In Cinemas

Avatar – The (Re)Birth Of A Medium?

January 4, 2010 by Simon Kinnear in In Cinemas with 0 Comments

Happy New Year to the one man and his dog who reads this blog!

I meant to post several things during the Christmas break, but was laid low with a hellish cold for the entire duration. One such thing was my review of Avatar, which I caught in eye-popping 3D just before the virus took hold.

However, I’m not too worried about this being late. After all, last weekend saw the announcement that Avatar has joined the exclusive $1 billion global box-office club, so it’s not as though the film is old news. In all likelihood, before the week is out Avatar will probably be the all-time #2, lagging only behind Titanic to cement a staggering 1-2 for James Cameron.

So, if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it yet and are debating whether to go, may I offer my humble (if a teensy bit spoilery) viewpoint? And if you have seen it, you’re probably itching for a second opinion anyway!

Avatar (James Cameron, US, 2009)

A 3D revolution? Cameron has certainly jazzed up the flat surface of his movie. But, behind the radical technology, this is surprisingly old-school

James Cameron is a vicious bastard. After twelve years perfecting the technology to create a truly immersive 3D world, he understandably wants to trumpet his achievement. And he does so not just with those pioneering, high-tech visuals but with a simple, old-school motif – a recurring series of close-ups of eyes, opening to stare in awe at this brave new world. Trouble is, to the audience, red-eyed and squinting after suffering the 3D’s disconcerting assault on the corneas for a whopping two-and-a-half hours, is close to torture.

Is that torture justified? To some degree, sure – Avatar is staggering stuff when it wants to be, offering a tangible, uncanny approximation – an, avatar, if you like – of being there. The sequence where Jake Sully, the human turned native thanks to the titular Avatar technology, undertakes an initiation rite atop a floating rock, induces a sense of vertigo that Hitchcock would have killed for. And the constant use of foliage to add texture and perspective is richly luxuriant…although the best texture, weirdly, proves to be glass. Shots of bad-ass Stephen Lang in his helicopter gunship, a whole world visible beyond its dirt-streaked panes, are breathtaking.

The story that goes with it is the typical Cameron dichotomy – a gun-nut and techno-fetishist who dreams of being a hippie. It’s the theme of all of his films from the Cold War carnage of The Terminator to the heart going on in Titanic, and here it gets its purest, most mythic outing in the good vs evil of rampaging imperialist humans/Yanks out to inflict shock and awe on the indigeous tribes, overriding timeless tradition with bombs and flamethrowers…and getting a guerrilla-style fightback for their sins. It’s deeply unsubtle, simplistic stuff – the ending, in which the various predatory groups who usually battle with the alien Na’Vi for territory, all gang together against a common foe like some kind of menagerie cavalry, is a liberal, eco-friendly rewrite of racist ‘classic’ The Birth of A Nation.

So, after nearly a century, things haven’t really changed in storytelling – and, if we wanted, we could add more recent templates like Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, The Matrix and its sequels, the Star Wars cycle and, yes, Ferngully to the grab-bag of narrative influences. It’s a little unfair: Cameron isn’t out to score points for originality (not in that way, at least) and he remains a master of cinematic structure, offering a clear, coherent plotline, reasonably engaging characters and effective use of the film’s most interesting irony – that master warrior Sully must also protect his unconscious, paraplegic human form, trapped in the belly of the beast. Besides, who cares about narrative when, in terms of visual bravura, Cameron reveals himself to be a visionary to rank with Del Toro and Gilliam? There are some truly batshit creations here, not least the Na’vi themselves: tall, willowy blue giants who are literal true-huggers, thanks to fibre-optic style hairs that plug into the bio-mainframe.

So it’s certainly worth watching once, just for the passages where this freakazoid brainstorming session meshes with the eye-popping technology. But the big question: does this change things? The Birth of A Nation is still regarded (if reluctantly) as a pioneer; what will the audiences of 2109 make of Avatar? It’s a tough question. Nothing dates faster than technology, and here we’re talking about a technology that has already risen and fallen in the past as its novelty has worn off. Yet don’t count against Cameron. Only a decade on and Titanic’s influence has been… well, titanic. CGI is no longer merely a tool to wow but a means of embellishing texture. Studios have cottoned on to the fact that real money lies less on getting bums on seats than on keeping them there with repeat screenings, DVD purchases and an arsenal of spin-offs. Meanwhile, since Hollywood breathed a collective sigh of relief after Cameron’s likely-to-sink behemoth floated, blockbuster projects are a little safer, favouring much-loved stories or, failing that, easily-graspable ones that feel like we’ve seen them before. In all of these respects, Avatar is less a radical revolution than a continuation of conservative trends. The real game-changer will come when somebody pulls us into the screen with the story… and only uses the 3D to keep us there.

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