This’ll Ruin My Day: James Cameron Goes Down the Digital Rabbit Hole in Avatar

Avatar movie poster

 

Avatar is the perfect distillation of all of James Cameron’s worst tendencies: an obsession with marines (while trying to have it both ways: worshipping the hardware and lingo, but casting them as villains), embarrassingly heinous dialogue (undercutting every dramatic moment with somebody droning flat one-liners like “oh shit” or “this’ll ruin my day”), a token wise Latina available for cleavage and wisecracks (Michelle Rodriguez, more wise than most of the white and/or blue people, anyway), a greater interest in technology over people (both on screen and behind the scenes), and a core anti-war message contradicted by glorified slaughter and explosions.

If Cameron had a purpose in mind for Avatar other than as a showreel of the latest technological breakthroughs, it seems to be an endorsement of violent protest. If so, the civilian population of Iran might find something of interest here. More the pity the Na’vi didn’t happen to be green, in which case critics might be discussing the film in terms of current events instead of being distracted by the shiny special effects masking the soulless narrative and blank acting (with the significant exception of a very funny Giovanni Ribisi and especially Zoe Saldaña, who manages to make an impression despite not technically appearing on screen — as a conventional photograph, anyway).

Yes YesStory Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s sleeve for Yes’ YesStory on the left, scene from Avatar on the right.

The official Avatar talking points require mention of the sundry technological breakthroughs that come tethered to every Cameron film, mostly having to do with computers. The Terminator (1984) and Aliens (1986) were relatively quaint in their utilization of models and stop-motion animation, but The Abyss (1989), Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991), and Titanic (1997) each debuted incrementally advanced computer animation techniques, for the first time fully integrated with live action photography. I clearly recall watching T2 with an audience gasping and applauding in amazement during a shot in which the liquid metal robot T-1000 (Robert Patrick) literally turned itself inside out. There’s nothing in Avatar to compare to that communal moment of delighted awe in 1991; my 2010 Avatar audience oohed and aahed during the first 3D effects visible in the attached trailers (mostly for disposable kiddie movies like Despicable Me), but our eyeballs were already beaten into submission by the time the main feature rolled, and the packed house sat silently through the 162 minute-long barrage of computer-processed flim-flam.

I’ll spend a paragraph on the positive: Steven Soderbergh, who previously collaborated with Cameron on Solaris, reportedly said after seeing the film that “There’s gonna be before that movie and after“. It is inarguable that Avatar marks the tipping point in at least two key filmmaking techniques we’re certain to see even more of in the immediate future: 3D photography and virtual filmmaking (the congruence of photorealistic CGI with motion capture, basically a turbocharged update to the old practice of rotoscoping). The superlative 3D is applied equally well to both the live-action and animated sequences (indeed, most of the film is a melding of the two). It’s more refined and subtle than any 3D film I’ve seen before, including U23D, Beowulf, and Coraline, all of which resorted to in-your-face showing off common since the early days of The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Dial M for Murder (1954). Meanwhile, the motion-captured CGI characters are even more smoothly integrated with live-action photography than previous high-water marks like the T-1000 in T2, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) in George Lucas’ Star Wars prequel trilogy, and Gollum (Andy Serkis) in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. And that’s not even to mention the startlingly detailed and immersive computer-generated backgrounds and environments.

Yes Keys to Ascension Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s cover for Yes’ Keys to Ascension on the left, Avatar on the right. As artist & filmmaker Dave McKean rightly opined on Twitter, “Roger Dean should sue!”

The other big talking point is of course its staggering expense. It’s hard to remember now, years after Titanic’s box office receipts broke records worldwide, but its $200 million budget was originally an object of ridicule and put the very existence of two vast corporations at stake (20th Century Fox and Paramount). Avatar inflates the accountants’ calculations to the insane level of circa $237 million, but Cameron’s instincts appear again to have been right; Avatar has already (at this time of writing) earned a billion dollars worldwide, a mere two weeks after release.

As guest Dork Reporter Snarkbait wisely predicts, 10 years from now Avatar’s special effects will be laughable, and all that will be left is the story. And when that story is a warmed-over retelling of the European conquest of America (more recently retold in Terrence Malick’s The New World and as SlashFilm notes, Disney’s Pocahontas) set in a sci-fi world seemingly stolen from the paintings of Roger Dean, isn’t the hundreds of millions of dollars worth of technology and years of production all for naught? It’s impossible not to compare this folly to the Star Wars prequels, made long after Lucas fell down the rabbit hole of obsession with filmmaking technology and no longer had anyone around him willing or capable to say no. This Dork Reporter happened to watch (500) Days of Summer and Up in the Air right before and after Avatar, and can attest that there is no substitute for good writing and acting. People will still be rewatching films like those long after Avatar is forgotten.


Official site: www.avatarmovie.com

Must read: The blog Papyrus Watch catches the use of the cliched font in the movie logo and subtitles. Papyrus was designed in 1982 and is now commonly found preinstalled on most computers.

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The Only Child: Neil Gaiman’s Coraline

Coraline movie poster

 

I saw Henry Selick and Neil Gaiman’s Coraline on its opening day in my favorite movie theater, the best possible venue to see any remotely visually ambitious movie: the Clearview Ziegfeld in New York City. Fittingly, my tickets were misprinted “Caroline,” a misnomer that is a recurring plot point.

Coraline was written and directed by stop-motion animation genius Henry Selick, whose patient and precise hands also created the utterly mad pleasure The Nightmare Before Christmas (often erroneously credited to Tim Burton, who produced). As if Coraline needed any finer pedigree, it was based on the fine novella by Neil Gaiman. Gaiman is a longtime Dork Report favorite, at least since my buying the very first issue of The Sandman new off the rack in 1989 (read my account of having books signed by Gaiman and Ray Bradbury). Coraline and his later The Graveyard Book are both ostensibly aimed at “young adults,” which I guess means whomever is old enough to understand most of the words. Such a categorization is more about marketing and the convenience of knowing where to shelve titles in bookstores and libraries, anyway. As is also the case with his children’s books The Day I Swapped My Dad for Two Goldfish and The Wolves in the Walls (both illustrated by frequent collaborator Dave McKean), they’re all basically for anyone that likes to read.

Dakota Fanning in CoralineCoraline traverses the portal into John Malkovich’s brain

Gaiman, once famous for possibly having the record for most unproduced projects in Hollywood, has been tearing up the movie biz of late. Just to name a few highlights, he wrote the script for McKean’s sumptuous film Mirrormask (read The Dork Report review), had his fantasy novel Stardust (originally illustrated by Charles Vess) adapted into a film by Matthew Vaughn, and co-wrote the brilliant script for Robert Zemekis’ Beowulf with Roger Avery. As is his custom now for all his pending projects, Gaiman has been blogging and Tweeting about the Coraline adaptation all along, a process rudely interrupted by his winning the Newbury Medal for The Graveyard Book. His mantle is now officially groaning under the weight of all his trophies, medals, Very Important Prizes, and suchlike.

Gaiman was not directly involved with the making of Coraline (beyond being on good terms with the filmmakers and making the occasional consultation), but was pleased the finished product and especially with how well it was marketed by Weiden+Kennedy. Frequent readers of his blog will be familiar with how he blames Stardust’s relatively disappointing box office (in the US, anyway) with a marketing campaign that misrepresented what the film was actually like (the precise analogy he used went something like “more Princess Bride, less Ella Enchanted”). But I feel that this kind of heightened level of communication between artist and audience made possible by the internet might sometimes be too much information. Close to the release of Stardust, I recall Gaiman urging readers to see the film on opening weekend or even opening day if at all possible, the narrow window that in today’s movie industry determines the perception of success or failure. This time around, he made a point of mentioning that Coraline’s production company Laika had basically bet the entire farm on the film. I have been working for movie companies for years and am familiar with perpetual job insecurity. I was happy to go see the film right away anyway, but I would have rather not worried about whether or not I was protecting someone’s job. Thankfully, Coraline appears to have performed above expectations on its opening weekend, and all is well.

John Hodgman in CoralineThe Other Father gives us our 3D money’s worth

Apologies for the rambling preamble. On to the movie: Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) and her family move into the ground-floor apartment of a crumbling rural house. Her parents are busy gardening writers without the time to actually garden, let alone to pay much attention to their only child. Coraline’s biggest problem is that she’s unhappy at being so often left alone. I suspect that most overprotected kids whose parents take them to see this movie will have trouble identifying with a kid who has too much freedom.

The residents of the neighboring apartments are at least as eccentric as those of The Sandman’s The Doll’s House. Russian acrobat Mr. Bobinsky (Ian McShane), may or may not be training rodentia to take part in a Mouse Circus. Coraline gets off on the wrong foot with unloved oddball Wybie (Robert Baily, Jr.), who takes his name from “Why be born.” British comedy duo Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders appear as Misses Spink & Forcible (two Gaiman-esque names if there ever were any), a pair of well-aged actresses living in the basement.

Coraline discovers a long-forgotten doorway hidden behind furniture and layers of wallpaper. Not unlike the very similarly diminutive door in Being John Malkovich, it is a gateway to another world. Whereas the portal to Malkovich’s brain resembled the gross inside of a digestive tract, this one is part cobwebby cave and part glowing funhouse tunnel. On the other end of the door is another, better version of Coraline’s milieu. In the real world, no one gets Coraline’s name right, but in the Other World, everyone knows her. She is well fed, the garden is a luxurious Eden sculpted in her image, her bed is made, and her toys are new. But alas, her Other Mother (Teri Hatcher) has constructed this enticing simulacrum just to ensnare her. Coraline is about to abandon the real world for this coddled existence, when she is given the price: she must sew buttons over her eyes. This is point in the film when adults squirm and kids squeal with delight. Creepy, creepy, creepy!

Teri Hatcher and Dakota Fanning in CoralineThe Other Mother serves Other Omelettes for breakfast

Roughly the first three-quarters of the film is genius-level setting of tone, character, and atmosphere. It falters only when a rigid plot structure appears out of nowhere and forces the narrative onto fixed rails. Cat (Keith David), the only other creature that can travel between worlds, tells Coraline that the Other Mother likes games. This key characteristic would have been better shown than told, for Coraline is able to turn the tables by simply challenging her to a game. The Other Mother immediately acquiesces, and is apparently unable to resist a game in the same way that the mythological Sphinx can’t resist a riddle (a plot point that also figures in Mirrormask). Coraline’s challenge is equal parts game and bet: if she can find the five souls The Other Mother has trapped before her (her parents and three other children), she must release them all. Finding three hidden objects hidden in different virtual worlds is a classic video game scenario. Coraline has no shortage of other MacGuffins to lose and recover, including a key and an Eye Stone (a magical jewel fortuitously provided by the actresses). Indeed, a tie-in videogame exists, which no doubt doesn’t have to stretch the story to structure its own narrative.

Also disappointing are the three children the Other Mother has already captured. Their trio of cutesy voices that compliment and encourage Coraline are the most conventional aspect of the film, not in keeping with the rest of the film’s enjoyably macabre tone. But actually, maybe this all makes sense… the kids are definitely not as bright and spunky as her, for she alone has the brains to escape and defeat the creature.

Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in CoralineThe comedy stylings (and alarmingly large bosoms) of French & Saunders

Stop-motion animation is one of the oldest filmmaking techniques, but Laika (based in Portland, Oregon) and Aardman Animation (makers of Wallce & Gromit and Chicken Run) are still making films more dazzling than the most advanced CGI. The reason is quite simple: you’re looking at moving photographs of physical objects crafted by human hands. Like Beowulf, Coraline is being shown in many theaters in 3D. If possible, the technology seems to have improved even since U23D (read The Dork Report review), let alone since the 1950s. But as animated movies such as The Incredibles (read The Dork Report review) and WALL-E (read The Dork Report review) have proved, all the technology in the world must play second fiddle to a good story.

Gaiman has been saying in interviews lately that his books for kids are creepier than his novels for adults (including American Gods and Anansi Boys). In keeping, Coraline the film is wonderfully deranged, weird, and twisted. By far the eeriest sequence is the opening credits, featuring the hands of a creature we later learn is the Other Mother, ritually disemboweling a puppet and reconfiguring into a simulacra of Coraline. Watchdog site Kids-In-Mind nearly goes into meltdown counting the discrete instances of violence and disturbing imagery, and expect to read a great many reviews cautioning parents to keep sensitive kids away. But I suspect most kids will love this film, and will probably be better off for having their imaginations poked and prodded in ways that safer pap wouldn’t. One of the reasons I love movies is to experience the mad visual imaginations of directors like Selick (and Burton, McKean, Terry Gilliam, Michel Gondry, Tarsem, etc.), and it’s a good thing “kids'” movies like Coraline are here to warp youngsters minds early.


Official movie site: www.coraline.com

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U23D

U23D movie poster

 

U23D is actually a fairly traditional concert movie, a mostly straight-up filmed record of a representative show of a single tour. U2 had already produced one theatrical feature film about themselves (1988’s Rattle and Hum), and released countless productions on video and DVD before and since. So what could have been just another video of the world’s most overexposed band needed to differentiate itself somehow. Turns out the latest 3-D technology filling a 40-foot screen consuming your peripheral vision is more than enough to justify its existence.

3-D technology has come a long way from what I remember as a kid, watching Creature of the Black Lagoon on TV with red-and-blue cardboard glasses. At first, the degree of depth is disorienting and headache-inducing, but before too long the brain and eyes adjust. Your perspective is not that of the audience but as if you were standing right on stage with the lads. Sometimes I felt as if I should have been holding a tambourine!

U23DIn a state called vertigo

The old songs I’ve memorized from thousands of plays on LP, tape, CD and now iPod are still great. The martial drumbeat to “Sunday Bloody Sunday” still sends chills down my spine, and I have to admit I even choked up a little during “Pride (In the Name of Love).” I was disappointed by the relative lack of songs from the band’s 90s “postmodern irony” trilogy Achtung Baby / Zooropa / Pop, but I now have a new appreciation for “Love and Peace or Else,” a new song from How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb that hadn’t quite made an impression on me yet.

Bono in U23DOne blind Bono sez: Coexist or else

I’m a longtime fan that has never seen U2 live. There was a frustration at every opportunity; if they weren’t sold out, I was too broke, sans car, or all of the above. So U23D made a kind of stopgap pilgrimage for me. U2 must be one of the only rock bands to ever preserve the original personnel for so long; here’s hoping they stick together long enough for another tour so I can see them for real.

Official movie site: www.u23dmovie.com