My thoughts on the movie Avatar

Avatar eyeSuzanne and I went to see Avatar on the Boxing Day public holiday. I hadn’t heard anything about this movie until about 3-4 months ago when the sci-fi forums I frequent were abuzz with chatter about James Cameron’s newest offering. Some were talking about it as if it was going to be the greatest movie in the history of celluloid, others were ‘meh’, another over hyped movie from a director who hasn’t worked in 15 years. Some friends of mine were in one camp, some friends in the other. So I decided I’d keep an open mind about this movie and do a bit of research before I went to see it.

After it opened, various articles appeared in blogs and newspapers. This one said the movie was “vomit inducing”, but in a nice way. This article from Wired is one of the better ones, and makes it sound like Avatar is the culmination of a 30 year quest for James Cameron to prove he has a bigger wang than George Lucas. He was pretty much trying to out-Lucas what George did with Star Wars in 1977.

In 1977, a 22-year-old truck driver named James Cameron went to see Star Wars with a pal. [snip] Now he was facing a deflating reality: He had been daydreaming about the kind of world that Lucas had just brought to life. Star Wars was the film he should have made.

Young George LucasBut it’s apples and oranges. Here’s the thing; George Lucas was a young director, was working with 70′s technology and worked to a budget of about $8M and managed to produce the magic we call Star Wars. Cameron, as of 2009, has had 25 years of experience working with the latest digital and robotic technology, and with movies budgeted in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars. Don’t get me wrong; Terminator, Abyss, T2, True Lies and Titanic (at least the second half) are among my favourite movies but they don’t hold a candle to what George created. Star Wars changed science fiction and movie history and 30+ years later the franchise and fanbase is still going strong. Sure, a lot of fans complain that George stole their childhood from them and destroyed Star Wars with The Phantom Menace, but compare James Cameron’s Aliens to the original Ridley Scott masterpiece, Alien. One is a dark, moody science fiction horror, the other is a hoo-rah shoot-em up exercise in Marine flagwaving, which is one of the lowest common denominators in cinema.

Which leads me to the theme and storyline of Avatar. I had heard it described as “Dances with Wolves” in space, and this description is pretty much on the money. I guess it’s true that in 2009 there are no more original stories, so most movies nowadays sell the way the story is told and not the story itself. Selling the sizzle rather than the steak. In this case, the story is told in a fantasy world with state of the art 3-D digital technology.

I knew I'd seen all this beforeAll in all, the movie was great. It was a familiar story, well told. The 3-D effects were a good novelty. The only other 3-D I’ve seen was a docco on the International Space Station when I was in San Francisco in 2002. But the digital world Cameron created was fantastic; the level of detail was breathtaking, and because it was all digitally filmed the physics and movement seemed to be very realistic. Often with CGI and live action mixed you can see where one starts and one ends, and sometimes the interaction of the characters and the sets don’t seem to work well together, with visual mis-cues confusing the viewer and detracting from the overall effect. But Avatar was pretty seamless. From dust and smoke in the atmosphere, to the physics of a foot (or hoof) impacting on the ground… it was hard to fault. You can certainly see where $300M went. The only thing nobody has been able to do well so far in CGI is full sunlight. Even with Avatar, you knew that it wasn’t real because it still looked a little dark like it was an overcast day. If the jungle scenes can look like a natural environment like Apocalypto or something, then I think anything will be possible.