(Warning: contains spoilers.)
Terry Gilliam, the co-director of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, once famously said: “When maintaining a very low production standard you can get away with murder.”
The release of Avatar sees James Cameron finally reaping the rewards of relentlessly pursuing his personal Holy Grail for years and years. Up until recently he felt that technology was not worthy of being put to use in unfolding his opus magnificat. Times have changed, and the great auteur has graciously made his masterpiece available to the unwashed masses. Produced on a budget that, according to estimates, hovers somewhere between 300 and 500 million dollars, Avatar is pretty much the antithesis of what Terry Gilliam was talking about.
When you’ve got a really cool hammer, all the world had better be a nail
So, what did Cameron and his legion of CGI artists get away with? Let’s first take a look at the much-vaunted 3-D graphics. If only View-Master had come up with a motion picture version of their educational yet curiously entertaining toy, we would have had Avatar-like experiences 40 years ago. Not that there haven’t been any 3-D movies before Avatar, it’s just that for the most part they’ve been turkeys like Jaws III. Granted, the Avatar world does look plausible enough to be immersive, and there are lots of visually impressive scenes throughout the movie.
Unfortunately CGI is still struggling with realistic motion. Inertia is all but nonexistent, which is especially noticeable in flight. There are in fact no flying creatures in the movie, only winged lizards that swim through the air along impossible trajectories. I’m not buying the argument that this is an alien world where things work differently; I can suspend my disbelief to go with the floating mountains, but a leapin’ lizard moving through air does not glide along a straight path while only occasionally flapping its way too small wings for show, and definitely does not land gracefully without flaring under an Earth-like gravity. Many of the flight scenes felt like they’d been slapped on just so they could be recreated in the associated video game. The average gamer admittedly has somewhat more modest amounts of computing power at their disposal, so maybe the flight artists didn’t go all out on purpose, who knows.
I won’t even go into the “let’s-slap-some-Latex-on-their-foreheads” look of the alien race as popularized by Klingons on Star Trek all those years ago, except to maybe concede that the badass Marine colonel’s joke about chasing tail was actually kinda funny. I’ll also refrain from analyzing the flora and fauna too deeply — suffice it to say that any third-rate Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure pays more attention to the plausibility of those sorts of details. The only alien world cliché they missed was having the planet orbit a double star.
Ignoring the visual candy for a moment, let’s take a look at the meat and bones of what makes a movie. You know, characters, story, the development thereof, acting, dialogue, that sort of stuff. Well, very little of any of that stuff makes a noticeable dent in the glossy armor of Avatar. Look, the 3-D graphics are pretty nifty, but that doesn’t excuse not including any of the above as well. Any decent movie made with real actors in a real environment has all that and much more, so just because a fortune was spent on renting supercomputer rendering time doesn’t mean that the other bits that maketh a movie can simply be glossed over. And no, “I’ll show them and get an even bigger bird!” doesn’t count as character development.
Cameron must have felt that he made Aliens so long ago that current audiences weren’t even born back then and therefore it’s OK to plunder from it. Gung-ho space Marines? Check. Hot chick as rough-as-guts Marine sergeant? Check. Paul Reiser (or, in this case, a look-alike) as soulless corporate bad guy? Check. Sigourney Weaver emerging from a pod, check, although 23 years and as many facelifts and Botox shots later, only in a supporting role, presumably to create continuity between the flogged-to-death Alien franchise and the new-and-improved Avatar franchise. Other flashback movies you may have seen include Jurassic Park, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and, by extension, the Johnny-Depp-as-Michael-Jackson remake), Starship Troopers, and Doom the video game (possibly also the movie, which I haven’t seen).
In conclusion, even though it may sound like I hated Avatar, in actuality I’m just pissing in the production company’s pocket because any publicity, especially the free sort, can only serve to generate more money in the coffers of 20th Century Fox. Let’s just hope that James Cameron takes another 12 years to churn out his next epic. Fingers crossed.
- Postscript 2010-03-08: Jim Schembri of The Age seems to have had a similar Avatar experience – http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/pray-that-kryptonite-is-avatars-undoing-20100305-poso.html – “Come Oscar night on Monday, uber-director James Cameron and his top-grossing, tree-hugging, 3D sci-fi digital extravaganza Avatar will pick up a swag of doorstops for best visual effects, cinematography, sound, etc. As it should.But Avatar is also up for best film and best director, and if it wins either – or, heaven forfend, both – it would be a travesty for film culture.”
- Post-postscript 2010-03-09: My faith in humanity, or at least the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has been restored.