Fox has always been at the forefront of trying new accents in terms of tonality within the broadcast structure taking changes on more edgy material that might hit or miss with audience depending on its structures. With some its new intensives including the long awaited “Terra Nova”, ambition plays heavily within the mind.
“Terra Nova” from the mind of Steven Spielberg and shepherded with the help of former Trek powerhouse Brannon Braga has the mythology and scope to create TV’s next big breakout show. Pace and breathe though can be hard to maintain unless the story structure is both inventive and mysterious, luminous yet tightly controlled.
Braga begins with the thought asking “can utopia be built?” and “is it practical?”. From the beginning with Spielberg, he says it is “ingenious what this guy comes up with”. In regards to the looming questions of production snafus which has plagued the series for months, Braga offers the fact that they only had one staff writing change because “it was taking longer than usual to mount this thing”.
The concept behind the show, as explained by Braga, is that there are pilgrimages to another world through a gate. Stephen Lang (late of “Avatar”) is first person back. He and others have been sent ahead to construct a town. The series picks up when there are 1000 people in the colony and 100 more coming through with every jump. The gate itself only opens every couple months. The myth as to how the portal was discovered is insinuated but the backstory points to a natural unearthing.
When he was helping wrap up “24”, he was aware of the project and that a script existed by Craig Silverstein. They wanted to get it up and running which obviously is credit to Spielberg. Braga says that it is the closest project he has worked on to “Star Trek” but that the series translates to him as “personally on a visual level using advanced technology in a primordial world”.
Alex Graves, who directed the much scrutinized pilot but also directed the “Fringe” pilot, jokes that part of the terror of having Steven Spielberg on your team is that he watches everything you do. In terms of shooting, he says that it took them a while to decide on Australia adding that “when you read the story, you could see what was coming”. He says that three hours after they got off the plane, “we started to see what could be in the show”. The location had caves, mountains and plant life. He says that what was good for the development of the pilot was that it took time. The crew was drafted as if they were going to war finding the best feature people they could. The show, he points out, is built and ready to go. He commits to the point that “this is not Lost” adding that “this is made for a massively broad audience…for everyone…everyone from my kids to myself to a gamer”.
Stephen Lang, who played the military baddie in the uberhit “Avatar”, plays Frank Taylor, one of the first humans to go back. He says, in terms of “Avatar” that “my scars are internal” saying that “people do come up to me and say ‘I really hate you'”. He adds jokingly that he takes the subway so he doesn’t make a scene. He points to the fact that with the worldwide impact of television, “Terra Nova” might have bigger impact than “Avatar” which is hard to imagine though he paints this project as “very different”.
Taking a very different spin by comparison is “Traffic Light” which based on the concept of people in cars and the comedy ensuing from that interaction to daily life in a comedic fashion seems a bit daunting.
David Hemingson, one of the exec producers, says that creating alot of the “live” feeling in the car with the cast has to come from improvisation. When they first wrote it, the problem was seeing if the actual “car scenes” would work. Unlike in studio car shots, these are done on the streets on actual process trailers. This was done “to create a dynamic and encourage conversational naturalism” though he admits he is prone to parking tickets.
Bob Fisher, one of the other exec producers with the writing team as well, explains that they started writing to that kind of naturalism in general. The first step was deciding that the car would be a material component of the show though they wanted to keep them short. They cut between the action in three cars consistently. The first bit ends with Nelson Franklin, who plays Adam, being pulled over. The irony is that when you do a car scene the coverage is surprisingly good although the actual reality of being on a process trailer is that you are constantly breathing fumes.
Nelson jumps in stating that “a good portion of our show works because the banter we have on show is because we are generally friends off camera.” His character Adam, he admits, is trying to be the best friend by trying to catch up with his buddies during errands. The delivery he explains was unconventional but its effectiveness “wasn’t even a question”.
“Breaking In” is a new half hour comedy using a tech-fueled ensemble that seeks to blend some of the esrtwhile spy hijinks of “Chuck” with Christian Slater’s own short lived hour dramatic “My Own Worst Enemy”. In using the shorter format, the hijinks of the intended endgame might resolve better than those before it.
Slater, for his part, is always ready for the challenge. He admits that the Oz whom he plays wasn’t as flushed out as it needed to be which called for refinement. This character heads Contra Security, and as Slater puts it, “he has his hands in alot of pots” though he does describe the guy as “an eccentric”. He continues that Oz know what the outcomes of a certain course of action will be from the start which allows to plan to do “illegal things legal”.
Seth Gordon, one of the creators, was the man behind the documentary “King Of Kong”. What interested him was this growing underground community of hackers but seeing it as a new office situation because of the evolution of ideas it presents.
Bret Harrison, who plays the lead Cameron Price, says that the approach to the character has to be about more than him being smart which is reflected in his awkwardness. Cameron’s safety zone resided in college where he feels safe which balances to the idea that any other place becomes a challenge.
Fox continues to approach the programming game with a variety of elements, the most intensive in years being “Terra Nova” because of its investment but with smaller shows like “Traffic Light” and “Breaking In” in specifying to concept, they have ability for some breakout shows.
“Avatar” has long been hyped as the next age of cinema and on many levels in terms of sheer mastery of the medium, it is. It blends some of the schmaltz of “Titanic” with some of the balls-out rendition of “Aliens”. Now while it might be too early to render its true appraisal since the gee whiz factor enters so much into the equation, the third act of the picture, which takes the essential element of the battle scenes and sheer bad ass intensity while still staying within the PG-13 realm, is quite impressive. The photo real propensity makes you almost forget that the blue skinned “avatars” are not real in real life. Their adherence through performance capture especially with Sigourney Weaver’s Grace is so spot on since the image of Weaver (specifically in Cameron’s “Aliens”) is so ingrained to people’s minds.
Another lipnus test that was on supreme importance was interactivity of characters. Even though the blue alien love scene is a bit overplayed, the physical intermingling (like kissing) which I found problematic in terms of the technology back in 99 with “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” is corrected here. The format “Avatar” was seen, which most of the theaters cannot do, is 3D IMAX. The digital negative seems to have been shot for the format with a 70mm (like “Aliens”) which means the image should be barely cropped. The sense of scale especially with this movie is necessary so the angle is important. At one specific point when the natives are going up to meld with a bird (takes some explaining), the straight down shot can induce vertigo if you want it to. The battle sequences especially towards the end in the air are as great as anything Cameron has done or better.
In terms of the story on first glance, the aspect of the natives seems almost like pat storytelling but in further examination, despite the details, becomes very mythic. Like “Star Wars”, alot of the elements come from Tolkien which Cameron admits inspired him. Actually it was Peter Jackson’s work on Gollum speaking to himself in “Rings” that made Cameron believe that “Avatar” could finally be pulled off after all these years. The irony of course is there. However what “Avatar” reminds me of more in structure is Frank Herbert’s “Dune”. Like Paul Atreides, Jake (played here by Sam Worthington) is an outsider from another planet brought in to help secure a mineral resource. Here, in true vague fashion, this material is called “Unobtanium” whereas “Dune” had “The Spice”. Jake is run from his people (in Paul’s case, royalty – in Jake’s case – The Marines) and ends up embedding himself with the supposed savages (in “Dune”, they were the Fremen). With their care and guidance, Jake must learn their ways and eventually takes a mate (like Paul did with Chani in “Dune”).
In “Dune”, Paul must tame a massive worm and then transmute the dangerous Water Of Life. Jake must tame a wild bird and then transcend his Avatar. Very similar but everything is in reverse with certain elements. The planet here is green with life whereas Arrakis is barren. The Earth the military comes from in “Avatar” is one where everything in terms of living has been destroyed. It is a dying world.
Despite these close similarities, Cameron is a student of cinema. Most of his films have been franchise based. This is no different. You need a universal theme which this does deliver. Granted despite the bad ass elements, there seems to be a tree-hugger friendly message but that is the biggest criticism. You just expect Cameron to say “fuck it all” and take it into the fire. Messages seem to be following him as he grows older which might be his recent interest with documentaries and education.
All said “Avatar” is pretty amazing to watch. Not a perfect movie by far but with a wonder of elements going for it. In ambition definitely a good follow up from “Titanic” doing something original but presenting a marketing challenge at times which is understandable when creating a new world. Out of 5, I give it a 3 1/2.
As part of its “Coming 2010” Preview Package, Warner Bros. just provided IR with this shot inside Medusa’s lair from “Clash Of The Titans”, the big budget remake starring Sam Worthington (“Avatar”) as Perseus and directed by Louis Leterrier (“The Transporter”). THe film will be released March 26, 2010.