April 29th 2010 04:43
James Cameron’s Avatar has today been released on DVD and BLU-RAY in Australia. The sci-fi/fantasy epic has reportedly made in excess of 2 billion dollars worldwide. And it’s no doubt that the 3D spectacular’s success will continue with the move from box office to home video.
With its total budget rumoured to sit somewhere between $300 and $400 million, the fifteen-year pet project of the Titanic director has had a lot riding on it. There were early predictions of box office doom, when messily edited trailers of oversized blue people first screened. Cameron’s dogged determination to make an art out of 3D cinema was not doing much to alleviate fears either. Fortunately for him, the mammoth blockbuster has gone on to become the official highest-grossing film ever, eclipsing his own Titanic. But is the film’s dizzying success warranted? And just how will it be remembered 10 years from now?
It’s genuinely hard to imagine anyone walking away from Avatar unimpressed or underwhelmed. The whole experience leaves you in complete awe. The 3D spectacle is mesmerising. This generation of special effects employed by Cameron heralds a new era, one where audiences are left asking themselves when exactly the computer-generated images start and where they end. We’re thrust into an alternate reality where fantasy meets science fiction at a point of hybrid transformation. We’re further immersed in a remarkable world of both fluorescent and natural colour by the exciting field-of-view offered by the three dimensional animation.
Yet, do we emerge with a restored sense of faith in big-budget movies? Nobody is likely to take serious issue with the film’s visual astonishments, yet for many, the gushing praise ends there. All too frequently, Hollywood’s best blockbuster money-makers either sacrifice their story for special effects or have their story simply swamped by the special effects meant to assist in telling it. Either way, narrative is neglected.
Avatar does not escape this problem. Its plot is in no way original. In fact, it’s numbingly imitative of other green-is-good themed films. At best, it could be seen as an inventive integration of Dances with Wolves, Disney’s Pocahontas, and FernGully: The Last Rainforest, while borrowing additional elements from King Kong and even The Matrix. It’s lineage from Cameron’s earlier Aliens and The Abyss is also clear.
The film’s recycled plot is then weighed down by clunky dialogue, at times carrying some not-so-subtle pro-environmentalist and anti-Bush political implications. Very few of the actors can be praised for either the complexity or subtlety of their performances. Every character is a cardboard cut-out. The US marines are depicted as cartoonishly cruel while the scientist geeks are endearingly driven to assert justice. Then again, James Cameron has never been a strong director of actors, as evidenced all too clearly by Titanic.
For some, this all adds up to a failure of narrative that is only partly compensated for by the astonishing effects. Others have even gone so far as to liken Cameron to the ill-disciplined Michael Bay (responsible for the overblown Transformers films).
Avatar’s story may very well be conventional, if not hackneyed, but I struggle a great deal to think that the film has demoted Cameron to Bay’s level. If anything, it’s achieved the opposite. It highlights the way action can be harnessed and technology tamed. We’ve sung along to a spirit tree and watched a white messiah save an indigenous group before in Pocahontas, yet it has never been delivered with such stunning use of technology. Therefore, Cameron’s epic is both strikingly innovative in one sense and intensely derivative in another.
The same sentiment can be felt for the superb use of 3D. Sure, 3D cinema is not something new, but Cameron has mastered its visual capacities like nobody before. He’s given moviegoers a new reason to actually go to the movies and fork out $20: the decidedly thrilling experience of 3D, something you can’t get from a pirated DVD and which the Hollywood studios are going to be taking full advantage of from this point forward.
Whilst the full cultural impact of Avatar cannot yet be measured, there are indeed those who’d like to purport it the new Star Wars. With its technical complexities rightly awarded at this year’s Oscars (countered by its fair loss of Best Picture), and with a sequel already confirmed, Avatar seems destined to go down as one of the greatest achievements in movie history. It will be seen and, perhaps, best remembered in retrospect as marking the beginning of a new era of technological innovation in cinema.