the march of progress

Avatar’s Best Special Effects

James Cameron has never shied from challenges. And, some would say, potential folly. After all, who starts working on a film — like he did with Avatar — before all the technology to create it exists? Avatar stands alone as a stunning achievement, but one senses that Cameron set out to best some specific effects standard-bearers, from lifelike CG characters to digital stampedes. Do Avatar’s set pieces eclipse these earlier triumphs? In some cases, the answer is a resounding “yes” — other times, it is a progress-rebuffing “no.” We pick the winners.

James Cameron was clearly aiming to create a monster to tweak our pants-wetting inner child, and to be sure, the Thanator is a vibrant, thunderous beast. But Peter Jackson beat him to the punch with the regent of Skull Island in King Kong. Kong never spoke a word — not surprising, given that he’s a giant ape — but you could read every emotion that registered in his supersized simian brain, just as you could sense every muscle beneath his scarred, hairy skin. WINNER: Kong. Not only can the big lug frighten with the best of them, he can elicit genuine pathos.
Sam Worthington’s Jake is a masterpiece of CG performance: expressive, supple, nuanced. Early in the film, while Jake is still getting to know his Avatar body, he is the model of adolescent awkwardness. Later, when he puts his “hero pants” on, Jake seems muscular and assured. Andy Serkis’s Gollum (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), on the other hand, has one mode: pathetic villainy. He loves his ring — and it makes him do terrible, terrible things. The CG accomplished what Frank Oz’s hand up a puppet’s ass did a generation ago: make you believe that a little green dude was real. WINNER: Tie. Gollum’s an indelible character; Jake needs some settling-in time with cinema fans.
Both movies feature a “sticks and stones” society attempting to wage war against an opponent armed with technology so advanced it must feel like sorcery to the stone people. And both feature a symbolic parallel to real-world events — in Jedi’s case, it’s the Vietnam war, and how a militarily inferior opponent can triumph; Avatar blooms in the shadow of 9/11. But only one features walking teddy bears. And that one loses. WINNER: Avatar. Sorry, Ewoks. But you suck.
Brad Bird might be the best director working in cartoons, and in The Incredibles, his headlong pursuit of a kid with insanely fleet feet is a giddy thrill. But it doesn’t quite summon the visceral power of a wild beast marauding through the underbrush, hunting down a newly blue Jake. WINNER: Avatar, for its more palpable sense of peril.
How would you like your 9/11 allegory handled? With the knowing grace provided by an Oscar-winning director, or with the bombastic ham-fistedness of Roland Emmerich, the dude who directed Godzilla? WINNER: Avatar. Cameron’s masterful microcosm of full societal apocalypse is both awe-inspiring in its scale and terrifying in its scope.
Both flicks culminate with swarms upon swarms of combatants, all choking the air with weapon fire. Both pit the human military against creatures from another world. But only one gives you the feeling of riding shotgun with the airborne combatants, makes you feel every swoop, dive, and plunge. WINNER: Avatar. There’s a vertiginous quality here that puts it head and shoulders above ID.
Japan’s animation industry has been fixated on men strapping into exoskeletal power suits for years. Cameron first toyed with the idea in 1986, with Aliens, when Ripley took on the alien queen. Now, with the Quaritch, he’s built himself a digital army of metallic ogres that leave a massive carbon footprint. If only Neill Blomkamp hadn’t created, in the perfectly realized District 9, the superlative guy-strapping-into-a-robot-suit moment earlier this year — Wikus in power armor — then Avatar would’ve had a better shot. WINNER: District 9. Not only was D9’s mecha-suit cool, but getting to see Wikus turn the tables on his own alien infection gave it some real emotional impact.
Steven Spielberg brought CG into the modern age with 1993’s Jurassic Park, and the kineticism of this scene — which saw a herd of these ostrichlike dinosaurs running over Sam Neill — was a prime example of how. But it looks tame compared to the rush of these rhino-esque thunder-beasts. The ground seems to shake as they bear down on the human strike force, pounding them into human-strike-force bits. WINNER: Avatar. Clearly, Cameron’s computer wonks worked out every last bit of the physics of steamrolling a jungle full of invaders.
When Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) takes to the skies over Los Angeles on his maiden voyage in the refined Iron Man armor, it’s a hoot, to be sure — like taking a sports car out for a tipsy joyride. But it doesn’t carry the same dose of destiny fulfilled as when Jake hops on his giant bird-lizard-condor beast, the “banshee” he’ll be bonded with for life. WINNER: Avatar. Not only does it feel like the wind is actually whipping through your hair, it also feels like you could fall off at any time.
Avatar’s Best Special Effects