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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
May 17, 2012

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Avengers; Acting and Flying in Space

OK, The Avengers made a lot of money. And it was lots of fun -- I enjoyed the whole thing. I know several people who have already watched it more than once. (That's how movies rack up those huge numbers -- people come back again and again.)

But please, let's be honest. The fundamental situation in the movie is so utterly unbelievable that it boggles the mind.

It has an honest history. Marvel Comics had a bunch of superheroes, and there are only so many stories you can tell. So they started having one superhero visit another superhero's comic book.

And the fans loved it. That's because of the game of hypotheticals. The Hulk versus Iron Man! Who wins? That's why the completely idiotic section of The Avengers, where the heroes pointlessly fight each other, is so entertaining.

It's gladiatorial combat for Americans -- bloodless, imaginary, bigger than life. And there is absolutely nothing at stake.

This is where movies are today. There is no earthly reason why an aerial aircraft carrier should exist. Buoyancy keeps ships afloat. But without balloons, keeping a huge heavy airship aloft takes energy. Lots of it.

Which burns fuel at a frightening rate. And the fuel would weigh so much that the aircraft carrier in The Avengers could not possibly carry enough fuel to lift itself.

But when you build it on a computer, you can make anything fly. So we see wonders that could not exist in the real world -- that would have no reason to exist.

In fact, nothing in The Avengers makes any sense. Least of all the superheroes themselves.

Thor -- a Norse god from another planet, who travels through spacetime using magical means, and has a magical hammer that comes when he reaches for it -- supposedly co-exists in the same universe with The Incredible Hulk, who can apparently endure any amount of physical abuse without dying?

And why is there any reason for a guy to use arrows to strike at fast-flying metal objects? None of it makes sense.

Maybe I've watched Cobie Smulders play Robin Scherbatsky on How I Met Your Mother too many times, but amid all the overwrought earnestness of most of the action in The Avengers, I couldn't help but see, in her portrayal of the thankless character of Agent Maria Hill, just the tiniest hint of amusement at all the nonsense going on around her.

I mean, sure, she did everything she was asked to do, but really -- they spent this much money and this much time and this much creative brilliance for a story this utterly silly?

And yet ... it worked.

One time my wife looked at me and at our daughter, and all three of us were in the identical posture -- leaning slightly forward, mouth open, hand covering the mouth: the pose of utterly rapt concern.

Against our will, against our better judgment, we cared.

This sort of comic-book cast-of-dozens-of-superheroes nonsense usually doesn't work. Think of all the failures -- League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Fantastic Four, Iron Man 2 (it made money, but it sucked), Cat Woman, most of the Superman movies -- I'm leaving out others, but only because I have blocked them from my memory.

In fact, this is hard to bring off, and I lay the entire success of this ridiculous movie at the feed of Joss Whedon.

Whedon wrote it, he directed it, he cast it, and that's one hundred percent of what made The Avengers a hit.

The bad movies have good actors in them -- just not the right good actors, or in parts where their acting can't compensate for bad writing. The bad movies have terrific special effects, but special effects can't save a bad movie. Ever.

Last night, I happened to tune into the last fifteen minutes of the last Harry Potter movie on HBO. It was the scene where Harry is dead and meets Dumbledore in a heavenly railway station.

I suppose the Harry Potter series depends on premises as fundamentally silly as any comic book's. But the stories have characters, relationships, integrity, and they say something about the real world.

I couldn't stop watching, right to the end. The whole story washed over me and when the movie ended, I was as moved as ever.

My 18-year-old walked past the family room while I was watching, and she stood in the doorway and stayed to the end.

I can't imagine ever doing that with The Avengers. Because there's nothing in the story to engage me a second time.

Don't misunderstand -- the people who go back and watch it multiple times aren't idiots. But it's not the story drawing them back, I believe -- it's the experience, the thrill ride.

When the movie's over, nothing made sense. We don't know anything we didn't already know -- that bad people can be dangerous, and good people sometimes have to fight them. What else is there?

That's the miracle of Joss Whedon's talent -- he made us care about utter drivel.

He does it with good dialogue (a rare thing in movies), sharp direction (everything is timed just right and we always understand what's happening), and superb casting.

Yes, even though Whedon inherited a lot of his cast from other movies that he did not direct, he wrote around the less talented ones and then made brilliant use of the ones who could make the dialogue sing.

Robert Downey Jr., whom Whedon inherited, is wonderful -- but he couldn't save Iron Man 2. Still, Whedon could give him good dialogue and build strong scenes around him -- so he did.

Whedon also inherited Chris Hemsworth as Thor, Chris Evans as Captain America, and Tom Hiddleston as Loki, but talented as they are, Whedon-style humor is not their forte. So they have relatively little to do except be earnest, which was well within their capabilities.

But Whedon's original casting -- Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow, Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye -- gave him the rest of the characters he could hang scenes on.

Mark Ruffalo is wonderful -- but good actors have disappeared into the character of the Incredible Hulk before. Ang Lee couldn't do anything with the character. But Whedon could -- because Whedon understood the humor in the character.

And until this movie I didn't understand the appeal of Scarlett Johansson, who always seemed more of a sleepwalker than an actor to me. But in The Avengers she was able to bring off deadpan comedy that made me actually enjoy watching her perform.

Whedon is actually funny. That is so not true of most film directors -- especially directors of the many, many bad comedies that curse the screen. Whedon understands how to set up a joke and then pay it off, with perfect timing through the whole thing.

The gags just seem to happen. That's a very hard thing to bring off. And in a Whedon movie, the joke is never stretched on and on to the point of impatience.

So let the fans think that they actually care about the characters, or that they liked the story, or that the cool visuals carried the movie. You and I will understand that they are quite wrong.

And even Joss Whedon doesn't always succeed. What matters is that he succeeded this time.

This means that for the rest of his life, Whedon can pretty much make whatever he wants. Which is a good thing.

Unfortunately, it also means that we'll see more and more and more thrown-together comic book movies with lots of characters that don't belong together, and with stories whose stupidity staggers the imagination.

Because the studios' budgets will be poured into these crapfests, they won't be spending money to make actual good movies with meaningful stories.

But the cycle will end, when they discover that most writers and directors aren't Joss Whedon.

Meanwhile, wasn't The Avengers a lot of fun?

*

Speaking of movies, I was on the set of Ender's Game last week to record my one line in the movie -- a voiceover of a pilot making an announcement to his passengers.

Let me assure you that there is nothing exciting about being a spectator at the filming of a movie. It's hard work, it takes hours to shoot a thirty-second scene, things are done over and over, and in between shots there's nothing but ... waiting.

However, if you're actually working, it can be intense and fascinating.

I sat, off-camera, reading my sole line, which comes in the middle of a scene between Harrison Ford as Col. Graff and Asa Butterfield as Ender Wiggin.

The scene does not come from the book -- very few of the scenes in this movie do -- so it was amusing when others asked me how it felt to have my book brought to life. My book was already alive in the mind of every reader. This is writer-director Gavin Hood's movie, so they were his words, and it was his scene.

So what I was concentrating on was how Ford and Butterfield worked with the lines, with the director, with the camera, and with each other.

If you don't understand what you're seeing, it could look as if they were doing nothing at all. Their line readings were flat (by stage standards) and barely audible (boom mikes picked up sounds that were barely audible ten feet away). They had almost no facial expressions.

And they were superb. Film acting, especially in closeup, is not about facial expressions. It's about what's going on behind the actors' eyes. And it's about timing.

The scene got more and more minimal as the takes went on. What had been an arm grab and a shrug became a mere touch on the shoulder and a single glance at the hand.

And the less they did, the better the scene became. What mattered was the timing -- when Ford put his hand on Butterfield's shoulder, how long it took Butterfield to glance at the hand, how long before he looked away, and when the hand was withdrawn.

When it comes time to edit the movie, the actors will have given the editor a vast menu of choices to get just the right effect.

On the set, however, it was wonderful to see how Ford and Butterfield responded to each other's timing. It was such a delicate dance -- and they worked perfectly together.

Twice, I saw Ford give a tiny suggestion to Butterfield. The suggestion in both cases was excellent; and in both cases, Butterfield understood completely and executed perfectly.

The scene may or may not work as planned; for all I know, it might not end up in the movie. But if it's there, the audience will experience it as reality -- we won't stop and think of all the many different ways it could have played.

But the actors thought of it, and almost every one of the different ways they played it worked well.

The odd thing is that Harrison Ford gets little credit for the brilliance of his acting, because he's so real that audiences think that's just how he is.

Nonsense. Ford is a very inward man; everything he does on screen is acting, it's all very, very hard to do, and the fact that you think he's just being himself tells you how outstanding an actor he is.

And Butterfield is showing himself to be, not a child actor, but an actor who happens to be young. I've always said that, as a director, I'd rather have smart actors than talented ones, because you smart actors listen and change, and with those who fancy themselves talented, you have to rely on chance to get your performance.

Butterfield is smart. That really helps when he's supposed to bring off a preternaturally intelligent character. Actors can easily play dumb, but I've never seen an actor bring off a character that is smarter than he is. He's convincing as Ender Wiggin, so if the movie doesn't work, it won't be Butterfield's fault.

Besides that intense time doing offscreen line readings while two fine actors were at work, I got a chance to explore the gorgeous sets designed and built by teams headed by production designers Sean Haworth and Ben Procter.

Again, they were not building anything from the book, so I wasn't seeing my ideas brought to life. Their job was to build the scenery dreamed up by Gavin Hood for his story, and they have done a wonderful job.

I love looking at well-designed sets -- tough enough to be safe for the actors to work on, yet not wasting a dime on anything that won't show on camera. Haworth and Procter are a great team.

Haworth was art director on a few films you've heard of -- Thor, TRON: Legacy, Avatar, both Transformers movies, Eagle Eye, Men in Black II, Mission Impossible III, and many others. And Procter, though newer, worked with Haworth on the most recent of these.

The movie Ender's Game is going to look great.

But the real challenge has always been the freefall movement of the kids in the battle room. Traditional wire work, as in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Spider-Man, simply won't work in the battle room, because wires absolutely depend on gravity.

That is, they allow actors to defy gravity, but the gravity is still there, revealed in every movement of the actors.

In the battle room, with gravity nullified, there is no up or down. Bodies have to move in ways dependent on inertia, not on gravity.

So I always assumed that the battle room would be filmed by animating the human figures and then pasting the actors' face onto the result, figuratively speaking.

The trouble is that there are certain fundamental problems that computer animations have not yet solved. There's the walking problem, for instance -- most animations don't show footfalls, because it never looks real. Never.

Even using motion capture, there's something false in the way animated feet hit the ground and then flex and extend to move the person forward.

So there was going to be a constant challenge in showing the characters hitting walls and rebounding. It was going to be fake, and the best we could hope for was that in the editing, the falseness would be minimized.

But stunt coordinator Garrett Warren took what he learned from the weightless work he did on Avatar built on it.

There is a mechanism used for training gymnasts -- a wheel they wear around their waists that allows them to rotate in space while suspended from wires. Warren used this on Avatar, which allows a great deal of apparent freedom of movement in space -- once the computer artists have erased the wheel rig, you can't tell that there's any way a wire could have been attached.

But this is only the beginning. The illusion of freefall depends on the actors' moving correctly. Where gravity naturally draws their limbs downward, in zero-gravity the arms and legs and heads continue in the direction of the last movement, until something stops them.

For the most difficult stunts, Warren brought in dancers from Cirque de Soleil. Being gymnasts by training, they tend to be small -- they can bring off the illusion of children's bodies.

And they have the strength and training to do constant movements and poses that defy gravity, without ever looking as if they're working hard.

But all the children playing these roles had to do wire work themselves. Fitted with the wheel rigs, they were being moved through space like puppets -- and at every moment, they had to make sure their "nonvolitional" movements followed the rules of inertia-driven rather than gravity-driven motion.

It was agonizing. Human muscles aren't meant to work like that. And Warren was watching everything, playing it back again and again, catching any false movements.

Get it wrong? Then you do it again.

Oh, how these kids suffered! I'm sure many of them had times when they dreaded each days work.

But human bodies adapt, and by the end of filming, they were all in superb physical shape. They were good at these dancelike movements. They had acquired a complete skill set, along with the required musculature, to perform an art that, with any luck, they will never have to use again.

Their suffering on the wires in the battle room helped them bond into a team. On the wires, there were no stars, no grunts. Everybody had to learn the same skills, do the same moves. They were equals.

So filming the battle room did the same job for the cast that the battle room itself was intended to do for the young students in the fictional Battle School -- form them into cohesive teams.

These kids can take such pride in what they learned and what they accomplished. Everything that they were called on to do, they did -- with style.

Here's the irony. Because Garrett Warren did his work so well, when you watch the movie, you won't ever think, Wow, that was so hard! It will simply look as if they're moving through null-gravity space. You'll be concentrating on the story and the people, not the techniques.

But if Garrett Warren doesn't get a special technical Oscar for his achievement on this film, then there truly ain't no justice. I've seen enough of the result to know that he has brought off the miracle of filming zero-gravity while still on planet Earth.

And almost everything you'll see in that battle room, real people did. The computers didn't animate it -- they merely made the wires and rigs invisible.

That's my full report on everything I did and saw during my six hours on the set of the Ender's Game movie.

During those hours I saw, to my great pleasure, that it's a happy set -- people enjoy their work and take pride in it.

That's very important to me. I've seen movie sets where the selfishness and stupidity of the director makes the experience hellish for everyone involved, or where casts and crews tear themselves apart with rivalries and resentments.

I wanted Ender's Game to be a joy to work on, so that the kids especially would take away good memories of their time involved in making the movie.

And, from what I could see, that's what the community of filmmakers have accomplished.


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