I saw the most awesome tech demo reel tonight — a little show called Avatar. It was well worth the admission cost, but you should be prepared with reasonable expectations.
There isn’t a plot. Well, actually, there is…but it’s so predictable that they might as well have left it out. It’s a wish-fulfillment fantasy on rails. Don’t worry about it, as long as you don’t expect to be challenged or surprised, it’s fine.
There are good guys and bad guys, and the good guys are really, really good, and the bad guys are really, really bad. Like straight from the associate of arts degree program at the local Cartoon Villain College. When there’s nothing else to do, they blow things up that gain them nothing but universal loathing. They also have standard cartoon villain military tactics, which usually involves sending in swarms of moronic foot soldiers to accompany their high-tech airborne missile platforms and act as targets for the defenders.
There is a climactic battle scene that puts the Ewok’s Battle for Endor to shame.
You get the idea. Don’t go in to the theater looking for cleverness or wit or even, dare I suggest it, intelligence in the story. But it’s OK, I heard several ten year olds behind me cheering at key points.
The planet Pandora is the real star, anyway, and it’s inhabited by strange alien creatures that exhibit some real creativity in their design. Except, unfortunately, for the protagonist aliens, who are basically human beings stretched out to be 8 feet tall and with lovely golden Keane eyes plastered on, but otherwise follow our body plan pretty much exactly, right down to the toenails. If I saw that situation for real, I’d be an intelligent design creationist, because it’s obvious that the intelligent aliens did not evolve from the animal stock on that world.
I kept wishing that the makers had shown a little bravery and made the aliens alien. Some of the animals had this creepy slick black epidermis, for instance, that looked like a mucous-covered wetsuit; why not drape that over the aliens instead of the pretty blue skins they had? Most of the alien animals also had an interesting complex dentition with a lipless covering — again, be daring and make the aliens look like something that you wouldn’t ever want to kiss. District 9 did it, and got away with it — the aliens in that movie were definitely different.
But then, this was a demo reel. They were showing that they can get awfully close to realistic human performances with computer graphics, and this was a story about native Americans anyway, not really about aliens on a different planet. And it actually pulled it off: the characters were impressive and expressive.
Speaking of which, one thing I was wondering about was that the aliens, and in particular the lead female character, were hot: lithely sexy, and barely clothed. It had me wondering what kind of rights the lead actress, Zoë Saldaña, has retained to the image. After all, it’s clearly her, despite the distortions of the alien form, and that image is now in a great big digital bucket on some computers somewhere, and could be trundled out and reused in other films. I imagine it would be valuable information to the porn industry, which you just know is itching to get its hands on that technology. There must be some kind of legal protections for digital likenesses being hammered out somewhere, because one thing this movie is going to do is start making that potential problem acute.
I’ve been belittling the movie, but it really wasn’t that awful. It’s a phenomenal demonstration of a technology that will let movie-makers create anything on the screen, where all the stories are told by geeks and nerds with very sophisticated machines. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of Star Wars: an absolutely enthralling experience on its opening day which completely changed the look of all science fiction films to come, which changed the way the movie industry worked (for good and bad), and which used visual spectacle to help us overlook the silly story and the embarrassingly bad dialog.
Now we can look back at Star Wars, especially with the aid of the hideous prequels, and see that a lot of it was pure crap movie-making. Avatar is in the same situation (although I hope it isn’t mined out making a series of increasingly terrible sequels) — but it’s also got the shine of some magic in it.