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Published January 12, 2010

After a month in theaters, “Avatar” is still just as relevant ever. With over a $1 billion worldwide box office gross so far, James Cameron’s dream project may ultimately become the most financially successful film of all time (if you ignore inflation adjustment, of course). But will the movie have long-term effects for gamers? And will the 3D technology used here trickle down to your living room anytime soon? In this new column, Justin and Nick discuss the potential cultural impact of “Avatar” on our favorite pastime.

Justin: I watched a 3D screening of “Avatar” a couple weeks ago, and I’ll admit that I’m a little sick of the coverage this movie has received, a huge box-office take be damned. While I found much to like about the film, which is why Nick and I are dual-blogging here, I found the plot and thinly drawn characters to be utterly forgettable. I think if you take even a not-so-close look at the logistics of the Avatar program and the supposed diplomatic mission to Pandora, it makes little sense, and there are a bunch of other nagging issues that bug the hell out of me. Not trying to be a downer, but I want to make it clear that I have a lot of issues that I’m ignoring for the sake of this conversation before we proceed.

That said, I love those glowing helicopter lizards. And the hair-tentacle fusion stuff between the Na’vi and Pandoran wildlife. And the bioluminescent fauna that lights up when Jake walks by at night. Throughout the entire 2+ hour experience, I kept thinking about how much the planet reminded me of the Panzer Dragoon series, most notably Orta, and I was unsurprised when Nick mentioned that he picked up a similar video game vibe during his viewing. The movie, both thematically and visually, seems reminiscent of many recent gaming favorites, and I thought it would be fun to explore the symbiotic relationship between Hollywood and our industry that’s cropped up in recent years. So Nick, I was hoping you could touch a bit upon the “virtual world” theme that you were talking about last night…

Nick: I would be happy to, but first, let me provide a little context on my experience with “Avatar.” Perhaps the most telling sign of my opinion is the fact that I spent roughly nine hours of my holiday break watching Cameron’s 3D epic come to life – coming from a guy that usually never sees a movie twice, that’s a pretty big deal. But as someone who can be quick to give an opinion on a game I’ve never even played, I was completely enthralled with the film – it’s characters, art and yes, even plot – without really understanding why. All I knew was that I loved it, and I wanted to see it again. And again.

After about a week of thought and conversation, it’s become clear that one of the reasons why “Avatar” stuck a deep chord with me is due to its direct appeal to my gamer side. To say nothing about the stunning CG and beautiful characters, in my opinion, it’s the “virtual world” concept that Cameron uses as the basis of the movie – that we can inhabit other bodies as an “escape” – that shines through the brightest. Not to say that other movies haven’t touched upon or used the idea (lest I have die-hard “Matrix” or “Lawnmower Man” fans breathing down my neck, and god I hope the latter don’t exist), but “Avatar” stands out in my mind as the the first film where the idea of escaping into that “virtual world” is actually an acceptable, even preferable practice. Watching Jake, the main character, become addicted to his second life as a Na’vi, to the point where he doesn’t care about his personal appearance or grooming practices, rings far too close to home for anyone who’s truly been in love with an hour-melting game. I wonder how many Everquest or World of Warcraft players would transfer their consciousness to their in-game avatars if they were given the same opportunity that Jake was.

Justin: I think that sense of escapism extends beyond MMORPGs, too. During all of Jake’s leaps and bounds, particularly the few he takes when he’s first transferred into his Avatar, there was the same freedom of movement and exploration that platforming greats like Super Mario Galaxy and Uncharted 2 encourage. (Pandora’s lush jungles definitely remind me of the latter game.) Jake never thought he’d be able to walk again, which makes the Avatar program particularly enticing. His host body makes the impossible possible, and I think that’s often why we play games.

Maybe it’s just me, but I feel that “Avatar” is one of many recent films that seem to reinforce a symbiotic relationship between the game industry and Hollywood. While we hear all the time about how Grand Theft Auto and Metal Gear Solid want to be movies, James Cameron wants the “Avatar” experience to be almost interactive – it’s definitely game-like in its pacing – with 3D imagery that can (ideally) immerse you completely into an alien world. As we hear about 3D televisions being shown at CES, it seems like the lines between gaming and cinema could begin to blur. Cameron, above all else, is a technology guy, and while he may be mostly interested in bringing audiences to the theater, I could see him latching onto game development more as displays become more sophisticated.

Nick: It immediately reminds me of seeing Steven Spielberg’s name attached to the front of Boom Blox – whether or not the title sold well because of him, I’m really not sure, but it would definitely be interesting to see Cameron’s take on games given how well he can suck me into his non-interactive worlds. But I think you’re spot-on in terms of the symbiotic relationship between movies and games – you can’t play more than two minutes of Bethesda’s WET without being bludgeoned over the head by the development team’s Tarantino influence. Unfortunately, I don’t think there are many examples of films or games that have been able to effectively channel the interactive nature or supreme story-telling that signals the best of either medium. Although there’s blame to be had on both sides, I’m quick to glare at the game industry for continuously giving us control over trite, action-oriented “cool” movie experiences and shying away from “meaningful” ones. Mass Effect 2 and Heavy Rain can’t come soon enough.

I also find it interesting that several outlets have voiced the same issue with “Avatar” that they have with other big-title games – anxiety over supporting a “huge-budget” title. Although I really don’t enjoy riding on the back of whatever hype train comes rolling through pop-culture station, I feel powerless to fight this increasing trend of enormous budgets being tied to enormous success, especially when they arrive via quality titles like “Avatar” and Modern Warfare 2. Is that extra layer of shimmer and shine worth the $100 million bridge across the uncanny valley?

Justin: That’s the thing, though – while I enjoyed those experiences, I’m not sure their quality justifies the outrageous price tags. You feel powerless not because these titles are so riveting, but because that’s where major studios are putting their advertising dollars. Even as the snobby indie film fan, I don’t know how to fight this either.

If box office money was really a barometer of excellence, “District 9” should have enjoyed the same level of success as “Avatar.” Cameron clearly squeezed every last pixel out of his special effects budget, but Blomkamp got quite a bit of shimmer from his estimated $30 million, too. (I would even say that the interaction between the prawns and humans was just as seamless as some of the battles in “Avatar.”) If we’re looking at big budget, “video-game-like” movies, I think “District 9” is the model to follow. While the South African parable will eventually be recognized as the better film – trust me – the lasting legacy of “Avatar” will be for ushering 3D into theaters,* and gaming will benefit from that down the road.

*…even if my astigmatism-ized eyes can’t tell the difference.

Not to derail our conversation, but everyone who cares about big budget sci-fi or game-to-film adaptations should check out a recent L.A. Times interview with Neil Blomkamp. Here, he espouses the virtues of gaming, including some behind-the-shoulder shots ripped straight from the modern third person shooter, as well as why so many previous efforts have failed. It thematically ties into a lot of what we’ve been talking about here.

Nick: And yet, I can’t easily pin down the powerless feeling I get with giant marketing budgets. To “Avatar” team’s credit, Michael Bay’s marketing team can throw all of the money they want at me (and I know they had quite a bit), but I still haven’t been suckered into the tornado of filth that was “Transformers 2.” It’s that same “love-to-hate” feeling that creeps up inside me any time I see a major title I’m not fond of receive loads of media attention – while I certainly don’t want to fan the flames, I’m reluctant to be left out in the cold either.

Overall however, I think we’re only going to see this blurring trend between games, movies and other media in general continue to increase. With every medium looking to another for both creative inspiration and financial solutions, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear of franchise ideas being nixed in the first place because of a lack of game or film “potential.” Whether “Avatar” will be looked back upon as a bridge or milestone between games, movies and 3D, I really have no clue. I’ll let Cameron, critics and society decide that. Meanwhile, I’ll be over here doing what I do best – shelling out my money and time for those experiences that can immerse me in something fantastically different.

One Comment

  1. Hargrada Hargrada

    The 3D tech angle kinda worries me a bit. I just recently got into the HD TV race, and now the next advancement is on the horizon?!

    As for Avatar, I haven’t seen it and i’m probably not gonna try to anytime soon (i’ll netflix it). Despite the praise it’s gettin, I just don’t feel the need to rush out and see it right now.

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