Avatar: The Future of Cinema

Ten years ago the Matrix changed the way movies were made. This weekend James Cameron’s Avatar has done the same. I’m writing this at two o’clock in the morning. I can’t sleep without at least trying to write down my impressions of what I just saw.

I really feel like I watched a turning point in pop culture. Just as there was a time before the Matrix introduced wire fu to the Western World and a time after it, so too will there be a time before Cameron’s vision became reality, and a time after it. Everyone is going to have to see this movie to participate in the zeitgeist. Every filmmaker is going to study the craft of it. There will be dozens of imitators of varying degrees of success, just as Star Wars inspired everything from Battlestar Galactica to Silent Running to the Black Hole. Most importantly, though, the magic is about to be injected back into a genre that has spent a decade and more back on its heels, rehashing, recycling, rebooting and reimaging the same material in an effort to stay safe in a volatile marketplace. Writers and directors are going to be able to dream again, and they’ll have Cameron to thank for that.

Better reviewers than I have already covered this movie at great length, so I’m not really going to bother talking much about the plot. Imagine if there had never been Native Americans or the Great Plains and someone had just dreamed up the movie Dances With Wolves out of the blue, cut whole cloth out of sheer imagination. That’s what James Cameron did with Avatar. Oh, I’m willing to admit there’s a healthy dose of Disney’s Pocahontas in it: The love of Nature; the love affair between people from two different worlds; the greed of the foreigners to rape and plunder a new world at the expense of the original inhabitants. I don’t care about that.

It’s also been argued by better reviewers than I that the movie is riddled with cliches: Corporations are evil; the military will serve heartless masters to pursue to the chance for action; scientists are enlightened forces for good; natives are people with justice on their side, connected to the natural world in a way outsiders can’t understand. I don’t care about that either.

What I care about is that James Cameron took all these things that, as single pieces, sound trite in and of themselves, and brought them together into something that is so much more than the sum of their parts. It’s like taking a collection of instruments and making an orchestra. Words can only give a pale impression of what I’ve seen. They can convey the spirit of it, but you have to experience it to see its true scope.

He literally made a whole new world, with its own rules and interconnected moving parts, and then he made it in three dimensions. I’ve seen 3D movies before. I was quite impressed with Beowulf, but Beowulf’s 3D –like all 3D before it– is a gimmick. The first 3D you see in Beowulf is a spear poking you in the eye. The first 3D you see in Avatar is out of focus: Sam Worthington is looking up at something between you and him, and when he looks directly at it you learn that it’s a drop of perspiration floating weightless above his face. Then you forget about it. The 3D in Avatar is not intrusive and it’s not a gimmick. It’s just something that happens, adding texture and detail with such subtlety that, at times, you tip your glasses forward to be sure what your seeing really is three dimensional. All movies are going to try and do this from now on. The good ones will succeed.

It has been said that James Cameron’s gift is that he makes movies women like that men want to see. I believe that whole-heartedly. This is a movie about real people, be they human or Na’vi, the native inhabitants of the planet Pandora. If each character can be fit neatly into a stereotype, so be it. They are well-rounded stereotypes, believably typecast and well-suited for their roles. They interact as you would expect them to. This movie is not out to surprise you so much as to involve you. It does that. Oh my, but does it do that.

Mankind has come to Pandora just as Europe came to the New World. The gold rush here is substituted by the placeholder element unobtanium, a tongue-in-check reference that has popped up before throughout science fiction. That’s fine by me. I don’t need to know what unobtanium does to accept it as a premise for corporate greed backed by superior firepower. The viewers who want to see action and violence know they will not be left unrewarded for their patience. The viewers who want adventure and romance and a struggle between right and wrong won’t be disappointed either.

Pandora is a moon around a gas giant, and it is a place of wonders. There are floating mountains that I fancy to be captured asteroids held in the sky through the complicated gravitational interactions of the moons and the gas giant. That doesn’t matter either. Pandora’s flora and fauna are all connected together through a kind of biological internet. That’s important to the plot, but it doesn’t really matter to me either.

What matters is that James Cameron conveyed his dream exactly as he saw it, without compromising based on what was ‘possible.’ Where there were obstacles in his way, he overcame them. He invented his way around the shortcomings of his medium. This movie couldn’t have been made ten years ago. He invented the technology to bring his story to life. You’re watching aliens, computer-rendered aliens, who have all the nuances of the actors portraying them. In the case of Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver, you actually see the actors and their avatars, and their facial expressions work in both settings. Other actors, like Zoë Saldaña, are shown only as Na’vi, but you feel like you’re watching a human actor. They aren’t expressionless dolls like Toy Story. They aren’t facsimiles of humans that fall into the uncanny valley of computer simulation. James Cameron found a way to give his creations a recognizable soul.

I believed it. I believed I was watching something real, even though I know that’s impossible. That’s magic. That’s the kind of movie magic that hasn’t existed since the days when cinema was new and panicky audiences got out of the way of the trains speeding towards them in silent black and white. We’re going to have to relearn how to watch movies. We’re going to raise the bar of our expectations, and no substitutions will be foisted upon us moving forward. Avatar is the future of the medium. I have no doubt about it. Cameron has changed what I believed to be possible.

That inspires me. I think it’s going to inspire a lot of people. Movie making just took a huge leap forward. Barriers to good and original storytelling have crumbled away to ashes and dust. This might be the most expensive movie of all time, but those that follow in its footsteps don’t need to reinvent the wheel to achieve what it has done. Cameron has opened the door, and the fact that he holds the patents on the technologies he invented to make it possible will see him amply rewarded for his service to the arts.

It might take five or ten years for the landscape of Hollywood, Bollywood and other studios to adjust itself, but Avatar is the seismic event that will reshape the face of cinema. We’re about to enter a new and golden age where if you can dream it, it can be a shared vision. Tangible, nuanced, detailed. The only limits now are our imaginations, and the true artists are going to show us things that will open our eyes in a way we never expected.

See this movie. See it soon, see it often, and then tell you friends. You won’t regret it. The experience of movie-making is going to change, and this is your first taste of it. I’m sure I could say more, but my thoughts are starting to scatter. Three in the morning is, perhaps, not the best time to blog. I felt compelled to write this, though. The experience of seeing this movie was that powerful.

I’ve just seen the future. You should too.

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14 Responses to Avatar: The Future of Cinema

  1. Tooth White says:

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  2. Salem says:

    Somewhere in the middle of this I started seeing the analogy with what you’ve been trying to do (at least as I understand it from your remarks) in your novels — this detailed, comprehensive creation of a world, notwithstanding that your prose worlds are historically based — and that this is the element that has excited you most about what Cameron has achieved.

    • Well, historical fiction in novel form lends itself well to world building, that’s true, but the readers’ imagination is where the sights and sounds are made. The writer can only guide the readers to where he hoped they’d go. Cameron’s medium is about sights and sounds, and now he’s broken down a lot of walls separating the messenger from his message from his recipient. As world-building, it’s a triumph. As a movie, it is the game changer people hoped it would be. At your soonest convenience, go see it.

  3. Sara says:

    Sounds as though you liked it, hm?

    I had a great time watching the movie, but still had trouble with some of the (what I found to be) predictable and derivative aspects of the plot. I can’t help but think that a really creative story would have pushed it over that line from enjoyable to great.

    (Disclaimer: I can’t handle 3D. Saw the 2D version. Every time people say “3D is the future of movies” it makes me want to cry.)

    There’s a lot to the concept of living through a different, alien biological body, that would have been neat to see explored on the big screen. How would it have added to the experience if all the beautiful flora and bright colours and things were only visible to the Na’vi, and not to any of the humans, because of differences in eye biology? Would it even be possible for people of different species to have similar aesthetics with separately-evolved brains?

    But yeah, good movie.

    • Well, get out your hanky, Sara: 3D (like this, anyway) is the future of movies. lol. We’ll have to bore everyone while we talk speculative alien anatomy over the holidays. When are you down, again?

      • Sara says:

        Yeah, it’s great — I’m going to go from a person who can enjoy watching movies in their intended format to one who cannot. I’m sure I’ll live.

        I’ll be in Chatham the night of the 28th. I’m “down east” from today until the 30th.

        The trouble with alien cultures in movies is that the more alien they are, the harder it is for the filmmaker to convey any coherent story that fits in that culture. We’ve got to take it for granted that smiling=happy for example, because if you start playing with those conventions you lose the audience.

      • Formats change. People loved the Talkies when they came out (and once they got over that gimmicky stage). 3D done right is so impressive you hardly notice it. It just adds texture and depth.

  4. Alex Scope says:

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