Natural Synthetics: James Cameron’s “Avatar”

When you stop and think about it, movies are weird things.

They’re not exactly real, are they? It doesn’t matter if the movie is fifty years old without a singe pixel to be found. It still isn’t actually real. You couldn’t shake the people you see on screen by the hand if you wanted to, you couldn’t taste the food on their plates if you were hungry, you couldn’t feel the fabric of their clothes if you tried. (Mind you, they wouldn’t be crazy about you doing those things during a performance on stage, but at least there you have the option of trying.)

It’s just pictures. An illusion created by projecting twenty-four of them every second onto a screen in front of your eyes. Hollywood likes to use the more marketing-friendly term “magic”, and unlike most marketing-friendly terms, I’m not sure I’d disagree with it.

I don’t watch a lot of movies in an actual movie theatre very often. On average, maybe two a year. This year it happens to be four. Back in January it was Frost/Nixon. In May it was Star Trek. In June it was Up. Last night it was Avatar.

I want to make this a simple review rather than the full-length essay and analysis I did for Up. Part of the reason for this is that the movie just isn’t deep enough to withstand such a discussion. The story doesn’t have enough meat to chew on, instead playing like something of a broadly staged puppet show (and given the motion-capture nature of the alien race, that’s true in more ways than one) with a script that goes through the motions without a single detour taken. Characters say their lines, and little more.

It wasn’t a bad experience seeing it in the theatre, of course. This movie was made for the big screen and the big screen shows it off well. When Jake Sully takes off from a cliff on the back of a flying pterodactyl, it truly is breathtaking. Floating mountains, jellyfish dandelions that sparkle, a forest that glows in the dark. The world of Pandora is as fantastic as it is eye-catching. It’s unfortunate that the rest of the movie can’t live up to the promise of the art direction. It has plenty of visual delight going for it, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t amaze me. But the story is just barely worth the effort and the characters (despite being played by some competent actors) are nothing but cardboard cutouts. When the CG alien world has more of an effect on you than any of the people, including the blue-skinned ones, something is amiss.

There was also another element that was amiss for me, but it had less to do with the movie itself and more with the exhibition. I’m talking about 3D.

When I heard they were bringing 3D back to movie theatres, I was incredibly skeptical. I had memories of paper glasses with one red lens and one cyan, and how nothing looked naturally coloured. This was what they wanted to resurrect? Well fortunately the colours don’t suffer with the new technology. Unfortunately, everything else does. This was the second film I saw with 3D glasses (the first being Up) and the second that left me wondering what the point was. Maybe my eyes are maladjusted, maybe it was where I was sitting, but it didn’t look three-dimensional to me. In fact, it looked like someone had taken certain elements, cut them out of the picture, and then pasted them back on. Everything was built up out of layers, which I assume is the point, but hardly any of the layers looked like they were interacting with each other. Characters started becoming cardboard cutouts in more ways than in the writing. It enhanced the photographic fakery rather than the moviegoing experience.

And ultimately, of course, I was drawn too much out of the movie too often for it to be genuinely immersive. By the time I got home, whatever magic it had had was worn off, and I found myself wanting to watch a real movie. A movie that didn’t rely on computers to create its world and draw you into it, but rather a movie (as I like to put it) made by hand. A movie that focused on performances and people and story. That’s what will really pull me into a film.

I was reading a short review of the film last night, and I was surprised at how angry it made me. The reviewer likened the re-emergence of 3D into the cinematic world to the transition from black and white to colour, and that the process could be applied to “intimate, dialogue dramas” as well as special effects extravaganzas. I shudder at the thought. But what scared me even more was his excitement at the prospect of a major digital human character that was indistinguishable from the actors surrounding it. Now that is truly horrifying.

3D, I think, represents an aspect of the film industry that has defined it for most of its life: the need to make it all seem like reality. That need, of course, becomes even more pronounced when everything you see on screen is artificially constructed. The problem is, filmmakers are trying to overcome what they never can. They can never give us a movie that is truly real because a movie is complete illusion. The only thing real about a movie is the emotional impact it can have on the viewer, and that’s only going to be achieved with a great story. So why do they try so hard to achieve it with technology?

I’m reminded of Plato’s famous allegory of the Cave of Shadows, where people live chained in place so that all they know of the world is the wall of the cave they face. Behind them is a bonfire and a stage, with the shadows of the actors cast upon the wall the chained people are facing; their only reality is thinner than paper. The analogy was brought to life incredibly in The Matrix, but I’m not so sure it doesn’t apply here as well. One of the other problems with Avatar, one that has been remarked on here and there, but always with tongue in cheek, is the fact that a world meant to symbolize nature is completely and utterly synthetic. It’s shadows on the wall to the nth degree.

I don’t consider myself a Luddite by any means. I also don’t consider myself as being against digital special effects in films. And I love a good movie as much as anyone else. So it actually causes me a little pain to say it, but I have to be honest to my own opinions:

If this is the future of filmmaking, I think I’d rather stay home and read a book.


Okay, so that was a little bit of an essay, wasn’t it? 🙂

One thought on “Natural Synthetics: James Cameron’s “Avatar”

  1. That is, I think, one of the more thoughtful and well-written explorations of a film I’ve read in … well … perhaps ever. It’s not so much a review as it is an analysis of film, with Avatar as a focal point.

    And I fully agree. The 3D elements seemed to do more to remind me that this was “just a movie,” rather than fully immersing me in the world of Pandora.

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