Tron: Legacy

This review is dedicated to my friends David Surman and Will Brooker.

Part One: We Have Never Been Digital


If Avatar was in fact the “gamechanger” its prosyletizers claimed, then it’s fitting that the first film to surpass it is itself about games, gamers, and gaming. Arriving in theaters nearly a year to the day after Cameron’s florid epic, Tron: Legacy delivers on the promise of an expanded blockbuster cinema while paradoxically returning it to its origins.

Those origins, of course, date back to 1982, when the first Tron — brainchild of Steven Lisberger, who more and more appears to be the Harper Lee of pop SF, responsible for a single inspired act of creation whose continued cultural resonance probably doomed any hope of a career — showed us what CGI was really about. I refer not to the actual computer-generated content in that film, whose 96-minute running time contains only 15-20 minutes of CG animation (the majority of the footage was achieved through live-action plates shot in high contrast, heavily rotoscoped, and backlit to insert glowing circuit paths into the environment and costumes), but instead to the discursive aura of the digital frontier it emits: another sexy, if equally illusory, glow. Tron was the first narrative feature film to serve up “the digital” as a governing design aesthetic as well as a marketing gimmick. Sold as high-tech entertainment event, audiences accepted Lisberger’s folly as precisely that: a time capsule from the future, coming attraction as main event. Tron taught us, in short, to mistake a hodgepodge of experiment and tradition as a more sweeping change in cinematic ontology, a spell we remain under to this day.

But the state of the art has always been a makeshift pact between industry and audience, a happy trance of “I know, but even so …” For all that it hinges on a powerful impression of newness, the self-applied declaration of vanguard status is, ironically, old hat in filmmaking, especially when it comes to the periodic eruptions of epic spectacle that punctuate cinema’s more-of-the-same equilibrium. The mutations of style and technology that mark film’s evolutionary leaps are impossible to miss, given how insistently they are promoted: go to YouTube and look at any given Cecil B. DeMille trailer if you don’t believe me. “Like nothing you’ve ever seen!” may be an irresistible hook (at least to advertisers), but it’s rarely true, if only because trailers, commercials, and other advance paratexts ensure we’ve looked at, or at least heard about, the breakthrough long before we purchase our tickets.

In the case of past breakthroughs, the situation becomes even more vexed. What do you do with a film like Tron, which certainly was cutting-edge at the time of its release, but which, over the intervening twenty-eight years, has taken on an altogether different veneer? I was 16 when I first saw it, and have frequently shown its most famous setpiece — the lightcycle chase — in courses I teach on animation and videogames. As a teenager, I found the film dreadfully inert and obvious, and rewatching it to prepare for Tron: Legacy,  I braced myself for a similarly graceless experience. What I found instead was that a magical transformation had occurred. Sure, the storytelling was as clumsy as before, with exposition that somehow managed to be both overwritten and underexplained, and performances that were probably half-decent before an editor diced them them into novocained amateurism. The visuals, however, had aged into something rather beautiful.

Not the CG scenes — I’d looked at those often enough to stay in touch with their primitive retrogame charm. I’m referring to the live-action scenes, or rather, the suturing of live action and animation that stands in for computer space whenever the camera moves close enough to resolve human features. In these shots, the faces of Flynn (Jeff Bridges), Tron (Bruce Boxleitner), Sark (David Warner), and the film’s other digital denizens are ovals of flickering black-and-white grain, their moving lips and darting eyes hauntingly human amid the neon cartoonage.

Peering through their windows of backlit animation, Tron‘s closeups resemble those in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc — inspiration for early film theorist Béla Balázs’s lyrical musings on “The Face of Man” — but are closer in spirit to the winking magicians of George Méliès’s trick films, embedded in their phantasmagoria of painted backdrops, double exposures, and superimpositions. Like Lisberger, who would intercut shots of human-scaled action with tanks, lightcycles, and staple-shaped “Recognizers,” Méliès alternated his stagebound performers with vistas of pure artifice, such as animated artwork of trains leaving their tracks to shoot into space. Although Tom Gunning argues convincingly that the early cinema of attractions operated by a distinctive logic in which audiences sought not the closed verisimilar storyworlds of classical Hollywood but the heightened, knowing presentation of magical illusions, narrative frameworks are the sauce that makes the taste of spectacle come alive. Our most successful special effects have always been the ones that — in an act of bistable perception — do double duty as story.

In 1982, the buzzed-about newcomer in our fantasy neighborhoods was CGI, and at least one film that year — Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan — featured a couple of minutes of computer animation that worked precisely because they were set off from the rest of the movie, as special documentary interlude. Other genre entries in that banner year for SF, like John Carpenter’s remake of The Thing and Steven Spielberg’s one-two punch of E.T. and Poltergeist (the latter as producer and crypto-director), were content to push the limits of traditional effects methods: matte paintings, creature animatronics, gross-out makeup, even a touch of stop-motion animation. Blade Runner‘s effects were so masterfully smoggy that we didn’t know what to make of them — or of the movie, for that matter — but we seemed to agree that they too were old school, no matter how many microprocessors may have played their own crypto-role in the production.

“Old school,” however, is another deceptively relative term, and back then we still thought of special effects as dividing neatly into categories of the practical/profilmic (which really took place in front of the camera) and optical/postproduction (which were inserted later through various forms of manipulation). That all special effects — and all cinematic “truths” — are at heart manipulation was largely ignored; even further from consciousness was the notion that soon we would redefine every “predigital” effect, optical or otherwise, as possessing an indexical authenticity that digital effects, well, don’t. (When, in 1998, George Lucas replaced some of the special-effects shots in his original Star Wars trilogy with CG do-overs, the outrage of many fans suggested that even the “fakest” products of 70’s-era filmmaking had become, like the Velveteen Rabbit, cherished realities over time.)

Tron was our first real inkling that a “new school” was around the corner — a school whose presence and implications became more visible with every much-publicized advance in digital imaging. Ron Cobb’s pristine spaceships in The Last Starfighter (1984); the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985); the watery pseudopod in The Abyss (1989); each in its own way raised the bar, until one day — somewhere around the time of Independence Day (1996), according to Michele Pierson — it simply stopped mattering whether a given special effect was digital or analog. In the same way that slang catches on, everything overnight became “CGI.” That newcomer to the neighborhood, the one who had people peering nervously through their drapes at the moving truck, had moved in and changed the suburb completely. Special-effects cinema now operated under a technological form of the one-drop rule: all it took was a dab of CGI to turn the whole thing into a “digital effects movie.” (Certain film scholars regularly use this term to refer to both Titanic [1997] and The Matrix [1999], neither of which employs more than a handful of digitally-assisted shots — many of these involving intricate handoffs from practical miniatures or composited live-action elements.)

Inscribed in each frame of Tron is the idea, if not the actual presence, of the digital; it was the first full-length rehearsal of a special-effects story we’ve been telling ourselves ever since. Viewed today, what stands out about the first film is what an antique and human artifact — an analog artifact — it truly is. The arrival of Tron: Legacy, simultaneously a sequel, update, and reimagining of the original, gives us a chance to engage again with that long-ago state of the art; to appreciate the treadmill evolution of blockbuster cinema, so devoted to change yet so fixed in its aims; and to experience a fresh and vastly more potent vision of what’s around the corner. The unique lure (and trap) of our sophisticated cinematic engines is that they never quite turn that corner, never do more than freeze for an instant, in the guise of its realization, a fantasy of film’s future. In this sense — to rephrase Bruno Latour — we have never been digital.

Part Two: 2,415 Times Smarter


In getting a hold on what Tron: Legacy (hereafter T:L) both is and isn’t, I find myself thinking about a line from its predecessor. Ed Dillinger (David Warner), figurative and literal avatar of the evil corporation Encom, sits in his office — all silver slabs and glass surfaces overlooking the city’s nighttime gridglow, in the cleverest and most sustained of the thematic conceits that run throughout both films: the paralleling, to the point of indistinguishability, of our “real” architectural spaces and the electronic world inside the computer. (Two years ahead of Neuromancer and a full decade before Snow Crash, Tron invented cyberspace.)

Typing on a desk-sized touchscreen keyboard that neatly predates the iPad, Dillinger confers with the Master Control Program or MCP, a growling monitorial application devoted to locking down misbehavior in the electronic world as it extends its own reach ever outward. (The notion of fascist algorithm, policing internal imperfection while growing like a malignancy, is remapped in T:L onto CLU — another once-humble program omnivorously metastasized.) MCP complains that its plans to infiltrate the Pentagon and General Motors will be endangered by the presence of a new and independent security watchdog program, Tron. “This is what I get for using humans,” grumbles MCP, which in terms of human psychology we might well rename OCD with a touch of NCP. “Now wait a minute,” Dillinger counters, “I wrote you.” MCP replies coldly, “I’ve gotten 2,415 times smarter since then.”

The notion that software — synecdoche for the larger bugaboo of technology “itself” — could become smarter on its own, exceeding human intelligence and transcending the petty imperatives of organic morality, is of course the battery that powers any number of science-fiction doomsday scenarios. Over the years, fictionalizations of the emergent cybernetic predator have evolved from single mainframe computers (Colossus: The Forbin Project [1970], WarGames [1983]) to networks and metal monsters (Skynet and its time-traveling assassins in the Terminator franchise) to graphic simulations that run on our own neural wetware, seducing us through our senses (the Matrix series [1999-2003]). The electronic world established in Tron mixes elements of all three stages, adding an element of alternative storybook reality a la Oz, Neverland … or Disneyworld.

Out here in the real world, however, what runs beneath these visions of mechanical apocalypse is something closer to the Technological Singularity warned of by Ray Kurzweil and Vernor Vinge, as our movie-making machinery — in particular, the special-effects industry — approaches a point where its powers of simulation merge with its custom-designed, mass-produced dreams and nightmares. That is to say: our technologies of visualization may incubate the very futures we fear, so intimately tied to the futures we desire that it’s impossible to sort one from the other, much less to dictate which outcome we will eventually achieve.

In terms of its graphical sophistication as well as the extended forms of cultural and economic control that have come to constitute a well-engineered blockbuster, Tron: Legacy is at least 2,415 times “smarter” than its 1982 parent, and whatever else we may think of it — whatever interpretive tricks we use to reduce it to and contain it as “just a movie” — it should not escape our attention that the kind of human/machine fusion, not to mention the theme of runaway AI, at play in its narrative are surface manifestations of much more vast and far-reaching transformations: a deep structure of technological evolution whose implications only start with the idea that celluloid art has been taken over by digital spectacle.

The lightning rod for much of the anxiety over the replacement of one medium by another, the myth of film’s imminent extinction, is the synthespian or photorealistic virtual actor, which, following the logic of the preceding paragraphs, is one of Tron: Legacy‘s chief selling points. Its star, Jeff Bridges, plays two roles — the first as Flynn, onetime hotshot hacker, and the second as CLU, his creation and nemesis in the electronic world. Doppelgangers originally, Flynn has aged while CLU remains unchanged, the spitting image of Flynn/Bridges circa 1982.

Except that this image doesn’t really “spit.” It stares, simmers, and smirks; occasionally shouts; knocks things off tables; and does some mean acrobatic stunts. But CLU’s fascinating weirdness is just as evident in stillness as in motion (see the top of this post), for it’s clearly not Jeff Bridges we’re looking at, but a creepy near-miss. Let’s pause for a moment on this question: why a miss at all? Why couldn’t the filmmakers have conjured up a closer approximation, erasing the line between actor and digital double? Nearly ten years after Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, it seems that CGI should have come farther. After all, the makers of T:L weren’t bound by the aesthetic obstructions that Robert Zemeckis imposed on his recent films, a string of CG waxworks (The Polar Express [2004], Beowulf [2007], A Christmas Carol [2009], and soon — shudder — a Yellow Submarine remake) in which the inescapable wrongness of the motion-captured performances are evidently a conscious embrace of stylization rather than a failed attempt at organic verisimilitude. And if CLU were really intended to convince us, he could have been achieved through the traditional retinue of doubling effects: split-frame mattes, body doubles in clever shot-reverse-shot arrangements, or the combination of these with motion-control cinematography as in the masterful composites of Back to the Future 2, which, made in 1989, is only seven years older than the first Tron.

The answer to the apparent conundrum is this: CLU is supposed to look that way; we are supposed to notice the difference, because the effect wouldn’t be special if we didn’t. The thesis of Dan North’s excellent book Performing Illusions is that no special effect is ever perfect — we can always spot the joins, and the excitement of effects lies in their ceaseless toying with our faculties of suspicion and detection, the interpretation of high-tech dreams. Updating the argument for synthespian performances like CLU’s, we might profitably dispose of the notion that the Uncanny Valley is something to be crossed. Instead, smart special effects set up residence smack-dab in the middle.

Consider by analogy the use of Botox. Is the point of such cosmetic procedures to absolutely disguise the signs of age? Or are they meant to remain forever fractionally detectable as multivalent signifiers — of privilege and wealth, of confident consumption, of caring enough about flaws in appearance to (pretend to) hide them? Here too is evidence of Tron: Legacy’s amplified intelligence, or at least its subtle cleverness: dangling before us a CLU that doesn’t quite pass the visual Turing Test, it simultaneously sells us the diegetically crucial idea of a computer program in the shape of human (which, in fact, it is) and in its apparent failure lulls us into overconfident susceptibility to the film’s larger tapestry of tricks. 2,415 times smarter indeed!

Part Three: The Sea of Simulation


Doubles, of course, have always abounded in the works that constitute the Tron franchise. In the first film, both protagonist (Flynn/Tron) and antagonist (Sark/MCP) exist as pairs, and are duplicated yet again in the diegetic dualism of real world/electronic world. (Interestingly, only MCP seems to lack a human manifestation — though it could be argued that Encom itself fulfills that function, since corporations are legally recognized as people.) And the hall of mirrors keeps on going. Along the axis of time, Tron and Tron: Legacy are like reflections of each other in their structural symmetry. Along the axis of media, Jeff Bridges dominates the winter movie season with performances in both T:L and True Grit, a kind of intertextual cloning. (The Dude doesn’t just abide — he multiplies.)

Amid this rapture of echoes, what matters originality? The critical disdain for Tron: Legacy seems to hinge on three accusations: its incoherent storytelling; its dependence on special effects; and the fact that it’s largely a retread of Tron ’82. I’ll deal with the first two claims below, but on the third count, T:L must surely plead “not guilty by reason of nostalgia.” The Tron ur-text is a tale about entering a world that exists alongside and within our own — indeed, that subtends and structures our reality. Less a narrative of exploration than of introspection, its metaphysics spiral inward to feed off themselves. Given these ouroboros-like dynamics, the sequel inevitably repeats the pattern laid down in the first, carrying viewers back to another embedded experience — that of encountering the first Tron — and inviting us to contrast the two, just as we enjoy comparing Flynn and CLU.

But what about those who, for reasons of age or taste, never saw the first Tron? Certainly Disney made no effort to share the original with us; their decision not to put out a Blu-Ray version, or even rerelease the handsome two-disk 20th anniversary DVD, has led to conspiratorial muttering in the blogosphere about the studio’s coverup of an outdated original, whose visual effects now read as ridiculously primitive. Perhaps this is so. But then again, Disney has fine-tuned the business of selectively withholding their archive, creating rarity and hence demand for even their flimsiest products. It wouldn’t at all surprise me if the strategy of “disappearing” Tron pre-Tron: Legacy were in fact an inspired marketing move, one aimed less at monetary profit than at building discursive capital. What, after all, do fans, cineastes, academics, and other guardians of taste enjoy more than a privileged “I’ve seen it and you haven’t” relationship to a treasured text? Comic-Con has become the modern agora, where the value of geek entertainment items is set for the masses, and carefully coordinated buzz transmutes subcultural fetish into pop-culture hit.

It’s maddeningly circular, I know, to insist that it takes an appreciation of Tron to appreciate Tron: Legacy. But maybe the apparent tautology resolves if we substitute terms of evaluation that don’t have to do with blockbuster cinema. Does it take appreciation of Ozu (or Tarkovsky or Haneke or [insert name here]) to appreciate other films by the same director? Tron: Legacy is not in any classical sense an auteurist work — I couldn’t tell you who directed it without checking IMDb — but who says the brand itself can’t function as an auteur, in the sense that a sensitive reading of it depends on familiarity with tics and tropes specific to the larger body of work? Alternatively, we might think of Tron as sub-brand of a larger industrial genre, the blockbuster, whose outward accessibility belies the increasingly bizarre contours of its experience. With its diffuse boundaries (where does a blockbuster begin and end? — surely not within the running time of a single feature-length movie) and baroque textual patterns (from the convoluted commitments of transmedia continuity to rapidfire editing and slangy shorthands of action pacing), the contemporary blockbuster possesses its own exotic aesthetic, one requiring its own protocols of interpretation, its own kind of training, to properly engage. High concept does not necessarily mean non-complex.

Certainly, watching Tron: Legacy, I realized it must look like visual-effects salad to an eye untrained in sensory overwhelm. I don’t claim to enjoy everything made this way: Speed Racer made me queasy, and Revenge of the Fallen put me into an even deeper sleep than did the first Transformers. T:L, however, is much calmer in its way, perhaps because its governing look — blue, silver, and orange neon against black — keeps the frame-cramming to a minimum. (The post-1983 George Lucas committed no greater sin than deciding to pack every square inch of screen with nattering detail.) Here the sequel’s emulation of Tron‘s graphics is an accidental boon: limited memory and storage led in the original to a reliance on black to fill in screen space, a restriction reinvented in T:L as strikingly distinctive design. Our mad blockbusters may indeed be getting harder to watch and follow. But perhaps we shouldn’t see this as proof of commercially-driven intellectual bankruptcy and inept execution, but as the emergence of a new — and in its way, wonderfully difficult and challenging — mode of popular art.

T:L works for me as a movie not because its screenplay is particularly clever or original, but because it smoothly superimposes two different orders of technological performance. The first layer, contained within the film text, is the synthesis of live action and computer animation that in its intricate layering succeeds in creating a genuinely alternate reality: action-adventure seen through the kino-eye. Avatar attempted this as well, but compared to T:L, Cameron’s fantasia strikes me as disingenuous in its simulationist strategy. The lush green jungles of Pandora and glittering blue skin of the Na’vi are the most organic of surfaces in which CGI could cloak itself: a rendering challenge to be sure, but as deceptively sentimental in its way as a Thomas Kinkade painting. Avatar is the digital performing in “greenface,” sneakily dissembling about its technological core. Tron: Legacy, by contrast, takes as its representational mission simulation itself. Its tapestry of visual effects is thematically and ontologically coterminous with the world of its narrative; it is, for us and for its characters, a sea of simulation.

Many critics have missed this point, insisting that the electronic world the film portrays should have reflected the networked environment of the modern internet. But what T:L enshrines is not cyberspace as the shared social web it has lately become, but the solipsistic arena of first-person combat as we knew it in videogames of the late 1970s. As its plotting makes clear, T:L is at heart about the arcade: an ethos of rastered pyrotechnics and three-lives-for-a-quarter. The adrenaline of its faster scenes and the trances of its slower moments (many of them cued by the silver-haired Flynn’s zen koans) perfectly capture the affective dialectics of cabinet contests like Tempest or Missile Command: at once blazing with fever and stoned on flow.

The second technological performance superimposed on Tron: Legacy is, of course, the exhibition apparatus of IMAX and 3D, inscribed in the film’s planning and execution even for those who catch the print in lesser formats. In this sense, too, T:L advances the milestone planted by Avatar, beacon of an emerging mode of megafilm engineering. It seems the case that every year will see one such standout instance of expanded blockbuster cinema — an event built in equal parts from visual effects and pop-culture archetypes, impossible to predict but plain in retrospect. I like to imagine that these exemplars will tend to appear not in the summer season but at year’s end, as part of our annual rituals of rest and renewal: the passing of the old, the welcoming of the new. Tron: Legacy manages to be about both temporal polarities, the past and the future, at once. That it weaves such a sublime pattern on the loom of razzle-dazzle science fiction is a funny and remarkable thing.


To those who have read to the end of this essay, it’s probably clear that I dug Tron: Legacy, but it may be less clear — in the sense of “twelve words or less” — exactly why. I confess I’m not sure myself; that’s what I’ve tried to work out by writing this. I suppose in summary I would boil it down to this: watching T:L, I felt transported in a way that’s become increasingly rare as I grow older, and the list of movies I’ve seen and re-seen grows ever longer. Once upon a time, this act of transport happened automatically, without my even trying; I stumbled into the rabbit-holes of film fantasy with the ease of … well, I’ll let Laurie Anderson have the final words.

I wanted you. And I was looking for you.
But I couldn’t find you.
I wanted you. And I was looking for you all day.
But I couldn’t find you. I couldn’t find you.

You’re walking. And you don’t always realize it,
but you’re always falling.
With each step you fall forward slightly.
And then catch yourself from falling.
Over and over, you’re falling.
And then catching yourself from falling.
And this is how you can be walking and falling
at the same time.

Watching Avatar


Apologies for taking a while to get around to writing about Avatar — befitting the film’s almost absurd graphical heft, the sheer surfeit of its spectacle, I decided to watch it a second time before putting my thoughts into words. In one way, this strategy was useful as a check on my initial enthusiasm; the blissful swoon of first viewing gave way, in the second, to a state resembling boredom during the movie’s more langourous stretches. (Banshee flight training, let’s just say, is not a lightning-fast process.)  But in another way, waiting to write might not have been all that smart, since by now the movie has been discussed to death. Yet for all the hot air and cold type that’s been spent dissecting Avatar, the map of the dialogue still divides neatly into two camps: one insisting that Cameron’s movie is an instant classic of cinematic science fiction, a technological breakthrough and a grand adventure of visual imagination; the other grudgingly admitting that the film is pretty, but beyond that, a trite and obvious story lifted from Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves and populated, moreover, by a bland and predictable set of character-types.

I tend to be forgiving toward experiments as grand as Avatar, especially when they’ve done such a good job laying the groundwork of hopeful expectation. Indeed, as I walked into the theater last week, ripping open the plastic bag containing my 3D glasses, I remember thinking I’d already gotten my money’s worth simply by looking forward so intensely to the experience. There’s also the matter of auteurist precedent: James Cameron has built up an enormous amount of goodwill — and, dare I say it, faith — with his contributions of Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and Aliens to the pantheon of SF greatness. (I’m also a closet fan of Battle Beyond the Stars, the derivative but fun 1980 Roger Corman production on which Cameron served as art director and contributed innovative visual effects.)

So I’m not fussed about whether Avatar‘s story is particularly deep or original. This is, to me, a case of the dancer over the dance; the important thing is not the tale, but Avatar‘s telling of it. And I’m sympathetic to the argument that in such a technically intricate production, a relatively simple narrative gearing is required to anchor audiences and lead them, as in a rail game, along a precise path through the jungle. (That said, Cameron’s first “scriptment” was apparently a much more complex and nuanced saga, and one wonders to what degree his narrative ambitions were stripped away as the humongous physical nature of the undertaking became clear.) Cameron is correctly understood as a techno-auteur of the highest order, a man who doesn’t make films so much as build them, and if he has, post-Titanic, become complicit in fanning the flames of his own worshipful publicity, we ought to take that as simply another feat of engineering — in this instance discursive rather than digital. It would hardly be the first time (I’m looking at you, Alfred Hitchcock) and is certainly better-deserved than some (I’m looking at you, George Lucas).

Did I like Avatar? Very much so — but as I indicated above, this is practically a foregone conclusion; to disavow the thing now would be tantamount to aesthetic seppuku. Of course, in the strange numismatics of fandom, hatred is just the other side of the coin from veneration, and the raging “avatolds” (as in, You just got avatold!) of 4chan may or may not realize that, love it or hate it, we’re all playing in Cameron’s world now. And what a world it is, literally! Avatar the film is something of a delivery system for Pandora the planet (OK, moon), an act of subcreation so extensive it has generated its own wiki. The detailed landscapes we see in the movie are merely the topmost layer of a topography and ecosystem fathoms deep, an enormous bank of 3D assets and encyclopedic autotextuality that, now established as a profitable pop-culture phenomenon, stands ready for extrapolation and exploration in transmedia to come. (Ironic, then, that a launching narrative so opposed to stripmining is itself destined to be mined, or in Jason Mittell’s evocative term, drilled.)

And in this sense, I suspect, we can locate a double meaning to the idea of the avatar, or tank-grown alien body driven by human operators via direct neural link. A biological vessel designed to allow visitors to explore an alien world, the story’s avatars are but metaphors for Avatar the movie, itself a technological prosthesis for viewers hungry to experience new landscapes (and for whom the exotics of Jersey Shore don’t cut it). 3D, IMAX, and great sound systems are merely sensory upgrades for our cinematic avatarialism, and as I watched the audience around me check the little glowing squares of their cell phones, my usual dismay was mitigated by the notion that, like the human characters in the movie, they were merely augmenting their immersion with floating GUIs and HUDs.

My liking for the film isn’t entirely unalloyed, and deep down I’m still wondering by what promotional magic we have collectively agreed to see Avatar as a live-action movie with substantial CG components rather than a CG animated film (a la Up, or more analogously Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within) into which human performances have cunningly been threaded. Much has been made of the motion-capture technology by which actors Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver et al performed their roles into one end of a real-time rendering apparatus while Cameron peered into a computer display — essentially his own avatarial envoy to Pandora — directing his troupe through their videogame doubles. But this is merely the latest sexing-up of an “apparatus” as old as cinema, by which virtual bodies are brought to life on an animation stand, their features and vocals synched to a dialogue track (and sometimes reference footage of the original performances).

Cameron’s nifty trick, though, has always been to frame his visual and practical effects in ways that lend them a crucial layer of believability. I’m not talking about photorealism, that unreachable horizon (unreachable precisely because it’s a moving target, a fantasized attribute we hallucinate within the imaginary body of cinema: as Lacan would put it, in you more than you). I’m talking about the way he cast Arnold Schwarzenegger as the human skin around a robotic core in the Terminator films, craftily selling an actor of limited expressiveness through the conceit of a cyborg trying to pass as human; Arnold’s stilted performance, rather than a disbelief-puncturing liability, became proof of his (diegetically) mechanoid nature, and when the cutaways to stop-motion stand-ins and Stan Winston’s animatronics took over, we accepted the endoskeleton as though it had been there all along, the real star, just waiting to be discovered. An identical if hugely more expensive logic underlies the human-inhabited Nav’i of Avatar: if Jake Sully’s alien body doesn’t register as absolutely realistic and plausible, it’s OK — for as the editing constantly reminds us, we are watching a performance within a performance, Sully playing his avatar as Worthington plays Sully, Cameron and his cronies at WETA and ILM playing us in a game of high-tech Russian nesting dolls. The biggest “special effect” in Cameron’s films is the way in which diegesis and production reality collapse into each other.

I’m not saying that Avatar isn’t revolutionary, just that amid the more colorful flora and fauna of its technological garden we should be careful to note that other layer of “movie magic,” the impression of reality that is as much a discursive and ideological production as any clump of pixels pushed through a pipeline. We submit, in other words, to Avatar‘s description of itself as a step forward, an excursion into a future cinema as alien and exhilarating as anything to be found on Pandora, and that too is part of the spell the movie casts. Yet the animating spirit behind that future cinema — the ghost in the machine — remains the familiar package of hopes and beliefs we always bring to the darkened theater: the desire to escape into another body, and when the adventure is over, to wake up and go home.

Awaiting Avatar

Apparently Avatar, which opened on Friday at an immersive neural simulation pod near you, posits an intricate and very real connection between the natural world and its inhabitants: animus in action, the Gaia Hypothesis operationalized on a motion-capture stage. If this is so — if some oceanic metaconsciousness englobes and organizes our reality, from blood cells to weather cells — then perhaps it’s not surprising that nature has provided a perfect metaphor for the arrival of James Cameron’s new film in the form of a giant winter storm currently coloring radar maps white and pink over most of the eastern seaboard, and trapping me and my wife (quite happily) at home.

Avatar comes to mind because, like the blizzard, it’s been approaching for some time — on a scale of years and months rather than hours and minutes, admittedly — and I’ve been watching its looming build with identical avidity. I know Avatar’s going to be amazing, just as I knew this weekend’s storm was going to be a doozy (the expectation is 12-18 inches in the Philadelphia area, and out here in our modest suburb, the accumulation is already enough to make cars look as though they have fuzzy white duplicates of themselves balanced on their roofs). In both cases, of course, this foreknowledge is not as monolithic or automatic a thing as it might appear. The friendly meteorologists on the Weather Channel had to instruct me in the storm’s scale and implacability, teaching me my awe in advance; similarly, we all (and I’m referring here to the entire population of planet earth) have been well and thoroughly tutored in the pleasurable astonishment that awaits us when the lights go down and we don our 3D glasses to take in Cameron’s fable of Jake Sully’s time among the Na’vi.

If it isn’t clear yet, I haven’t seen Avatar. I’m waiting out the weekend crowds (and, it turns out, a giant blizzard) and plan to catch a matinee on Tuesday, along with a colleague and her son, through whose seven-year-old subjectivity I ruthlessly intend to focalize the experience. (I did something similar with my nephew, then nine, whom I took to see The Phantom Menace in 1999; turns out the prequels are much more watchable when you have an innocent beside you with no memory of what George Lucas and Star Wars used to be.) But I still feel I know just about everything there is to know about Avatar, and can name-drop its contents with confidence, thanks to the broth of prepublicity in which I’ve been marinating for the last several weeks.

All of that information, breathlessly assuring me that Avatar will be either complete crap (the /tv/ anons on 4chan) or something genuinely revolutionary (everyone else), partakes of a cultural practice spotlighted by my friend Jonathan Gray in his smart new book Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts. While we tend to speak of film and television in an always-already past tense (“Did you see it?” “What did you think?”), the truth is something very different. “Films and television programs often begin long before we actively seek them out,” Jon observes, going on to write about “the true beginnings of texts as coherent clusters of meaning, expectation, and engagement, and about the text’s first initial outposts, in particular trailers, posters, previews, and hype” (47). In this sense, we experience certain media texts a priori — or rather, we do everything but experience them, gorging on adumbration with only that tiny coup de grace, the film itself, arriving at the end to provide a point of capitation.

The last time I experienced anything as strong as Avatar‘s advance shockwave of publicity was with Paranormal Activity (and a couple of years ago before that with Cloverfield), but I am not naive enough to think such occurrences rare, particularly in blockbuster culture. If anything, the infrequency with which I really rev up before a big event film suggests that the well-coordinated onslaught is as much an intersubjective phenomenon as an industrial one; marketing can only go so far in setting the merry-go-round in motion, and each of us must individually make the choice to hop on the painted horse.

And having said that, I suppose I may not be as engaged with Avatar‘s prognosticatory mechanisms as I claim to be.  I’ve kept my head down, refusing to engage fully with the tableaux being laid out before me. As a fan of science-fiction film generally, and visual effects in particular, this seemed only wise; in the face of Avatar hype, the only choices appear to be total embrace or outright and hostile rejection. I want neither to bless nor curse the film before I see it. But it’s hard to stay neutral, especially when a film achieves such complete (if brief) popular saturation and friends who know I study this stuff keep asking me for my opinion. (Note: I am very glad that friends who know I study this stuff keep asking me for my opinion.)

So, a few closing thoughts on Avatar, offered in advance of seeing the thing. Think of them as open-ended clauses, half-told jokes awaiting a punchline; I’ll come back with a new post later this week.

  • Language games. One aspect of the film that’s drawn a great deal of attention is the invention of a complete Na’vi vocabulary and grammar. Interesting to me as an example of Cameron’s endless depth of invention — and desire for control — as well as an aggressive counter to the Klingon linguistics that arose more organically from Star Trek. Will fan cultures accrete around Avatar as hungrily as they did around that more slowly-building franchise, their consciousness organized (to misquote Lacan) by a language?
  • Start the revolution without me. We’ve been told repeatedly and insistently that Avatar is a game-changer, a paradigm shift in science-fiction storytelling. For me, the question this raises is not Is it or isn’t it? but rather, What is the role of the revolutionary in our SF movies, and in filmmaking more generally? How and why, in other words, is the “breakthrough” marketed to us as a kind of brand — most endemically, perhaps, in movies like Avatar that wear their technologies on their sleeve?
  • Multiple meanings of “Avatar.” The film’s story, as by now everyone knows, revolves around the engineering of alien bodies in which human subjectivities can ride, a kind of biological cosplay. But on another, artifactual level, avatarial bodies and mechanisms of emotional “transfer” underpin the entire production, which employs performance capture and CG acting at an unprecedented level. In what ways is Avatar a movie about itself, and how do its various messages about nature and technology interact with that supertext?