The <i>Avatar</i> Age

Is James Cameron’s blockbuster beautiful? No more than Grand Theft Auto.

“James Cameron’s Avatar is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years,” wrote the New Yorker film critic David Denby, going on to call the $280 million showcase of the latest in computer graphics and 3-D entertainment “lovely,” “luscious,” “freewheeling,” “bounteous,” and “strange.” And so, with visions of unprecedented aesthetic experiences in my head, I braved the mob at the neighborhood megaplex, donned stylish 3-D glasses, and prepared myself to be wowed.

I was initially captivated when the hero, Jake Sully—a paraplegic whose consciousness had been transplanted into a lanky, blue alien body—made his foray into the jungles of the planet Pandora and discovered the magical flora, like those pinkish flowers that telescope out and suddenly shrink down to nothing. Pretty, I thought. And then came the first chase scene, in which Sully was pursued by a saber-toothed tiger or the local variant of a mastodon (I can’t remember which). But once the action took off and the clichéd plot kicked in, I grew less impressed. The 3-D was kind of cool. But not beautiful.

In the New York Times, Dave Itzkoff wrote that Avatar “has been criticized by social and political conservatives who bristle at its depictions of religion and the use of military force; feminists who feel that the male avatar bodies are stronger and more muscular than their female counterparts; antismoking advocates who object to a character who lights up cigarettes.” He quoted Rebecca Keegan, author of a biography of Cameron: “It’s really become this Rorschach test for your personal interests and anxieties.”

Me? I walked out of the theater concerned about the devaluation of the word beauty. I felt cheated. At first I thought maybe beauty wasn’t truly attainable in an animated film. After all, Pixar-style animation annoys me, and I bet if I watched Fantasia today I’d be disappointed. But then I remembered Richard Linklater’s 2001 film Waking Life, in which a young man appears to walk through an unending lucid dream, having deep conversations with everyone he meets. It didn’t shatter any box-office records, but, God, was it beautiful. And Ari Folman’s 2008 animated documentary, Waltz with Bashir, about his experience during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, was devastating, brutal—and beautiful. What those films have in common with Avatar is that they use technologically sophisticated animation techniques to make them more lifelike. Waking Life was made with an old process called “rotoscoping”—first used by Max Fleischer and in vintage Disney cartoons—that was jazzed up with Macintosh computers. A new software allowed animators to easily draw on top of live video footage, creating an uncannily lifelike cartoon. Bashir was also based on live footage, but it was reinterpreted, rather than drawn over, by the animators, who used software like Flash for special effects. Cameron relied on something he called “captured performance,” in which the physical movements and facial expressions of live actors are fed into an animation system so that the inhabitants of the computer-generated world are made convincingly alive. But though Linklater and Folman succeeded in making the real world look exotic, Cameron managed to make an alien world look oddly familiar.

And that was the real problem. I’d been to Pandora, or someplace a lot like it, before. Maybe Denby, like most grown-ups, hasn’t had much contact with the world of computer games. If he had, he would have understood that the world depicted in Avatar is not so special. He might have recognized the weird veracity and equally uncanny soullessness of the graphic approach. I’m not a gamer, but I’ve visited some postapocalyptic worlds on an Xbox and know that many of the best games employ the same technique as Cameron’s, although it’s more commonly called “motion capture.”

Still, I’m not sure that beauty, per se, exists in the computer-generated world, but I remember a time when I thought it might. About 20 years ago, the term “virtual reality” was coined, and we started seeing pictures of the computer pioneer Jaron Lanier, a roly-poly, dreadlocked man wearing a strange piece of headgear and waving a pair of awkwardly gloved hands. He was experiencing life inside a computer-generated environment for the first time. Lately, the only people I’ve seen hooked up to computers in that rather cumbersome way were the actors in Avatar. HBO’s behind-the-scenes documentary about the movie shows Sam Worthington and Zoë Saldana saying their lines while wearing goofy electronic helmets.

Lanier himself has just resurfaced. I heard him on the radio the other day promoting his new book, You Are Not a Gadget, and arguing that online social networking is inherently dehumanizing. I picked up the book and noticed that Lanier waxes nostalgic about the dawn of VR, when he and his cyber pals coaxed rudimentary digital worlds into being. “Of course, there were bugs,” he reminisces. “I distinctly remember a wonderful bug that caused my hand to become enormous, like a web of flying skyscrapers.” Back then, it was all free-form, open-ended—experience for the sake of experience. And there was no plot. Now, Lanier complains, “Full-blown immersive VR is all too often done with a purpose these days. If you are using VR to practice a surgical procedure, you don’t have psychedelic clouds in the sky.”

Maybe what Lanier experienced during the early days was beauty, but we don’t hear much about VR anymore. It has been displaced by things with more clearly commercial applications, like computer-generated imagery. The world Lanier thought he was making, where free spirits in clunky headsets would frolic among the polygons, didn’t happen. What we got instead were millions of moviegoers wearing 3-D glasses, deeply immersed in a very creaky, manipulative story. Or millions more kids, engrossed in computer games.

The one game I actually enjoy is Grand Theft Auto. Now in its fourth iteration, this game is hugely and justifiably controversial for its casual violence. In it, you pick an avatar—perhaps the gangster Tony Prince or his bodyguard, Luis Lopez—and roam the streets of an obsessively detailed New York City, stealing cars, shooting people at will, and creating mayhem. Despite the violence, I’m fascinated by the game, because of its depth and, yes, beauty. As in Waking Life and Waltz with Bashir, the creators of Grand Theft Auto take the world we know and recast it with such manic ingenuity that we are able to see the city, its architecture and its street culture, in startling new ways.

Recently, my favorite 15-year-old gave me a master class in Grand Theft Auto, and I tried my best to steal cars and shoot people. But the thing that really gave me a thrill was finding the Roosevelt Island tram and riding it across the East River. (Typical, right? I play Grand Theft Auto and wind up taking the loopiest form of mass transit.) My instructor liked the helicopter that could be called up at will. He made Lopez put on a parachute, fly to the top of the Empire State Building (called Rotterdam Tower in the game), and jump off without opening his chute. He sailed through the air and went splat on the pavement. Which was not a problem, because, like the pivotal figures in Cameron’s movie, Luis was just an avatar.

The movie Avatar is breaking box-office records because it takes the computer game—a $20-billion-a-year industry in the United States alone—to the next level, trading in the handheld game controller for a direct cortical hookup. It’s successful because it reflects and amplifies the already familiar experiences of every adolescent gamer. Jake Sully, the paraplegic hero, stands in for the legion of couch potatoes who can only perform amazing acts of physical bravery and prowess through computer magic.

Read more about this story on the March Reference page.

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