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Mark Harris on the ''acting'' in 'Avatar'

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If you’ve read about Avatar, you know by now that it’s the future of movies. And if you’ve seen it, you know that the future of movies apparently looks a lot like the present of movies — big, expensive, effects-driven action, but updated with high-tech immersiveness. More problematically, though, Avatar is also being touted as the future of movie acting. Last summer, at an EW panel at Comic-Con, director James Cameron argued that we have to think differently about the kind of ”performance capture” work that’s on display in Avatar, in which actors have every micro-twitch registered and reproduced digitally on big blue tail-swinging loincloth-wearing counterparts. Performance capture, Cameron insists, is good for actors: ”Not only does it not replace them, but it empowers them.” Say what? Well, for example, ”Will Smith could still make an action movie when he’s 75 years old, looking like he looks now.”

Personally, I’d rather see what Smith does when he’s 75 and looks 75, with those additional decades of life playing across his features; I’m not sure that digital Botox empowers anyone except studio executives who wish that moneymaking stars would never change. But Cameron really loses me when he claims that these techniques capture ”100 percent of what the actor does. Not 98, not 95 — but 100 percent…. Every nuance, every moment of their creation on the set is preserved.”

It sounds good — and in a season in which the hype dials all go to 11, there are even suggestions that Zoë Saldana, who lent her voice and facial and body movements to Cameron’s computers so he could create the Na’vi woman warrior Neytiri, deserves Oscar consideration. If only it were true. The fact is, a computer can’t pick up every nuance of an actor’s work, because great performances have nuances that are ineffable and unquantifiable, not to mention vulnerable to eradication with one thoughtless flick of a digital paintbrush. 100 percent? Not even close.

Zoë Saldana may be a fine actress, but I don’t feel that her work in Avatar can fairly be labeled an onscreen performance. What I saw was a CG character created in very large part by an army of technicians; to me (and I know many disagree), Neytiri is a superb visual effect enhanced by an actor, not a performance enhanced by F/X. When Saldana was ”playing” the role, she may have widened her eyes in fear or narrowed them in disgust; she may have recoiled in horror or crumpled in sorrow. Did she sigh, swallow hard, or express conflicting emotions? Beats me, since Cameron could easily have added, eliminated, or altered anything she did. Did Saldana blush in her scenes with Sam Worthington’s Jake? Doesn’t matter, because the Na’vi don’t blush; unfortunately for actors, the flat-featured, heavy-browed, shimmery-eyed look Cameron has given his new species permits a less-than-human range of noble-primitive expressions.

Great actors surprise their directors every day, and when that happens, smart directors either rejoice or get out of the way. What they don’t do is run to the nearest laptop to sweeten or sandpaper away the subtleties that make what they just saw so compelling. Nora Ephron did not program Meryl Streep to make Julia Child’s shoulders sag with remembered grief when she’s crushingly reminded that she’ll never have children. Lee Daniels did not use a computer to give Mo’Nique’s voice the unpredictable pitches of rage, fear, shame, and self-justification she brings to the shattering climax of Precious. Kathryn Bigelow’s work on The Hurt Locker, for all its technical mastery, makes plenty of room for Jeremy Renner’s unsettlingly jovial/creepy rhythms. Those directors cast those actors because they recognized mysterious reservoirs of idiosyncrasy that no technology can replicate or amp up. In Scott Cooper’s affecting Crazy Heart, Jeff Bridges lets his analog gut hang out and his undigitized weariness (along with 40 years of experience) inform his work in a way that’s pretty much the essence of what a first-rate screen actor can do. Do you want to explain to him how much better he could be if only he were ”empowered”?

Avatar deserves applause for many things, including its huge leap in making CG creatures plausible by turning its cast into face-voice-and-body puppeteers. But that’s a breakthrough in animation, not screen acting. Performances ”captured” the old-fashioned way still set a standard of excellence that this film, for all its innovation, can’t touch.

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