The least impressive thing about the latest creation of the director who brought you Titanic (TM) is the reason I went to see it in the first place: the 3D. You only really notice it in scenes with considerable depth of vision - the opening sequence’s deep sleep chamber first and foremost - where you can clearly make out characters larking about in the background. Group dialogue scenes come out quite well too.
But the action scenes, which surely should be 3D’s raison d’être in theory, just don’t cut it. The image blurs when things move too fast; and overall, monsters and weapons try to leap put of the screen without success. I remember being more impressed by Captain Eo at Disneyland Florida… 25 years ago. The new generation of 3D never makes anyone in the audience put their hand up to grab a little flying beastie or the like. In short, don’t believe the next-gen 3D hype. A shame considering Cameron reinvented the camera and got gazillions of cinemas 3D-ready just for this film…
Fortunately, the camera reinvention was well worth it. As WIRED brilliantly explains here, the director was able, for the first time ever, to film real actors and see their virtual makeup and environments at the same time. The result is stunningly credible four-metre tall blue aliens (the Na’vi) whose ultra-expressive faces convey emotion just as well as real actors. Better still: Avatar is the first film where you truly can’t see the difference between real and virtual.
The infamous “uncanny valley” is now breached.
When the lead giant smurf pats his pet dragon on the head, it’s utterly convincing. As is flying around on same dragon; crowd scenes with hundreds of giant smurfs (OK, Na’vi); and the forest in which most of the film takes place: totally fake, yet incredibly dense and vibrant with especially-created virtual life.
This is especially true at night, when said forest becomes a fluokid raver’s wet dream (photo), tropical plants lighting up in a phosphorescent explosion you just want to dive into… And nearly can.
But what does Avatar offer beyond a prolonged (two and a half hour!) theme park attraction? In plot terms, not much: Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves, the description being bandied about right now, is pretty accurate: our main man is sent in to remove aliens and ends up defending them pretty much sums it up. The dialogue is equally uninspired.
But what does impress about Avatar is its use of the most spectactular visuals in the history of cinema to convey unsubtle yet effective ecological and anti-imperialistic messages. The humans want the Na’vi’s land because they’ve eradicated all traces of nature on earth; so they just go elsewhere and take what they want. It’s rather reminiscent of the last Iraq war - the gut-churning term “shock and awe" is even used - but not always crystal-clear.
As the wife pointed out, when the nasty humans destroy the aliens’ immense tree of life (CLICHE!), the ensuing flames, ashes and distress are distrubingly and deliberately reminiscent of 9/11; yet all of a sudden the Americans are both the invaders and the victims. Strange. Still, when the aliens get their inevitable revenge, Cameron wins his emotional gambit: we are moved to root for them and their mother nature… Nay, to hug a virtual tree, again if we only could!
In short, a film which, despite its shortcomings, sticks in the mind for a long time if only for its sheer inventiveness; nay, balls-out determination to be a game-changer. And looking now at other recent special effects-fests like Narnia, it’s clear that Avatar has created a different league.
But to say there is a before and an after-Avatar in terms of overall filmmaking, as many geeks are claiming right now? Let’s not overdo it. The real game-changer will be the one that rivals Cameron’s visual prowess whilst outdoing its uninspired dialogue and plot. Given Avatar’s dire performance on both fronts, the wait shouldn’t be too long! Hold on, did somebody mention District 9…?
Thanks to Panasonic for the screening; and to Lâm for the tip-off!