Wait, let’s go back.
People don’t yet go to movie theaters, they go to Nickelodeons, chamber-sized screening rooms, where, for the price of a nickel, they can watch a variety of short subject films, ranging from vaudeville-inspired comedy sketches to documentary scenes of real-life (or “actualities” as they’re called). The shorts are shot simply, with as few takes as possible, from as few angles as possible, and the camera doesn’t move – it’s too heavy.
Then, in 1903, comes The Great Train Robbery. With this film, predating The Birth of a Nation by twelve years, director Edwin S. Porter introduces the world to the concept of film editing. Now, thanks to the advent of the cut, Porter can enhance both the narrative complexity of his movies (cross-cutting, for instance, allowed for temporal continuity between multiple storylines), as well as deepen the audience’s emotional response (through, say, a reaction shot). Suddenly, audiences aren’t merely outside of the action, they seem to be in the very midst of it.
One shot in particular, in which one of the bad guys fires his gun directly into the camera, caused a stir unprecedented in the history of motion pictures. Legend has it that audiences were so terrified by what they were seeing, that they shot up from their folding chairs and fled screaming from the theaters.
Of course, they weren’t in any kind of danger. They were in a small, boxy theater, surrounded by about a hundred other people. But somehow they believed it. Somehow, these presumably rational citizens forgot their rationality, and responded to what was happening on screen as if it were happening in reality.
Flash forward sixty years. During an early showing of Psycho in 1961, a healthy, middle-aged man, is so frightened by what he sees, he actually manages to upstage the shower scene by keeling over into the aisle, and going into cardiac arrest.
A year later, theater managers are getting complaints from ticket buyers that their cinemas are too hot. Will someone please open a window? How could they be expected to sit so uncomfortably through three and half hours of Peter O’Toole?
In 1997, like every other person, I went to see the Star Warsrerelease. In the middle of some sky battle, with spaceships zooming around overhead, the very attractive girl I took as my date, ducked. (We spoke once or twice on the phone after that.)
Well, now there’s Avatar, it’s 2009, and I’m certain we’ve been initiated into the next phase of believing the unbelievable. For those of us who aren’t astronauts, it will be the closest we’ve ever come to visiting another world. In the future, virtual reality technology will certainly outclass the technology at hand, but until then, James Cameron’s latest super-movie, will be the last word in illusion immersion.
Just take a look around you. Cameron’s world is so richly detailed and so biologically complete, at times it seems as though the voice of Sir David Attenborough might appear at any moment to explain to us, the believing audience, about the blooming patterns of this or that flora or fauna. (If the Avatar Encyclopedia hasn’t already been written, surely someone is hard at work, writing it right now.)
That said, when you see the picture, do yourself the favor of trying not to think too hard about it. In story, Cameron has situated us somewhere between Dances with Wolves and Blue Man Group, and if you’ve seen over six films in your life, chances are you’ll see the turns, as I did, coming miles away. It’s videogame logic; the characters are not individuals so much as targets, and the scenes aren’t so much dramatic as they are levels 1 though 10, and finally, the boss. But try not to think about it.
Try not to think about, as I did, the sad, almost poignant irony that, for all of the hundreds of millions of dollars Cameron spent on technology, trying to make Avatar the most dazzling cinematic experience possible, not three dollars of it was spent on the latte that might have helped him stay up just a little bit later to work on the rewrite.