Saturday, January 9, 2010

Raising the bar

I just went and saw the movie Avatar.  For those who have not seen it, some of the following information will be a spoiler, so if you really want to see it and have not, you may want to not read.

This movie really raised the bar for all movies that come after it, the same way that movies like The Matrix or Goodfellas change the way we look at a particular kind of movie.  After The Matrix you couldn't just release a kung fu action flick without being compared against it, usually unfavourably.  The same with mob movies, although you might go see a mob movie and think it was good, there is always going to be the note in the back of your mind that it was pretty good, given that it wasn't Goodfellas.

The 3D aspect of Avatar is the main thing that really puts it above all previous contenders.  I have seen 3D before and normally it is used to throw scary things in the faces of the movie audience to make them jump.  While this gets a reaction, it isn't something that is going to make a lasting impression.  The difference with Avatar is that the 3D is simply part of the background.  Things that are closer to the camera appear closer and the world blends together in a way that feels tremendously real.  They movie doesn't attempt to bludgeon the viewer with the new technology but simply builds a tremendous visual scene using the tools on hand, and the result is fantastic.  The scenes are beautiful and it makes you feel like movies that don't use this are going to eventually fade away.

There are some other great points though, particularly in the storytelling.  Most science fiction movies end up with some really clunky lines in them where the people in the movie tell the audience the ridiculous pseudoscience behind their futuristic lives, but Avatar skirts these issues neatly.  Firstly it uses lots and lots of technology that we could build today if we really wanted to but would be hideously expensive and fragile and just hands that out all over the place.  It feels like a ton of innovation and improvement went on over the years from now to then but you don't get the feeling like nothing makes sense or they are making stuff up as they go along, all the tech fits.  I imagine by the time we can navigate easily to other star systems and set up bases there that technology will be practically unrecognizable when compared to what we have today, but using technology that is at least entirely understandable and believable to a person living today makes the world a rational place where the viewer can empathize with and understand the character's actions.

The exceptions to this are few, firstly the basic premise of the movie which is that a few people can climb into high tech machines and take control of avatars which are large biological bodies crafted by man.  They essentially become this new creature and feel entirely at home in their new bodies.  The key to the success of this is that the movie makes no attempt whatsoever to explain the science behind it.  They give a explanation of how it works and it is easy for the viewer to follow along with what is going on, but the clunky, ridiculous make up science is just not there.  Hooray!  I often lose the immersion in a science fiction movie when the hero sits down to explain to the audience how their technology works and I end up grimacing at the abuse of known scientific fact.  The technology and its limits are pretty crazy, but the movie takes the right road in simply telling us that this works, this is how it works, just accept it and move on.

The other major exception to the 'science makes sense' theme is that the world of Pandora has some really weird biology going on.  There are some things there in the biology of the native peoples that are really crazy and some of the physics of the various locales are a bit beyond what we would expect, but nonetheless Avatar handles it well.  They give a few very broad explanations of how these things might work, but don't try to belabor the point or make outrageous things up.  The scientists in the movie pretty much say "Well, this stuff is crazy, and here is some really interesting things we found that could explain it, but even then we will have to do all kinds of studies to get a sense of what is going on."  Perfect!  Give us a bit of justification and then just move on with the story.  The balance of scientific explanation and "Just accept it and look at the amazing visuals!" is in the right spot, and that is rare.

To give you a sense, Wendy saw Avatar with me and said that the biggest scientific gaffe in the whole movie was when one of the characters picked up a pipette and held it the wrong way.  Now being in the home of a scientist I know that a pipette is a thing to move small amounts of substances from one container to another.  I still couldn't have told you what scene that pipette was in and the idea that I would notice that it was held wrong it pretty ludicrous.  This was the *biggest* scientific fact that they got wrong from her view.  I gotta say, if the worst thing a scientist can say about your science fiction movie is "One of your characters held a scientific instrument the wrong way in one of the scenes" you really have to be doing something right.

So, go see Avatar.  It is one of those movies that is going to be a benchmark against which other movies will be measured and is a truly new movie experience.  Also, I liked it.  The story hits pretty hard with the "corporate greed and dismissal of native rights are WRONG!!!!!" message, but that doesn't stop the characters and story from being a ton of fun.  Note that I agree with the message being delivered, but any time a moral message comes delivered by a big fat baseball bat it can cause havoc with storytelling.  Thankfully the rest of the movie works well given that context.  Remember, only 3D in the theatres, so don't wait to rent if you want the real experience.

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