From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Life After Avatar: Fantasies Whose Time Has Come

On January 18, 2010, James Cameron won the “Best Picture: Drama” Golden Globe for his sci-fi epic Avatar.

Cameron claimed backstage that no sci-fi movie since E.T. has gotten so much respect from the Globes. It’s true that not many sci-fi/fantasy films have won Best Picture (either Musical/Comedy or Drama), though they’re nominated at a decent clip — and certainly make a better showing than at the more restrictive Academy Awards. Recent Golden Globe nominees include The Incredibles, Big Fish, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Inglourious Basterds, and all three movies in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy. (The Return of the King actually won Best Picture: Drama in 2003, so maybe it hasn’t been quite so long between bouts of respect as Cameron would have it.)

But Cameron won, giving weight to his frequent assertion that Avatar would change the way genre film was perceived by Hollywood. (I had thought it was perceived as “A huge moneymaker ever since Lord of the Rings,” but I guess Cameron felt there was still a lot of ground that needed covering? Who knows. It’s a bug hunt, man.)

The question is: if the genre really has been changed, what next?

In deconstructing Avatar‘s success, it’s no secret where its greatest appeal lay. The film, described by Cameron as “a naked engine of commerce,” is a special-effects extravaganza surrounding a lazy, racist storyline that (one hopes) was not the determining factor in assessing the movie’s cinematic contributions. Cameron’s vision, for all intents and purposes, was a two-hour strafing run of carefully-manufactured visuals that would overwhelm audiences and create a new standard for computer effects. (Cameron, who has said he had to wait for technological developments before he could even make the movie as he envisioned, invented some of his own filming and processing technology; the script was probably a little easier to come by.)

Bottom line: Cameron handed over a movie so visually progressive and so narrative-deficient that it’s more or less a two-hour special-effects demo reel for other filmmakers.

So, with that in mind, let’s talk about where such admittedly-groundbreaking technology can be put to better use.

There are two levels on which Cameron’s effects succeeded — scope, and subtlety (I know, right? In a James Cameron movie?). Scope, of course, encompasses the floating mountains and the sweeping forest vistas; subtlety comes in the facial expressions and a resolution so high that CGI skin has pores.

The Flight of Dragons. As much as I give Hollywood the stinkeye for constantly remaking old classics, I have to say that my inner six-year-old would love to see Avatar technology applied to The Flight of Dragons. The story requires enough tech-savvy scope for set pieces like dragon armies and murderous trolls, but with a hero that spends most of the movie trapped in a dragon’s body, the facial-expression technology would come in pretty handy for all that emoting. (My inner six-year-old would also require that the soundtrack not be changed, but I’m sure we can stick that on a contract rider someplace.)

The Left Hand of Darkness. There was a film version of this in the works, but it’s been stuck in production hell since 2004. What better way to shock a little life into it than getting some designers to develop a race of CGI Gethenians with facial features that subtly shift from neuter to gendered during kemmer? Narrow that uncanny valley! (A CGI performance is going to win an acting award sooner or later, right?) Plus, for those who prefer their special effects with a wider lens, there’s an entire ice planet to play with.

What do you think? Any favorite stories, previously-unfilmable, that should get the green light now that Avatar has made almost anything possible?

Genevieve Valentine’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fantasy, Federations, and more. She is a columnist at and Fantasy Magazine. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is forthcoming in 2011. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.

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