Sunday, January 03, 2010


A Sci Fi Classic is Born

I feel kind of silly talking about Avatar 3 weeks after its domestic release. Most of you have seen it by now. There wasn't a lot of tech news over the past couple of weeks though (just a lot of lists of things from the past year or decade or predictions), and I just saw Avatar in 3-D today so it seemed silly to make something else the headline of this post given that nothing that's been happening compares to Avatar. I walked out of the theater over 6 hours ago but it's still on my mind.

In case you haven't seen the more revealing trailers, Avatar's story falls in the family of films like Pocahontas or Tarzan - the clash of two disparate worlds. A human company has arrived at Pandora to mine for a very valuable rock, but there's a village of natives, the Na'vi, who are sitting on a large deposit of this rock. Sam Worthington's character is part of the Avatar program, in which a human's being can be transferred to a genetically engineered Na'vi version of himself, to try to learn from the Na'vi and find a way to get this village to move. I know that sounds like I just spoiled the whole movie for you, but that all probably happened in the first 20 minutes. It's literally nearly 3 hours long, so a lot happens in it. I'd say 4 major acts, in all.

There are some movies that you can look at over the history of film making and know that they are classics for one reason or another. On my short list of classics would be Chinatown, The Godfather, The Matrix, Star Wars: A New Hope, and Raiders of the Lost Ark. You can say what you will about them, but they're definitely classics. If I had an honorable mentions list it'd probably include Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, but neither of those series' starting movie was as important as the movies I just listed (which is obviously not an exhaustive list). I think Avatar is a movie we're going to look back on as a big deal in science fiction films and probably in films, in general.

I heard all this hype about the movie but didn't buy any of it because the movie didn't look interesting to me. I was as big a skeptic as they come and insulted that James Cameron claimed a CG movie was an innovation, even if it was 3-D. Both those technologies had already existed, so what was the big deal? Well, he was right: I don't think I've ever been so impressed with computer graphics before in my life. He was able to map his actors/actress's faces to their computer-generated forms to display real emotions. It's phenomenal. I felt more for these characters than many movies I've seen with live action movies. As for being in 3-D - it looks amazing in 3-D. It's no longer that stupid gimmick at your local science museum from when you were little where at special moments you'd put on these gigantic classes to see something silly coming at you. It's not a gimmick at all in this movie, in fact - it's a part of how you experience the movie. It makes everything very palpable to the point that I don't know how I'd react to some scenes if I saw them in 2-D. The idea of depth of field you get in some scenes is very valuable for conveying a lot of information to you without having to spend a lot of time on it or just use camera tricks. To not see this movie in 3-D is a disservice to yourself since seeing it in 2-D will be easy once it's out on home video. Back to just the visuals though: the level of detail in this movie is awe-inspiring. You definitely willfully would forget that the world you're seeing isn't real and that these creatures are just computer generated - they're that realistic. Part of what makes you believe is that when you see scenes that didn't need to be computer generated - the scenes between just humans - they don't look computer generated at all. If you see this movie for nothing else other than to enjoy it as a visual feast then it was well worth the price of admission.

When it comes to the acting and writing, you start entering somewhat thorny territory. I enjoyed the story more than I thought it would. It was somewhat formulaic but still epic and engaging. It wasn't as predictable as I thought it would be, but I was still happy with the direction it went in. Some of the writing came off to me as a little kludgy and corny. Strangely, I found myself moved even by a couple of the cornier scenes. The acting by most of the leads was strong, especially Sigourney Weaver, Sam Worthington, and Zoe Saldana. Giovanni Ribisi never made sense to me though and Stephen Lang's role as the Colonel felt hollow and stereotypical. I think that's more due to the writing than his portrayal though. I did find myself enjoying Michelle Rodriguez as the same character she always plays, but I have a soft spot for her so I was ok with that. The movie was definitely way too long. I don't know what they could've done about that, but it was quite long. To be honest, I enjoyed it enough that I didn't mind sitting through all of it, but I can see other people losing interest during the slower parts. The set up of the film feels like a bunch of scenes I won't want to watch whenever I get it on Blu-ray, but once it gets going it really does fly by. It reminds me a bit of the end of a Metal Gear Solid game where the ending keeps getting prolonged. I know I'm saying a lot of bad stuff here, but the writing was good overall and I thought the language they created was actually kind of cool. All the Na'vi characters were very cool and well-designed.

The bottom line is that you have to see this movie. There's no reason to not go out and see this movie in 3-D if you're in a place that has it in 3-D. If you do not you will almost certainly regret it. Whether or not you like sci-fi, this is an important movie to see right now in theaters. Even if you don't love it like I did, you will at least appreciate the significance of the technology at play here. Even the people I knew who didn't love it definitely didn't hate it, so I think it's a fair bet that you won't hate it either. It'll almost certainly come out on Blu-ray in 3-D, possibly the first movie to do so, but unless you're rich I'm guessing that you're not getting a 3-D TV set and this is one of the very few movies where 3-D adds to the experience. If you see it in 3-D and hate it then you can yell at me about it later. My overall score for Avatar is an A-, by the way, for those of you keeping score at home.

More on Nexus One

The Nexus One has become the darling of the cell phone world and it hasn't even been formally announced yet! For the record, I don't see what's so special about it. Word is that it'll be $180 subsidized or $530 unsubsidized, and you'll have to get a special T-Mobile plan for it even if you're already on T-Mobile (welcome to the world of many Palm Pre adopters 6 months ago). Engadget somehow managed to get a unit to test out and even put up a video. Aside from being snappier than any other Android phone on the market the only other advantages it seems to ostensibly have are UI tweaks, like "live" (animated) backgrounds and a quick view of all your homescreens. Don't get me wrong, I'm sure it'll be a very good phone, but it just seems like another touchscreen Android phone (that I believe is being manufactured by HTC).

Google Voice Going Enterprise

Word on the street is that Google Voice is going to be joining Google's lineup of Google Apps targeted at small businesses (which includes stuff like Google Docs and Gmail with a higher tier of service). Everyone's best guess is that it'll be a virtual phone system, but it would make a lot of sense that this is true since they'll want to continue to milk their bigger products with enterprise licenses.

Apple in Talks For Online TV

The Wall Street Journal made a short note the week before last about talks that Apple and Disney had started regarding a subscription-based online TV service, and Hollywood Reporter put up a very interesting editorial about how this only supplements cable TV instead of killing it. It's just another experiment to diversify an industry that has dropped off a bit in recent years. In my opinion, cable TV is on its way out no matter how you slice it. In 2020 I'm sure we'll be talking about something that put the nail in the coffin of cable TV because it's definitely not serving customers' needs well enough.


Those two things wouldn't normally be together, but they happen to be at the core of two major security issues.

The first was pretty major: a major DNS provider used in e-Commerce was hit was a DDoS attack two days before Christmas. If your DNS server is down then that means that people can't get to your site unless they know your IP address or have you cached on their router. They were down for an hour and one of the impacted sites was Wal-mart. I can't comment on the impact on Amazon at all since I don't know anything internally, but I am impressed (just from reading that article) that they were able to isolate the issue to just Northern California so quickly. It just shows you how your site doesn't have to have a security flaw for you to get impacted by DDoS.

Here's a very interested story I actually heard about TWiT in passing but never reported on: ICANN has decided to allow non-Latin characters in domain names, which is kind of scary. If you've seen the Russian alphabet, for example, you'll note that some characters are exactly the same as those in the Latin alphabet, like the letters in the word "paypal". Now major domains will have to register their domain in multiple languages to ensure users don't get accidentally lured by a malicious fake version of their site. Be very careful about the links you click to popular sites now - even more so than before. Something like Web of Trust would probably help.


TechRepublic has a very exhaustive article on all the differences between USB 2.0 and 3.0 including all the different connector types and the 10x speed difference.

The Kindle became the most gifted product ever on during this past holiday season - take that, Nook!

PC Mag has a good short list of what you need to know about Intel's new line of mobile processors: Arrandale.

Engadget wrote an article that I largely agree with regarding the ten gadgets of the past decade that really defined it, but as you can see from my post last week I definitely didn't agree with everything.

I'm going out of the country this Saturday and don't expect to post again until the week of January 24, at the earliest. I'll try to put up some pictures before then while I'm in India, but no promises. Have a great few weeks, everyone!


Jose A. said...

Cable TV definitely seems to be on the way out, but I'm not sure that the cable companies are going out with it. Comcast recently debuted its "Fancast" service a while back and, while it definitely has its kinks, I'd say it might be a viable model for the future of online TV.

A lot of talk seems to be going on about online advertising and how as it presently stands, ad-based free services like Hulu simply cannot support premium programming sustainably. So we're definitely going to see some kind of subscription-based (maybe a freemium Hulu type) service at some point. Also, advancements are being made in slicing up online viewer demographics better in order to provide more targeted advertising. One reason why online ads haven't been as profitable as TV ads is that video providers have been unable to target adds well enough to charge premium ad rates. Once that tech issue is settled, we might see a lot better online video options.

Another tech hurdle is DRM, authentication, and the fear of movie producers that their films will be quickly pirated, and a lot of interesting work is going on in figuring out a viable business model for that. And of course there's the TechDirt apostles, who act as if everything online should be free and we shouldn't have ANY copyright protection. Not enough time to cover such a hotly-debated topic, but it's definitely interesting.

Elton said...

Well the reason Hulu can't sustain programming is because advertisers don't recognize its value. It's only a matter of time before they do though. The fact that you can't skip through their ads means that you can be more sure people are watching them, you can target people better with them, you can have interactive advertising, and you can just learn a lot more about your audience. I don't think the technology is that far behind, I think the paradigm shift is just big for old media.

The problem with DRM was never the fact that its intention but the fact that it penalizes law-abiding consumers just as much as pirates in a lot of cases.

Jose A. said...

Even if the value of online ads goes up, which it certainly will, there's still some healthy skepticism over whether online ads will be able to sustain premium programming, particularly given that the majority of cable programming was never solely ad-based to begin with.

As for DRM, the crappy initial versions were certainly problematic because they interfered too much with portability and inter-operability that consumers are accustomed to. But there's a consortium among studios and media companies that will be announcing an attempt at a universal DRM standard, which should be more seamless for the end-user. The other alternative is "access instead of ownership", which is where Amazon is going of course. Some kind of authentication mechanism is, in my opinion, inevitable.

There are however a sizable group of vocal people online who are against the idea of DRM in itself. They believe in the "free-dom" of content and argue that piracy is ultimately a good thing. They say that movie studios should simply find new "business models" that work with piracy, and condemn any business model that attempts to create copyright barriers.

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