This week I watched three items - Tuesday I went to see District 9; this morning I downloaded the new Avatar teaser trailer; and at lunchtime today I managed to get into the special 15 minute preview of Avatar.
In short, District 9 rocked, Avatar sucked.
If you haven't seen District 9 yet - please surf away now - there's may be some potential spoilers ahead. It's one of those movies that the less you know, the more you'll enjoy the movie. District 9 is not your average Hollywood movie. In fact, I wouldn't consider it a Hollywood movie at all - The director is South African, as is the main star, and the producer and the main SFX workshop are both from New Zealand. I'm guessing some of the cash came from the US, but then again they often use overseas investment companies anyway.
District 9 was a total mindblower. Half the time I felt like I was watching an (incredible but) true story. It didn't feel like fiction to me. I saw District 9 on Tuesday - it's now Friday and I woke up still thinking about it this morning. That's pretty powerful stuff. More on District 9 later though.
Where District 9 blows your mind, the new Avatar material just blows. To be completely fair of course, I didn't watch the movie itself as it won't be released till December this year, so maybe (hopefully?) they'll improve today's bits by release date. I'm very aware of the fact that I'm comparing a complete movie (District 9) to a two minute teaser plus a fifteen minute preview of Avatar, as opposed to a finished product.
Mind you, I'm also comparing a 30 million dollar movie with a 190 million dollar movie. So Avatar should by all rights be at least six times more awesome.
Here's why: District 9 is a story. Avatar is product. James Cameron has been making big movies for too long, and the standard Hollywood formula has firmly embedded itself. The trailer for Avatar is supposed to be a TEASER trailer, you know - a few images, fade to black, a few more images, fade to black, the words "coming soon", and cut. After watching this so-called "teaser", here's what I make of the storyline (NB - I don't actually know the plot, I haven't looked it up anywhere, so no spoiler alert here, this is just conjecture):
- Avatar plotline prediction: Wheelchaired guy is sick of his handicapped body, gets a chance at a new (alien) body, goes to alien world, escapes the military that brought him there, falls in love with alien girl, has to fight off her alien suitor, proves himself in battle, gets respect from alien rival who accepts him at his moment of death, while the earth military attacks planet. Guy saves the day, gets the girl. Stuff blows up. The end. Or is it?
Some of this is guesswork, from just having seen too many Hollywood movies. When I watched the preview though, sure enough; there was the alien male love-rival. Let's see how accurate all this is when the movie comes out. I hope I'm completely wrong.
What I also saw in both the Avatar trailer and the preview was "look at all these SFX, we're really cool! Look, explosions! Hey look, dragons and elves, they're pretty popular these days!" Oh, and did I mention it was all in 3D, geeky glasses and all? Yeah, great.
The Problem With 3D
I love 3D - in real life. In a cinema, 3D is a gimmick. You remember those popup books you got as a kid where all these buildings would pop off the page when you opened the book? Great to see, but you wouldn't want to read a novel like that. It's really impressive to look at but it doesn't add much to the story line. Movies are EXACTLY like that.
3D is a solution looking for a problem. You can't take it home - nobody wants to sit in their own lounge with daft looking goggles on. DVD's will be converted to 2D, so whatever advantages might have existed in 3D are lost now anyway. 3D movies are short term earners. Does anyone remember Jaws 3D? Do you have a copy at home? Didn't think so.
What was specifically wrong with the 3D preview today?
(1) Everything was very dark.
No real surprise - you're sitting in a dark room with sunglasses on. As a result, everything felt distant. I didn't feel involved with any of it. Fast motion looked far too blurry - at one stage there were some scuttling alien creatures in the underground but I never really saw them properly, everything seemed a blur. Possibly I'm getting old and my eyesight is fading (it's 20-20, tested annually), but my eyes couldn't keep up with the stuff on screen. Maybe the preview wasn't 24 frames per second but 12 frames? Don't know, don't care. Whatever the reason, I was very disappointed.
(2) Despite what they've been telling us, everything still gets thrown at the screen, either to shock or to impress.
I was sitting there looking at special effect after special effect. The whole thing looked cartoonish. There was something very unreal about the alien world. On Facebook today, I was reading through a conversation between one of the SFX guys and someone else who'd watched it, and he defended the cartoonish look because it was on an alien world, and everything looks different there. That missed the point completely - "cartoonish" means "we didn't believe it". I have a lot of respect for Weta Digital. I believed Gollum, the Cavetrolls, the Nazguls, the Balrog, and of course, King Kong. They were amazingly real. If I hadn't been a guy, I would have cried when the gorilla died (it must have been some dust in my eye). Nothing i saw in the Avatar material made my heart leap.
At the end of the first preview of LOTR, way back in 2001, I remember the audience were yelling and clapping at the end of it, standing up from their seats for a standing ovation. I heard the same thing happened all around the world. They did it again at the end of the actual movies. Today, there was some polite applause at the end, and not much else. Apparently I wasn't alone in my disappointment.
(3) The 3D didn't add anything to the story being told.
There lies the crunch, doesn't it. Adding more SFX to a great story doesn't make it greater - SFX is a tool, not the end product. The original Matrix movie was great, it had a new way of looking of the world ("What if all this isn't real? Is that air I'm breathing?"), and it used a bunch of new SFX we hadn't seen before (eg, bullet-time). The Matrix 2 had some amazing chase sequences but it wasn't as good as part 1. And part 3? "Well, we ran out of money for actual FX so we did it all on a computer". Yawn.
Here's a quick exercise - go up to five of your friends who've seen all 3 Matrix movies, and ask them to answer this question quickly without thinking about it too long - "does Trinity die in Matrix 3?". The answer of course is "yes", but most people seem to answer "no", "yes but she comes back", or even "can't remember". The fact that the love interest of the main character of three major movies dies horribly and nobody remembers it, surely means we didn't feel very involved in the story?
Check these ones for yourself : Does King Kong die? Did Boromir? You get my drift, I think.
What's the hell's wrong with these people?
Hollywood has lost touch with its audience of today. Instead, they spend an awful lot of effort trying to recreate their own glory days. The news this week of the change of MGM management brought that home again - MGM is working on only five films at the moment, amongst which are a movie version of the 1980's TV series "Fame", a remake of "Poltergeist", and another James Bond installment. Not exactly bristling with originality. Don't get me wrong, I like James Bond, but then again he's not from Hollywood, is he.
What I look for in a movie
When I watch a movie, I want to believe. I want the filmmakers to take me to a alien world, or to a distant past, or to some other new situation, and make me believe I'm there, for the duration of the movie. I do NOT want to see a series of special effects designed to show how amazing it all is. I want to hear a story being told, and if the special effects are needed to do that, fine. Spend a billion dollar on them, and you won't hear me complain. If the story is one we've seen a thousand times before, no amount of SFX is going to save it from becoming a very expensive farce. Originality is very important. If we've seen the story before, it gets boring. I don't pay my $15 to be bored for 2 hours.
Ok, I've had my rant. Now for the good news. District 9. In a word - Wow.
Everything I hated about Avatar's short preview, I loved about District 9.
- It's in 2D. Thank you Peter Jackson!
- Great story - I couldn't guess the ending. Didn't have time to guess, actually.
- I felt it was real most of the time. I was there, for 2 hours.
- The SFX? What SFX? You mean the prawn were fake? Wow.
- It was all so understated!
Actually, I'll try not to reveal too much of the plot of D9. A few things really impressed me though. The gore factor of D9 was fine. The alien weapons had amazing powers, that part was fun and unpredictable. I was never sure when the next surprise would be. Awesome.
At one stage, there was a perfect setup for a "Michael Bay" moment - good guys under attack from bad guys, one bad guy in a crows nest 10 meters above the ground, alien weapon gets aimed at it. Michael Bay would have used a HUGE explosion at this stage, then shown us from 4 different angels, with the bad guy flying off and hitting the ground somewhere. Neill Blomkamp resists the urge, and simply (and VERY effectively) kills him. It was almost a non-event; very impressive in its restraint. Refreshing indeed.
The incident with the cow (sheep? pig?) that I'd heard so much about - I almost missed it. The story was simply moving too fast, although it did make me laugh out loud when it happened.
I loved the Exo-Suit (designed by Greg Broadmore). It looked great, worked as expected, yet wasn't all-powerful either. Again, more restraint.
None of the characters were entirely good or entirely bad - perhaps that's what made it so real - I firmly believe there is no such thing as evil or good. Fictional characters are more well rounded if suddenly shine (bad guys), or reveal that they have flaws (good guys). D9 had both aplenty.
Our hero starts off innocent and wide-eyed, but turns out to be sort of evil when you actually see him at work in the slums (although he's trying to do a tough job, I guess). Yet we feel bad for him when he gets infected. When he realises everything is not going to be ok for another lengthy amount of time, he frustratedly (physically) hits out at one of the more sympathetic characters, and makes a major mistake in judgement, almost causing his own demise (and a few other people's). And still, I felt I might have made the same decision myself, given the circumstances.
The film was dirty, gritty, nasty, smelly - and beautifully told at the same time. I walked out grinning from ear to ear. The ending, although a great ending for the story, leaves things open for a part 2, but I was already wondering which way (of about 3 or 4 possibilities) that might go. As far as I know, there's no part 2 planned, btw, although you'll find me in the front row on opening day if there is.
So yeah, if you haven't seen it yet, go see it soon. And if you have already seen it, go see it again - I'm planning on it at least once more. (btw, if you haven't seen it, why are you reading this? Didn't I tell you not to? Go away!)
Back to the real world though. If there is any sort of justice, District 9 will win a bunch of awards in the gold season. If Avatar the movie turns out like Avatar the preview, then it should win a lot less than District 9, for sure. Mind you, this from the same academy who thought Titanic was the best movie of the year.
I'll go back to writing about LOTR locations and Hobbit rumours now.
- Jack M.