The future is so bright—wearing shades indoors on Pandora

Friday night I went to the Arlington Theater to see Avatar. Nearly three years ago in the same room, I saw James Cameron pass on the SB Film Festival’s Attenborough Award for nature films to Al Gore. Cameron had won the inaugural award for his 3D underwater films, which were as close as most of us will ever get to the deep-sea environments portrayed in those films. He invited Gore that night to carry on the tradition of the previous winner presenting to the next, which maybe why it hasn’t been awarded since. Too bad, as evidenced by Avatar, Cameron is a man of really big concepts realized in equally large efforts. Who knows what Gore could accomplish if he followed Cameron more closely.

While it is difficult to imagine with all the hype around the film, the fact is that the film is much richer, layered and remarkable than I had been led to believe by the many reviews I read and heard. Ken Turan of the LA Times called it “The Jazz Singer” of the 21st century, and that is a very fair and appropriate description. The rightfully detailed focus on the methods of production have overshadowed the story, itself is a remarkable product from uber geek and technologist Cameron. Like the Jolson vehicle, Avatar shows audiences and an industry the potential of the latest set of filmmaking tools.

The man who brought us new breakthroughs in aliens, time travel, robotics, undersea adventuring, and finally using CGI to let audiences experience the most famous episode of human comeuppance in recorded history (the Titanic disaster) is hardly who one would expect to spend twelve years (by his account) and over $300 million to send a message to humanity regarding our arrogant and ignorant ways here on earth. Complete with swaggering military types spoiling for a fight, corporate authority focused on the quarterly return, and “limp dick science types” Cameron delivers the message with full on battle scenes pitting the machines of war against the full spectrum of the natural world. The real mystery of Avatar is whether or not Cameron, like his hero, Jake Scully, will betray his species or the world of his own creation.

There has been no mention of this, but the coincidence of the film’s opening with the Copenhagen Conference on Climate is well, not so coincidental. Cameron, while not stinting on tons of geeky technology futurism, has invested far more in inventing a spectacular alternate world in which the interrelationship of beings on the planet Pandora are not just concepts of indigenous people’s spiritual beliefs or witchcraft, but a highly sophisticated symbiosis that is scientifically observable, if not understood. The film echoes multiple native peoples cultural traditions in evoking an idealized balanced society of all life forms, providing a observable if thin factual basis..

While criticism of the plot as predictable, and the dialogue stiff, you aren’t likely to notice. The exploitation of the 3D effect is nearly flawless, which given the paucity of expertise with such a toolset is really remarkable. The first sequence of flying is worth the premium price of the 3D admission alone. Whether or not Cameron’s expertise will be propagated to lower cost production remains to be seen, but the aesthetic bar for technical execution has been set very high.

Even more important to the industry is whether or not Avatar will prove the promise Cameron made to exhibitors and peers three years ago when he went to multiple trade shows exhorting theater owners and production professionals to join him in “saving the theatrical experience”. While 3D has shown an ability to bring out niche audiences who are willing to pay higher ticket prices, Avatar is the first 3D ‘tent pole’. Regardless of its ultimate gross return, the measure of its effectiveness in fulfilling Cameron’s promise is probably years away.

Thousands of people worked on Avatar, and all probably had to stretch their skills and selves to satisfy Cameron’s notoriously demanding direction. Yet all now possess a precious experience and skill set in what audiences will hope the Hollywood production marketplace will be demanding. To point out any of their achievements is to slight the rest, but it is impossible to ignore the accomplishments of actors who worked in the oddest of realities to create the key emotional elements that ground the story, and hold our sympathies.

While there are scenes in which actors actually performed in traditional sets, the compelling scenes are all in the CG world of Pandora. The innovations in what Cameron calls “performance capture” bring us further into an impossible environment than anything ever offered. Unlike Titanic, which used CG to represent an actual environment that audiences craved to see, but wouldn’t actually want to be in, Avatar takes us to a world that offers a realization of many common human dreams- flying for one, social integration for another. As I left the theater, I had the distinct feeling that I had just experienced a separate reality and wonderful dream.

If, as is suggested in the Wired magazine profile of Cameron, he was motivated to make Avatar out of jealousy born of seeing Star Wars, filmgoers have yet another reason to thank George Lucas, as well as Sony who first agreed to adapt their products to enable Cameron’s 3D experiments in the deep sea years ago. Cameron, one might guess, has already received his reward in being able to accomplish his dream. Validation by the market awaits, and I can’t suggest strongly enough that you make a point of seeing the film in 3D.
While I doubt that modern western civilization will suddenly attune itself and its ways to the natural world, as demonstrated by the denizens of Pandora, I am positive film fans will be eager to see the next filmmaker’s attempt to match its ambitions.

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