December 19th, 2009


Avatar 3D

Watching this movie reminded me a bit of my reaction to Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, five years ago. I’ve just seen a movie that is OK, rather than great, but I hope and expect that I’ve seen the future of genre movie making.

What should you not go for? Well, despite the fact that it runs for closer to three hours than two, don’t go for the plot. There’s nothing wrong with it, but it’s pretty straightforward. Despite the fact the film-makers apparently put a lot of effort into concocting a language for them, don’t go for a daringly-imagined alien culture. The Na’vi are quite human-like, both visually and behaviourally. Perhaps this is inevitable, since we have to sympathise with them, but I still felt a little disappointed. Don’t go for an incisive allegorical critique of modern culture; it’s eco-friendly and there are a few sledge-hammer references to the war on terror that might have been better left implicit. Don’t go for challenging sci-fi concepts – this is short-story-stuff, not door-step novel. And don’t go expecting real science or hard sci-fi at all.

That may sound quite negative, but it’s not really meant to. Although the time and money spent might reasonably raise expectations in any of these areas, none of them is completely indispensable in an enjoyable movie.

So what should you go for? It’s a decent action movie; but the main thing that makes it worth seeing is simply the spectacle. Go to see this if you like dramatic sci-fi or fantasy art and want to see it come alive, in a way that isn’t cartoony. The alien setting is both believable and gorgeous, and it’s on screen for most of the movie. In 3D, it’s more immersive; not quite “as though you were really there”, but enough to make a difference.

The wildlife is intriguing, though clearly earth derived. The most obvious are the “horses”, but there are also “dogs”, “rhinos” and some sort of “big cat”. Don’t take those descriptions too literally. The beasts are well imagined and tend to have six legs rather than four (I wonder what proportion of the audience thinks “Barsoom” on noticing that?), but the parallels are not hard to spot. Also watch out for the pterodactyls.

The vegetation is very much part of the spectacle, though perhaps pushed a little far in one particular area: the hometree is a bit excessive. The floating mountains, though pretty, also strain credibility a little; and some of the rock arches seem a little too geometrically perfect. One minor – or maybe not so minor – triumph is the inclusion, almost as a background detail, of believable mech-armour from early in the movie. There’s a lot of good, detailed naturalistic CGI work all round. I hope the film makes its money, because it’s obvious this is where it went, and I would like to see more.

Speaking of which, assuming the film does turn out to be profitable, there are fairly definite plans for a sequel and a more tentative idea for a third. These would presumably be a bit cheaper, as a lot of the data for the world has now already been created. I hope they spend a bit more time on plotting for those ones, as spectacle alone won’t get us through another two. It's not necessarily more of this setting I want see, just more of this sort of visual imagination (or more!).

On a note not solely related to the film, this is the first movie I’ve seen entirely in 3D, the recent Harry Potter movies being only partially in 3D, and it was pleasing that I was able to do so in the NPH. I don’t know a huge amount about the rival 3D technologies, but for those who may be interested, according to the labelling on the  glasses the NPH is using RealD. It was pretty effective, but I managed to figure out one of the things that bothers me a little about 3D.

In a run-of-the-mill 2D movie, we accept without much question the director’s choice of what will be in or out of focus. Perhaps it’s a sign of how successful the 3D effect really is that when something isn’t in focus in a 3D movie, it bothers me that I can’t bring it into focus myself…