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Bah Humbug! Are We Past the Point Where Technical Wizardry Can Amaze?

Hmm… I bet Robert Zemickas was expecting a somewhat bigger reaction for the release of the first trailer for his version of A Christmas Carol (aka Jim Carrey plays almost everyone), the follow-up to The Polar Express (aka Tom Hanks plays everyone), than the collective ‘meh’ that it received. I’ve watched the trailer and it looks technically magnificent (and I’m sure it’ll be even more technically impressive in 3D) – but why should I care? If I’m going to put on a pair of glasses and look at something beautiful until it give me a mild headache, shouldn’t I at least be looking at something interesting and intriguing of itself? Are we past the point where technical wonders alone are enough to lure the geeks out in droves?

Here's hoping Santa can bring Zemickis a 150% return on his investment...

Here's hoping Santa can bring Zemickis a 150% return on his investment...

Somewhere James Cameron is getting nervous, particularly with people openly questioning the plotting of his future blockbuster Avatar. All the word of mouth is that the film is a technical masterpiece – a new leap forward in cinema. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that that intrigues me. However, the more I hear about the lame storyline that accompanies this groundbreaking digital work, the more my interest waines. I’ve seen Pocahontas, and I know you’re capable of so much better, Jimbo.

I know I’ll go. And I know that geeks will go. It will be huge at the box office, but will it be huge enough? I don’t claim that Cameron’s film will be to science fiction what Heaven’s Gate was to the western, but it will settle an interesting question. How much do modern audiences care about ‘breakthroughs’ like those offered here? I read an interesting article which suggested that The Final Destination would fare better as an introduction to 3D than Avatar possibly will and it makes some solid points – I’m reluctant to spend three hours being immersed in a fairytale with little blue people, but I’ll readily spend an hour-and-a-half ducking gore – it’s a visceral experience and it doesn’t require the same level of commitment. Three hours of 3D? I think I might faint.

There’s logic to support the argument that mainstream audiences don’t get too excited by technical advancements taken on their own. The most obvious example is the stunning photo-realism of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which still looks amazing. It just couldn’t make it through the story barrier, and could find an audience to engage with its narrative, and bombed. For all the lauding that The Polar Express got as a breakout Imax hit, it only made $178m on a $170m budget. That’s a 5% profit. It isn’t as bad as a loss, but it won’t set the world on fire either.

Compare this with the Imax success of Star Trek, which got into a little bother because technically it wasn’t even Imax. Still, audiences flock to it because the storytelling and characters struck a cord. It was a good film. That it was on a giant screen that it wasn’t really pushing to the limit was besides the point. You could make the argument that Christopher Nolan’s experiments with Imax in The Dark Knight are a rare example of a successful cinematic experiment. It’s true that it was the first time Imax film was used for such a purpose – and it’s true the steps were emulated by other films following – but I don’t believe that just any film using Imax for action sequences would have enjoyed that success.

Even taking CGI as an example, most of us associate the magic of Toy Story as presenting us with the first 3D constructs. Casper was released several months previous to this and features what is regarded as tha first CGI character. And no one cares. Why? Because it isn’t a great movie (sorry, Bill Pullman).

I think we’re seeing a similar situation emerging with 3D technology. Cynics would observe that it only appears to be doing well because the ticket prices are heavily inflated. They’d also observe that most of the moneyspinners – the horror and slasher films like My Bloody Valentine 3D and The Final Destination – are only really successful because they make a fair amount of money on a tiny budget. There’s no real risk there, nor is there any innovation. The other real successes of 3D (to date) are Coraline and Up, two completely engaging films in their own right.

I’m not sure that technical wizardry in itself is enough to put bums in seats. That’s the reason 3D needed a rebirth in the first place – along with a million and one technical marvels that never caught on. You could make the case taht sound and colourisation were huge leaps that the general public were interested in in and of themselves, and you’d be right. They changed Hollywood. Still, the leap from the good 3D of Up to the amazing 3D of Avatar or the CGI of Pixar to the photorealism of A Christmas Carol doesn’t seem to measure up to the jump from black-and-white to colour or from silent to sound.

Maybe there’s only so far we can push technology. Or maybe we need to learn to link digital technology with compelling storytelling. I think that Hollywood tends to over-estimate the technical pedigree and standard of a film as a selling point. I am impressed by A Christmas Carol, sure. But I am far more likely to be won over by the charming, Fantastic Mr. Fox in all his stop-motion glory.

One Response

  1. Hello there,
    Good post, I just stumbled upon it and I’m already a fan.

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