Alice's avatar

By Daniel Holz | March 8, 2010 9:16 am

In honor of the Oscars, I spent last night watching a movie. It was set on another world, populated by exotic flora and fauna (e.g., a blue creature with a long tail). The good inhabitants of this world live as one with all nature, and refuse to kill or do harm. A caucasian human shows up, and saves the world from disaster by being brave enough to kill. The movie was in 3-D, creatively combining real-action and animation, and was lushly filmed with dramatic scenes of waterfalls and forests and mountains. The movie’s title starts with the letter “A”.

Of course, I’m talking about Alice in Wonderland. What, is there some other movie you were thinking of? Spoilers follow (although it’s not the type of movie that gets spoiled), so if you’re hyper-sensitive about such things (as I am), cease reading now.

Alice and Avatar make an excellent study in contrasts. They both use the same canvas, and there are remarkable superficial similarities between the two. However, I found Alice to be much more interesting and satisfying as a film. Avatar, as the entire world seems to have noted, has a completely mundane and predictable story, with a sound-byte message. Within about ten minutes of the film, you know more-or-less the full arc. It’s a reasonable story, with lots of visual candy, and I can’t say I was bored (which is saying a lot for a three hour film). But, at least for me, it left little mark. To go to such great lengths to build up an entire world, you’d think you’d have something profoundly new and interesting to say. Sean does a nice job of summarizing some of Avatar’s failings.

Alice in Wonderland (Tim Burton)I found Alice, on the other hand, to be much more entertaining. For any self-respecting science geek, having a movie which revolves around a vorpal sword has to warm the cockles of your heart. But there’s substance behind all of the talking flowers and Jabberwocks. For example, consider the good and bad queens. They had interesting, quirky personalities, and didn’t play directly to stereotype. In Avatar, these roles would have been completely one dimensional. In Alice, the Red Queen has moments of doubt, and seems genuinely surprised that she is not loved. Images of hearts proliferate, to no avail. The White Queen, meanwhile, swats at “dragonflies” while professing her love for all creatures. She seems somewhat annoyed that she’s not allowed to wreak mayhem on her rival, as if she’s struggling within the bounds of the “good queen” convention. There are subtle physical manifestations as well: her snow white hair is dark underneath, and she has slightly dark circles about her eyes. The distance between the two queens (and sisters) is not as great as it initially appears. These satisfying levels of grey give the characters more depth and nuance (something that is completely absent in Avatar). Alice demands that the viewer do some work; the movie does not present everything neatly wrapped with a bow. The moral of the film is left a bit hazy. It has something to do with letting your imagination run wild. Resisting convention. Living in the world you want, rather than the one you find. At the end of Avatar, the main character remains on Pandora. Alice, on the other hand, chooses to leave Wonderland and return to London. Which film is more courageous?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Arts
  • http://pantheon.yale.edu/~pwm22/ Peter Morgan

    Perhaps also to be considered is the math content?
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/07/opinion/07bayley.html
    A nice theory concerning Charles Dodgson.

  • http://tetrahedral.blogspot.com/ Steven Colyer

    The New York Times article is a highly abridged version of Bayley’s article that originally appeared in New Scientist. The full article broken out can be seen by going to this page:

    http://tetrahedral.blogspot.com/2010/03/alice-in-algebraland.html

  • locke

    Nothing you’ve said about Avatar is wrong: I’ve not been tempted to see it again, even FOR the amazing, ground breaking visuals. However, I’m not going to see Alice at all for the simple reason that it stars Johnny Depp, whom I can’t come close to tolerating. Nobody is leaping across burning roofs with someone’s else’s kids under their arms, so I don’t think it’s accurate to call ANY film “courageous”.

  • http://pleion.blogspot.com Bjørn Østman

    However, I found Alice to be much more interesting and satisfying as a film. Avatar, as the entire world seems to have noted, has a completely mundane and predictable story, with a sound-byte message.

    I saw Alice yesterday, but haven’t seen Avatar. However predictable Avatar may have been, saying the opposite about Alice, despite admittedly interesting characters (the queens), is way off the mark, in my opinion. I found the story totally predictable, and was bored through my teeth. Except for the parts before falling down the hole; if they had skipped all the Wonderland nonsense, that could have been an interesting and amusing story.

  • J.J.E.

    I found neither Alice nor Avatar to have a very interesting story. If I had to rank them in order of story only, I’d have to say that Alice > Avatar, though it isn’t because Alice was awesome, but because Avatar’s story posessessed essentially the same level sophistication as a pre-literate toddler’s story book. The characters in Alice were pretty quirky and interesting, and as Daniel points out, had some potential for character development absent in Avatar. Alas, there was only the potential. Those characters never got developed to my satisfaction.

    On the other hand, as a complete movie-going experience, I’d have to say that Avatar edged Alice. In both, I was fidgeting in my chair (in boredom) as the movies drug on. And in both, the solution to the boredom was to get lost in the wonderful effects that both posessed. And in this aspect, Avatar rocked. Alice was pretty amazing, but Avatar is a new breed.

    The biggest disappointment vis-a-vis expectations was Avatar, though. But as a showcase for a new level of CG immersion, I guess it doesn’t hurt to do a dry run in a simplistic children’s storybook first. Very hard to mess up plot on something like that. For the next application of this tech, it better be awesome, though.

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    Note that Alice was not planned in 3-D, but this was added at a late stage (relatively easy to do with a mostly computer-generated film) in an obvious effort to cash in on the trend. The 2-D version might be preferable.

    Not seeing it because of Depp? Don’t worry; he’s not the main focus.

    Good review: http://www.reelviews.net/php_review_template.php?identifier=2031

  • http://www.astro.multivax.de:8000/helbig/helbig.html Phillip Helbig

    “For any self-respecting science geek, having a movie which revolves around a vorpal sword has to warm the cockles of your heart. ”

    Not really. Yes, such objects appear in D&D and similar geeky role-playing games. However, the ORIGIN of the term is Jabberwocky, a poem by Lewis Carroll, who also wrote the Alice books: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vorpal .

    Of course, Carroll was the pen name of Charles Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician. Anyone even remotely interested in the Alice Books, or Carroll in general, should read Martin Gardner’s annotated Alice and annotated The Hunting of the Snark.

  • jick

    @3 locke:

    Not enough courage in the movies, eh?

    Just wait until I finish my dream project, “Inferno: the revenge of Texas chainsaw kidnappers!”

  • drunk

    You mean you are not excited, entertained, by the mighty high tech military machine blowing up everything in Avatar? Not awed by the Shock & Awe destruction of a pristine wonderful foreign land? Not energized by all the killings of foreign beings? Not inspired by the super wise caucasian mantra of ‘diplomacy first, but make sure it fails’ then reluctantly serve God’s destiny of plunder?

    How un-American are you??

    No wonder Avatar didn’t win best picture and best director. It dares to put a bad light on America imperial war culture.

  • paul

    I saw it at the weekend, and in the ads before it they showed the DOCTOR WHO series 5 trailer … in 3D!!!

  • http://www.illuminatingreality.com Brando

    Actually, making “Alice” a 3D film when it was originally shot 2D was NOT a relatively easy thing to do. To “dimensionalize” the film after the fact required an army of 3D artists to match move proxy geometry to match the actors’ every move – this includes their hair and clothes. This had to be fairly precise and the process would often take one artist days to do just one plate in one shot. Next the original film plate is projected onto the proxy geometry in camera space (ie projected through the camera) – there is very little room for error in this stage. Finally, a stereo camera rig is used in 3D to render out new plate elements that are binocular-accurate – each for left and right eyes.

    Only then can this be brought into compositing with the CG environments and other elements to create a stereoscopic final. This is the process in a nutshell, but it is not a simple one. Animated convergence points and mismatched focal lengths between elements make it all more complicated. Making stereoscopic films isn’t twice as difficult – it’s four times more difficult…

  • http:/teleprestexan.blogspot.com/ Stephen Daugherty

    I find the criticism of Avatar to be unwarranted.

    I think the movie works on an implicit level that needs to be recognized. Avatar does not break ground in plot or characterization, but the acting and the reality of the world was simply breathtaking to behold.

    As a person who has worked with Computer animation as a hobby, I can tell you that very little goes into creating CGI worlds that you don’t have to supply yourself. You have to simulate or at least fake convincingly all the things a camera does naturally and automatically. You have to simulate or fake convincingly all the things that light does from surfaces. You have to simulate or fake convincingly the physical interactions between objects.

    I’m not a stickler for utter realism with CGI. The Uncanny valley doesn’t scare me away. But I can respect when somebody’s crossed a boundary. I didn’t go in expecting the level of photoreal quality with Avatar that I found.

    Avatar, in my opinion, succeeds in taking the simple story and stock characters and giving them a natural life that is as immersive in 2-D as it must be in 3-D. It’s not the worlds best movie, but it is a truly important film which will change the look and the feel of cinema from this point out.

  • http://www.lindseywiebe.com/blog/ lindsey wiebe

    I found Alice to be by far the worse movie. It could have been great – you can tell, every now and then. But it really seemed like some marketing committee came in at some point and reconfigured everything. A dark fantasy with complex themes, a beautiful, immersive world, and an interesting re-imagining of an old story… but please dumb down the narrative so that children under ten can follow it, make sure to over-emphasize the (flimsy) motivations of the characters, and for god’s sake make sure that maudlin phrase is repeated later in the movie for emotional effect.

    In Avatar, I was immediately drawn into the fantasy and spectacle, and the ho-hum story barely distracted me. In Alice, I was constantly pulled out of the story, and all I could do was frown at the waste of gorgeous character and set designs.

  • http://casseywatson.vox.com Jalisa Kupihea

    I really like the Avatar 3D film, particularly the story line, not solely it brings a totally new sensation however eye opening ideas of humanity. I heard the New Avatar 2 is comming soon, cannot wait to watch it again…!

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