Friday, 21 August 2009

Off-topic - District 9 movie and Avatar trailer/preview compared

NB - This entry doesn't mention the Hobbit or LOTR (hardly) at all, so please skip past it if you're looking for that. Weta Digital worked on both these two movies, so I'm counting it as relevant. Really, I just want to vent a few thoughts and feelings that I've had in the last few days, about where I think the movie industry is going badly wrong. In all honesty, this isn't so much a review as a rant. Click away now, while you still can.

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.

It's not.

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.

District 9
Everything I hated about Avatar's short preview, I loved about District 9.
  1. It's in 2D. Thank you Peter Jackson!
  2. Great story - I couldn't guess the ending. Didn't have time to guess, actually.
  3. I felt it was real most of the time. I was there, for 2 hours.
  4. The SFX? What SFX? You mean the prawn were fake? Wow.
  5. It was all so understated!
Ok, here come the spoilers for District 9. Let me repeat this again : if you haven't seen it yet, stop reading now. You'll thank me for it later.

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.


  1. Sorry I came across you blog in goggle but I LOVE your review of the Avatar trailer. I haven't seen the entire 15 minute special trailer but I have seen the teaser trailer and I felt like the animation was no where near as impressive as it was hyped up to be. I predict this movie will under perform and and not be badly reviewed.

  2. @Anonymous:

    Thanks for your kind words - I was beginning to think I'd imagined my disappointment. I just watched the TV News filming people from the queue I was in, giving it all super glowing reviews. I guess the hype must be working on some people?

    Oh, and I've just learnt that the US$190,000,000 is actually more like US$300,000,000 plus US$150,000,000 for advertising - that's more than half a billion bucks on a single movie, that took over 4 years to make.

    So how come Neill Blomkamp can do better, faster, cheaper?

    I think it's because he's not afraid to take risks, and actually has something to say. James Cameron has spent most of his time since Titanic making tv shows about, well, the Titanic actually. I'm not saying he wasn't great once but I don't believe he is anymore.

    As a side issue, I also apparently annoyed a lot of people by saying the same about Michael Jackson. Great in the 1980's, but really nothing recently (before his death, I mean). Talent isn't a lifelong gift, it seems.

    I say give Neill Blomkamp another limited budget, and let him show us he doesn't need to make Halo anymore. We prefer original ideas.

    - Jack M.

  3. Same anon as before lol. Trust me the fan boys and most other the forum dwellers are definitely on your side of the fence with this one. I think the critics are succumbing to the incredible amount of hype surrounding this movie but like other over hyped things (*cough* star wars prequels *cough*) the public will ultimately decide it's merit and eventual worth. Although I will say personally I do enjoy most 3d movies, with Coraline being a magnificent standout, I do agree that it is gimmicky and doesn't do much to add to the overall aesthetic of the movie. I would still recommend you see Coraline in 3D if you haven't seen it, but it's out of the theaters now so you probably won't get the full theater experience like I did.

    I couldn't help but feel this movie was over-budgeted when I initially read the price it took to make it. I think most movies with big budgets aren't necessarily great, although I do enjoy the special effects. Unfortunately like you said in your original post there is no amount of money that will masquerade a farce. The irony is that if this movie was given a smaller budget it would probably would have forced a great director to think of better ways to utilize the limited funds and as a result create a better film. I'm sure James Cameron convinced the studio to give him this big budget based off the success of the Titanic by telling them he was would create a product that was so visually stunning it would be a bench mark for every film after that (for example The Matrix), but sadly this film won't do that. If he had just produced Avatar with the intention of making a good film and not a "product" ,as you stated, this movie probably would have been fine.

    As far as Michael Jackson I wouldn't exactly say that he didn't make some good music after Thriller (Smooth criminal, butterflies, etc.), but I do agree that he was never able to recapture spirit of his earlier works. I guess when you work so hard to achieve greatness, and you finally get there, where else can you go but down. Some peoples' decline is just more drastic than others. Also I imagine it can't help that everything you do creatively after that will always be compared to your greatest work. Judged separately his post-Thriller stuff is fine (maybe a bit dated) but it definitely pales in comparison to Thriller.

  4. Jack rant? Say it ain't so! LOL.

    I'll reserve my opinion on Avatar until I see it -- in 2D. Jenifer doesn't see in 3D (really!) and so it's 2D for us. I'm fine with that for all the reasons you mention.

    Remind me to send you a draft when it's time. Methinks you have a nice cliche-detector installed!

    As for D9, well, you know where I stand on that. :-)

  5. I love that movies get made with District 9's visual flair and adventurousness: we haven't seen that sort of lo-fi inventiveness since the days of movies like Aliens or The Terminator.

    But in story terms, it's extremely formulaic. The storyline and character arcs of District 9 hew extremely close to the templates of Hollywood gurus like McKee or Vogler. Which should be no surprise: produced by Jackson and Boyens, it's bound to have a healthy respect for Big Cinema storytelling.

    I was as excited by the first act of D9 as much as anyone could possibly have been by the sneaks of Avatar, but have to admit I was fairly disappointed, once it settled into a rhythm, to see just how stock that rhythm was.

  6. Gotta say, I loved your rant. I totally agree with all the points you made. I had other things do say, but I am drawing a blank now, so that's about it.

  7. "Hollywood has lost touch with its audience of today."

    I'm sure they did not lost touch. But they are unwilling to make people become aware of certain realities. If you thought District 9 was a story, that's because it is based on real feelings, on real historical facts. Unfortunately, those facts are guaranteed to make District 9 a no contender oscar-wise.

    The following articles by the social analist Steve Sailer might help you understand what's about District 9.

    About your "rant," in my oppinion it shows nothing less than clear understanding of what makes movies such a wonderful medium. If rants can be wonderful then yours belongs to such category.

    I honestly hope people now working on The Hobbit take your message to heart. Because Del Toro is so close to the Hollywood system I have real fear he will not deliver the innocense, the small bits of a true heart always sprouting along Bilbo's quest.

    Plainly speaking, I'd like to say that in my oppinion your "rant" puts your blog one level above in quality. May it become one of those few must-read places , where we are sure to find corageous viewpoints from a well-informed and thoughtful person.

    Thanks for your "rant."

  8. D-9 definitely has a lot going for it -- character development, great acting a at least a few people, awesome alien weapons; it felt a bit preachy at times at different times though

  9. Firstly, please excuse my bad maths skills - $300m + $150m is obviously not more than half a billion$, it's a mere $450m. Let's not exaggerate here! Thank you all for not drawing attention to it (oh, you all missed it?)!

    I watched Coraline in 2D, only later realising it was also a 3D movie. In hindsight, I could make the following comments about that one:

    (a) I loved it, I thought it was a great movie. The story was by Neil Gaiman, who is a very talented storyteller. So the foundation of that great movie is a great story. Important lesson!

    (b) I did wonder at the time about the giant hands helping the OtherFather at the piano, it seemed an obvious 3D ploy.

    (c) in it's favour, I suspect that the 3D as probably quite subtle - the cotton candy cannons lined up for depth, the tunnel she crawls through, etc. would have all added a nice depth to the movie, I guess.

    However, since I saw it in 2D, as 99% of the audience will do from now on (since it's left the theatres, and I can't see home audiences putting the little glasses on), the 3D features will be potentially distracting if they are now cut into 2D.

    In other words, whatever was added for 3D will be a liability to the aftermarket's enjoyment. Remind me again how that's good for us, the audience?

    My opinion remains unchanged - 3D is a gimmick, and distracts from the story.

    That's probably a good thing if it's a bad story, obviously - but then it remains a gimmick movie, unlikely to sell to the DVD market.

  10. @Ryan Rasmussen

    Ah, you did mention something about Jenifer's triangulation issues - I was going to ask but promptly forgot about it... I guess she's not a big fan of 3D movies either then!

    Looking forward to reading the draft!

  11. @Homage

    Nice choice of comparison movies. :) Both are of course, written and directed by James Cameron himself.

    I think we'll have to agree to disagree on this one. I realise of course that there's nothing new under the sun. However, some things are better disguised than others. In the case of D9 I didn't feel like I'd seen it before anywhere. Of course there's plenty of parallels to be drawn from the storyline (Alien Nation springs to mind) but when I was watching it, I wasn't thinking about other movies.

    In the end, it achieved (for me, anyway) the measure of greatness - it allowed me to forget anything before it, and draw me completely into its world.

    In other words, it entertained me - and ultimately, that's all I ask for. It doesn't need to cost $450m.

    The figure of $450,000,000 is an obscene one. It's distasteful. Outside of politics and spacetravel, nothing should ever cost that much. Think about this - NASA is running out of money. For the budget of Avatar, how far could we have gotten to setting up an actual moonbase?

    Science Fiction shouldn't cost more than Science Fact...? Comments anyone?

  12. @Anonymous (3rd anon comment)

    Thanks for the links - although I don't necessarily agree with the viewpoints expressed on that site. My parents left Europe when I was a teenager at the end of the 1970's. Among other things, they felt there was too much unemployment/crime/overpopulation/nuclear threats/[insert vague complaints] there at the time, and they ended up coming to NZ instead.

    However, I don't now, or at any earlier stage, feel like a displaced person. If Neill Blomkamp says he isn't a displaced person, I would believe him on his word.

    Steve Sailer's blog seems to claim to know Neill better than he does himself. I don't buy into it.

    I do appreciate the links though - it's always good to read other opinions, even (or especially!) if we don't agree with them.

    And yes, I have your hope - that Guillermo and Peter will see my blog, and any other anti-3D rants that may be around, and will decide, if they haven't already, to make The Hobbit in 2D.

    After all - Tolkien wrote the story. We don't need any gimmicks.

    Hey wow, I've turned this blog entry back on topic again! Go me!

    - Jack M