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Immersions and final impressions

Posted by Ty Burr  December 31, 2009 12:28 PM

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I've been nubbling over the "Avatar" phenomenon in my mind lately -- wondering what the creation of vivid, immersive 3D environments portends for the future of entertainment and our own relationship with reality.

You remember reality, don't you? The place we live when we don't have our heads stuck in a TV screen or a cellphone or a videogame or an iTouch or a computer screen or any of the hundreds of digital interfaces we encounter every day? The place in which we spend possibly less than half our waking hours?

A few days ago I received an e-mail from a young reader who was thunderstruck by the experience of seeing Cameron's wonderworld. His reaction is probably shared by many:

I have recently seen the movie "Avatar," as well as read your follow up on the movie itself. It is hard for me to explain myself in words or even emotions themselves. I am a 20 year old male, who lives a normal life in this normal world. But after seeing so many movies that have awed me, this one just has done something I can't explain. The non- realistic nature of it makes me want to live it, to actually go to the wonderful place that I have seen in the film. To take my normal, unsatisfying life and transform it into that of which cannot be. It burns so much that once I returned home from the theater it brought tears to my eyes... Hopefully one day we will have technology to go into such a world of beauty and amazement.

For all the obvious reasons, this letter is both touching and frightening. As a culture, we've become so adept at building increasingly compelling fantasy worlds that our waking life is coming to seem a burden -- a gray, ordinary place to which we resentfully return, sharing it as we do with all those other people who, sadly, aren't us. Why bother returning at all, when the entertainment omniverse is at our fingertips 24-7 and we can reach for Facebook first thing in the morning the way some people reach for a smoke? Why jack out when the movies offer total immersion playing to all of us individually, when that immersion is coming to the home screen in a matter of years? The e-mail above makes me think not of technological "worlds of beauty and amazement" but instead of the Matrix and of the atrophied human jellybags of "WALL-E." I wonder how quickly we're dazzling ourselves into inconsequentiality.

For some reason, too, reading that e-mail reminded me of the old anecdote about Sir Alec Guinness in the years following "Star Wars," when he encountered a young boy who claimed to have seen the movie dozens of times and worshiped at the very feet of Obi-Wan Kenobi. Sir Alex leaned down to the boy and said, "You must promise me one thing." "Yes? Yes?" "Promise me you will never, ever watch that movie again."

Tears, recriminations, curses from the kid's mother. But he was right, of course. Our entertainment wonderworlds are a diversion for some, a hugely profitable industry for others, and an addictive replacement for actually living one's life for too many. What depresses me most is how masturbatory so many of these experiences are, playing for our sole amazement and amusement while keeping other humans at bay. (And, no, online gaming doesn't count; it just re-factors other humans as a wild-card element of the fantasy.)

The movies, of course, are still a place of mass voyeurism. We get to hold hands in the dark, whisper to each other (not too loudly, please), compare notes afterwards. If you're lucky enough to live within driving distance of an immersive theater experience like the A.R.T.'s "Sleep No More" -- in which audiences wander through a massive abandoned school sampling a coolly cryptic drama welded together from "Macbeth," "Rebecca," and other sources -- you really do get to share a creative experience with strangers on the fly. Unlike other media, this one's tactile: you're actually there, inches from a living, breathing actor or dashing after him or her down the darkened staircase to see what's next. It's as if the branching narrative style of early interactive fiction had been airlifted into physical fact. ("Sleep No More" has been extended until February, by the way, and is highly, highly recommended. In a way, it's the best movie I saw in all of 2009.)

That communality is fading fast, though. If the 3D glasses partially cut you off from the person you came to "Avatar" with, imagine what the holo-helmets will do in 15 years. I realize these are mighty hypocritical words coming from a man who watches movies for a living and who at this moment is ignoring the perfectly lovely snowfall outside his window to stare instead at a computer screen. (I'll stop soon, I promise). But those words above gall and sorrow me: "To take my normal, unsatisfying life and transform it into that of which cannot be."

Oh, friend, who said your life had to be normal or unsatisfying, or that one had to mean the other? Why not transform it into something it can be: normal and satisfying, or abnormal and satisfying, or whatever it is that satisfies you, not the bottom line of an entertainment corporation? We get, what, 70 to 80 years on this planet at best? Why waste it on another man's pixels?

Happy New Year, kid. Take off the glasses and have a look around. It's real 3D out there and it's amazing.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.

Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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