Avatar and the future of movies

posted 20 December 2009, updated 20 December 2009

One of the questions that has occurred to me more than once when I've seen things like a short film made for $300 that has better special effects than Independence Day is: where do movies go from here?

For the longest time, the difference between movies and television, for anything other than straight real-world drama, has been the quality of the special effects. Either just sets and props, or better lighting or sound, or in the case of science fiction and fantasy, whole characters and worlds. That's why it's been possible to endlessly re-make certain types of movies (like alien invasions), because every time you re-make one the effects have come so far that it's been another quantum leap in visuals.

For the last decade or so, the gap has been narrowing. For me it was particularly evident in the Star Wars movies, where episodes 1 through 3 came out in the mid-2000s, and then three years later random fan films came out with effects that, while visibly worse than the real thing, were not a million miles away, either. Big-budget TV shows like Battlestar Galactica had effects that were essentially of movie quality, without barely any quality gap. What would be the justification of a big-screen experience, a big-budget experience, when you could get the same thing at home? 3D was a gimmick, an expensive trick that added nothing to the film.

In Avatar, I have my answer. This is a game-changing film. In the same way that Toy Story ended the era of hand-drawn animation, all big-budget movies filmed in 2D will from now on look somehow dated and cheap. This movie is big, it's beautiful, and the depth of the field afforded by 3D is used consistently, frame-by-frame, with none of the overpowering, out-of-place 3D set-pieces that characterize older 3D films. This is how it's done, and anything not done this way from now on will look amateur.

From the amazing reviews, I was expecting a great movie, and I was still completely blown away. The plot is extremely simple, in a way that real-world conflict is not, but it is solid (unlike, say, 2012). The acting is excellent (Sigourney Weaver could carry the whole movie by herself if she needed to) and the dialogue, very surprisingly for a Cameron epic, mostly avoids cringe-worthy cheesy lines. But overriding all of that is that this movie is deeply, gloriously beautiful, and drove me almost to tears more than once, in the way that a symphony can for other people: not because anything sad is happening, but just sheer joy that anything so beautiful can exist.

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