Saturday, January 8, 2011

One Year Later: Avatar

It seems a bit hard to remember that Avatar is just one year old; for some reason it feels as though it, and the 3D revolution that it spawned, has been around for at least a couple of years now. 3D has had a bumpy ride this year, as we've seen the box office numbers evolve over just a nine or ten months from 3D means we'll make an extra $20 million! :) to Shitty 3D doesn't actually mean our movie will do any better :(. We're almost at the end of that hump, or so we can hope; by this time next year, it's hard to imagine that movies will be coming out with post-conversion 3D; the 3D camera tech has theoretically penetrated the filmmaking community to the point that natural 3D will be dominant for films that choose to utilize the technology.

But if 3D has had a bumpy year, that doesn't mean that Avatar did. After its launch on December 18, 2009, Avatar spent a full eight months in theaters of various sorts, racking up $2.76 billion dollars in revenue worldwide. For comparison's sake, the second highest-grossing film in history, Titanic, managed to make around $1.84 billion dollars at the box office, putting it almost a billion dollars behind Avatar. Avatar also relied on the American marketplace the least for its record haul, with just over 27% of its total revenue coming domestically, the lowest percentage of any of the top 30 all-time grossing films. That's not to say that the American audiences didn't dig Avatar, mind you; even with that paltry percentage, the film is still the #1 all-time film in America, beating Titanic by $160 million dollars, or, in other words, making 25% more money than James Cameron's earlier film did.

On its one-year anniversary, the staff of Screened decided to take a bit of time and reflect on the successes and failures of Avatar, since the film came out well before we started our little endeavor. (True story: the Avatar page was our proof-of-concept for movie pages before our site launched. Read on for our thoughts, and be sure to comment below to join the discussion.

Rorie Says:
The numbers related to Avatar's grosses might be difficult to digest, but that's perhaps thanks to a film that is relatively simple to understand. It's easy to mock Avatar for being Pocahontas in Space, but there's obviously nothing wrong with Cameron's drawing from history to plot out a film. What surprised me about Avatar's success was the magnitude of its popularity when it was a stridently anti-colonial and anti-war film in the middle of what seems to be an immensely divisive era of world politics. The notion of a film about an invading force being frustrated and ultimately defeated by the scrappy locals being released, at a time when that outcome is still quite plausible in, say, Afghanistan, and then becoming more popular by far than any film that had been released henceforth, is surprising; when the film depicts the locals as being the moral superiors to the occupying forces, well...

Of course the film does simplify things a bit: the fact that only Michelle Rodriguez' character, among all of the Marine forces on the planet, is willing to act in a moral fashion and disobey an order to slaughter hundreds of innocents, is a bit of a cynical statement on Cameron's part, and one that doesn't lend his argument much credence. This is a film about Black versus White, Good versus Evil, with nary a shade of grey in-between; a recipe for popularity, perhaps (see: Star Wars), but not for fostering intelligent discussion. Cameron seems an intelligent sort, but his films do tend to the epic fights between absolute good and absolute bad, with Avatar perhaps being the apotheosis of that trend. They are, in the end, money-makers on a hyperbolic scale, and interesting artifacts of the early days of CGI (when you consider that there are hundreds of years of films yet to come), but they also seem destined to be footnotes in the histories that will be written about the films of this era.

Pope Says:
In the lead up to Avatar 's release last year, I'd maintained what could best be described as a steady state of cautious excitement. All of us are writing for Screened because we love movies, and I'll admit that love occasionally takes me weird places. Against every instinct in my body, I found myself strangely enjoying Avatar 's pre-release hype. I like the idea of films as events, and whether you love it, like it, or hate it, you can't dispute that Avatar was certainly an event. There's something about the excitement of what could be that's fun and makes you feel like you're going to be part of something special. Why else did people line up days in advance for Episodes 2 and 3 of the Star Wars prequels? They'd seen Episode 1, they knew it wasn't going to get better, yet they still showed up each time to see it opening night. It's why Piebald wrote that song, American Hearts, right? Hey, you're part of it.

So, sure, I bought into the possibility of Avatar being something damned special. And why not? Whatever the haters will say, James Cameron has a fairly unimpeachable feature film portfolio. Where would '80s cinema be without The Terminator, The Abyss, and Aliens?? (Or Michael Biehn's career for that matter...) These, along with Terminator 2 and Titanic, weren't simply big, stupid blockbusters, but rather films that pushed the envelope of what was possible in the medium.

More importantly to me, Cameron's movies were never afraid to be imaginative. Since the 1980s, fantasy/sci-fi movies have become rather passe, with a few standout exceptions, unless they're either deep contemplations on the nature of humanity, or supremely stupid video game adaptations. What excited me most about Avatar was the thought of a big budget sci-fi action movie that would take us to somewhere we'd never seen before, populated with creatures we'd never seen before. That's what Terminator, Aliens and Abyss did, in their own ways, and I love them so much for that. There should be a place for these types of films still nowadays, and Avatar was going to make that point for me.

So then it came out and I saw it. It definitely pushed the technical envelope with its use of 3D, CG, and motion capture. I've heard some argue that its use of 3D "wasn't that great", but that just doesn't hold water with me. It also introduced us to a new world and new creatures. Two for two!

The problem, for me, was with the goofiness of those creatures and their world. I had a hard time enjoying watching the Na'vi onscreen, let alone empathizing with and investing myself in them. Cameron's reliance on how "lifelike" his CG aliens were blinded him to the possibility that it's a lot harder to connect with a giant blue cat person than a human actor. Again, I don't mind using aliens in your movies, but if you imagine The Abyss done entirely from the underwater aliens' perspective, which Avatar basically is, it loses everything. CG being so good as to hold an adult's imagination for 2 1/2 hours without feeling silly is a cute concept, but we're not there yet unless your entire film is CG.

I will always have respect for what Avatar did, and I do hope it spurs Hollywood to take more chances on imaginative sci-fi tales. It's the type of movie I probably would have loved as a kid, and I get why it ended up being so popular. I just think that had Cameron focused a little more on the basics of storytelling we would have ended up with a much better product.

Andrew Says:
When I saw the first trailer for Avatar I was pretty unimpressed. Months later, I caught a new one that listed every big film James Cameron had done and I warmed to the project. I ending up watching it at the Navy Pier IMAX in Chicago, in 3D of course, and walked out blown away by what I had just witnessed.

James Cameron has always talked about putting asses back in the seats and Avatar accomplished just that. He gave people a real reason to go to a theater. I think that’s a point that often gets overlooked in discussions about the film. If you read my articles, you know I’m a little wary of the Netflix/home theater revolution that’s going on. I don’t doubt it’s the future, because anyone with any common sense knows it is. But, I think people actually going to the theaters is still extremely important for the business and filmmaking in general (I’m not going to get into reasons why, because that’s an article in itself). Cameron created something that you could never experience fully at home. I don’t care how big your TV is, or if it has 3D. Years from now, the industry will be thanking him for this.

I’ll be the first to admit that Avatar's story isn’t very unique or overly complex. That being said, I think it was exactly what it needed to be. The first silent, black-and-white films were basically one-note scenes. Even the stuff a few years later was still overly simplistic. The reason behind this was two-fold. First, the filmmakers were still trying to learn the medium, but more importantly, audiences were trying to adjust to this new type of storytelling. If you presented a complex story to the first audience to ever see a motion picture, they would have walked out confused and unhappy with the experience.

I think this same idea applies to Avatar. Cameron’s a smart guy and knew he had to win over a mainstream audience, because if he didn’t the film would have been a colossal financial failure. Audiences were already going to be in awe of the images they saw, so jamming a big story down their throats would have been too overwhelming. Sure, maybe it wouldn’t have been to some of you, but we’re talking about the masses in general. If you’re doing over $700 million at the box office, a lot of your business has to come from people who don’t see films that often. Cameron understood this, so he told an easy to follow story and let the visuals take care of the rest.

On the subject of the visuals, I’m with Pope. I think it’s a cop-out if you say you weren’t wowed by the 3D of the film, because prior to Avatar no one had ever done anything this immersive in 3D. The deep-focus shot of the Marines waking up from cryo at the start of the movie was worth the price of admission alone. Everything about this film was gorgeous to look at, especially the absolutely stunning scenery. My cinematographer friends constantly rave about how well it was photographed. Countless filmmakers were heavily influenced by the technology the film made use of and wanted it for their own projects. Most films, for better or worse, are coming out in 3D now because of the success of Avatar.

Lastly, I’ll just say that I really appreciated how much research Cameron put into the science behind the film. A lot of times filmmakers use creative license as an excuse to completely abandon believability in their stories. I’m a fan of those who can tell a fantastical story, while still grounding it in some measure of reality or scientific fact. Everything that you see in Avatar is at the very least scientifically possible on a theoretical level. If you don’t believe me, check out this Notre Dame professor talking about how the “floating mountains” weren’t that much of a stretch.

All in all, Avatar is one of those landmark films in cinema history that people are always going to look back on. It truly was a game-changer.

Alex Says:
I have an almost preternatural resistance to "event films." Same goes for massively hyped new bands, TV shows, video games, or anything else in the entertainment world. There is absolutely no good reason for it. I think it's a holdover habit from my brief turn as an anti-corporate teenage punk rock wannabe. I had the "Corporate Rock Still Sucks" t-shirt and everything.

For that reason, I resisted Avatar for a good, solid month past its initial release. All the talk of the movie's incredible visual presentation, thrilling action, revolutionary 3D technology, and whatever else was impervious to my barely reasoned and altogether stubborn refusal to accept that I needed to see a movie that everybody was seeing. I don't recall exactly what it was that finally got me to cave in. It wasn't even a particularly momentous event. I think I was in New York with my girlfriend, and the subject of seeing a movie came up. I believe I said something to the effect of, "I feel like we should probably see this at some point." I mean, with so many people still talking this thing up, and its likelihood of being the highest grossing movie ever growing by the day, I think I just came to a point where I felt like I needed to understand for myself what everybody was showering with endless superlatives. I needed to see the movie that even my most cynical film-going friends were talking up like the biggest, best thing ever made.

I'm still waiting to see that movie, by the way.

Sorry to be the giant sour puss of this feature, but Avatar to me is the very definition of all flash, no substance. That might sound weird coming from me, considering the fact that I just gave a fairly positive review to TRON: Legacy (which most certainly fits that definition as well), but the key difference is that TRON didn't feel the need to cudgel me into submission with three goddamned hours of the most base-level anti-colonialist, pro-environment messaging ever put on a movie screen. Avatar is like that really pretty girl you meet in college who, at the time, seems entirely worldly and interesting, until you realize that all her ideas and causes are largely regurgitated from stuff her professors told her and the stacks of Cliff's Notes books littering her dorm room. At least with that girl, you probably got to make out with her once or twice. All you get in Avatar is to watch some blue people plug their organic USB ports into each other.

Understand that I wanted to like Avatar. As I furrowed my brow at every stump-dumb thing said on screen, as I scowled at the charisma-vacuum that is Sam Worthington, as I slapped my forehead in disbelief at the ridiculous turn that turned JAKESOOLY from a pariah into the Na'vi's savior, I kept trying to focus on the positives and have some fun. Yes, this is an exceptionally attractive film. It is the best example of what can be done with digital world building, and the 3D is nothing short of exhilarating at times. But none of that prettiness really adds up into an experience I would ever want to see again. I am of the mind that when you set out to make a movie, specifically one that is a work of fiction, featuring actors (digital or organic) and a script of some fashion, you need to make the story compelling.

Note that I didn't say brilliant. I am more than willing to be taken for a ride with a story that's on the dumb side, so long as that story still remains compelling, be it through specific action, character moments, or just sheer fun. Cameron can be a very compelling storyteller. Even in his most action-oriented films, he has a gift for creating memorable characters and memorable events. Avatar has some memorable events, but mostly for the wrong reasons. I remember specific visuals--most notably that tree getting blown all to hell, and the evil army dude's mech suit with the bowie knife the size of a Buick--but I'd be hard pressed to recall any particular character moments or significant events that didn't stick out as a negative to me. Everything that happens in Avatar feels like a foregone conclusion, because it likely already was a foregone conclusion in other movies.

Of course, nothing I'm saying here means a thing. This movie already changed the game so many times over that any words I might have on the subject might as well be buried under the gobs and gobs of cash this thing raked in. I just felt like sharing my feelings on the movie, since I've never had a good opportunity to do so on the site. I have nothing but the utmost respect for Cameron's filmography, and I think that what he did in this film from a technological standpoint is every bit as revolutionary as people make it out to be. I just wish he'd put that technology into a script that was even remotely worth producing. Andrew's point about telling a simple story is a salient one, but simple doesn't have to mean brain dead--not to mention patronizingly messagey. As it stands, Cameron might as well have just put a giant text block on the screen that said ARMY BAD, ENVIRONMENT GOOD, made it 3D, and called it a day. Maybe it wouldn't have made as much money, but it probably would have saved a lot of time and effort, too.

Tom Says:
I have something of an unusual, semi-insider perspective on Avatar because I read the feature-length “scriptment” for it about five years ago. This was back during the period when Cameron had effectively abandoned the project in favor of his undersea documentaries and it was floating around the internet with the reputation of one of the best unproduced screenplays alongside the likes of David Franzoni’s George Washington, the Wachowskis’ Carnivore and David Lynch’s Ronnie Rocket. I picked the right time to read it because it was only a year or so later that the project was officially restarted and the legal teams started sending out cease and desist letters to whomever had the scriptment up.

Going back even further than that, I remember reading interviews Cameron did in American Cinematographer where he commented on his unusual decision to direct the T2 3-D--the “movie ride” at Universal Studios. He was intrigued by shooting in 3D because he figured it was the future of movies, reasoning that the only way theaters could put butts back in the seats and combat the threats of piracy and home video was to give audiences an experience they simply couldn’t get anywhere else.

Cameron said that in ‘96. A lot of directors claim to see the future; he actually saw 14 years ahead of time. The proof’s really in the pudding when the grosses of flicks like Alice in Wonderland and Clash of the Titans get a significantly boost from 3D shows.

Terminator 2 is my all-time favorite movie. I’ve seen it at least a hundred times. And Aliens and the first Terminator are right up there. While my imagination’s been shaped by those movies, I think my appreciation of Cameron’s filmography in total is more accurately described as a respect. I never really got into True Lies. I think The Abyss is kind of boring. I only saw Titanic once, enjoyed it well enough and never looked at it again. My experience with the Avatar scriptment was again a case of respect, not enjoyment.

I thought the concept of the world was highly imaginative, and the phantasmorgia of Pandora’s flora and fawna was quite impressive (there were twice as many creatures in the script as there were in the movie.) The story was a little too touchy-feely environmentalist for my tastes, though. I described it to friends as feeling like Dances with Wolves meets Ferngully by way of Starship Troopers and they all nodded, disinterestedly, only to make the same comments years later on their status updates. This was maybe the only time in my life where I’ve had the dubious accomplishment of my snark being ahead of the curve.

The movie itself was better than the scriptment I read. The broad strokes were basically the same, but the execution was much tighter. Cameron’s a smart guy and he has a canny ability to draw an audience into a new world with some safe and familiar identifiers (and no, the “going native” archetype definitely didn’t start with Disney’s Pocahontas.) It’s telling that he removed the edgier ending where Jake Sully makes a (bluffing) threat to the corporation not to come back lest he unleash terrible alien viruses on Earth. Becoming the highest grossing movie ever is probably hinged on keeping things mostly safe.

I’m talking about this more like a removed observer because, good or bad, Avatar simply didn’t capture my imagination. For my money, it was a solid thriller, but Pandora just wasn’t alien enough to make me feel awed in visiting it. Some wondered aloud if seeing it was akin to witnessing technological-breakthroughs like Star Wars or The Jazz Singer for the first time, but there was honestly never a showpiece that made me go “Holy crap! What am I watching?!?!” like I used to get every few months between entries in the Matrix, Lord of the Rings and new Star Wars trilogies. In many ways, it felt like a National Geographic Imax movies. Impressive? Yes. Educational? Perhaps. But there was nothing that stuck in my head after I walked away from that giant dome. I really wasn't even compelled to participate in any party conversations about it later--"It's white man's burden in outer space. Unobtanium is a silly name. Blah blah blah"-- except to say I was amused that millions a viewers had just watched a take-off of Hinduism's epic Ramayana without even realizing.

My real hope is that this has instilled enough confidence in studios to pursue original sci-fi content on screen. While that final frame of an Na'vi eye opening didn't get me jonsing for a sequel, I suspect (and want) Cameron to pursue some edgier material in Avatar 2 now that he's successful won over a world of casual viewers.

No comments:

Post a Comment