Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
James Cameron’s long-awaited Avatar is at once a state-of-the-art journey through imagined interstellar landscapes, and a rather more prosaic expedition through familiar story-telling terrain. “Great effects, so-so story” is perhaps the classic form of review for post-1977 Hollywood movies, and it’s a little sheepishly that critics have arrived once again at this basic conclusion. Yet, they have, in droves, because at the fundamental level that’s the key conclusion to be drawn about Avatar. The more interesting points to make about the film, then, aren’t those most important but most obvious observations. The sub-plots here – like the progress of James Cameron’s once-imposing directorial career, or whether the film is a giant leap in the evolution of film technology – are rather more interesting.
Cameron has been noodling around with the concepts for this film since the 1990s, apparently waiting for the technology to catch up with his vision. That time wasn’t spent embellishing the basic framework of the story, which is a simple enough encounter on an alien world between militaristic humans and the state of the art in noble savages, the nine foot tall, blue-skinned native aliens, the Na’vi. Cameron borrows the structure of Dances with Wolves, showing how marine Josh Sully, using a genetically engineered surrogate (his “avatar”), comes to live amongst the Na’vi and become sympathetic to their culture. There’s not a great deal of nuance here; I’ve seen the film’s latter stages described as a full length version of the Ewok vs Stormtrooper battle in Return of the Jedi, and that just about captures the sophistication of Cameron’s pitch.
Cameron always was a brutally simple filmmaker, and that was his strength. His best film, Aliens, shows his knack for welding muscular action narratives to satisfying but not overbearing subtexts; the climax of that film is, for me, amongst the most intense 45 minutes of action cinema ever produced. That’s the James Cameron we have missed for the last twelve years, and it was a return to that sort of form that I was hoping to see in Avatar. Cameron’s preoccupations are certainly recognisable, such as the obsession with metallic blue lighting, military hardware, and messages of peace and love delivered in a package of gunfire and explosions. His design sense hasn’t declined, either, with the look of the sequences set in the human compound and spaceships so closely aligned with Aliens that you may think he has taken his old models out of storage. The characters, too, are similar. Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully is an honest grunt like the earlier films’ Hicks, and Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine is essentially a more academic version of Ripley: the change from Aliens is simply to exchange the characters in importance so that Sulley / Hicks is the primary character, with Augustine / Ripley the secondary hero. And as the villainous company man, this time we get Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge, a rather less effectively drawn version of Paul Reisers’ snivellingly ingratiating Carter Burke.
The reprise is fun: it’s like hearing a band re-perform one of their early hits. The change in orchestration is dramatic, however. Cameron, with new technology and greater resources, gives us Aliens freed of any restraint. So in Aliens he had a few sleeping capsules in a room in a spaceship; this time there are hundreds of capsules and the sleeping astronauts wake up in a vast zero-gravity hall. Where there were previously a dozen marines, we now have hundreds. Late in the film, there’s even a showdown between the hero and the villain in which the villain drives a mechanized robotic suit resembling the power loader Ripley used to fight the alien queen. At that point, the comparison is sealed, and Avatar has basically become Aliens retold from the aliens’ point of view.
The problem is that Cameron is also trying to make an epic, and in such a film his plotting and themes feel threadbare and exposed. If we’re pushing forward at a hundred miles an hour, characters can be starkly drawn types, or the plot’s moralising lack shades of grey, and it doesn’t matter. Here, though, there just isn’t enough plot or character to give weight to what is clearly supposed to be a sweeping spectacle. There’s also a clumsiness that wasn’t there before: a conversation early on between Selfridge and Augustine is a textbook example of the expository “two characters talk about things they both already know” discussion. Fortunately, Cameron can still mount an elaborate action sequence as few others in the business can, and there is some genuinely exciting footage at the film’s conclusion, most notably during an airborne battle in amongst floating mountains.
If Cameron’s undeniably well-done climax seems somehow underwhelming, however, it’s probably because we have unrealistic expectations not just of him, but of what Avatar is supposed to do for the medium itself. Avatar has, throughout it’s long gestation, been touted as a “game changer:” a film that will herald in a new era of some sort of new immersive computer animated motion captured 3D entertainment experience that, in some unspecified way, is distinct from all the computer animated motion captured 3D entertainment experiences we’ve had thus far. Even following its release, this kind of talk has continued, to the point where some reviews have tried to sell quasi-animated 3D films such as this as akin to a whole new medium.
My scepticism about such a claim isn’t just based on the fact that there’s nothing actually new here. I am also deeply sceptical about the merits of 3D as a process, as I’ve said before (here). I saw Avatar in 3D out of professional interest – if an amateur can have a professional interest – but would much rather have seen it 2D. Cameron hasn’t solved any of the problems of 3D (how could he?) so the shitty colours, focus problems, awkward separation of different planes and general distractingness of 3D remain. The empiricist in me can’t argue with the raves from others about how immersive they find 3D, but I remain frankly completely bewildered. In particular, I find it odd that in an age where many so-called cinema enthusiasts are actually home theatre enthusiasts,* people would enthusiastically embrace a technology that so aggressively degrades image quality. Of course, my distaste for the format alone won’t stop the advance of 3D: that will be left to the range of issues pointed out by a rather better credentialed 3D sceptic than myself, Kristin Thompson (here).
As to the combination of 3D with computer generated effects, one thing that is sort of new is using the combination of technology to give such an immersive tour of an alien world. This is where the film starts to blend the world of Hollywood narrative cinema with the IMAX documentary genre (and Cameron, of course, spent some time on such films between Titanic and Avatar). Yet the fantasy pseudo-documentary seems a niche genre, to say the least. Effects-wise, the film is impressive for the scope and detail of its fantasy world, but again, it’s not without close precedent. In particular, I would say Peter Jackson’s King Kong featured better creature work (although Avatar boasts more impressive fantasy landscapes). The motion-captured animation of the Na’vi was, to my eyes, no better than what Robert Zemeckis had done in Beowulf (although here there was a better justification for actually using the technique). And as impressive as it is, none of the effects work in Avatar ever felt tangibly real. The best fantasy worlds of recent years to me remain those where actual locations are used as the base and then enhanced, as Peter Jackson did for Lord of the Rings; and I would defy anyone to seriously tell me the computer animation used for the final fight in Avatar feels anywhere near as real as the physical effects used for the similar sequence at the end of Aliens. “Computer effects aren’t as good as physical effects” is almost as much of a critical standby as “great effects, so-so story,” but if the technology is sold so much on the concept of immersion how can we discount the stark difference in involvement I feel when watching actual physical shots? There’s a real danger that both the computer effects and 3D give away as much in terms of immersion as they add.
Cameron is one of a few megastar directors who have seen their creativity decline as they turn their focus from traditional filmmaking and instead spend their time playing with the technology: Robert Zemeckis and George Lucas have allowed themselves to become similarly distracted. I’m not completely sceptical about such techniques, and hold out some hope that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson can put the technology to good use with their Tintin films. But 3D, motion capture, and computer animation (in whatever combination) are most certainly not fundamental advances that are worth these directors throwing away good portions of their career on. I hope James Cameron, with Avatar out of the way, can now turn his talent back to regular demonstrations of his more conventional filmmaking talents. He’s a gifted director and it would be good to get him back out of the lab.
* You know the type; these are the people who complain if DVDs accurately reproduce film grain, or who love a 5.1 remix of a movie but can’t understand why you might want the original stereo mix preserved.