Thoughts On “Avatar”

posted 3.29.2010

Given Hollywood’s dislike for all things digital, James Cameron’s AVATAR is not adding another Best Picture Oscar to Cameron’s mantle. Kathryn Bigelow’s HURT LOCKER won the day handily.

But an Oscar for AVATAR would’ve, somehow, seemed beside the point. True, AVATAR is a dazzling visual creation. But is it really a forerunner of a new course in movie-making, or is it rather, as I suspect, a bridge to a new, mutant format for storytelling?

(By “mutant” I mean no disrespect. Movies are themselves mutants, as are comic books, novels, plays, and anything else that wasn’t spoken over a campfire or painted on a cave wall.)

It’s no big secret that Hollywood is hoping to bring people back to the movie theatres with 3D. Our home entertainment systems, with all their plasma screens and Bose speakers and Blu-Ray imagery, have made watching movies at home luxurious. The trip to the local Cineplex feels more like a schlep than an adventure. Theatre business is hurting. They’re looking for fresh magic to bring to the silver screen, and many pin their hopes on taking spectacle to a new level by way of making the big rectangle infinitely deep.

Yet 3D is likewise infinitely explosive. And there’s the rub. As much as the elements drop away from the viewer, they surge forward. Watching AVATAR, I found myself uncommonly aware of the boundaries of the screen. It was as if I were watching it through a closed window, not allowed to open it and poke my head out and look around. I found this frustrating, and as much a reminder of cinema’s limitations as an expansion of its capability. For some reason, it doesn’t bother me when a horse exits screen right in BEN HUR, but it’s damn distracting to have a big blue Avatar guy jump right at me and get cut off by the movie screen’s edge. “Hey!,” asks my snake brain, “where’d he go?”.

I’m not saying we should let Cameron’s innovation go to waste. I’m just suggesting that it doesn’t entirely work on a rectangular screen, that maybe Cameron’s created something that demands a new delivery system. Maybe massive, dome-shaped screens like those in some museums, the kind that almost fill the eye’s periphery? Those don’t entirely work for me, either. I keep following stuff till I see other people sitting all around me, shattering the illusion altogether. Or maybe something along the lines of a virtual-reality helmet or set of goggles. No distractions there. But wouldn’t that rob the whole movie-going experience of its sense of community? The one thing theatres have over home systems is the crowd, with all its laughs, hoots and hollers. You’re not going to find them in a sound-proofed helmet.

Or are you?

A lesson I’ve learned in writing science fiction is that the best way to predict the course of technology is to make a wish. We humans make wishes come true. That’s why we drive horseless carriages and land on the moon and look at other galaxies and talk to each other on cordless phones straight out of STAR TREK. If we have Twitter and videogames we can play with people in Zimbabwe, why not fiction delivered by a virtual-reality sensory-input system that we can share with whatever community we choose to put together?

I’ll bet something’s coming that’ll blow our minds.