Friday, August 21, 2009

Manifestation Destiny

If there was money to be made, I’m sure at some point in the future the major studios will try and convince the cinema-going public that film viewing is best experienced by having everyone stick their heads in a bucket of sewage garishly coloured with food dyes, which is then hit repeatedly with weighty sticks. If that fate awaits us it means that in the meantime the shit has to remain smeared up on the screen. But to make us see it in all its glory, the big new gimmick is to get it in our faces in glorious 3D.

If stereoscopic cinema really is a valid artistic endeavour then surely it would only be used where necessary. Instead this growing shower, soon to become an utter deluge, simply boils down to Hollywood’s latest effort to crack down on piracy and make more money. Whether this works remains to be seen but today everyone got the opportunity to be hit in the face with an early shit pellet in advance of what looks like the massive turd being squeezed out later in the year.

Today was Avatar day. Being one of the lucky ones who didn’t have a ticket to see the 15 minutes of footage being screened exclusively at IMAX cinemas today, I had to make do with watching the teaser trailer that the article in today’s Evening Standard, which unbelievably took up two-thirds of page three, reminded me was now available online. Good or bad, at least it meant I could now visit the Apple website without that irritating countdown clock telling me how many days, hours and minutes it was until I could wallow in the majesty of James Cameron’s visual feast. Or not.

Was that it? Really? That was what we’ve been led to believe is spearheading the vanguard of a filmmaking revolution? Wow! No wonder the geeks at the recent San Diego Comic Con, which gives practically anything fantasy related a home field advantage, were warned not to raise their expectations. Of course I wasn’t watching it in three glorious dimensions and maybe that would make it far more aesthetically pleasing. But under the obviously archaic constraints of Quicktime it looked like utter dog toffee. An alien landscape that appears to have come straight off an old Roger Dean album cover? Oh, fuck the fuck off!

There’s an argument to be had that Cameron’s films have got progressively worse the more money he has in his war chest. Aliens remains an astonishing film considering the relatively minuscule $18 million dollar budget. Less money means having to be inventive. More money leads to indulgence. While these charges can be levelled at every filmmaker, Cameron’s work not only got more crappy but they got more sappy. This sentimentality never gelled comfortably with the more macho content of his films, which meant it felt like watching a brutal prizefight where the bruised and bloodied winner was then awarded a cute little kitten.

The Abyss worked when it racked up the tension between the disciplined Navy SEALS and the more easy going blue-collar workers within the partially flooded confines of their underwater drilling platform. Once the floaty aliens arrived it seriously plumbed the depths. Without them causing the submarine to pile into the rock wall at the beginning of the movie there was no story, but to have the undersea ETs ready to pass judgement on humankind’s destructiveness and then let everyone off because the estranged husband and wife admitted they still loved each other could have contributed to the audience contracting diabetes.

Terminator 2 may have been a little too slick and shiny for its own good but watching opposing robots maim, kill and then happy slap each other for a couple of hours makes for an entertaining diversion. But to hear Linda Hamilton’s character declare, “...if a machine, a Terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can too,” just before the credits rolled, meant that all the shootings, stabbings and shit being blown up real good counted for nothing when you had to shuffle out of the cinema gulping back a mouthful of your own sick.

So what to make of Avatar? The treatment had been knocking around for a while, long before the film went into production, so the basic premise is well known. Cameron has already gone on record as describing it as “Dances with Wolves in outer space,” and people have already flagged up the similarities to Return of the Jedi and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and FernGully: The Last Rainforest. Or you could check out the trailers for Delgo and Battle for Terra, both of which opened in the last year and made so little money they hardly appeared on the radar. Is this what $260-odd million gets us? Because wasting that kind of money on something so totally derivative is just utterly obscene.

If all Cameron is really concerned about is delivering a new and exciting visual experience, why didn’t he just create an extravagant amusement park ride? Yes, cinema is a primarily visual medium but there has to be more to it than just pretty pictures. We can go to an art gallery and sit in front a Monet or Rothko or Turner or Rembrandt for that. Every time Cameron sets out to push the outside of the filmmaking envelope he really should be reminded that before he starts tugging furiously on the money cock it helps to have a decent story that will be worth the effort that goes into making it. Otherwise “Avatar Day”, if it really is the future of movies, might just as well be called “We are so utterly fucked! Day”.


At 11:04 pm, Blogger wcdixon said...

Agreed...very underwhelming. They really shouldn't have bothered releasing a trailer, and hoped the 15 minute previews would've generated more positive buzz.

At 2:14 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I just think the idea of taking all this time and money and effort to come up with an original way of filmmaking and not bother to come up with an original story to go with it is just utterly contemptuous. They might as well have spent the money throwing a brick through everyone’s window with the note FUCK YOU! wrapped around it.

I know there wasn’t the sound effects to go with it, which can make a hell of a difference, but in the shot when the chap comes down the ramp in his wheelchair, the sort of armoured power loader suit off to his left didn’t seem to have any weight to it... the perennial problem of utterly cock CGI.

Watching it reminded me of the power loader in Aliens, built out of whatever materials were on hand and needing a bodybuilder inside to move it. Still, it gave the impression of a solid piece of kit. And, more importantly, it was something different.

I very rarely went to late night shows because of work the next morning. Back in 1986, I went to the special Thursday, midnight, screening of the film. Everyone was really getting into it, even at such a late hour. But well after two in the morning, when the Alien Queen closes in on Newt and Ripley appears in the power loader suit and spits, “Get away from her, you bitch!”, the audience went absolutely fucking nuts.

After having to get a Night Bus home, by the time I crawled into bed I had about three hours sleep before having to get up and head off to the studio. But it was worth it, because here was a film put together with ingenuity and hard graft. When it just comes down to just having the GB storage to fill up, who really gives a damn?

At 8:49 am, Blogger Stephen Gallagher said...

In every 3D film I've ever seen, I've only begun to enjoy it once I've managed to forget the fact that it's in 3D. Takes me until about 20 minutes in. Which tends to make me wonder - what's the point of that, then?

I utterly agree about Aliens. A good, tight, well-told story with wit, pace, and heart. And I love the much-imitated and stirring shot of the rescue craft surging up into view right behind Ripley at exactly the right moment - it's hardly the best optical work, but that doesn't mater because it's flawless theatre.

At 3:32 pm, Blogger Good Dog said...

I’ve seen very little in 3D because it tends to give me a headache. Rather than engaging me in what’s going on, wearing the damned glasses distracts me from the plot, which sort of misses the point. Although nowadays there are far too many instances where the plot seems to be the least essential element.

Even for its time the back projection in Aliens is particularly lousy in places. In fact there are instances where it wouldn’t be that incredible to follow one with the clip of the white Jaguar bowling over the cliff and exploding in flames when it hits bottom.

Still, the rest of the effects work extremely well and, for the money, very inventively produced. And of course at its heart, Aliens is, as you say, a great story, well told. And that’s what counts more than anything.


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