Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why Avatar is Making Americans Stupid

For the record, I like Avatar. I thoroughly enjoyed James Cameron’s latest opus throughout its two and a half hours of visual onslaught. Avatar is a beautiful, bright, shiny and relatively mindless film, similar to many other things Americans love. It has turned out to be one of those “event” movies which draw people to theaters who do not normally go, similar to Cameron’s previous effort Titanic and another modern classic, Home Alone. Not admitting to paying for Home Alone? You lie! As a society, we tend to jump on the proverbial bandwagon when a story gets so absolutely huge it is nearly impossible to avoid conversing about it. We do this with the Super Bowl, American Idol, Snuggies and especially politics. It’s interesting as long as it’s interesting to everyone else. When everyone else has officially thrown the subject into “lameness” (see Home Alone, Barack Obama), the follower does the same. In the case of Avatar, however, succumbing to the hype might be more dangerous than Dick Cheney stuck on Pandora.

The main appeal of Avatar lies in the groundbreaking cinematography and 3-D camerawork, the likes of which has never been seen in the history of cinema. The last year or so has seen several films test the 3-D waters in anticipation of Cameron’s movie. A remake of My Bloody Valentine, the Neil Gaiman scripted Coraline, Monsters Vs Aliens and Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs showed the appeal - and lack thereof – 3D technology presents. Coraline and “Meatballs” did well in theaters showing the traditional, 2-D versions as well as the enhanced product. “Valentine” was strictly and exercise in scaring in 3-D and it achieved its modest expectations. Monsters Vs Aliens was predicted to be one of the biggest blockbusters of 2009, yet failed to yield big numbers. “Monsters” was the first film of the modern 3-D era to have been filmed with the sole intent of selling the 3-D version. The film featured many scenes designed with the idea that audiences love STUFF FLYING IN THEIR FACE VERY FAST. It did not occur to the producers audiences, even children, might value plot in an era of Pixar masterpieces. Instead, MORE STUFF FLYING EVEN FASTER IN A MORE MONOTONOUS WAY THAN THE FIRST TIME. Repeat. Repeat. END OF FILM. Interestingly, DreamWorks Studio did not hype the DVD release of “Monsters” as much as one would expect from a big budget animated film. Perhaps the upcoming 3-D Shrek movie in 2010 foretells more than the company would care to let on.

The 3-D technology in Avatar is far superior than any used in the aforementioned films. Unlike DreamWorks, Cameron knew the film had to stand on its own from a directorial and traditional 2-D viewpoint. There is little argument left as to if he succeeded. Avatar will gross more than a billion dollars, enough cash to liberate oppressed civilizations in the real world. Cameron also spent the last ten years or so developing an executing the project. He had total control over the film and chose to stake his career on Avatar’s success or failure. Avatar’s triumph, commercially and critically, has thrown the entertainment media into a 3-D frenzy. But has Avatar’s success doomed not only the film industry but also the economic recovery of America?

The admission price to the 3-D Avatar at my local movie house was thirteen bucks, a five-dollar increase from the normal eight-dollar charge. My Adam Koeppe simple math shows a 39 percent extra dip into the pocketbook to see the film in glorious 3-D. I don’t know about you boys and girls, but that’s a hefty price jack where I come from. For a family of four that’s twenty extra bucks. At least the popcorn didn’t come with 3-D salt and butter. Although worth it, the Avatar experience is a spendy one for many Americans. The fallout from Avatar’s success has shown a public hungry for more. ESPN has recently announced they will produce a 3-D sports channel which will show the 2010 World Cup. The media salivates.

As the public celebrates the upcoming development of 3-D television, nobody has bothered to ask the question: What will 3-D soccer look like? Will it enhance the experience so much that the channel is worth subscribing to (believe me, true believers, they’re gonna charge) and also purchasing one of the handful of ginormous TV’s capable of broadcasting said soccer games? Currently, the general opinion of the public is yes. Because everything is going to look as cool as Avatar. This general euphoria is convincing many TV manufacturers to furiously work of a way to present 3-D images without having to don those stylish shades. Without a doubt, they will succeed. The potential of selling millions of TV’s to a public that has recently forked over a few paychecks for HD widescreens is far too tempting to resist. Efforts are underway to remake classic films such as Star Wars to fit the format. As if buying the Star Wars films on VHS, remastered on VHS, extended on VHS, on DVD unextended, DVD extended, and Blu-Ray unextended and extended. That’s not even accounting for how many times people saw them in the movie theater. When my Adam Koeppe simple math adds this up, that’s more than 300 bucks spent on the same bloody films! Yet many are hungry for more. Is the 3-D Star Wars going to have Luke’s hand fly in my face when Darth Vader whacks it off? Will it give me the feeling of AT-AT’s stomping on to my sofa? Will the Cantina scene give me the feeling of an intergalactic dance party right in my own house? Answer I will, young consumers. No.

A 3-D reimagining (or whatever you want to call it) of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings or the Matrix will just give you a visual experience similar to that of the old Viewmaster discs: a super-position of one image in front of the other. That’s it. The films were made with a 2-D wall. I’m sure the geniuses in charge will try to make the jump into hyperspace more trippy but is that worth the purchase of an entire new entertainment system? A few thousand bucks to see a few enhanced segments? The current consensus is yes. We want to see STAR WARS AVATAR! LORD OF THE RINGS AVATAR! MATRIX AVATAR! SAW AVATAR! HANGOVER AVATAR! HAROLD AND KUMAR AVATAR! Americans have always been in love with possibility more than reality and having as opposed to having not. There is little evidence suggesting the 3-D craze will be any different.

My magic crystal dodgeball stares into the future and sees a few unfortunate blows to the financial groin. Many Americans will go into super-nasty credit card debt to become a super-cool 3-D household. This type of TV upgrade is not cheap and there are very few who can honestly afford it, considering they are still paying off their 60-inch plasmas. Yet millions will buy, unfortunately proving our society has learned absolutely nothing about financial restraint in the face of economic hardship. Laid off from a secure job? WHO CARES? 3-D! Retirement eradicated by Wall Street? WHO CARES? 3-D!! Your children’s college education? 3-D! 3-D!! Over the top, blowhard attitudes are exactly what thrust our country into our economic mess. Real estate for profit? 3-D! Debt? What debt? 3-D!!!

Most important, companies will use this lunacy to bombard our despised banks with requests for loans on unproven products. Despite wanted or unwanted regulation, lenders will be pushed into billions of dollars of lending to finance the production of these electronics. Imagine, if you will: a cell-phone company wants fifty million dollars to develop the first 3-D smart phone. That’s crazy, the loan officer replies. Who wants to watch a 3-D image smaller than a baseball card? Contrary to popular sanity, that loan will happen. Who’s going to say no to 3-D!! I’d stake my entire 3-D baseball card collection on it. Believe it or not, I have quite a few.

There will be at least one movie studio that will also believe this fallacy. The grand poobahs will decree they will make the biggest, largest, most-bestest 3-D movie ever! They will hire a crack team of fifty writers to write it. They will hire a great director like Brett Ratner, McG or Michael Bay to make it so. They’ll be more people involved in this production than the Olympics. It will be re-written by James Patterson, James Frey and the band James. It will be about some big thing that has yet to be big enough so it has to be bigger – in 3-D! It will be bigger than life! Big! Big! Big! And it will fail. Horribly. Horribly, horribly. Heaven’s Gate failed and who could have doubted Michael Cimino’s talent after The Deer Hunter? The concept of Cinemascope failed with Cleopatra, directed by Joseph Mankiewicz who helmed films such as All About Eve. When the 3-D movie of doom strikes, it will be harsh. Cleopatra came close to destroying 20th Century Fox. The failure of Heaven’s Gate bankrupted United Artists. The 3-D hype will destroy at least one company, possibly more.

Remember 8-tracks? Beta-max? Mini-discs? Laser-discs? TurboGraphix-16? Dreamcast? You don’t? You Lie! We’ve all invested our money in something that didn’t pan out be it technology or even a relationship. For all our enthusiasm, there still has to be something – or someone to blame for the fallout. There are few people who have the testicular fortitude to admit they were wrong. I still thing the Sega Dreamcast kicks major butt over PS2, Game Cube and Xbox. Someone usually has to take the fall because it sure wasn’t our fault.

When 3-D busts, the movie studios will do what they do best: blame someone else. They’ll drag Sean Astin, the fat hobbit himself, back on the Academy Awards telling why piracy is still the scourge of the film industry – even after successes like Avatar. Americans who spent buttloads of money on 3-D televisions and DVD players that are the equivalent of Atari 5200s will do what they do best: blame someone else. Maybe we will blame the President, whoever he or she may be. Maybe we’ll blame the companies who sold us this 3-D super-awesome stuff because it wasn’t that super-fantastically-awesome. We might blame our kids who wanted it all so bad for Christmas we had to mortgage the house to provide it. We might even blame Satan for our debt. It’s a better alternative than reality. From the days of the crusades to the days of colonization to the days of the Gold Rush, it’s never our fault when the tide turns.

When we fail, it is in our nature to push the “reset” button. Just one more chance and we can do it a little better. We seriously need to stop this. Life has no reset and there are no guarantees of extra chances. Sometimes the movie sucks, the concert blows or the love affair wasn’t meant to be. Failures, as hard as they come, need to be admitted and learned from. If we don’t, we’re just another footnote in an never-ending addendum of excuses. If we embrace 3-D, we learn nothing from economics. We are just pushing “rewind,” expecting the movie to end better. Eventually, the film stops and there is a blank screen. What happens next? The remote – and your life – is in your hands.

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