Saturday, 19 December 2009

Avatar

Avatar
Avatar is James Cameron's first feature film in twelve years. After the success of Titanic (eleven Oscars, equal to Ben-Hur; record-breaking box-office exceeding $1,000,000,000), he concentrated on television documentaries, as presenter of 2001: The Making Of A Myth and executive producer of The Lost Tomb Of Jesus.

Like Stanley Kubrick's delayed (and ultimately posthumous) AI, Cameron postponed the development of Avatar until CGI was sufficiently advanced. Apparently, it was the motion capture technology used to create Gollum in The Lord Of The Rings (I, II, and III) that convinced him to begin production. Cameron himself has also been a CGI pioneer: the morphing effects of the T-1000 were the highlights of Terminator II, the action sequel to his intelligent Noir/SF The Terminator.

Avatar has a whole new world to introduce: Pandoran flora and fauna (bioluminescent and fascinating), Na'vi mythology, and even a new language. The result bears comparison with the ecosystem and mythology in Star Wars IV-VI, and Avatar may revolutionise SF in a similar way, though it also results in similarly flat, expository dialogue. (There is an obligatory "You are not in Kansas" Wizard Of Oz reference.) Avatar's plot revolves around a mineral called unobtainium, though this (as its name suggests) is merely a MacGuffin, providing the initial motivation for the characters to assume their avatar forms (a process similar to The Matrix, and also a metaphor for Avatar's motion-capture technology).

The invasion of Pandora has clear parallels with America's wars against Vietnam and Iraq, a point hammered home by the script ("hearts and minds"; "shock and awe"). The extensive battle footage is surely aimed at teenage boys (Hollywood's current favourite demographic), though this is offset by the film's Titanic-style romance and its conservationist, pacifist message (a painful reminder of "I know now why you cry" from Terminator II).

I'm not usually a fan of CGI, as it's too often used as an easy alternative to traditional effects (as in, for example, the most recent King Kong remake), though in Avatar the CGI enables Cameron to create a stunningly photo-realistic ecosystem populated by believable motion-capture characters. Before its release, Avatar was breathlessly described as 'the future of cinema' by reviewers who had not seen it; while not representing a paradigm shift in film-making itself, the film's epic spectacle and subtly immersive 3D will hopefully lure YouTube/iPod viewers back into cinemas. (Avatar was conceived and filmed as a 3D production, though a 2D version is also screening at some cinemas.)

8 comment(s):

. said...

I'm not sure the blame for AI is Kubrick's - he bailed early. It certainly doesn't look or feel like a Kubrick movie - it's totally saccharine Spielberg (and, worryingly, ends with Our Hero, the wide-eyed innocent child, getting into bed with his mother.)

I asked the honest tradesmen of Sukhimvit what the quality was on their Avatar DVDs - "ninety per cent" - which means crap-cam, so I passed.

Matthew Hunt said...

Great comment, thanks a lot. I wasn't blaming Kubrick for AI, I absolutely agree with you that it's too sugary because of Spielberg, especially the ending. (Interestingly, Spielberg has since claimed that the ending comes directly from Kubrick's original treatment, but this seems unlikely.)

Yes, anything less than "master" means it was filmed with a camcorder. Wait until it's had an official DVD release, then the bootlegs will be copies of the DVD rather than camcorder recordings.

. said...

I waited, and saw a clean version of Avatar, albeit on my laptop.

It's a truly, deeply, terrible movie.

I had no preconceived ideas about it, I'm always open to be impressed by any movie. Here's a David Letterman-style list of Why Avatar Sucks:

10 Looks like another CGI movie. In spite of all the hoo-ha about it setting entirely new standards for cinema, it looks like what it is, a CGI movie. It doesn't look real, and not because the director's "vision" is fantasy, it doesn't look real in the same way Peter Jackson's Kong didn't look real. You have to suspend your disbelief, and I found this harder to do than for, say, Toy Story. And this is nothing to do with the fact that I saw it at small size. A great movie is a great movie on an iPod.

9 Dull script. Quote me one good line, with a shred of wit or feeling in it. Not possible.

8 Waaaaaayyyyyyyyyy tooooooo loooooooong. We get it, it's an event movie, so anything less than two hours isn't an event. There's not enough depth to the story (Cameron confuses depth of field with dramatic depth) to carry the celluloid through the reels for that long.

7 Nothing new. Every image is a cliché, every idea second-hand. Any reader of pulp SF will be familiar with all of this.

6 Po-faced and pompous. These are "big themes", right? You know, "important". Respect.

Bullshit.

5 Needs to be seen in 3D. Really? Then it's not very good, is it?

4 My friend Barry likes it. This is an infallible indicator of cinematic crapness. He liked Terminator II. Respect.

3 Breaks its own rules. If you invent a new world, it has to be coherent, obey some set of rules, so we can believe in it. You can't go throwing in floating mountains on a planet where gravity is (gosh!) just like Earth's. You can't have primitive weaponry piercing military armor. You can't ...

2 The primitive, indigenous peoples here speak in the same club-footed way of primitive-yet-truthful peoples throughout Hollywood history. They're solemn, never use contractions (preferring "do not" to "don't", etc.), and can't manage a joke between them. Know what? Fuck 'em if they can't take a joke. I was rooting for the Bad Guy, who at least had the style to drink a mug of coffee while strafing the tree-huggers.

1 The reason why Avatar is a truly extraordinary (I didn't say good) movie is this: it's had millions of Americans cheering a traitor to the U.S. in his efforts to help the insurgents. Try this story in a setting other than On A Planet A Long Way Away (say, Iraq) and see how Mr & Mrs Moviegoer lap it up. American audiences don't think this far, though. They want to go to the cinema, not see a movie.

Matthew Hunt said...

Thanks a lot for today's comments.

I think Avatar's CGI looks better than Kong; to me, it seemed genuinely photorealistic. Also, I'm not sure that all movies would work equally well on an iPod screen versus a cinema screen. Surely a movie like Avatar is indeed designed for a large, 3-D screen, and will thus be most effective in that medium?

"Cameron confuses depth of field with dramatic depth" - great point, well made. But I was caught up in the spectacle, so it didn't actually feel like it dragged on for me.

I've seen many comments about the derivative floating mountains, but not about their illogicality on a Pandora with Earth-like gravity. Most people (me included) seem to have missed that obvious point.

Agreed, the script is terrible. But the script is the least important element in a film like this.

. said...

I think you had a great cinematic experience. That seems to be the consensus for this movie, it makes cinemas an attractive idea again.

A great movie can (and has been) shot in black and white, with just a handful of people and no effects whatsoever. I can (and do) watch Gilda on my iPod, and it's still a great movie. I've seen it on the big screen. It's great at any size. I also watch 2001 on my iPod. and catch different aspects to the movie at that apparently ridiculous size (especially the fantastically complex, seemingly banal, script). It's not better than Cinerama (I saw a Cinerama showing), of course, but it doesn't detract from the movie's greatness. Avatar, on anything less than the maximum that the cinema can offer, just looks silly. He should have called it The Emperor's New Clothes.

Matthew Hunt said...

Absolutely, high technology is not necessary to make great films. Gilda looked great to me on a 14" CRT, as did many black-and-white films. At the same time, 2001 in 70mm, front row centre, is a totally different experience than 2001 on TV.

I'll be buying Avatar on DVD when it's released, and I'm sure the experience of watching it at home will be nowhere near as good as the cinematic experience. Arguably, any film will look better on the big screen if properly projected with a pristine print.

. said...

Sure, but not every film *needs* a big screen to be a big movie. In Cameron's movies, size not only matters, it's nearly all there is.

(I enjoyed Terminator, Titanic, and The Abyss, up to a point, but none of them is a great movie. Great entertainment, maybe. Cecil B. deCameron.)

Matthew Hunt said...

Right, they're not great movies. I enjoyed T2 and Avatar, but they are both essentially SFX showreels - to be enjoyed purely as spectacles.

The first Terminator is the exception here, I think: an intelligent plot, with the atmosphere generated by editing rather than spectacle.

deMille + Cameron = Pasolini !