find there.

14 comments:

Tony Dayoub said...

"...as we are getting our bearings, so is Jake Sully..."

Exactly why I thought the same as you did. To see this deeply flawed film in 2D is to entirely miss the point of it. Cameron has made the first film where 3D is absolutely integral to the story, not simply an enhancement of it.

Still, as you echo in your review, years down the road when the effects are commonplace, this movie will only be remembered for its innovation, not for anything deeper than that.

And I will remember it for the wonderful moviegoing experience it turned out to be, not anything richer than that.

Craig said...

Aye, Jason, your splendiferous review casts us both in agreement. I've seen Avatar in only 3-D, and I wrote that it was a fun "experience" that I surmised would be less impressive as a regular "movie," suspicions you confirmed. (To be fair, I've read others who have enjoyed the movie in 2-D.) I was as impressed by the added dimension not just on Pandora but in scenes like the one near the beginning when Sully awakens from hibernation in an endless zero-gravity corridor. Avatar showed me the possibilities for this kind of technology, which like everything else will undoubtedly be used for both good and mediocrity.

Hokahey said...

Indeed, the CGI characters and landscapes seem thin and weightless in 2-D. And whereas the 3-D Pandora has depth, the 2-D Pandora routinely has one dominant item in focus and a lot of blurriness beyond it (which is usually the knock against 3-D pictures). And so it is that in 3-D Jake and Neytiri effectively run along a massive tree branch as the rest of Pandora forms a dense and diverse backdrop behind them, while in 2-D Jake and Neytriti run along a shelf made to look like a tree branch as the rest of Pandora sits flat on a greenscreen behind them.

Wow! My experiences with both formats were completely the opposite of what you describe above. I wonder if 3-D quality differs according to theater. But I asked a lot of my students who saw it at different 3-D locations, and they said that the images were darker, the colors were less bright, and some of the background images were blurry - which was my experience with 3-D.

The 2-D images didn't seem flat to me. The colors were much more dazzling. I felt the foreground images really stood out and the background images were appropriately sharp.

I agree with Ebert. To me, 3-D is a distraction, and I had enough to enjoy here without a gimmick. With all its silly dialogue, I enjoyed Avatar. I enjoyed the jungle, the creatures, the Na'vi, Jake Sully's exhilaration with his physical liberation, the floating mountains, the flying banshees, the Na'vi on the warpath. I had fun - but not with 3-D.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the thoughts, fellas.

Tony: Cameron has made the first film where 3D is absolutely integral to the story, not simply an enhancement of it.

That's very well put. Maybe that's what surprised me about the 2-D version most of all -- it wasn't how flat the visuals seemed but how empty the story itself suddenly became.

Craig: Avatar showed me the possibilities for this kind of technology, which like everything else will undoubtedly be used for both good and mediocrity.

No doubt about it. And, at least for the start, I'm sure it'll be used for mediocrity more than anything. It's easier. But Avatar made me imagine the possibility that, say, 20 years from now we might have to come up with new lingo so that we can talk about how the 3-D film fills its "stage" rather than just its "frame," to keep with the words I used in my review. I think Avatar can still mostly be thought of in "frame" terms. But assuming this is the tip of the iceberg, and that 3-D will become cheaper, thus allowing for more artists to experiment with it, the future could be mind-blowing. (Heck the present is mind-blowing, because I can't believe I'm saying this about 3-D.)

Hokahey: I'd seen your comments on another blog suggesting that you vastly prefer the 2-D version. I have no doubt that's true, but I can't even process that, to be honest. The thing about Avatar's 3-D is that is isn't a gimmick. It serves the story. (Ebert, long-time blaster of 3-D, gave it 4 stars. Of course, he gives almost everything 4 stars these days. Never mind.)

As for the differing qualities by theater: I suppose it's possible you saw a poor 3-D version. I can only say that I expected to find the 2-D version to be brighter, and instead felt there was little to no difference, and that the depth of the 3-D made the colors richer (brightness often means thinness, when it comes to CGI). Also, I was surprised to see that the fast-action bits that seemed a little blurry in 3-D were almost equally choppy in 2-D.

I will say that there are some scenes where Avatar is more or less the same in 2-D and 3-D. But when it comes to images showing the exploration of Pandora, it's no contest, to my eye. As I said in the review, in 2-D the greenscreen trickery is obvious. In 3-D the world they're running through feels more like a genuine place.

Obviously we'll have to agree to disagree here, but I'm taking the opposite approach from you: I must see this film again in 3-D to erase the disappointing experience of 2-D.

Hokahey said...

You're right. Our eyes just see differently on this one. Seeing it in 2-D after my 3-D experience, I was blown away by the colors and the sharpness of the images.

But here's one thing we can agree on. Indisputably, the most cringe-worthy moment in the film is when Weaver in her avatar struts up to Sully and says the numbnuts line. And since they overdid her teeth, she looks frightening.

Daniel Getahun said...

Awesome post, last sentence, and title.

But I echo - rather sternly - every word Hokahey says in both of his comments.

Like you, I was so skeptical of 3D from prior experiences (even though Coraline actually "worked" for me) that I saw (and admittedly loved) Avatar in 2D first, just to get a viewing under my belt. In the back of my mind, while watching it, I knew there were scenes that must have been enhanced in 3D. Unfortunately, when I saw it in 3D they just didn't pop.

I believe part of my problem is eye tracking and focus. Some people's eyes remain focused on the center of the screen or the the focal point of a shot, both of which are enhanced greatly in 3D. Other people's eyes (I think mine, and Hokahey's) automatically frame the entire picture. It's like we can't see the trees, only the forest, so when the 3rd dimension is added and images within the frame are in different foci, our brains go haywire. At least that's what I was trying to figure out throughout the whole 3D experience. Unfortunately I was just so distracted by my own thoughts that I would mentally leave the film for what felt like minutes at a time.

Hokahey said...

Daniel - Jason -

"Other people's eyes (I think mine, and Hokahey's) automatically frame the entire picture. It's like we can't see the trees, only the forest, so when the 3rd dimension is added and images within the frame are in different foci, our brains go haywire."

That's how it was for me. The most protruding 3-D images were sharp - but the rest was blurry. It was a disorienting experience. For a time I watched it without the glasses; at least then the image was brighter.

Edward Copeland said...

You have received the Kreativ Blogger Award. Details here.

Anonymous said...

Congratulations to the Cooler for the blog award. I really loved this particular review and discussion even though I did not like the film at all. My first reaction after leaving the movie was "I wish I could have those three hours back."
That said, the discussion here made the time worthwhile. I found the story boring, an amalgam of rehashed movies, almost stereotypes and the dialogue-- awful. But here's why I liked the conversation here-- how did your eyes watch this? Who sees the forest for the trees or the larger frame, who can take the 2D vs. 3D? For me the only cool parts were the bugs in the forest, the detailed minutiae that reminded me this would not be possible if it weren’t in 3D. I guess it was what The Wild Things Should Have Been with a better story.

Jamie Yates said...

Jason--

Excellent article.

I'll admit, with a tinge of embarrassment, that I'm one of the few people who have seen Avatar only once, and in 2D, no less.

I received a lot of criticism from my friends who made the claim that the film is only worth seeing in 3D. But I lost so much patience with Cameron's dialogue. "We're not in Kansas anymore," "unobtanium," and pretty much everything that came out of Michelle Rodriguez's mouth. Again, my friends/Avatar supporters said I was making too big a deal out of it. But as a writer, my ear for dialogue is sometimes what I subconsciously focus on the most. For all the beautiful images (2D or otherwise), I was irked by the recycled throwaway lines.

Thanks for making me feel less alone on that issue. I guess I just needed to vent.

Jason Bellamy said...

Jamie: Though there are some holds outs from sensory challenged folks like Daniel and Hokahey (kidding, fellas), the 3-D experience really covers up a lot of the open wounds of the dialogue. Actually, it's like novocain: you're aware that the dialogue is cutting into your skin, but you can't feel it.

Your comment reminded me of something else ...

A lot of people have ripped Cameron for the "Kansas" line. Apparently they think it's too dated for the futuristic setting. OK. Fine. Except that seeing Avatar in 3-D is a lot like going from the black-and-white opening of Kansas into the Technicolor world of Oz in The Wizard of Oz. So that line isn't uninspired dialogue; it's an apprpriate allusion.

Of course, you have to see the film in 3-D for that line to have any meaning.

Hokahey said...

"Though there are some holds outs from sensory challenged folks like Daniel and Hokahey..."

Don't worry; I take not offense whatsoever. I am only responding because something occurred to me the other day BEFORE reading your comment above.

A theory: I'm extremely color blind when it comes to distinguishing adjacent colors. I totally fail those color-blindness tests in which you need to decipher the number in the midst of all those different colored dots.

I've just done some brief research on Google and the best answer I get is that people who are color blind "SHOULD be able to view 3D with the polarized system" but perhaps not with some other systems. "Should" is not definite.

Believe me, my eyes saw the 3D as blurred, dark, and colorless. I was fine with 2D - and what I saw was spectacular enough to get the full impact of the "Kansas" allusion.

Mercer Finn said...

I have to sound another discordant note I'm afraid. I've only seen the film in 3D, and to tell the truth the effect was so subtle I could hardly tell the difference. You get enough depth from shadow and perspective, Imo. 3D looked like a very blunt tool in comparison, and it didn't convince my eyes. Worse, the floaty / pointy bits in the foreground distracted attention away from the scene. And also: 30% colour loss is no insignificant problem.

I suspect I would have enjoyed the film a lot more in 2D, although 'enjoyed' might be too strong a word when it comes to Avatar....

Jason Bellamy said...

Mercer: Thanks for the comments. The 3-D and 2-D definitely has folks divided.

You mentioned a 30 percent color loss. Is that an established result of Avatar's 3-D to 2-D switch? I ask because I expected the 3-D version to look dark and murky, and yet I thought it looked fine. Then, seeing the 2-D version, it didn't look brighter to me. Thinner and flatter, and in that way lighter but not more vibrant. I was surprised by that.