The Way of the Word

10. March 2010

Tron’s Legacy

The second trailer for Tron: Legacy is out, and it has the internet split in two.

Those over 30 experience geekgasms. Those under 30 don’t understand what the big deal is.

Let me help you out with that. First, watch the trailer. If you don’t know the original movie, you won’t get a lot of what makes us old fogeys go “Whoa.” But that’s okay.

Done? Had fun? Now, indulge an old man and watch the trailer of the original Tron, from 1982. I promise that if you do, some of the stuff from the new trailer will make sense.

Done? Great. How did you like the second one? I know, not nearly as cool as the first one. The CGI look horrible and insanely dated, don’t they? The way Jeff Bridges stumbles on some pretty basic (almost primitive) computer-speak dialog is funny. The story is also a major case of “been there, done that,” right? I mean, some guy getting pulled into VR, what’s so hot about that?

What you need to remember is that the original Tron is from 1982. Nobody even knew what cyberspace was. Sure, the term was coined in 1982, but it didn’t enter the public awareness until William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer in 1984. CGI as we know it today didn’t exist. Sure, there had been some computer graphic effects in movies since 1971, but those had always been about someone looking at a computer screen. CGI, as we know it today, can really only be traced back as far as 1982. ILM used some CGI effects in Star Trek 2. Tron was the first movie to use extensive 3D CGI-sequences, and very simple facial animation. Extensive for the time means that 15 minutes of the movie were completely computer-generated.

That dumb shot of the huge virtual face? At the time, unique. First time ever. The first photorealistic CGI-character didn’t appear on the screen until 1985, and he only had 10 seconds of screen time.

Terminator 2? Jurassic Park? Babylon 5? Toy Story? Matrix? Avatar?

None of them would have been possible without Tron.

Regarding Tron’s story, you could say that it’s an old hat. Sure, there were some elements that were not really new. Basically, it’s a story about a god coming into a world of mortals to help fight a great evil. God being called a “user” and the mortals being “programs.” You could also say that it’s a superhero story. That works just as fine.

So what if the world is VR/cyberspace? Again, you’re looking at the wrong context. Remember what I said above, about how the word cyberspace did not even exist when Tron was made? Nobody had any concept of cyberspace. That there could be a world within the computers… at the time, it was a daring concept that boggled the mind. Matrix took it a step farther… 20 years after Tron, when it really was an old hat.

Maybe all of this will give you a certain sense of perspective. Maybe now you understand why Tron is such a big deal for those of us who are over 30.

Tron was in 1982 what Avatar is in 2010: it was the movie that redefined what movies could do. It was the big game changer. It created new possibilities and set a new standard, that everyone who followed had to try and outdo.

In 30 years, your children will ask you why Avatar, this dated movie with that dumb story, is such a big deal to you.  (Actually, considering how much more quickly technology progresses these days, it will probably be much sooner than 30 years.) Then you will explain to them, as I do here, just how different movies were before and after Avatar.

And that is why Tron is such a big deal for us who saw it when it was new. Are the effects dated? Of course. Is the story original? By now, no longer. Is the acting cheesy? Actually, I don’t think so. At least most of the time it’s pretty solid.

Do we, the over-30s, expect Tron: Legacy to be a game-changer, the way its daddy was? I can’t speak for anyone else, but I don’t think so. It will, however, be a good showcase for the advance of CGI since 1982. It will also, I expect, be a great deal of fun, and it is the only movie coming out this year that I will actually make an effort to see in the 3D-version.

I really, really look forward to this one.


12. December 2009

Random Avatar Thoughts

Filed under: movies — jensaltmann @ 10:07
  • Avatar will probably make New Moon numbers at the box office. But I don’t think it will reach Titanic numbers.
  • Expect Titanic 3-D within the year.
  • Avatar will clean up at the awards. But only for the technical awards, like best edit, best cinematography, best light, etc. The “big” awards (best picture, best director, best actor/actress etc.) will go to other movies.
  • James Cameron will probably get a “best director” nomination, but not win the award.
  • If  Stephen Lang doesn’t at least get a “best actor in a supporting role” nomination, there is no justice.
  • You all know that some of the lead actors have signed for two sequels, yes? I’d tell you which, but that would be spoilers. So I won’t.

11. December 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

Filed under: movies,review — jensaltmann @ 09:07
Tags: , ,

Written and directed by James Cameron. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver. Runtime ca. 150 minutes

James Cameron has a new movie out, and its name is Avatar. There has been a lot of advance slamming based on previews and trailers. Heck, I’ve even read message board posts complaining about the movie’s logo. As if people were going to see the movie for the logo.

Nope. They’re going to go see the movie for the effects. They’re going to see the movie because James Cameron made it, and whatever you think of James Cameron, you have to acknowledge that he always gives 110%.

Which he did here, again.

The story is relatively simple: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a wheelchair-confined ex-Marine who gets recruited into the Avatar program on the moon Pandora. Avatars are artificially created hybrids of human and Na’vi DNA that look like Na’vi and can survive in Pandora’s atmosphere (unlike humans). His first time out, Jake establishes contact with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a female Na’vi, and gets her clan to accept him as a student of their ways. Initially, Jake’s plan is to infiltrate the clan so that the corporation he works for can either negotiate a resettlement or find out their weaknesses. Because this particular clan happens to sit on the largest pile of Unobtainium (who named this, George Lucas?) on Pandora, and Unobtainium is the single reason why the corporation came there in the first place. Things go south, of course, when Jake learns to appreciate the Na’vi culture, and falls in love with Neytiri. Jake’s boss, Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) doesn’t appreciate it, so he goes and destroys the clan’s soul tree.  Jake, outcast as a traitor both by the Na’vi and the humans, assembles the clans of Pandora to fight back.

Yes, the story sounds vaguely familiar. The thing is, this movie isn’t about the story, it’s about the making-of. It’s James Cameron pushing the envelope on what can be captured on film, and succeeding brilliantly. The world of Pandora is breathtaking, both in the vistas (the Hallelujah Mountains in particular) and the details. The world was worked out in detail. Avatar shows us most of that detail. Pandora is also proof of just how much Cameron loves the world under the surface of Earth’s oceans.

The merger between live-action and CGI works beautifully. Yes, you can tell which scenes are CGI. It’s the scenes that show something completely alien.  Beyond that, you can’t tell. The detail is incredible, the rendering unbelievable.

Add to that some fantastic 3-D effects, and you have a visually breathtaking movie. Which is what Avatar is all about. As I said, you won’t go to see Avatar for the story; of which Dances With Smurfs (all due credit to South Park) is a fairly good if snarky summary.

Most of the cast spend most of the time in their avatar bodies (of which only Sigourney Weaver’s looks very much like Sigourney Weaver). While that doesn’t affect the quality of their performance, it buries it somewhat under the effects. But that isn’t the only reason why this movie’s breakout performance is Stephen Lang as Col. Quaritch. Quaritch turns out to be the movie’s most nuanced character. He’s the movie’s villain, but up to a point (where he makes a certain decision), he comes across as quite sympathetic.  Lang vanishes into the role, making the character extremely believable. Then again, he’s helped by the fact that most of his scenes are on sets that are human-relatable, so there’s less to distract from his performance.

Politically, the story is very Green. While that echoes a lot of my own values and attitudes, it actually hurts the story. Because I feel that Cameron not only takes the Gaia hypothesis a bit too far. He also doesn’t just preach the Green message, he sledgehammers it home, to the point where even those who sympathize with it will say, “Yeah, I got it the last 15 times you said it, now shut up and let me enjoy the movie.”

The verdict: If you want to be visually amazed, you will be. Check it out.

9. December 2009

Interlude: Travelog

Filed under: movies,workblog — jensaltmann @ 11:27
Tags: , , , , ,

As apparently nobody noticed, I wasn’t here the last two days. I was in Berlin, attending an Avatar press junket.

I’ll blog about the movie later this week.

I arrived in Berlin on Monday afternoon, checked in at the hotel and walked to the cinema where they were showing the preview. On the way, I checked out Checkpoint Charlie and the Christmas market around the Alexanderplatz.

I was very impressed with that Christmas market. It’s unlike every other Christmas market we’ve visited. The one around Alexanderplatz is more like a carnival than a Christmas market. Very fun.

The last time I actually had time to sightsee in Berlin was on September 14, 2001. Obviously not the best time to visit, but we had planned that several months in advance and it was too late to return the tickets. Plus, the weather had sucked.

I had a bit of time to sightsee this time (unlike my previous visits to Berlin in the last couple of months), and I was amazed to see just how much the city has changed in the last 8 years.

On Tuesday, I went to the press junket, where I was part of roundtables interviewing producer Jon Landau, as well as Stephen Lang and Zoe Saldana.

You’ll have to read upcoming issues of Nautilus: Abenteuer und Phantastik for the interviews.

Landau is very enthusiastic about filmmaking, and easily communicates that enthusiasm.

Stephen Lang is not nearly as intimidating in real life. Instead, he’s actually quite friendly and personable. Unless, of course, that is the act. 🙂

Zoe Saldana is even prettier in real life than she is on the screen. Part of that comes from her exuberant and energetic personality. She’s vibrant and funny.

The interviews were fun, all three of them.

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