July 28, 2009

On Comic-Con, or "a finer world"

As I was making my way through the teeming, costumed, merchandise-clutching masses on the exhibit floor at the 40th annual San Diego International Comic Book Convention, better known as Comic-Con, I caught site of something that I'll not soon forget.

A young man in a wheelchair was wearing a t-shirt that said "I'm too sexy for my legs".

Ironically enough, three days earlier, I had the privilege of seeing the very first advanced footage of James Cameron's new film, "Avatar".

In "Avatar", humans are exploring and prospecting on the distant planet Pandora, which has an amazingly beautiful and completely alien habitat that is totally inhospitable to humans. To that end, eschewing traditional environment suits, the humans collect DNA from the indigenous inhabitants and genetically engineer alien/human hybrid bodies into which the human explorers can download their consciousnesses, giving them free reign on the planet. The protagonist, played by Sam Worthington of "Terminator: Salvation", is a paraplegic who becomes the hero of the story once he's freed from the limitations of his wheelchair-bound human form and gains the incredible abilities of his 10 foot tall blue skinned avatar.

Now, not only is "Avatar" a story about a man who is transported to another world as another self, but it's a 3-D film that lets the audience experience the planet Pandora as if it were a living, breathing, glowing, lush environment around them.

Moreover, the reason why it's taken Cameron 14 years to bring this movie to screen is that he's spent that time perfecting what he's called "performance capture", where, instead of just translating the general body movements of an actor to a CG character, they can actually translate the slightest facial nuances of an actor, capturing the emotion inherent in the performance. So, when I see a blue-skinned CG native girl yelling at the stupid humans screwing up her planet, I know just by looking at her face that it was Zoe Saldana on the performance capture stage.

But beyond that, Cameron took it to the next level by building a platform that actually renders the computer-generated landscape and creatures of Pandora for viewing THROUGH THE CAMERA, so that Cameron and his cinematographer can actually SEE Pandora and their actors as Pandora natives in the environment AS THEY'RE SHOOTING.

In short, he's made it possible to actually shoot on location on a planet that doesn't exist.

THIS is the essence of Comic-Con.

I once heard a man say that a reasonable man bends to meet the world, while an unreasonable man insists that the world bend to meet him. Therefore, all progress comes from the unreasonable man.

Those of us who proudly call ourselves geeks are very unreasonable.

Geeks like Jules Verne first dared to dream of poking the Moon in the eye with a rocket, and people laughed at the absurdity.

40 years ago this month, a man planted an American flag on that very same Moon and established a pinnacle of human achievement.

Geeks like Gene Roddenberry insisted on a world where all ethnicities worked together towards a common good and a man could ask a machine a question and expect an answer with complete sanity.

There's a little device on the other side of this room that, after it's finished recharging, I can make diverge every public document about that astronaut just by saying the words "Neil Armstrong" to it.

Geeks like Bob Layton imagined a world where an alcoholic can overcome his addiction and become a superhero.

Next year, Robert Downey Jr. will channel his own struggle with substances into a performance about that very same character in a way that will dazzle, amaze, and, perhaps, in some small measure, give hope to those who struggle in the dark.

We geeks know that just because we may not be the most popular or the most beautiful or the most politically astute or the most financially or athletically gifted, we trump each and every one of those people in faith, passion, belief, and imagination.

And there is nothing in this world, literally nothing that exists, that was not something that someone dreamed of first.

The costumed, fictional, GG-generated and otherwise genre based characters we celebrate at Comic-Con are simply representatives of the qualities we hold most dear, be it Batman's focused determination or Tron's rage against the machine or Green Lantern's fearlessness in the face of the blackest of nights.

And Comic-Con is probably the only place in the world where an entire city can be full of wonder for 5 days straight. Where Green Arrow can share a beer with Luke Skywalker. Where new worlds are revealed moment by moment, be it on a giant movie screen, or through a video game, or just within the pages of an indie comic book.

Part of me worries that all of the non-geeks who come to Comic-Con because they think it can help them make a few more bucks are a bit like the human interlopers on Pandora. But, in the end, if they want to thrive in our world, just like on Pandora, they have to wear our skin, too.

And who knows, maybe they'll take a little bit of that blue skin back with them for the Muggles.

Personally, I can't wait to go back.

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