[09 March 2022 Update: My views about technology and progress have changed significantly since I wrote this post back in 2009; I’m much less enthusiastic and more skeptical. I’m still not a big fan of Avatar, though, albeit for different reasons now: primarily its problematic depiction of indigenous people and use of related tropes. Am I excited for Avatar 2 (and 3, 4, and 5)? No. Original post below.]
[REVIEW] [SPOILERS] – James Cameron’s Avatar is an astonishing and must-see movie. It is also a huge disappointment. What follows is a spoiler-rich dissection of an industry in transition, and it is best read after you see Avatar for yourself.
For movie audiences, Avatar offers nothing less than a revolution in audiovisual entertainment. Cameron draws the viewer into the new world of Pandora with a seamless blending of CGI, live action, and 3D, creating an immersive experience unlike any film to date. Viewers are going to be going back again and again to experience Pandora and its flora and fauna; yes, Pandora is that rich. For all the promise of CGI, it was unclear just when the technology would be able to capture our most vivid dreamscapes. With Avatar that time is now.
Viewing making-of video for segments like Jake’s first glorious Banshee ride and Zoe Saldana amazing motion-capture performance indicate just how much filmmaking itself has being revolutionized by Cameron. Filmmakers are going to be turning to this approach in droves. Cameron also deserves accolades for his achievements in directing this epic. He is a master of moving through scenes, real or virtual. His skills are always on display, whether in long shots featuring vistas of Pandora with Polyphemus and its other moons in the sky, dynamic camera movements in action scenes, or closeups of Jake during his video logs and other personal moments.
Avatar enhances filmmaking with cutting-edge technologies to create a new kind of movie-going experience. As a story, however, the film’s plot is a disappointing failure. Not only is the story derivative, but it is ultimately too simplistic and naive. There is no subtlety in the conflict between the noble people of Pandora – the Na’Vi – and their human antagonists. Nature will beat technology because Cameron has chosen hypocrisy: all that money, time, and labor to build and use incredible new technology for telling stories through film and Avatar still ends up being an attack on technology and progress. The Na’Vi have eschewed most technology and like the Ewoks before them rise up to defeat a more technologically-advanced adversary. It is sad that a director who has parlayed his interest in science, art, and technology into a career that has continuously pushed filmmaking beyond the cutting-edge would write a story that so vilifies technology and progress. Not once in this movie do the protagonists appreciate or acknowledge the very technology that allowed them to be where they are. Jake seems to take for granted the technologies that brought him to Pandora and allowed him to leave his crippled body behind for the vital human/alien hybrid body cloned for him.
Also appalling is how the plot refuses to acknowledge current trends in emerging technologies. Set in the 22nd century, Avatar cannot rise above the early 21st century in most of the technologies, social norms, and speech patterns depicted. We are told that in a time of interstellar travel, cloning, human/alien hybrids, and Amplified Mobility Platform suits, medicine in the 22nd century cannot treat Jake’s paraplegia economically and evolving language cannot provide Colonel Quaritch with better quotes than “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” In Avatar, for every artifact like transparent monitors and mind transfer pods there are artifacts like mugs and wheelchairs that seem to be little changed from today. These conspire to pull the audience out of the movie, even as Pandora itself draws them in.
Rapid technological progress is turning science fiction into reality. Science fiction in movies and television today must acknowledge this fact or risk the same backlash that has nearly decimated written science fiction. Those who are emerging technology aware can only suspend their disbelief so much; as these ideas become more mainstream, audiences are going to expect storytelling that acknowledges the real wonders already emerging around us.
Avatar required a script to honor and explore the same progress that led Cameron to complete a movie he once shelved because technology was not far enough along to realize his vision. Unfortunately, the script fails to do this. Instead, the movie now stands as a stunning vision of the future and uncomfortable reminder of the past. Someone will soon marry a brilliant script with this filmmaking technology, resulting in an immersive experience that not only engages the eyes, ears, and heart, but also the brain. As it stands, Avatar indicates not only a revolution in filmmaking that will transform entertainment, but one that will bring about the end of movies, television, and gaming as we know them today.
In Avatar as in all other movies, passive audiences depend on the director to take them through the film’s world. We are guided by the director’s expert hands through visuals as they apply to the plot and the director’s particular vision. Despite Cameron’s expertise, during Avatar I found myself wishing over and over again to explore something in more detail that he did not. I wanted to linger on new vistas that brought with them a gasp of astonishment, only to be thwarted by a director that had other concerns. This became increasingly frustrating until I could only sigh in reluctance as we moved on for a poor story that had to be told in a set amount of time.
More movies are going to be made in this way while resolution improves and the 3D becomes more and more immersive. The same technology will migrate to television and eventually even amateurs will have access. As movie theaters adapt and 3D televisions start flooding the consumer electronics market, there will be few if any vistas, real or imagined, that cannot be captured on film. Studios and independent efforts will mine the richest fantasy and science fiction in comics and books. They will remake genre films that could benefit from these new tools and they will adapt these tools for romances, dramas, and documentaries. However, all of this media will still be limited by linear storytelling and the expectation that directors draw audiences through their film along predestined paths. As rich as these films will become, audiences will become frustrated with their passive role. Audiences will begin to demand participation.
The first filmmakers to merge this immersive filmmaking technology with the interactivity and immediacy of video games will bring about the end of television, movies, and gaming as we know them today. Audiences will walk through and experience entertainment with all of their senses. The Metaverse will serve as the medium for this new entertainment, relegating older forms of entertainment to nostalgic, in-world depictions on virtual walls. This immersive digital future is already writ large in bright neon letters across the end of the 2010s. With Avatar, Cameron has given us our first real look at what the future of entertainment will be like, while demonstrating the limitations of current forms of entertainment.