|Posted on December 22, 2009 at 9:50 AM|
Let’s get the obvious out of the way first - Avatar (Cameron, 2009) looks incredible. The visuals in this film are breathtaking, and Cameron has successfully crafted a living, breathing, alien world from his revolutionary motion-capture technology. Unfortunately though, any semblance of plot or character development has been completely neglected. Once the initial spectacle of the CGI and 3D had worn of, I started to ask myself, “this is the same guy who wrote The Terminator?” Has Cameron, like Lucas (another gifted story-teller) become seduced by the wonders of computer graphics? Or has the past decade underwater, drained what little prose he still had rattling around up there?
Here’s the thing, most people (including myself, to an extent) are able to forgive the derivative story and grating dialogue because the technology is amazing. The scope and spectacle this film creatives, combined with Cameron's fully realized universe succeeds in distracting the viewer from a fairly average narrative. But, in say... 5 years, when 3D technology and CGI has evolved, people will look back and won't be able to find anything tangible or engaging about this film. It's an event film now, but it has no lasting appeal. Without a big screen, it won't even retain its pull 6 months from now, when released on DVD. At this point, it's a cliché, but to future generations, Avatar will just be Dances with Smurf's, with PS3 graphics.
When people say, "Oh, the visuals are amazing! You forget you're watching computer generated images," I don't consider that a compliment to the film. It implies that what you're enjoying is the technology, which as I've mentioned will look dated in 5 years (see: The Mummy, Harry Potter, The Matrix sequels), and even though most would argue the contrary, the fact that it's so obviously CGI (impressive as it is), completely takes me out of the experience. Using puppets or miniatures, like they did in the 80s, may not be as extravagant, but it's more realistic, because you can subconsciously tell that it's something tangible on-screen; that the actors are in contact with something solid, yet fantastical. This is why the original Star Wars trilogy holds up so much better than its prequels. Practical effects may not be as flashy as CGI, but they date much better and are used to accentuate, rather than replace the plot.
In my mind, the most important feature in any production, is the characters. You can have the best writing and acting (of which Avatar had neither), but unless there are characters that engage you, it's all for naught (see: Mad Men). The lead characters in Avatar were pretty one-note and could be summed up in about 2 words (e.g. sensitive marine; self-righteous scientist; nerdy assistant). The deepest character, by far, was the [strangely hot] girl Avatar, who was also portrayed very sympathetically by Zoe Saldana. The military General was also great, because he embraced the campiness and theatricality of his role (why would a robot carry a shank?!). So character-wise, Avatar was a little hit-and-miss for me. Plot-wise, however, I was disappointed (especially considering the director’s previous work). The whole "white man comes into an indigenous culture, and masters their customs and saves them, better they ever could" is dull, unoriginal and slightly racist. Having seen this story, almost shot for shot, in Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas, nothing came as a surprise.
Overall, and practically in spite of myself, I did enjoy this film. Avatar delivers an incredible cinema experience—CGI, mo-cap, 3D, 10-foot blue cat-people—it pulls out all the stops to keep you enthralled. And that final battle is a brilliant action sequence. Outside of a huge screen and darkened theatre, though, it lacks any longevity. People seem to forget that blockbuster effects and story can, and have, co-existed (see: The Lord of the Rings). So, if you’re going to see it, for God's sake, see it on the big screen. After that, I could only recommend it as a rental. This is James Cameron’s first film in over a decade, and for Terminator and Aliens alone, this guy deserves the accolades and international gross he’s getting at the moment. But this is far from the "Best Picture of the Year". Check out District 9. It’s essentially the same storyline, but done so much more interestingly.