Haven't I seen this story somewhere before?...
Like me, you might start to get a sense of déjà vu when watching Avatar, the undeniably epic science-fiction adventure from legendary director James Cameron. Pocahontas, FernGully, and Dances with Wolves are all films that carry the same central story and themes as Avatar, and arguably tackle them better. There's a lot of praise out there for this film and I can see why. You have only to catch a glimpse of it to appreciate its incredible aesthetic and breath-taking world. But is that enough for a film? 4 years ago before its release, it was lauded as the great step forward in cinema - a new dawn in film-making. Now we have hindsight on our side, we can take a look back at what Avatar has taught us about film.
James Cameron is a man who is hard to ignore. His directing credits include such films as Aliens, The Terminator, and Titanic, and his awards shelf must be absolutely rammed. He is a director who seems tireless in the pursuit of innovation in his field, so when 3D resurfaced as a film medium, you could've guessed who would be at the cutting edge. Avatar was filmed entirely using 3D cameras and was therefore meant to be seen in that format. Along with the innumerable masses, I too donned the glasses and remember the experience very clearly. That is to say I remember the stunning visual effects clearly. Today, the 3rd dimension has failed to become an intrinsic part of cinema and I feel that many of us see it deservedly as just another gimmick, yet Avatar stands as a great example of what 3D can achieve when done properly. By committing to and filming directly in 3D, the film displays a palpable depth, creating a window into a realm and drawing you in, unlike some of the horrible retro-fitted 3D nonsense that has come after it. When Cameron goes for an idea, he sticks to it.
Much like its director, it's hard to ignore Avatar mainly due to its stunning visuals. At times it's hard to believe that the world we are witnessing was created inside a computer, such is its beauty and minute detailing. Foliage moves in the wind, light trickles through the trees, and strange creatures move and react with remarkable fluidity. The world feels at once both alien and familiar. I must say however, that the design of the planet never grasped me firmly - it's a neon jungle populated by many-limbed versions of animals, floating mountains, and lanky blue humanoids. Highly advanced performance capture technology was used to (unsurprisingly enough!) capture the performances of the actors for their Na'vi counterparts, thus translating all the intricacies of emotion that the human face conveys. It is yet another tool used to invest you in the world. Avatar is one of the richest visual feasts ever to grace the silver screen, and for that it deserves the awards and praise tailored to that category. Check out the video below for a behind-the-scenes look at the revolutionary technology used during filming.
Avatar cost hundreds of millions of dollars and many years to create, and great care has gone into moulding its look. The same cannot be said of the story and script. As I mentioned earlier, the story is completely predictable and completely bland; you could thrash out the plot just by knowing a bit about the characters and their motivations. At 162 minutes, it is also baggy and over-indulgent, in no way warranting an extended 178 minute cut. The sense of numbing inevitability permeates the script where lines are clichéd and cringe-worthy, most of the dialogue taken up with beating you over the head with explanation of what is going on - Unobtanium? Gee, is that stuff hard to get? With so little to work with, even the best actors among the cast have a hard time making us care about their overblown stereotypical characters; the worst being the grizzled, touch-as-nails commander who is apparently far more resilient than other humans to the potentially dangerous atmosphere on Pandora. He's even got a prominent scar on his face - original eh?
Despite all this, Avatar is still a worthy cinematic milestone. The beauty in its' creation has yet to be surpassed by any CGI in any film to date, and I feel it will remain that way for quite some time...at least until the slew of sequels come along. But all this cannot hide the great flaws in the storytelling. In my opinion, it flounders in attempting to tell a compelling tale and by doing so makes itself merely a spectacle. It stands as a lesson that visual effects cannot carry a film lacking in an engaging story. Don't get me wrong, it is still a good film, but it is an example of an opportunity for greatness missed. It could have been so much more.