What James Cameron Should Have Done with His CGI

By  · Published on December 22nd, 2009

About an hour into Avatar, a strange feeling washes over me. No, it’s not the inherent sexual attraction to blue alien women. That strange feeling came more than half an hour ago. This new feeling is tied directly to it, though – the ultimate realization that the people I’m seeing on screen don’t exist.

Because, in a very real sense, they don’t. A computer made them, and made them so well that my brain was completely tricked. Even my skeptical eyes were drawn in by the ruse. Now, an hour and one minute into the movie, I’m sitting there struggling to reconcile what my mind knows to be true with what my eyes are claiming. A minute later, my mind loses, a smile spreads across my face, and I let go of that internal struggle to let the fantasy envelop me completely.

Despite a large box office take, the debates will continue about whether Avatar really is as big an achievement as some say it is. Whether it showed us something new. Whether it wasn’t dragged down to earth by a lacking story. Whether it stands as a purely technological achievement. Perhaps hobbled by hype, the film is now going to be overshadowed by opinions about its flaws instead of celebrations of what was actually on screen.

And what that was, was complete, eye-fooling magic.

Granted, the visual illusion is nothing new to film or escapism, but normally the audience has to suspend their disbelief precariously over a chasm of doubt. Especially in our current cynical film culture. But what is tragically being glossed over is the sheer level of trickery at play here. With most escapism, our brains are telling our eyes to relax and not to be so damned picky. But with Avatar, our eyes are the ones screaming at our brains to shut up about its preconceived notions about the non-existence of aliens. Of other worlds. Or great beasts we’ve never seen in biology books.

This movie has turned the mental tables. A grand achievement, and one we all know the story behind: James Cameron and company invented new technology to make that achievement a reality. But now that the achievement is being lost in the forest while critics and fans search for the trees, it’s got me thinking about what James Cameron really should have done with that new brilliance.

He should have made a movie set in modern time, set in a normal American town, with zero science fiction or supernatural elements.

Actually, what he should have done is a more elaborate, three-part plan:

  1. Veil his project in secrecy (much like, you know, he actually did). Explain that he’s developing a new technology to create it. Ramp up the hype machine exactly as he did with Avatar, except with the added bonus of a huge cattle casting call for actors and actresses.
  2. Release a film from a great screenwriter that features a few known entities and mostly up-and-coming talent living in a world very similar to our own. A world devoid of special effects. The mood of exiting audiences would be a mixture of surprise and massive disappointment, especially the fan boys. We waited years for a character study with no flash?
  3. Reveal to the world that the entire film was made on computers through CGI and that the lead actor doesn’t exist in real life. Watch as heads explode.

I contend that the only reason my brain knew somewhere deep down in the root cellar of my subconscious that the aliens of Avatar were fake is that I know that aliens don’t actually exist. Show me a bunch of CGI-created human beings at that level of detail, and my brain wouldn’t stand a chance. Tell me there’ll be nothing to hand the Oscar to, tell me that the known actors of the film simply lent their images to the computers, tell me the world I just saw isn’t standing on a back lot somewhere. My vision of reality would fall away.

And make no mistake. That’s what Cameron has done here – made the non-existent exist. We don’t seem to be holding onto that as strongly as we should, but I can guarantee that if he’d made a film with no actors or sets, you never would have known it. None of us would. And when he produced proof that we’d all been had so profoundly, some of us would faint, some would turn to religion to make sense of a world gone mad, and others would revel in the sheer insane beauty of technology.

That sheer insane beauty that we should be raising up on our shoulders right about now but don’t seem to. Maybe if James Cameron had produced a film that got us to call a bunch of pixels the Next Big Actor in Hollywood, we’d think twice about what’s been done. Maybe we’d be having a conversation about the future of filmmaking. At the very least, maybe James Cameron would have forced us to take a second look.

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