Avatar: something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue

When I first heard about Avatar, I wasn’t sure I particularly wanted to see it. But I was very sure that it was going to be a disaster – a gazillion-dollar art house personal project from James “King of the World” Cameron that had the critics salivating in their eagerness to bring it down. Poor thing, it didn’t have a chance: it was clearly going to be the biggest disaster this side of Heaven’s Gate. Getting dubbed “Dances with Smurfs” or – my favourite – “Smurfahontas” was not a good sign.

Flash forward to the first weeks of 2010 and of course Avatar has become the second highest grossing movie of all time – topped only by its sibling, Cameron’s Titanic, and it’s surely only a matter of weeks before the top spot falls as well. Admittedly, some of its success in the “gross” standings comes down to the higher ticket prices today and especially the 3D premium, but then again the higher prices make it all the more remarkable that it’s pulling in the raw numbers that it is.

So that puts me firmly in my place and shows what little I know; at least this time around I can say I’m in the good company of Almost Everyone In The World. But Cameron proved us all wrong. I saw the film today, and – I liked it. Yep, thoroughly good film, good entertainment – but not one that’s going to get on my Best Films Of All Time list however much it grosses. And I’m not an anti-Cameron snob: I love the first Terminator films, The Abyss, Aliens – and, yes, I really loved Titanic as well. But Avatar strikes me as just a “good” film, and one I can’t really get hugely excited about.

That it’s a gamechanger in terms of movies is not in question. It’s the first time it’s been possible to watch a CGI-generated world and characters and totally forget that it is just CGI. The Na’vi characters seem real and thoroughly rounded, beautifully acted, never once lapsing into the blank thousand yard stare that CGI actors have in the past in outings such as Polar Express. It’s extraordinary just how much Sigourney Weaver’s avatar looks like … Well, like Sigourney Weaver.

It would be easy to say, then, that it’s “fabulous film, shame about the script”. But I’m not going to argue that the film succeeds despite its script being stereotyped and laden with clichés and completely flat characters: instead, I believe that the film’s success is precisely because of these faults, and that if Cameron had done anything different then the film wouldn’t have made anything like the money that it has.

Think what he’s smuggled through into a mass market here: a far more pure fantasy film than anything we’ve ever seen before. Science fiction films of the past have been little more than redesigned westerns, horror and war movies; The Lord of the RIngs is probably the biggest fantasy film before Avatar, and Peter Jackson got away with it by downplaying the fantasy and cloaking it in a down-to-earth, gritty, earthy realism at all times. We give Harry Potter a free pass because, well, it’s just a children’s movie. But Avatar makes no such compromises: every frame looks like the cover art of the most way-out fantasy novel in the cult stores, the kind of thing that would have mainstream readers and viewers running for the hills. But not this time.

That’s because Cameron’s making it easy for everyone. Every element of the script is one you’ve seen before: the exploitation of the indigenous is straight out of Dances with Wolves, Pochahontas and Last Samurai; the holistic environmentalist message is very much of the moment; and then there are some very thudding swipes at US foreign policy, with references to terrorists and the irredeemable, two-dimensional Earth commander’s sneering at the native people’s deities as he prepares to shock and awe them into submission. There’s no mistaking the points being made, and the fact that mainstream America has been going with it and presumably cheering as the Earth military hardware is laid into by a bunch of primitives is remarkable. If a viewer comes away thinking “wow, this was thought-provoking, never considered that before” then – well, it’s good that it’s got them thinking about some of the complexities. But really, where the heck have their brains been for the last couple of decades? This is Modern Life 101 stuff for anyone paying attention.

Contributing to the sense of familiarity of the film are the creature designs (which all have clear cousins to Earth creatures such as jackals, rhinos, birds of prey, horses etc. so that you don’t have to start believing in dragons to get through it) and the overall structure of the film, which is remarkably similar to Cameron’s Titanic: for all the great strides he’s made in film making technology, as a script writer he’s barely moved from 1997. Just as Kate and Leo spent two thirds of Titanic strolling round the ship and falling in love despite being from two different worlds, so Avatar allows its lead characters most of the movie to show us around Pandora and fall in love despite being from different worlds. Then in both cases the big threat kicks in – iceberg in one, military assault in the other. But again, this structural familiarity gives the audience the comfort and security to go with the fantasy as a whole and indulge themselves in the world laid out before them: there be no dragons here, unless you happen to be the type of person who likes that sort of thing already.

Ultimately, total immersion is what this film is about. In the film, the lead character inhabits an avatar (surrogate body) that allows him to enter a new, alien world; and Cameron is endeavouring to provide the same sensation to the audience through the medium of this film. By the time Avatar is over, you too would be forgiven for being confused as to what is real and what is imaginary such is the strong sense of having lived in this completely unreal world for the last two and three quarter hours. That’s always been the power of movies at their best, and it works here perfectly. Viewed in this way, the wooden characters aren’t so much a mistake as intentional, blank archetypes for us to inhabit as our own avatars and for us to project ourselves into.

That’s why 3D is so important for Avatar – 3D is the ultimate in “immersive” film making. Now, I’ve not seen the new 3D system in the cinema before this, so I’ve held my tongue and not joined in the naysayers and doubters until I had some first hand empirical evidence. And now I have, I can say with my hand on heart – I really don’t like it. In fact, I loathed it.

Oh, it’s effective enough in producing 3D effects – I gasped with some of the effects, and found myself marvelling at some of the more subtle uses it was put too. It didn’t make my eyes go too funny or give me a headache (although plenty of people were complaining about just that as we filed out.) No, my complaint on it is on two fronts: firstly that it kept jarring me out of the film to jump or go “ooooh, look at that”; but mostly that it left the film looking washed out and fuzzy. Halfway through I found myself thinking, “I can’t wait to get this on Blu-ray when I can watch it properly” – and this was backed up when I saw a clip of the film on TV in 2D format just before writing this blog post, and I thought instinctively “Wow, that looks gorgeous! … pity it didn’t in the cinema.” So, a big “no thanks” on the 3D front, then, and I have to say that my ambivalence to it did affect my appreciation of the film.

But coming full circle back to my first thoughts: I did like it. It’s sweeping, mythic, action-packed, and looks amazing (3D permitting). I can absolutely believe that a sizeable number of kids will see this today and have their minds blown, and look back on Avatar in years to come as the Movie That Changed Everything in much the same way that my generation had Star Wars. That was a pretty silly movie, too, when you look back at it – but it was our silly movie. We lived in that universe, and a new generation of kids will want to live on Pandora in exactly the same way – and I can’t blame them.

Compared with a lot of the unadventurous, formulaic, franchise-derivative stuff being churned out by movie studios, Avatar deserves every bit of its success. But I’ll get back to you with a more definitive report of my own feelings about it in due course when it’s sunk in … and when I get to see it again properly, without that annoyingly fuzzy 3D nonsense.

Until then you’ll have to settle for “good”, a solid 3-star film with 5-stars for the effects.

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