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Jose Antonio Vargas

Jose Antonio Vargas

Posted: December 21, 2009 03:28 PM

With "Avatar," Technology Has Never Looked So Human in Film (VIDEO)

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Technology has never looked so human in film.

After all the online buzz (some good, others bad), after all the focus on box office receipts (as ever, Deadline's Nikke Finke has the most comprehensive run-down), after all the attention on whether Hollywood's reigning techno-geek could create a worthy successor to his Oscar-winning, record-shattering "Titanic," "Avatar" snowballed through the pre-winter snowstorm of 2009. James Cameron didn't just make a sci-fi epic. He's created a wholly believable, realistic world, at once marking a new cinematic era and expanding the possibilities of film in our technology-dependent, digital entertainment-driven 21st century. From here on out, movies will be divided into two epochs: B.A. and A.A. Before "Avatar," After "Avatar."

Asked where "Avatar" stands in the history of technology and movies, Roger Ebert, a film historian and arguably the country's pre-eminent movie critic, wrote me in an e-mail: "It inaugurates the next generation and raises the bar. A milestone in the same sense as 'Star Wars.'"


For decades, Ebert has been a skeptic of 3-D technology; while blogging about the animated movie "Up," which premiered in 3-D at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, he wrote that 3-D is a "marketing gimmick" aimed "to justify higher ticket prices." But last week, Ebert led the throng of critics who raved about "Avatar," the largest 3-D release in movie history. Cameron's baby, more than 10 years in the making, is "not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that, " Ebert wrote. "It is an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation."

Because people are talking about it, especially in the virtual water cooler that is the social Web. The hashtag #Avatar has been a trending topic on Twitter for days; early Friday morning, on the day of the film's release, @walkercd tweeted: "If the snowstorm takes me this weekend it'll be because I left the house to see AVATAR." In a decade that's been marked by countless innovations in special effects -- from "The Matrix" series to "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy -- there's a sense that, too often, technology is showcased for technology's sake. You can almost hear the director shout from behind the camera, "See, look at what I can do!" The story takes a backseat to the technology. That's not "Avatar." Cameron's use of 3-D is the "best I've seen -- and more importantly, one of the most carefully-employed," Ebert wrote. "The film never uses 3-D simply because it has it."

It's not just critics who've run out of superlatives to describe the experience. Michael Arrington, founder of the industry insider blog TechCrunch, declared "Avatar" as the "the iPhone of movies" -- a real game-changer. Like Arrington, I lined up on Thursday night at the first midnight showing of "Avatar." I was in the San Francisco Bay Area, home to Silicon Valley, attending a conference at the University of California-Berkeley. It was a packed theater -- and, surprisingly, a mixed crowd. There were as many young women as they were young men, many of them sporting their Cal gear. A few minutes into the more than two-and-a-half hour film, when we first see Jake, the former Marine who's a paraplegic, take his first steps on Pandora as his nearly ten feet tall, blue-skinned avatar with a tail, a bespectacled student in front of me yelled: "Oh man, this is much better when you're drunk."

I wasn't drunk. But I did notice, as I looked down my notebook and jotted down some notes, that my jaw had dropped. Literally. It was breathtaking, the sheer beauty of the images on screen -- alive, vivid, seemingly touchable. There's a "thereness" to the action, fleeting and fantastical but somehow also grounded and natural. As others have noted, the story is not new -- it's part "Pocahontas," part "Dances With Wolves" and all the more relevant given the recent climate summit in Copenhagen. At one point in the film, Neytiri, the princess of the Na'vi tribe, tells Jake, her inevitable love interest, as they walk the lush, layered land of Pandora: "All energy is all borrowed. One day you have to give it back." But the new technologies that are used in service of the story -- shot with cutting-edge "Simulcam" camera, with live action seamlessly mixed with CGI imagery, among others -- has revolutionized film-making as a technical art form. And one with a heart. After all, what has distinguished Cameron's movies, from "The Terminator" to "Aliens," are the human stories behind the technology. Take the pulse rifle-carrying, gender stereotype-breaking Ellen Ripley.

"Too much is being said about the technology of this film. Quite frankly, I don't give a rat's ass how a film is made," Cameron told The New Yorker's Dana Goodyear, who wrote a 10,400-word profile of the 55-year-old, Canadian-born director. "It's an emotional story. It's a love story. They're not expecting that. The sci-fi/fantasy fans see the trailer and they think, Cool -- battles, robots. What you really need to get to is, Oh, it's that, too."

Let's leave aside the money haul; judging by the strong word of mouth online, "Avatar" should break the $1 billion mark. Let's forget the awards and accolades; this won't be the last time you'll read the words "Oscar" and "James Cameron" between now and March 10. (And if Cameron and "Avatar" are not top contenders for "Best Picture" and "Best Director," respectively, then the Oscars deserve the consistently low ratings it gets.) What Cameron has achieved, quite simply, will outlast any award and box office report.

James Cameron, Hollywood's reigning techno-geek, has humanized technology.

***Here's the latest extended HD trailer***