As James Cameron’s indigoid epic Avatar wraps up its top-spot domination of the box office charts, and more nominations and awards are heaped onto the ones from the Foreign Press Correspondents et al, a certain question comes to mind:
Did anybody besides me notice that the thing looks like total crap?
Yeah, I know; it’s hard to avoid reading all the breathless techno-porn about the legions of networked CGI geeks buried head-deep into their wraparound monitors on Jimmy’s Farm, the state-of-the-art computer banks tirelessly crunching the numbers through the long Malibu nights to line up the pixels on every digitized frame of the movie, the custom-built 3D gear, on and on, like the shipping invoice for some modern do-over of the Normandy Invasion.
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A vision comes to mind, of the Titanic-like boilers beneath Cameron World Headquarters, stoked by sweating interns with shovelfuls of bundled hundred-dollar bills. Wouldn’t it have been a savings to the U.S. taxpayer to have put Jim in charge of the war in Iraq and Afganistan? If half the electronics used in making Avatar had been shipped overseas, al Qaeda and the Taliban, not to mention their families and friends, would all be flopped back on their La-Z-Boy rugs, mesmerized by their new 55-inch flat-panel displays and around-the-clock cable transmission of UFC bouts and the Disney Channel. Too late, the money’s been spent ...
And at the end of the day, or at least the movie, all those hundreds of millions seem like an awful lot to have spent for something that looks like a video game. The only thing missing was the gun barrels at the bottom edge of the screen, to have completed the resemblance to any number of first-person shooters from the Xbox rental rack at Blockbuster.
There’s a general consensus that director Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture disasters, from The Polar Express to A Christmas Carol, represent the low end of digital imitating real life. Granted, there might never have been much of a difference between Jim Carrey and an animated department store clothes dummy, at least in terms of talent, but Tom Hanks was once a verifiable human being (less so after The Da Vinci Code, admittedly), and it’s hardly pleasant to experience him stuffed into the kind of child-traumatizing on-screen zombie that creates full employment for psychiatrists for decades to come. So sure, Cameron’s mega-Smurf Na’vi are better than that—but they’re still closer to the stilted Zemeckis scarecrows than to anything that ever actually drew breath in a non-digital world. By about a mile.
“But the visuals are so impressive! And in your face!” Whether Cameron’s screenplay is sinister, communitarian, carbon-footprint-obsessed propaganda or a profound meditation on why guilty white liberals should feel even guiltier as they finger the price tags at Pottery Barn, it gets a free pass based on the supposed on-screen gorgeousness. It’s all so magical—at least for audiences with a debased definition of magic.
Direct your attention to Oasis, a 2002 Korean film directed by Lee Chang-dong. I won’t bother with a spoiler alert, since if you’re the kind of person who’s interested in this kind of movie, you’ve already seen it. And if you’re not, you probably never will.
If there are any digital effects in Oasis, they’re about enough to have been programmed with an app on James Cameron’s iPhone. Much of the film is a grueling experience, revolving as it does around the relationship between a low-IQ petty criminal and a girl whose body is twisted and near-paralyzed by an advanced case of cerebral palsy, portrayed by an actress similarly afflicted with the disease. (The casting is an extreme version of having Marlee Matlin act the part of a deaf character.) At one point, the feckless boyfriend drags the girl onto a commuter train for a day out. Contorted against the train’s window, the girl is just able to glimpse from the corner of her eye another young couple; the other girl playfully bops her companion on the head with an empty soda bottle. And then—magically—the first girl’s affliction ebbs away, and she stands up and moves with the normal grace of any human being, as she smiles and laughs and bops her own companion on the head. It’s a stunning, astonishing moment, and as you watch, it puts you another world, a real one, more effectively than any amount of 3D opticals ever could. You wonder how it’s possible, until you realize that of course the young Korean actress (her name is Moon So-ri) didn’t actually have cerebral palsy at all, but so convincingly depicted it that when she let the ruse drop, you were pulled into another human being’s deepest wishes and longings.
The computer banks in James Cameron’s basement can murmur forever, stitching together the bright, glossy bits of non-existent planets, like a sweatshop for diminished souls. And they still won’t be able to produce a single, flickering instance of the magic that somehow leaks through the screen when there are actual human beings on the other side of it.