Monday 18 January 2010

James Moon's AVATAR

Sattelite surveys suggest that this review is free from spoileranium

Where do you begin with Avatar? Even before its release the movie had already inspired miles of text and so by the time that first trailer hit, I was almost sick to the back teeth of hearing about it. But more crucially, my years of experience as a film fan had taught me a valuable lesson – the longer a film is in development and the higher fan anticipation and expectation levels rise is often a proportionally inverse measure of how disappointing the final product is.

So then, with Avatar being in production since what seemed like the Pre-Cambrian Age and various very bold claims being made as the release date drew nearer, I wasn’t that surprised when the trailer left me somewhat underwhelmed. And even though I should perhaps have known better, the trailer did leave me feeling rather disappointed. But also I did feel like a lone dissenting voice lost in a mighty ocean of fanboy gushing – it seemed like a real Emperor’s new clothes moment. Was I being too cynical? And could you really judge a trailer properly viewing it on a monitor?

Well, I have a very large wide screen monitor and other trailers viewed online have blown me away. A pertinent comparison would be the Watchmen trailer – after all this was a project that that been in development hell even longer than Avatar, and when I finally saw that first peek at the movie I was over the moon as what was presented on screen looked likely to deliver the goods. And my expectation levels were raised considerably, despite the longer wait the bigger let-down equation.

However a few weeks later I caught the trailer again, but this time on a cinema screen. And I have to admit it did impress me a whole lot more. But at the same time, my main problem with the designs remained and the difference in my reaction did highlight an issue I touched upon in my trailer write-up. And a later viewing of the trailer, this time in 3D compounded this. Namely that Cameron had put together this movie with the format clearly in mind – this is a movie built for not just 3D but 3D IMAX.

Now in the whole of the United Kingdom, there are less than twelve IMAX cinemas, and quarter of them are in London. And when the trailer hit, it was looking like a journey of well over a hundred miles would be in order if I wanted to see Cameron’s opus in its full glory. And considering my reaction to the first footage, I did feel it was necessary to view the movie as the director intended it to be seen. But thankfully, just in time for Avatar, an IMAX opened less than thirty miles away…

So then, after severe snowstorms limiting travelling and the tendency of organising any event over the festive period to resemble cat-herding, I finally managed to see Avatar. But interestingly, in the full month since its release, amid the heaps of praise filling the airwaves like those Pandoran floaty jellyfish, there were several dissenting voices which seemed to confirm the misgivings the trailer initially engendered – chiefly that once you take away the flashy 3D effects, Avatar is bereft of any real flair and the story is thinner than a super model spaghettified by an event horizon.

Hence I went into the movie with the view that I was going to see something that would be visually spectacular at least - as this was the first proper full feature I would see in IMAX, I was fairly sure there would be some wow factor to hand. After all, I was going to see Avatar on its home turf as it were, and considering how the negative reviews had seemed to chime with my trailer write-up, I didn’t feel unduly burdened by the weight of the hype. More to the point, I was more than willing for Cameron to blow my misgivings out of the water.

However, despite not buying into the rapture of the Avangelists, it’s really impossible to judge this film without reference to the afore-mentioned very bold claims. And the four big ones that were still looming large in my bonce when I took my seat were as follows –

1) The CGI effects work for the CGI characters set a new high watermark of photorealism.
2) It’s the most visually stunning film yet
3) The 3D effects are a quantum leap over previous RealD offerings
4) This movie is a game changer for cinema in general

So then how does Avatar live up to these grandiose pronouncements?

Firstly, the effects work for the Na’vi is second to none and the time Cameron has put in developing a new system of motion capture has paid off beautifully. Although we have seen some convincingly realised CGI characters in recent years – Jackson’s Kong, Pirates of the Caribbean’s Davy Jones – and Robert Zemeckis has been quietly breaking new ground in motion capture since The Polar Express, the Na’vi are easily the most elegant effects created characters yet. Although in translating an actor’s performance into a CGI creation, Gollum is still a high water mark where Avatar excels is the fact that the Na’vi do look real most of time - Cameron’s new system of performance capture works so well in fact that at times I did wonder whether there was some sneaky cheating with old school prosthetic make-up going on.

Sharp-eyed readers will have noticed the qualifier “most of the time” in that last statement. Now ironically the moments where the Na’vi failed to fully convince me of their reality has nothing to do with either the performance capture or how the actual CG effects were executed. This might seem a petty, nit picky point but it was the ears. Now seriously, it WAS the ears – specifically their placement on the head. In some points, from some angles the position of the ears just looked anatomically unfeasible; appearing as if they were just glued to the sides of the characters’ foreheads. I can’t help feeling that if the ears were set maybe as little as a half inch further back this problem would vanish. I can’t help feeling that if Stan Winston was still with us, he’d have rectified this. Admittedly it’s a very small point that only kicks in very occasionally but it does say something about the design of the film.

Which neatly brings me to Bold Claim #2… Now make no mistake Avatar is a gorgeous looking film, but is it the most visually stunning film you’ll ever see? Frankly no it bloody well isn’t. Leaving aside the quality of the 3D for the moment, I’d have to say that although this is an impressive exercise in visual pyrotechnics, boasting some marvellous action sequences and simply beautiful landscapes there are plenty of equally stunning films out there. An obvious comparison is the Lord of the Rings which although Avatar equals in the world building stakes I don’t think it tops it. More to the point, if we are talking about stunning cinematic beauty, then there are many films that can hold a candle to Avatar, from art-house outings such as Berolucci’s The Last Emperor and Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire to more popcorn-friendly dynamics of Danny Boyle’s Sunshine and the Wachowski’s Speed Racer, or even to the outright exploitation kinetics of Crank or From Hell.

Now don’t get me wrong, Avatar is visually marvellous but the most stunning? I don’t think so, and here’s why – the design work just doesn’t break any new ground. As many have remarked, the geography of Pandora owes a lot to the work of Roger Dean and his many copyists. And I’d add to this that a lot of the creature designs owe a similarly large debt to another fantasy artist, equally beloved by prog rockers everywhere, Rodney Matthews. The elongated look of the Na’vi is highly reminiscent of many of beings that populate Matthew’s work, his renditions of Moorcock’s Melnibonians in particular. And in general, the fauna of Pandora have the same baroque curves and angles of many of his beasts.

And although it’s a real pleasure to see an alien world beautifully realised in a classic 1970’s sci-fi art style, the designs themselves just don’t wow me enough. For example, the ferocious Tonker-bird, sorry the Toruk, although it’s very pretty and excellently realised just doesn’t grab the imagination the same way as classic creature designs like Giger’s Alien does. I don’t know whether it’s just my familiarity with the kind of artists that fills Paper Tiger’s coffee table books but the designs of Avatar seem to fall just short of truly iconic. And to earn the title of ‘most visually stunning’, iconic designs are what you need.

Of course part of the basis for the “visually stunning” claim is Cameron’s use refinement of the 3D process, so how does did Bold Claim #3 stand up? Like Zemeckis in A Christmas Carol, Cameron largely avoids that bane of 3D films, poking the audience in the eye with pointy gimmicks. Indeed much as been made of Cameron developing the stereoscopic process to create the illusion of depth and I have to concur with the general view that his use of this depth is very impressive, particularly in the panoramic shots of Pandora. And it’s in this illusion space; of having the elements of any given shot appearing to be ranged over a variety of distances away from the viewer that Avatar truly does excel.

However, I can’t really fully go with Bold Claim #3… but if I hadn’t seen A Christmas Carol I would have no reservations about it. The illusion of depth is certainly a step forward, but I do feel that in a way Zemeckis beat him to the punch. Now Avatar’s use of depth certainly outstrips A Christmas Carol, but although both films were conceived with 3D in mind, Cameron’s film is far more tailored to showcase it. So although Avatar is innovative in its use of 3D, unfortunately the Zemeckis’ rendition of the Dickens classic managed to scamper down the depth perception path a scant few weeks sooner. Hence in my book, I’d have to give both films joint first place in the pushing the boundaries of 3D derby. But that said, judging by the box office returns a great many more people have seen Avatar than A Christmas Carol, and if you’ve not seen Zemeckis’ movie, then I have no doubt that Bold Claim #3 will be thoroughly vindicated.

Now before we tackle the final and biggest claim for Avatar, let’s have a butchers at the film’s actual narrative content – something that interestingly our Bold Claims list doesn’t really cover. Indeed my initial reaction to the trailer and weighing it against accompanying blizzard of hyperbole was very much that this all might look fantastic in IMAX 3D but the strength of the designs is a little lacking and it is going to need some fantastic story telling for the film to work when viewed flat or in the home on disc.

And it has to be said, it turns out that Avatar’s plotting, dialogue and character development are very thin, and my fears that Cameron has spent so long tinkering with the technology that the narrative, and perhaps to a lesser extent the design work too, got shoved to the backburner.

So then first in the firing line – the story itself. Yes, it is both slim and very predictable but, in fairness, it is a tale comprising of very well worn and elements and deliberately so. Cameron has stated that his intention was to tell “an old-fashioned jungle adventure” set in the future on an alien world that “aspires to a mythic level of storytelling”. And in many respects, a good comparison here is the original Star Wars, as Cameron like Lucas before him has created a film that draws upon age old stories and legends, injected a huge dose of old school film adventures and Republic serials and wrapped the whole package up in the latest special effects. And also like Star Wars, you can go through Avatar ticking off archetypes and tropes from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero of a Thousand Faces.

And it has to said, despite all the flack the story has taken, there isn’t actually anything much wrong with the arc of the plot. Yes, it is predictable but all works following these archetypes are – for example, did anyone honestly ever really doubt that Luke and the rebels would destroy the Death Star in the end?

Some people have said that the problem is that Avatar is just too long for such as a simple story, but I’d have to disagree. Usually in the case of movies with a narratively unjustified long running time, it’s fairly easy to sit back and play arm chair editor and finger the scenes you would cut and compress. However with Avatar, I’m honestly not sure where I’d make cuts. Apart for a slight slowing of the pace during Sully’s warrior training, the movie belts along at a terrific pace which leads me to the conclusion that the real trouble isn’t in the running time or the plotting per se.

For me, I think where Avatar is seriously weak and deserving of criticism is it’s handling of the characters. To begin with far too much of the dialogue is exposition of one stripe or another. And while this is to be expected in an adventure romp, the problem is that the quality of the lines themselves just doesn’t reveal enough of the character’s personalities. The dialogue paints them in with broad strokes but as the film only has four major players (Sully, Neytiri, Grace and Lieutenant Colonel Kojak Slaphead III) their lack of depth is writ in IMAX size letters and they never develop much further than ciphers. To play the Star Wars card again, Avatar is lacking the swagger of a Han Solo or the comic fussiness of a Threepio. And that’s the trouble with archetypes – they aren’t actually just the oldest stock figures in the book of storytelling, and they don’t work right out of the box. They are just templates for a character; to cut their strings and make them real boys and girls you have to sprinkle them with a little charisma.

Now in such a richly realised action adventure as Avatar you could possibly get away with just sketching in personalities for the archetypal figures and in the main Cameron does. However the deficiencies of the script, such as the lack of character development and the under written dialogue, really stands out when it comes to the pivotal scenes where Jake’s conflicting loyalties come to a head.

But what actually saved the film from dying beached in its narrative shallows was the strength of the performances. Now Stephen Miles puts in a great turn as the archetypal military war monger and Sigourney Weaver is solidly brilliant as always, but she could perform the material she’s given standing on her head, or anyone’s head you care to mention for that matter. However for me, the real saviours are Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana. Despite the thin and often trite lines they were given, they managed to bring Avatar some real and much needed heart. And as an aside, it also should be noted that the fact they deliver their best and most touching performances through the filter of motion capture is a testament to the real strength of Bold Claim #1.

While it’s true their work isn’t likely to bother any awards juries any time soon, you can’t help wishing they’d been given more dramatic meat to get their teeth into. But as it stands, the onscreen chemistry and friction they generate between them makes the script work. Seeing their relationship develop and deepen provides the emotional attachment needed to carry the audience through the expansive vistas of special effects. And it’s this touch of real humanity that steers Avatar from the annoyingly predictable towards a tale that's comfortably familiar. Admittedly it only just works… but work it does.

Despite the evident anorexia in the story and characters that are only as well rounded as bas reliefs, I rather enjoyed Avatar. Indeed I was actually quite surprised how quickly the running time sped by. And when the final big battle between the humans and the Na’vi began, I was rather shocked we’d reached the grand finale. Yes, I knew exactly how it would play out, but the point here is that the pace of the film had carried me effortlessly through the running time and I’d been so immersed in the world on screen I’d lost all track of how long the movie had been playing.

Now obviously seeing it in all its full 3D splendour on a screen taller than most houses certainly helps, but all the special effects and beautiful shots in the world will not save a movie if the story dies choking in the dust a half hour in. And although I was wished the characters had been better developed and the running time could have been more gainfully employed in giving them emotional weight, there was just enough to make it a satisfying cinema experience.

As to why the characters are spread so thin, I have to say that although it’s tempting to stick with the cynical view that Cameron spent far too long buggering about inventing cameras, I suspect there is a more subtle reason. Having seen the movie in what I consider to be its native format, I think that the issue here is that Cameron over estimated the emotional impact of seeing Pandora, and the film works very hard to convey the wonder and awe of the panoramic alien landscapes. Certainly from a directorial point of view, I think the scenes that show the most flair are not the epic battles or creature chase sequences – these are, as I surmised from the trailer, merely executed in the usual blockbuster fashion – but the sequences that show us Pandora through Jake’s eyes. When Cameron shows us Jake playing with the local flora or revelling in the joys of flight, he’s straining to show us a Romantic view of the natural world, and capture a kind of Wordsworthian delight and transcendence. It isn’t merely a case of “oh look pretty”, it’s more trying to tap into those Romantic ideals of beauty as a spiritual force.

Many have tried to view Avatar through a political lens and decode its meaning in terms of allegory. Some have claimed it’s a commentary on the recent wars as exercises in resource grabbing. Others, more sensibly have considered the development timescale of the Avatar project, and have judged it as a slightly out-dated fable on the plight of the rain forests. But neither view really fits that well, as interpreting any film that was not explicitly intended to carry a polemical message will usually end up distorting the content in order to fit the interpreters’ political views.

So if we must comprehend Avatar with any intellectual apparatus in place, perhaps poetry and painting provide a more relevant vantage point than political ideologies. And I would suggest that the Romantic philosophies inherent in the works of Wordsworth, Coleridge and Keats seem to provide a better framework of interpretations for a film more concerned with delivering landscapes than speeches. Now I’m not claiming for a second that Jim Cameron set out to create the modern equivalent of the Lyrical Ballads set on an exotic planet or construct a fantastical tale whose mythology symbolises a philosophy like the epic poems of William Blake. But Avatar’s themes of living in harmony with the natural world, of revering the spirit of the landscape, and that an immersion in the beauty and wild delight of the natural world is a redemptive force for the human soul do strongly echo the concerns of the Romantic tradition.

Of course where this approach falls down for that the average movie goer when confronted by the vivid beauty of the Pandora forests and mountains will either think it pretty or appreciate the skill of the visual effects. Concentrating on the landscape to generate the bulk of your movie’s emotional resonance runs the risk of side lining the more accessible and immediate dramatic power of the characters’ experiences, and this I would contend is the answer to why the script is in the shape it is. It’s not a case of technology overriding narrative but of an imbalanced emotional focus.

And ironically if this balance was readdressed; if Avatar was more attuned to the internal conflicts Jake and Neytiri rather than the heartbeat of Pandora itself, then I think Cameron would have delivered a film that would have been truly mythic. As it stands it nearly reaches those heights but ultimately falls short. It’s an enjoyable cinematic outing though, with more heart than I expected but not nearly enough for to hit the outstanding mark. Avatar entertained and sometimes impressed me, but there is still the feeling that there was the potential for a film that was not just a feast for the eyes but a banquet for the spirit. Overall, I think I'll file this one under 'successful experiment' rather than 'classic movie'.

However, Cameron has stated that should Avatar be a success there is another two films to follow. And if he really does have a three movie story arc planned out, then possibly subsequent trips to Pandora may have more dramatic flesh on their bones and this film is slighter in emotional and narrative content as it is but the opening chapter. Again to measure Avatar against Star Wars, consider the difference in emotional and character depth between the first two films in Lucas’ saga. If Cameron delivers a sequel with showing the same increase in narrative sophistication as The Empire Strikes Back, then the questions over the perceived weakness of the film’s script may need seriously revising…

So then, now only the final question remains is Avatar really a game changer? Is it really going to rewrite the rules of cinema? Well as we have already seen the motion captures and illusion of depth 3D are certainly progress in the craft of film making. And their deployment in Avatar will spark many new ideas and concepts in the minds of directors everywhere. But this adds up to seminal at best rather than trail blazing; the technical achievements of Avatar are really just refinements rather than true innovations. Extending the boundaries a little – yes, re-inventing the wheel - no.

And obviously in terms of story telling on the big screen, Avatar is not going to be hailed as a breakthrough in what can be done within the confines of the blockbuster genre. Though in fairness, looking at the box office returns, the rapturous reactions of many and even the bizarre claims of post-Avatar depression (no, seriously – apparently it’s so beautiful, real life is now a hollow experience for some fans allegedly) it’s quite possible that Avatar will attract the same huge and loyal fanbase as something like the Star Wars saga, particularly if the proposed sequels scheme pans out.

However, while none of this palaver stacks up to justify the gamer changer tag, I heavily suspect that the rules of cinema going have been significantly tweaked. And here’s why – although Avatar is far from perfect, it is entertaining enough for me to want to see it again. And in order to re-experience it, that means another jaunt to the cinema, because this is a film that was made to be seen in 3D, on a big screen, preferable IMAX. As much as I enjoyed it, I just can’t see it being half as much fun viewing it flat and on a TV screen.

Now all last year we’ve been hearing the Hollywood machine blithering how this new RealD is not only the future of cinema but its saviour, creating product that online piracy simply cannot replicate and getting bums back on seats again. However after a raft of mediocre films that often have had no concept of how to utilise the new visual bells and whistles, the general reaction of film goers has been to write the whole 3D thing off as a money grabbing gimmick destined to die off.

And indeed considering that last years’ 3D releases were all kiddie flicks bar My Bloody Valentine and The Final Destination – and they failed to wow even the horror faithful – it’s easy to understand why claims for RealD has been met by a wall of audience apathy. But with Avatar set to grab the highest grossing film of all time title, I think that this cloud of scepticism is evaporating rapidly. For many people, this will be their first experience of the new 3D, and ticket sales prove that they are loving it. And you can bet they’ll be a lot more tempted by future 3D offerings.

Even though a new generation of 3D capable of televisions are set to start appearing in stores later this year, you still aren’t going to get the cinema experience replicated that effectively. And with expensive price tags and a looming format war, it will be quite a while before 3D home theatres are commonplace. In the meantime however, cinema will flourish. How long the new 3D boom lasts is anyone’s guess, but if studio execs grasp that the format can succeed outside childrens entertainment and more films are green lit that will appeal to the average cinema goer then I think it’s safe to say that we’ll all be donning plastic specs for a good while longer.

However the pulling power of RealD aside, I think Avatar has reaffirmed people’s love and appreciation of seeing a film on a big screen. Indeed possibly the real game change Avatar has thrust upon the world of cinema is not the hoopla of 3D, but introducing a mass audience to the delights of viewing movies in IMAX…

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