Hollywood's 'Shock and Awe' Moment

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“Avatar,” James Cameron’s new movie--you know, the one with the giant blue humanoids--is a huge hit. Perhaps the hugest ever: some observers are speculating that its box-office take will even surpass the previous ticket-sales champion, “Titanic,” which Cameron also directed.

Frankly, I am not surprised. As I wrote in Fox Forum more than two weeks ago, the film is “a pathbreaking techno-artistic expression.” And people will pay to see cinematic miracles-they always have.

It’s important to remember that movies got their start as special effects, and little else. Beginning in the late 1890s, people paid a penny, or a nickel, to see a train rushing at them, or a wave washing over them. Yes, folks back then knew they were seeing an illusion--they had gone into a room to watch a silent black-and-white motion picture--but even so, the experience was so overwhelming, relative to anything that they had ever seen before, that sober adults would go diving out of their chairs to avoid the illusory train or wave.

That’s how the movies got their start. And in 1902, the Frenchman Georges Méliès blew everyone away with “A Trip to the Moon.” It was the entertainment equivalent of “shock and awe.”

Soon enough, the movies branched into comedies, and dramas, and everything else, including sound and color. But when Hollywood really wanted to make a splash, it was with something huge and impressive--whether it was the epic sweep of “Birth of a Nation” (1915), or the pageantry of “Intolerance” (1916), to name two ambitious films from the legendary D.W. Griffith. And did I mention Cecil B. DeMille, whose Biblical epics wowed audiences from the 20s to the 50s? Or Busby Berkeley and his magical musicals?

Meanwhile, other entertainment media, competing with movies, struggled to catch up--and did. Radio and TV proved themselves to be the equal of movies when it came to comedy and drama, and they were a lot more convenient. And theme parks, such as Disneyland, proved that different technology--the Disneyites called it “imagineering”--could create new physical realities that people would stand in long lines to experience. And let’s not forget videogames, which in the last 30 years have been routinely cranking out profound out-of-body experiences. Indeed, by some measures, the videogame industry is bigger now than the movies. And soon enough, we will have robust and persuasive virtual reality on the Internet; people will pay good money for that.

In the face of all this technical competition, the movie industry has been relatively passive. Technicolor, for example, dates back to the 20s, and from an audience point of view, it has barely been improved upon since--as anyone who sees “The Wizard of Oz” or “Gone With the Wind,” both released in 1939, can attest. And Hollywood has been toying with 3-D since the 50s, and with Dolby sound since the 60s, and yet keeping movies at the cutting edge of technological innovation--really knocking the socks off the folks--wasn’t much of a priority.

Until James Cameron. More than any other director--more than George Lucas, more than Steven Spielberg, more even than Ridley Scott--Cameron has pushed the edge of the techno-envelope. And in so doing, he has kept movies at the forefront of invention and innovation.

As we all know, the “Terminator” was cool--remember the neat “headsup display” that we saw in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s field of vision in the films? Talk about something that vividly anticipated, decades ago, the future “look” of computers and data-projection. And while Cameron’s film, “The Abyss,” was not a great success, it was nevertheless a great leap forward in movie-making wizardry. Who can forget the computer-generated water “pseudopod,” which in turn gave birth to the liquid-metal next-gen Terminator in the second “Terminator”?

And of course, “Titanic,” which had it all--a sweeping story, a heartbreaking romance, and that big sinking ship that looked real, because it was. Almost. So naturally, “Titanic” was the first billion-dollar movie.

Now, “Avatar.” Look out, Disneyworld, look out, videogames: Here’s a 3-D film, full of sock-knocking-off SFX, that smokes any ride in Orlando, or any first-person shooter on PlayStation. And as I wrote last month, the giant blue “Na’vi” aside, the planet Pandora--“a destination Xanadu like nothing you have ever seen”--is due to become its own fantasy benchmark.

That is, Cameron’s vision of a new world is so beautiful, so compelling, that somebody is going to make it real--and get rich if he or she can succeed. Will that Cameron-inspired creator seek to make it “real” through movies? Through videogames? Through virtual reality? Or through genetic engineering? That’s an entertainment “arms-race” to watch in decades to come.

But in the meantime, if past is prologue, Cameron will stay way out in front, pushing entertainment where no man has gone before.

James P. Pinkerton is a writer and Fox News contributor. Follow his commentary on health care at Serious Medicine Strategy