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.