As far as a movie, AVATAR is a pretty typical James Cameron movie; which is to say that it’s an excellent action movie. Cameron’s gift has always been to make the most outlandish settings simply vibrate with verisimilitude. TERMINATOR had convincing cyborgs. ALIENS had a plausible futuristic alien war. The ABYSS showed us what an underwater drilling rig might be like. TERMINATOR II expanded on the CGI of the ABYSS to go from “solid water” tentacles to “liquid metal” robots that somehow never strained your suspension of disbelief. And TITANIC showed people what it might have been like to actually witness such a disaster.
AVATAR takes this visual veracity two steps further. The first amazing thing about AVATAR is the not at all realistic but completely believable world of Pandora. From the plants and animals to the 10 foot tall blue humanoid natives, the sections of the movie set on this alien world showcase some of the greatest animation ever put to film. So often CGI has a sort of unreality that reminds your hindbrain that you are seeing something that doesn’t exist. Here the plants and animals almost never exhibit the subtly wrong lighting, unnatural physics, or strange blurring that so often telegraphs a CGI sequence. And in the most amazing part of this tour de force of animation, Cameron and his crew of artists leap the uncanny valley in a single bound. If the humanoid creatures of Pandora ever exhibited for a moment the kind of dead-eyed, cadaver-skinned characteristics that have plagued Robert Zemeckis’ last several films, the jig would be up. But they never do. The computer generated world so brims with the feeling of the real that you not only buy into it as being as real as the scenes shot on soundstages, you even buy into such patently absurd ideas as floating mountains, plants with fast twitch reflexes, and dragons. Peter Jackson was able to come close to this level of CGI with the RINGS trilogy and KING KONG, but smartly desaturated his palate to hide some of the weaknesses of the technology. Cameron, on the other hand, gives Pandora a vivid, at times luminous, color palate and sets most of the scenes in bright sunlight. And like his films ABYSS and TERMINATOR II, he creates another evolutionary step in computer special effects. It is truly worth going to see AVATAR just to visit the world of Pandora.
The second step toward making you buy into the movie is the 3D. I don’t really know if it’s a breakthrough in 3D filmmaking. It’s only the second 3D movie I’ve seen (not counting Captain Eo) and the other was BEOWOLF- perhaps the ugliest movie ever made. Personally, I think that 3D is a gimmick that adds little, if anything, to a movie. The technique is better than it was in the 1950s, using polarized glasses rather than red and blue lenses, but the techniques for using that depth is really pretty much the same. Stuff sticks out of the screen or flies toward you or gives you environments that tunnel away from the viewer. Cameron uses the depth to good effect and few shots give you the idea that the considerations making an eye catching 3D shot were more important than the considerations of staging and composition as they relate to the story. About an hour into the thing you forget that you are watching a 3D movie and just start watching a movie. That’s where Cameron creates a new paradigm in 3D moviemaking. He makes you forget about it.
Of course, since it’s a Jim Cameron movie it has all the typical shortcomings of his other movies. The plot isn’t original. I’ve heard it called “Dances With Aliens” and that’s all the plot synopsis you really need. Another problem is Cameron’s tendency to “borrow” ideas from other creators. IO9 has already mentioned the similarities between Pandora and some of the fantasy artwork of artist Roger Dean but I didn’t really understand how much of Dean’s work Cameron had “borrowed” until I saw the movie (I come to find out that this is not lost on Mr. Dean since the front page of his web site now includes this link.) I’d always been skeptical of Harlan Ellison’s claims that Cameron had ripped off the Outer Limits episodes DEMON WITH A GLASS HAND and SOLDIER that he wrote*, but somewhere around the halfway point of AVATAR I actually was taken away from the movie because I got so pissed off at how blatantly Dean had been ripped off. Floating mountains with waterfalls, blue people, biological creatures with mechanical characteristics, mixing spirals with landscapes, gigantic world trees, none of these are original creations of Roger Dean, but when you see the way Cameron visualizes these motifs there is no question that he was familiar with Dean’s art.
And if you aren’t familiar with Roger Dean’s art then you should visit his web site and treat yourself to some of the most lyrical and beautiful fantasy landscape watercolors ever done. Dean became famous during his long association with progressive rock group Yes, for whom he did numerous album covers. He first came to my attention one Sunday when I was listening to that group’s Relayer album. While listening I looked at the album cover and suddenly realized that the three songs on the album related in a very visceral yet completely tangential way to the image I was concentrating on. A limited edition signed print of that painting hangs over my desk downstairs right now. It got me interested in watercolor as a medium in my own art and prompted me to buy his retrospective book Views and his later book Magnetic Storm. Dean’s artwork is sublime and if Cameron is going to be a thief at least he has the good taste to steal from Dean and Ellison.
And while Cameron has made a spectacular 3D movie, he still hasn’t mastered some of the problems of the format. The first thing is that he’s still filming with a normal camera’s depth of field in some shots. This results in objects in the very near foreground being out of focus. In a normal 2D movie this gives the viewer a sense of depth. But in the real world whatever you look at, whether near or far, is in focus. That’s one of the magical things the eye does without us realizing it. When you are watching a 3D movie you should have the same sort of natural ability to look wherever you want on the screen and see things clearly. But sometimes you don’t. This is like early CGI of human movement. Every character walked like a robot because they hadn’t yet figured out that human joints and limbs compressed slightly when they moved. Eventually this problem was realized and appropriate compensations were made. Sooner or later somebody is bound to figure this out and start using some sort of multiplane process in 3D movies.
But you can’t expect James Cameron to get everything right in one fell swoop. He got so much right and made yet another classic film. Isn’t that enough? If you haven’t seen this movie you should go see it tomorrow. I’m going on Wednesday to see it in IMAX 3D so I can take more time drinking in the visual spectacle. That’s what’s so special about this movie. It’s a throwback to STAR WARS and BLADERUNNER, a SF film that wows viewers with the visuals in spite of decades of becoming jaded by one after another films that tried to do it and failed.
* I love, simply LOVE Harlan Ellison. I’ve always had a soft spot for hella smart, smart-assed, take-no-prisoners, agent provocateurs and Ellison has been those things all his life in spades. He’s also a damn fine writer. I personally consider Repent Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman to be the finest short story of the last half of the twentieth century. But Harlan sometimes does go overboard. And when he does he does it like he does everything else- overboard over the top. He threatened Cameron for Terminator II because he seems to think he invented the idea of soldiers from the future coming to our time to fight and cyborg warriors. He didn’t. He also had a famous feud with Gene Roddenberry over changes to his script for the original Star Trek’s most celebrated episode when, in reality, the changes that were made were minimal. In fact, like many artists, he isn’t aware of what his actual strengths are. Harlan isn’t a great inventor of ideas. Truthfully, most of his most famous stories have central ideas that are more archetypal than inspired. He’s written masterful stories about things like: the last few people alive being played with by a sentient supercomputer, a post apocalyptic world inhabited by youth gangs, going back in time to talk with yourself when you were a child, a man who finds out that being irresistible to women isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, a fellow who is always late, etc. Hell, I’m no writer but even as a child I fantasized about being visited by my adult self. No, Harlan’s strength isn’t his ideas, it’s his prose. He writes about the same sort of things that other writers of fantastic literature write about, he just puts words together better than most.