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AT LARGE: The Final act

AT LARGE: The Final act

Remember ET: The Extra Terrestrial? Remember the scene when the little alien's heart-light finally goes out because he's so far from home and he's been separated from Elliott and he hasn't the will to go on? Which monster among you is so heartless as to say you didn't cry? And when the light flickers back into life because the little alien has been contacted by the mother ship, who didn't cheer?

I know I was swept up in the emotion of it. I was eleven when that movie came out. I watched it again recently with a friend, and the above scene came on, and yet again I began to blubber. Of course, the thirtysomething cynic in me boiled over the surface and yelled, "Stop this nonsense! It's a muppet with a nighlight in its chest! We're being manipulated!" And of course it is a muppet. But it's an awfully moving one.

Next year, Steven Spielberg is re-releasing ET in a version more appropriate for the present day (which is why I wanted to watch the original, before it's spoiled in a Greedo-shooting-first-style fiesta of vandalism). For one thing, when the kids come downstairs and show Mom their Halloween outfits, she no longer says to one of them "you're not going as a terrorist". In the new version she doesn't want her child to be seen in public as a "hippy". Of course, once the "war on terror" is over, this 20th anniversary re-issue will seem quaintly over-sensitive, but for now our only concern is the box office.

Another thing he's doing is enhancing the muppet with digital effects, so its facial expressions will be more realistic. Presumably this is to enhance the emotional impact of when the thing dies. As if it wasn't manipulative enough already.

But that's the way of it these days. Filmmakers have become so concerned about what they can do "in post", that actual filmed performances have lost their relevance. All the best and most subtle acting is done by the graphics guys at Lucasfilm.

Remember Star Wars Episode I? Terrible film, to be sure, but it had one fine moment. The bit when Qui-Gon comes to Watto to collect on their bet - he wants Anakin freed immediately. Watto, who knows that Anakin is special and only now realises that he doesn't want to lose him, tries to weasel out of the bet, but Qui-Gon gets his way. Watto, resignedly, shrugs "take him", and his entire body seems to become depressed. It's great acting, and it's done by a little floating blue thing that doesn't exist. George Lucas assembled a fine cast for that film, but all the good acting was done in post-production. Liam, Ewan and Natalie would have been better off if they'd been digitised.

Square Co, the Japanese company that was set up to adapt the video game Final Fantasy for the big screen, has been put on the market as a non-viable concern following the failure of the film. Some analysts are calling it the "nail in the coffin" of digital actors. I disagree. Final Fantasy failed because it was a bad film. I'm trying now to think of good films based on video games, and none are occurring to me. I think whoever it was that first described video games as having "plots" has a lot to answer for, because it gave people ideas. Bad ideas.

But Watto was a good actor. Jessie the cowgirl in Toy Story 2 was terrific, and made me cry just like ET (and I was 29 when the former came out). Digital actors have a future, as long as they're given something worthwhile to do. I'm worried about real human actors, who are notoriously difficult to "fix in post". Apparently the makers of The Lord of the Rings films have even tweaked and fiddled with the humans in that film - made them taller, shorter, fatter, whatever was required. It's a worrying age.

Alfred Hitchcock once said that "actors are cattle". Realising that this was a little insensitive, he later rephrased that as "actors should be treated like cattle". Were he alive today, he'd update it again: "actors fill the spaces between the pixels".

As this is the last At Large for the year, I was probably meant to do a round-up of the year's highs and lows, and give my own inimitable take on them. Sorry, it just hasn't been that kind of year. I can't bring myself to reflect on it. I pray you and yours have an enjoyable and safe break, and that next year is better for all of us.

Heck, ET's going to be back on the big screen. How bad can it be?

Matthew JC. Powell phone home. Or e-mail mjcp@optushome.com.au. Whatever suits.


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