Tag Archives: James Cameron

Stephen Lang returning for Avatar sequels: Seriously?!

By Brian Slattery

Stephen Lang has signed on to all three Avatar sequels, reprising his role as Colonel Quaritch. You’re probably reading this thinking, “Brian, we’ve already read this in multiple places.” Well, I’m not here to break this news; I’m commenting on it.

Quaritch died in Avatar. He was shot with two very large arrows, right in the chest, dying quite convincingly. (I’m looking at you, Marion Cotillard.)

 

Quaritch, seen here dying convincingly.

Quaritch, seen here dying quite convincingly.

 

Now he’s coming back as the primary villain for the remainder of the franchise. This isn’t what has me upset. His performance — no matter how cliché – was one of the brightest stars in Avatar. What truly has me bothered is what James Cameron is saying about his return:

I’m not going to say exactly how we’re bringing him back, but it’s a science fiction story, after all.

Let me guess, we’ll have a cross between Agent Smith’s return in The Matrix and Sigourney Weaver’s return as Grace in the first film. Ooh boy, a sci-fi resurrection baby. That or there will be a clone.

 

"I ain't got time to... be dead...."

“I ain’t got time to be dead.”

 

Is James Cameron really that strapped for ideas that he cannot come up with another villain for this franchise? Some other military figure behind the scenes of the first film? Something other than what we’ll end up getting?

—–

About the author:

Brian was just a lovable street rat, one whose worth lies far within, who ventured into the Cave of Wonders in search of his fortune. Unfortunately, his monkey touched the wrong thing and the cave collapsed, forcing him to have to listen to Robin Williams tell jokes for the rest of his life. His favorite films include Office Space, The Godfather, and Pulp Fiction. Also, he designed Buried Cinema’s cool logo.

A Quick Rant — Titanic 3D

By Tom Kapr

I didn’t mind the fact that James Cameron was re-releasing Titanic using post-conversion 3D. Most films released in 3D through post-conversion look awful, because they were not actually filmed in 3D. But this is perfectionist James Cameron we’re talking about. His films are always on the front lines of technological advancement, and, with a few picky exceptions (obvious Schwarzenegger stunt doubles in True Lies), they hold up over the decades. And Avatar was one of the first films to really show what 3D technology can do for a film artistically.

Mainly, I just really wanted to see Titanic on the big screen, 3D or not.

Having now finally seen Titanic in the cinema for the first time ever, in 3D, I have to say, it is one of the most beautiful, visually stunning, emotionally gripping, and technically immaculate films ever made. The 3D, however, is a mixed bag. Here’s the good first: the depth of field is phenomenal. As far as pure dimensionality goes, it does exactly what 3D should do. It makes the world on-screen look as if you could step right into it. This is really only a next logical step in terms of cinema as a visual medium; it has always been a medium that created the illusion of depth (foreground, background, etc.). 3D just takes that illusion to the next level. And this is, without a doubt, the best-looking post-conversion 3D ever. No surprise for cinematic pioneer James Cameron.

But here’s the bad thing: You still have to wear those glasses, and even worse, in the case of Titanic, they darken the picture. I noticed this about halfway through the film when, just out of curiosity, I removed the glasses and looked at the film through my own eyes (well, my own prescription lenses, anyway). It was on a close-up of Kate Winslet. All of a sudden, without the 3D glasses, her skin looked much healthier, with more color, more red in her cheeks, and her hair was much redder. I went back and forth a couple times. The glasses made her look much grayer — almost sickly, in direct comparison.

Throughout the rest of the film, I would occasionally compare the picture with and without the glasses. The color was always much richer without. More reds, more blues. Especially during night scenes — so, for like, the entire second half of the movie — I was able to discern much more color detail without the 3D glasses.

I enjoyed the film immensely, and I actually have a much deeper appreciation of it than when I first saw it on full-screen VHS all those years ago. I would call it a masterpiece, even among Cameron’s higher-than-average number of near-perfect films (including Aliens and Terminator 2); and I would, in a huge change of opinion, say it deserved all the accolades it received back in 1998, including its Best Picture Oscar.

I am very glad I finally had the opportunity to see Titanic at the cinema. But I would much rather have been able to watch it without those 3D glasses, in glorious, illusory 2D.

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Super Mario Bros.: An Awesomely Bad 90s Video Game Movie

By Dan MK

(Screencaps and captions by Tom Kapr)

 

Not a Joel Silver production. Not a James Cameron film.

 

Once upon a time, there were two Italian plumbers who somehow got magically transported to another world, where they had to fight against the evil King Koopa in order to save the Princess and restore order to the Mushroom Kingdom.

Those of us who grew up as Nintendo addicts know the story well. We spent hours playing and replaying the video game (and all of its sequels) until it was in our bloodstream. When they finally came out with a Mario Bros. movie, any child in America could have guessed what the plot of the movie would be, which goes something like this:

(Warning: Here be spoilers!)

Mario and Luigi (that’s Mario Mario and Luigi Mario) are trying to help the Princess out with some plumbing issues (don’t ask) when she gets kidnapped by the Koopa cousins — all two of them. The Marios follow her through a mysterious portal which leads them to a parallel dimension, created by the meteor which struck the earth millions of years ago, wiping out the dinosaurs — or so we thought. In actuality (i.e., fiction), dinosaurs continued to exist in this parallel dimension, evolving into humanish things in much the same way that apes evolved into humanish things in our dimension (i.e., New Yorkers).

 

Or present-day North Carolina. Whichever.

 

Mario and Luigi make their way through the city of Dinohattan (get it? GET IT?), fighting off Goombas (i.e., “de-evolved” humanish descendants of dinosaurs) and other things that are kind of like Goombas, but their heads are different, and that difference is never explained (Koopas?).

 

Dinohattan (view from Governor's Island, pre-9/11).

 

They befriend a knowledgeable (and musical) man-creature named Toad, who is promptly arrested and turned into a Goomba.

 

See you in your nightmares, children!

 

The Marios are arrested too, after which they meet up with Dennis Hopper, who pokes Luigi in the eyes and hisses. They then break out of prison on a zip-line, hijack a police car, make a wrong turn, and wind up in the desert. Fortunately, the fungus saves them, but Mario doesn’t trust it.

With the help of the newly reformed, “intelligent” Koopa cousins, Mario and Luigi return to the city and break into a dance club in flamboyant clothing. You see, in order to save the Princess, Mario has to romance an obese woman in a spiky dress, so that he can snatch the rock she is wearing around her neck which she had stolen from them earlier after they were mugged by an old lady. Mario tries to grab the rock with his mouth, but ultimately realizes he can still use his hands.

 

It was either this, or Mario would have had to romance a giant fish that could swallow him whole.

 

Mario gets the rock, but then he and Luigi instantly lose it. King Koopa’s wife (girlfriend? mistress? cousin?) takes it, and celebrates by drinking a glass of earthworm. Mario and Luigi, having gone through all this trouble, decide they don’t need the rock after all, and jump through the roof with crates on their heads. They sneak into King Koopa’s castle by pretending to be garbage. Then they mess with the plumbing and put on two uniforms that they just happen to find in a locker. (Wow! Those uniforms are just like in the video game!)

 

"Do you always have to do that weird thing with your finger?"

 

After this, Mario finally eats a flower and spits out a freakin’ fireball — eh, wishful thinking. Actually, Mario and Luigi get on an elevator and hide behind Goombas. They make the Goombas dance. It turns out Goombas love to dance (contrary to popular rumors that Goombas only love to walk off cliffs). Oh, and Mario almost falls down a pit, and is saved at the last minute. Luigi dangles on a hook, and Mario still doesn’t trust the fungus. (Unbelievable!)

 

The fungus. Trust it.

 

Meanwhile, the Princess meets Yoshi. King Koopa enters her chambers and tries to seduce her with his long tongue (something only Dennis Hopper could pull off?). She is understandably bothered by this, but the fact of the matter is that she was born out of an egg, and her father is a pile of fungus (played by Lance Henriksen). She rejects King Koopa, and he scares Yoshi and leaves (that meanie). Shortly thereafter, Koopa’s girlfriend enters the room and befriends the Princess before trying to stick a knife in her throat. Yoshi protects the Princess by trying to eat the girlfriend. The Princess flees, and Yoshi gets freakin’ stabbed, to the delight of all the young children in the audience. And no, he doesn’t poop out any eggs.

 

A little something for the ladies in the audience.

 

After Yoshi gets stabbed, Goomba-Toad gets set on fire and screams. Princess puts out the fire (she finds an extinguisher!) but then runs away. The two useless Koopa Cousin characters appear just long enough to introduce the Princess to the fungus and then scram (they won’t be seen again until after the credits). Meanwhile, Luigi and Mario find the Princess. You see, they relied on their wits and made the Goombas dance — JUST LIKE IN THE VIDEO GAME!!!

 

She has her father's... um... nevermind.

 

After meeting up with the Princess and her father (who is in no condition to be having company), Mario runs off to save a roomful of Brooklynite women (“except for Angelica — she’s from Queens, but she’s alright”) who have been kidnapped by King Koopa. One of them is Mario’s girlfriend (mistress? cousin?) . As soon as Mario leaves, Princess and Luigi get captured by the evil King Dennis Hopper, who wants his pizza, for goodness’ sake! On the other hand, Mario does considerably better by escaping with all the women on a mattress. They are being pursued by Goombas (who are on their own mattress, of course), but it’s okay because Mario sticks a wrench in the ground. He’s a plumber, you see?

 

Remember that cool level in the video game where you have to save a bunch of women who aren't the princess from King Koopa's World Trade Center-lookalike tower by maneuvering a Goomba's used mattress through a huge iced-up heating duct? Me neither.

 

Mario’s mattress turns out to be a magical mattress because instead of simply falling out of the pipe, it glides slowly across a substantial portion of the Dinohattan set and disables King Koopa and his Goombas. Everyone celebrates, completely forgetting that King Koopa is still holding a gun, and still very conscious.

Koopa points a gun at the Mario Bros., so they throw — correction: they shoot – their shoes at him and knock him down again, this time over a railing and into a bucket. I’d like to point out that, during the course of the film, we actually see quite a few people fall over this railing. Not many railings; this railing. It’s pretty ridiculous.

 

This railing.

 

Things get more intense at this point. People run. Luigi brings all of the women, including the Princess, back to the portal, where King Koopa’s girlfriend accidentally kills herself by sticking a small rock into a big one. Luigi sends all the Brooklynite girls back through the portal except for the Princess.

 

Everybody's got their thing.

 

Meanwhile, Mario and King Koopa duke it out in the city. Their fight begins in the bucket, continues through a crowded street, and ends with King Koopa holding a gun to Mario. Mario sets off a Bob-omb (yay!), but it falls through the ground (what!?). Meanwhile, the small-rock-in-the-big-rock situation causes the two parallel dimensions to merge, and Mario, King Koopa, and a small handful of Goombas are transported to Manhattan (for some reason the rest of Dinohattan wasn’t invited).

 

"Holy crap! I'm turning 8-bit!"

 

In our world, King Koopa promptly turns a sleazy man into a sleazy chimpanzee, and all of the many civilian-bystanders think it’s absolutely adorable.

 

The video game was alright, but what really would have made it great is chimpanzees dressed up like humans.

 

Koopa points the gun at Mario and says the now infamous line:

King Koopa: “And now, I’m gonna make a monkey outta you, plumber!”

Just when all seems lost, Mario trusts the fungus (finally!!!).

 

Trusting the fungus (actual footage).

 

Luigi uses his quasi-plumbing skills to remove the small rock from the big rock, returning Mario, Koopa, and the Goombas to Dinohattan. Then he and Princess Daisy hurry back to catch the end of the Mario-Koopa fight. The Goombas dance again. The fat woman gives Luigi more shoes. Koopa screams. Finally, to the deep satisfaction of all the hardcore fans of the video games, the Mario Bros. defeat the evil King Koopa with… um… guns.

 

Guns which are in no way re-painted Super Scopes.

 

After an emotional farewell, Mario and Luigi return to their world, while the Princess stays behind to… well, I suppose to take her rightful place on the throne of Dinohattan. Most of her dimension is a desert, so this seems to be a bleak sort of existence. Nevertheless, she wants to get to know her dad, who “loves those plumbers.”

 

Winning!

 

I would just like to point out that once the Marios leave, the Princess’s remaining two friends are both sorely disappointing versions of their video game characters, and both of them will spend weeks recovering from the horrendous injuries they suffered because of her. Her reign as the Princess is off to a very rocky start.

 

Princess Daisy, a slightly charred Toad, and a slightly stabbed Yoshi.

 

Three weeks later, Mario and Luigi are in their apartment, when who should appear but PRINCESS DAISY RAMBO TOADSTOOL MCCLANE, ready to mutilate some more Koopa scum!!! Unfortunately for our heroes, however, the obvious sequel setup is in vain. After all, you can’t take a beloved story about two plumbers and their adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom, where they use items like fire flowers, mushrooms, and stars, and turn it into a stupid story about two plumbers and their adventures in the reptile dimension, where they use items like guns, boots, and mattresses. It’s just not the same.

 

"And then I said, 'Get away from her, you bitch!' You should have seen the look on her face!"

 

It should go without saying that this is quite possibly one of the weirdest movies ever made. From what I understand, making the movie was just as painful an experience as trying to watch it. I have heard that Bob Hoskins and John Leguizamo could only make it through the production with the help of heavy drinking. As a result, one necessarily expects for there to be a number of elements in the film that simply defy comprehension.

 

Should've read the fine print in those contracts.

 

And yet there are a few scenes that really hurt my brain. When the Marios are arrested and taken to a police station, there is a woman who keeps rubbing one officer’s shoulder with her foot. It is not clear who the woman is, why she is so much higher than the cop, or why this character even exists in the movie.

 

Catherine Tramell visits the set.

 

Later, when the Marios are taken to a “devo chamber,” an enormous pile of nasty-looking poop suddenly appears all over the floor just moments after Toad is turned into a Goomba. It is of course an error that the editor made — at least, I assume that in the script there was some explanation for why a clean floor would suddenly be covered in feces. But that’s what bugs me so much. What possible explanation could there possibly have been that would not have seriously altered the tone of the movie? Or, would it really have altered the tone all that much?

 

Approximate visual representation of the average viewer's brain while watching this movie.

 

My personal favorite visual treat is at the end when Dennis Hopper shoots a man with a “devo gun” in order to turn him into a monkey, and then continues to act as if the gun is still shooting something, despite the fact that NOTHING IS HAPPENING.

 

King Koopa de-evolving an ordinary man into Ted Nugent.

 

Super Mario Bros. set a standard for all films based on video games, in that it was the first one ever made. A low standard is still a standard, after all. (Author’s note: My brother informs me that there was ONE Japanese movie based on a video game before this one. My brother is the type of person that film critics like to refer to as a “nerd.”)

If there is anything admirable about this movie, it is the way in which the filmmakers so blatantly ignore almost everything in their source material, boldly replacing it with an astoundingly stupid storyline, and asking — even expecting – critics and audiences to seriously entertain the notion that they’ve created a movie which deserves to be associated with the Mario Bros. Those elements of the original storyline which somehow survived this process and made it into the final film (such as Toad, Yoshi, and even King Koopa) seem like they would be more at home in a film by Terry Gilliam or even Paul Verhoeven — except, of course, for the title characters themselves, who clearly belong to a much more lighthearted kind of family film.

 

Two weeks later, "Jurassic Park" was released. Coincidence? (Yeah, probably.)

 

The result of all this is a wildly uneven film which takes you violently from one end of the spectrum, featuring the goofy slapstick of the Koopa cousins and the corny optimism of Luigi, all the way to the other end, where Yoshi must suffer a horrific stab wound while the Princess screams in terror.

 

Couldn't resist one last screencap riff, and here it is: "Set design courtesy of the Ikea Dungeon collection." Thank you!

 

And that is the genius of creating such an awesomely bad 90s movie based on… ah crap, the Goombas are dancing again. I gotta go.

(Enjoying the Rant Pad? There’s more! Visit our podcast home page at BuriedCinema.com. Then you can also Like us on Facebook, Follow us on Twitter, Friend us on Flickchart, and Subscribe to us on YouTube!)

Review: Sanctum 3D

By Steven Moore

When I first saw the trailer for Sanctum I was sold on never seeing it. The script seemed less than mediocre, the acting was terrible, the producer is James Cameron, and it was in 3D. A good litmus test for whether or not a movie should be in 3D is to ask a simple question: “Does this movie have light cycles?” No? It doesn’t need to be in 3D. Also, there were a lot of Australian accents, which are near impossible to take seriously. Nothing about Sanctum interested me.

However, when a good friend of mine won tickets to see the movie and asked me to go with him, I said yes. Not because I had any subliminal desire to see the movie, but because I believe my friend would jump in front of a train for me, and I figured going to see this movie would just about square us up. The theater was absolutely empty, so I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be a big hit. In fact, we just might be the only people in the United States to have actually watched this film.

And I’m glad I did. My first impressions were right; the acting was bad, the script was terrible, the accents were laughable (despite being real), and it was indeed produced by James Cameron. I’m going to dispense with the usual synopsis because, really, it doesn’t matter. I’m not even sure why these people were in the cave (if you are really curious, IMDb.com awaits). However, everything else was good. I know that’s kind of like saying everything about a bell pepper is great except for the taste, texture, and smell, but Sanctum was significantly better than a bell pepper (not an astounding achievement, I know).

The visuals inside the cave, both submerged and dry, brought me into a terrifyingly beautiful world where the sublime can transition to death in an instant. The director, Alister Grierson, is able to convey the silent beauty waiting quietly undiscovered beneath us, while simultaneously capturing the suffocating terror of being trapped inside that world. There is no escape, and you as the viewer can feel it in the closed-in shots, the often murky scenes of just nothing but a blue so dark it’s hard to tell if any light exists anywhere.  The moments of tension, however contrived, were still very tense and visceral. He uses light like an occasional drop of water given to a man dying of thirst.

Richard Roxburgh is the lone acting talent among the entire cast, and his character’s complexity and silent brooding becomes just another feature of the cave’s environment. Like the cave, you don’t know exactly when or if he is going to turn on you, but ultimately, you respect him. It’s unfortunate that he wasn’t given better supporting actors (with less Austrailian accents), because this could have been a really great movie instead of just watchable.

Despite my low expectations, or perhaps because of them, I really enjoyed this movie from beginning to end. It was worth watching for the visual experience alone, and gives you a little something beyond just that. Sanctum is a visual experience more than a movie, similar to 300.  The story is beside the point. I would recommend it if you have a friend who wins free tickets and asks you to go with him. Thanks Dave.

Lies, True Lies & Action Movies

by Steven Moore

James Cameron has a knack for making his hero’s escape from danger both fantastical and plausible. While Cameron’s True Lies is certainly a cheesy 90′s action movie, the worst decade for action in my opinion, it also has subtle moments of genius buried in the cinematography and choreography. The generic action scene when the hero narrowly escapes the giant fireball rushing mercilessly toward him doesn’t feel clichéd in Cameron’s movie because he fosters a suspension of disbelief (or believable impossibility, if you prefer). You, the viewer, know exactly how the hero got where he is and how he is getting away. There’s a flow to the bangs and booms. Everything about this film feels careful and calculated, a rare thing in the action movie world.

Schwarzenegger & Curtis in "True Lies"

The plot starts with Harry Tasker, played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, living a double life as a spy, while his wife, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, lives blissfully unaware of her husband’s daily mortal danger. She believes him to be the boring businessman that he is in their suburban life together. She seeks adventure and excitement, which pushes her to flirt with another man. The flirtations lead to a series of events where, through the separate machinations of both our hero and the bad guys, Harry reveals all his secrets. In the process, Curtis transforms from housewife to co-spy so gradually and meticulously it seems natural for a middle-aged suburban working mom to become an international covert agent. Don’t get me wrong, this movie is silly, but it does silly with a master’s hand.

This is not a perfect movie by any means. The secret agent with an unwitting family is a generic enough theme that’s only been pulverized to death in the years since True Lies‘ release. Harry appears to be the typical homeric action star, but he has no problem blurring ethical boundaries, like hiring his unwitting wife to be his prostitute and making her think she is performing a striptease for a complete stranger. There are serious moral questions here that our hero just skates right past without so much as a “hmm?” I see some marriage counseling in their future. Although this is probably his finest performance, Arnold’s acting still boils down to frequent grunts and shouts punctuated by some painfully enunciated sentences. The plot is standard fare with few surprising reveals and the villains are borderline offensive Arabic stereotypes.

Yet, this movie remains entertaining after all these years. Why? All media critics wrestle with the problem of entertainment versus depth. All critics, and I would hope most moviegoers, need a certain amount of depth from their films, regardless of entertainment value. Entertainment is fleeting without something more that speaks to the human experience, and movies that forget that are often labeled forgettable. Forgettable movies aren’t bad; they just make no impact other than to entertain for a couple hours. You rarely go back and watch them a second time.

However, within the action genre a movie can be pure spectacle and still worth watching again and again for that spectacle alone, which is why I dislike action movies obviously. I might even say I avoid action movies, but only because there’s a part of me that loves action movies so much. That ancient reptilian part of my brain wants nothing more from a film than ‘splosions, big guns, and a pretty girl–preferably, a pretty girl with a big gun causing a ‘splosion. And that’s all I need. No questions about life or human existence or our existential need for connection, just boom, bang, and wow. So, when an action movie does more than spectacle, it becomes something special. It satisfies both sides of my brain, which is what the best movies achieve. Die Hard, El Mariachi, and Casino Royale all transcend the Action genre by delivering characters who struggle with the human experience all while getting pretty girls, firing lots of guns, and making big ‘splosions. Unfortunately, this is so rare in the action genre that I’ve lost faith.

(From left:) Bruce Willis as John McClane in "Die Hard" (1988); Carlos Gallardo as "El Mariachi" (1992); Daniel Craig as James Bond 007 in "Casino Royale" (2006)

True Lies is more than a one night stand with the reptilian brain. It doesn’t quite reach the same level as the previously mentioned films, but it is a fun ride, and it provides a technical insight that’s more than just spectacle. That is to say, it does spectacle in a special way, which placates my snobbier sensibilities. Too bad it’s an action movie.

–Steven Moore

A Year of Movies

1. True Lies (1994)

Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis, Tom Arnold, Tia Carrere, Eliza Dushku, Grant Heslov, Art Malik, Bill Paxton, Charlton Heston.

Saturday, January 1, 02:00.

Two hours since 2011 rolled over the Atlantic and hit the East Coast, and the party’s over. I’m at Steve’s house. We decide to inaugurate the new year by–what else?–watching a movie. We pick True Lies, a favorite that I’ve seen many times since high school but never in widescreen. Steve hasn’t seen it since it came out in 1994. When it’s over, I ask Steve, “What did you think of it this time?” His response: “It’s definitely a 90s movie.” He’s right: The style, the plot mechanics, the one-liners, Schwarzenegger’s obvious stunt double, the Arab terrorists (no more than caricatures). On top of that, nearly every pop culture reference immediately dates it as a mid-90s flick. And I definitely noticed a lot more flaws this time. Still, Cameron is a master of technical films like this, and his sense of control over action scene is apparent. This viewing moved True Lies down in my estimation, convincing me it is one of Cameron’s weakest films. When you think about it relatively, though, Cameron’s weakest films are still much better than the average science fiction or action film, and True Lies still has some of the most impressive action scenes in the history of action films. I may not watch it in its entirety again for a long time, but True Lies remains a 90s action favorite of mine–a genre and time period that, I must admit, I am a huge sucker for. Netflix rating: 4/5 stars. IMDb rating: 8/10. Flickchart rank: 612/2169 (Top 1000). Learn more about the movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0111503/

–Tom Kapr

James Cameron, Part III: The Future of 3D & Visual Effects

by Nathanael Griffis

So I’ve talked about James Cameron’s past, and Avatar, his present; now is the time to consider his future. He has prophetically spouted his greatness across the land. As annoying as that is, it is hard to deny. The evidence stands undeterred by the critical masses hoping that 3D is not the wave of the future, hoping that movie studios will just make normal films, hoping that we’ll still have money in our wallet at the end of the year. I hate having to pay four dollars more just because the movie is in 3D, and I have only seen two 3D movies (Avatar and Resident Evil: Afterlife) for that reason. Yet, I found myself regretting at times that I was so cheap and didn’t suck it up for, say, How to Train Your Dragon.

You’d think for a million-dollar camera they would have included red-eye removal.

3D is here to stay as long as it keeps making money, and there is no sign of it slowing. Some 3D films are losing at the box office, but others are taking in massive profits. Cameron’s Avatar would have kept on going if it hadn’t been for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, which stole the 3D screens from him. There is another reason 3D is here to stay, and the reason is simply James Cameron himself.

Seven years ago Cameron decided he wanted to develop a 3D camera that allowed for better control of the depth of field. The issue with most 3D cameras is that they use side by side images. The idea comes from the way our eyes perceive depth, which works when something has actual depth, but film does not. Cameron realized the old red-green filtered images of 3D were stagnant and did not show continuous depth of field. What he needed was a camera that allowed one to adjust the focal point exactly. Enter the Cameron/Pace 3D Fusion camera, and by “enter,” I mean walk down a seven-year-long hallway.

Two cameras for the price of... two cameras.

The Fusion camera differs in that it does not film two side by side images. It utilizes a beam-splitting 50/50 mirror that cuts the actual singular image, giving it depth. It places one camera lens inside the other, essentially. The most amazing thing about the technology is that it is not some massive rig. It’s a small 28-pound camera that’s silent and handheld. The cameraman has complete control of the 3D focal point as he films, and he has to be aware of how he’s filming, because the point needs to shift as the camera moves.

Cameron explaining to his cast something that proves he’s smarter than them.

It’s fascinating stuff, and what’s all the more amazing is that, from everything I’ve researched at least, it was Cameron who worked on it. It wasn’t someone under him; it was him. He also did all the handheld shots in Avatar to make sure the focal point was where he wanted it. (This is not unusual for Cameron, who did most of the camera work for The Abyss, Titanic, the Terminator films, and Aliens as well). The innovation he’s developed has reinvigorated the technological presence of 3D. It’s not a false pseudo-3D with the red-green image. Yes, it still requires glasses–I’ll get to that. There is an actual focal point in the film that our eyes adjust to. This focal point is the main cause of discomfort when you’re watching a 3D film. Your eyes see the depth of the screen and the depth of the image. They are then confused by the fact that there are two conflicting focal points, making your head hurt.

Owwies and boo-boos aside, these innovations will matter, mainly because it will open the door for more innovation. Already, Nintendo is risking a 3D handheld system that eliminates glasses. Televisions are being released with 3D capability. Would any of this have been possible without Avatar? No. Avatar was the movie that the industry was waiting to use as a litmus test for how they should move forward with 3D, and it blew the door down. A note on the glasses: I think they will eventually be eliminated because that is still the major complaint of viewers. Will Cameron be the one to do it? I don’t think so. Too many companies are interested and invested in this technology now. Cameron had seven years without much competition to develop the Fusion camera; this is not the same environment now.

The beauty of Avatar is that the 3D is used, not forced. It never felt like a movie that had to be in 3D. A sword didn’t fly out of the screen at you. It shows the difference between gimmick and technique. It made audiences, and filmmakers, aware of the proper usage of 3D and encouraged a demand for the non-gimmicky display. Cameron’s place in film has long been solidified as a director. Now, unless unexpected events crop up in the next few years, we’ll have to accept that his place as a technological innovator is all but solidified as well. He started off in special effects, and it’s to his credit that he’s never left that behind but improved the entire art form.

–Nathanael Griffis

James Cameron, Part II: A Critique of Avatar

By Nathanael Griffis

I sat down to watch Avatar on DVD with an attitude similar to the one I had opening night in the theater: I really wanted to like it. I wanted it to be the sprawling epic that forever changes the fantasy genre. I wanted to feel the way I felt watching The Lord of the Rings. After it ended, my reaction was similar to my reaction a year ago: I was surprised. The first time, I had been dazzled by the fully realized world but had felt the story fell flat. This time, I still think the visual effects are the best yet, but I also have to give the story more credit. This is a flawed movie, but not in the way it is frequently criticized.

Stephen Lang, going to get some Jujubes during a brief hiatus in shooting.

I have heard complaints about the performances and the lack of depth in the characters. My second viewing provided evidence to the contrary. The performances are staggering, especially Zoe Saldana and Stephen Lang. Everyone in the cast, with the exception of some nameless soldiers or minor Na’vi characters, is at the top of their game. Sam Worthington (as Jake Sully) proves he can hold a movie on his shoulders. The moments when he sits down for his video journal are some of my favorite scenes in the film, because they remind me of the dichotomy of his life. Stephen Lang (as Colonel Quaritch) adds depth to a character that probably does not deserve such consideration. He makes a one-dimensional jingoist into something more and delivers the best line in the movie: “They will eat your eyes for Jujubes.” He oozes determination and sick pleasure in accomplishment and violence. Zoe Saldana (as Naytiri) is reminiscent of Andy Serkis in The Lord of the Rings–not up to his level, but close. She gives that CGI character a physical emotive presence that makes you believe it’s not fantasy.

Admittedly, they should have brought arrow-proof helicopters.

I’ll cover the visual effects in Part III of this series, so I only want to say here that Avatar does hold up in the home theater. Avatar‘s largest flaw, or at least the most frequently referenced, is that it rips off a lot of other films. The story is derivative to some extent, but derivation of a story is not an issue. It is essential to the Joseph Campbell monomyth which Avatar follows almost to a T (although I will admit that allusions in names like “Pandora” and “banshee” gets distracting.) The issue with Avatar is that it doesn’t have enough substance to match its incredible style. What is particularly egregious about it is that the potential for thematic depth is there. If only Cameron had been more derivative of Dances with Wolves, he might have gleaned that the beauty of that film is in challenging viewers’ ideologies about cultural morality.

Cameron modeling the complex method-acting technique of sitting for Sam Worthington.

Much of Avatar‘s thematic heft rests on Jake’s dilemma in having to choose between the indutrual/capitalist human society and the natural/communal society of the Na’vi. On paper, a paraplegic soldier having to struggle with living a false life inside a virtual body and then slowly converting over to the virtual life as he loses his grip on reality is amazing, because we, as the audience, should struggle along with him. The first half of the film utilizes this struggle excellently. Jake gives schematics of the Na’vi home tree over to the army as he goes native. The scene where Colonel Quaritch rips the real Jake Sully out of his Avatar at the end is a welcome reminder of the struggle. The weakness with the story is that by the end the struggle is only a reminder. I wasn’t as engaged with Jake as I was when he first started exploring the world and the decisions he had to make. Cameron does not challenge us with Jake’s decision to reject humanity; he decides for us. At the end of the film there is no chance that Jake has chosen wrongly. I felt cheated, and perhaps this is why people harp on how derivative it is. Instead of inspiring original conflicts of thought within our own psyches, Jake’s climactic decision merely reminds us of issues we’ve seen raised in previous films. A climax can make or break a film. All the material surrounding Jake’s decision to “go native” is stirring, but his actual decision is made too flippantly, and so the climax is wasted.

On the whole, Avatar is wonderful and deserves a place in film history as a great fantasy film, but in Cameron’s canon it lies on the bottom alongside True Lies, or maybe right above it. The action is great, the acting is better than most think, and the special effects are a historical tentpole. The story does not deserve as much criticism as it receives, but the presentation of the story betrays a glaring lack of trust in the audience.

–Nathanael Griffis

James Cameron, Part I: An Overview of the Career of a Visual Effects Auteur

By Nathanael Griffis

With the re-release of Avatar into theaters this past summer, to the simultaneous groans and cheers of fans and critics alike, I found myself thinking about James Cameron. Perhaps he forces me to think about him by loftily describing his personal achievements as world-shaking. The hubris of the artist, though, is not enough to retract my fascination. To some this might feel too late, Avatar was last Christmas, but I believe distance from the film will lend itself to more honest criticism. And so, I want to take a look Cameron’s influence on visual effects throughout his earlier work and implications of such on the resurgence of 3D technology in film.

James Cameron is not exactly a prolific filmmaker–although not as slow as, say, Terrence Malick. Still, Cameron’s films wield such influence that it is worth one’s time to look at each. It all started with The Terminator, about as good a debut as one can have. Utilizing Harryhausen-esque stop-motion, makeup courtesy of Stan Winston, and a perfect combination of models and stuntwork to create the final robot, Cameron delivered chilling action scenes. (Luckily for him, a robot jostling forward in stop-motion looks natural.)

With Aliens, which some content is an improvement over Ridley Scott’s original Alien, Cameron showed a mastery of physical effects. He did simple things, like turning the camera upside-down to make the aliens appear to climb across the ceiling. Actual weather was used on massive, detailed models. Add all that to the magnum opus of expert puppeteer work and foreground miniatures in the final battle with the alien queen. These amazing special effects are perfectly combined with beam- and film-splitting and rear projection.

Cameron’s early work demonstrated a penchant for action choreography that arguably will never be matched, especially in Terminator 2. But before we reach that monumental film, let us not forget The Abyss. Cameron showed us the wonder of the world around us and the mysteries it could hold in this tense underwater thriller. The film developed new facial recognition techniques for the pseudopod sequence that revolutionized CGI (computer graphics imaging) and paved the way for future effects auteurs, especially Peter Jackson and his Gollum. The film also showed that Cameron hadn’t yet abandoned practical effects. He built an entire underwater set in an unused nuclear reactor and accomplished underwater shots that have never been re-attempted in over 20 years.

Terminator 2 was next and and provided a visual feast for the eyes both in terms of physical stuntwork and CGI effects. The film’s numerous chase and fight scenes flawlessly blended Arnold Schwarzenegger’s performance with a CGI liquid terminator, countless explosions (actually, you could probably count them), and excellent makeup from Stan Winston. The film still stands as one of the best uses of CGI and doesn’t merely rival modern techniques but in many cases shames them.

Titanic is a similar example of physical and CGI effects perfectly combined. The sinking cruise ship is amazing to watch, as CGI people tumble off and plummet into the sea below. It is equally engaging as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet race through the sinking ship with hundreds of gallons of water bursting through elevators and unsealed shafts.

On the whole, Cameron has most assuredly changed the landscape of film and visual effects. He’s shown a talent for taking action-thrillers and elevating them to a finer level of art through a meticulous concern for the visual. His films have not been overtly resonant thematically, with the exception of Titanic, but they resonate on some other level inside us. It’s good entertainment; it’s intrinsic quality; it’s viewing an exciting, beautiful image; it’s a dedication to accomplishing the impossible. In these, Cameron is a master.

The question remains, though: Does Avatar improve or impair an already amazing filmography?

–Nathanael Griffis