This’ll Ruin My Day: James Cameron Goes Down the Digital Rabbit Hole in Avatar

Avatar movie poster


Avatar is the per­fect dis­til­la­tion of all of James Cameron’s worst ten­den­cies: an obses­sion with marines (while try­ing to have it both ways: wor­ship­ping the hard­ware and lingo, but cast­ing them as vil­lains), embar­rass­ingly heinous dia­logue (under­cut­ting every dra­matic moment with some­body dron­ing flat one-liners like “oh shit” or “this’ll ruin my day”), a token wise Latina avail­able for cleav­age and wise­cracks (Michelle Rodriguez, more wise than most of the white and/or blue peo­ple, any­way), a greater inter­est in tech­nol­ogy over peo­ple (both on screen and behind the scenes), and a core anti-war mes­sage con­tra­dicted by glo­ri­fied slaugh­ter and explosions.

If Cameron had a pur­pose in mind for Avatar other than as a showreel of the lat­est tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs, it seems to be an endorse­ment of vio­lent protest. If so, the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion of Iran might find some­thing of inter­est here. More the pity the Na’vi didn’t hap­pen to be green, in which case crit­ics might be dis­cussing the film in terms of cur­rent events instead of being dis­tracted by the shiny spe­cial effects mask­ing the soul­less nar­ra­tive and blank act­ing (with the sig­nif­i­cant excep­tion of a very funny Gio­vanni Ribisi and espe­cially Zoe Sal­daña, who man­ages to make an impres­sion despite not tech­ni­cally appear­ing on screen — as a con­ven­tional pho­to­graph, anyway).

Yes YesStory Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s sleeve for Yes’ YesStory on the left, scene from Avatar on the right.

The offi­cial Avatar talk­ing points require men­tion of the sundry tech­no­log­i­cal break­throughs that come teth­ered to every Cameron film, mostly hav­ing to do with com­put­ers. The Ter­mi­na­tor (1984) and Aliens (1986) were rel­a­tively quaint in their uti­liza­tion of mod­els and stop-motion ani­ma­tion, but The Abyss (1989), Ter­mi­na­tor 2: Judge­ment Day (1991), and Titanic (1997) each debuted incre­men­tally advanced com­puter ani­ma­tion tech­niques, for the first time fully inte­grated with live action pho­tog­ra­phy. I clearly recall watch­ing T2 with an audi­ence gasp­ing and applaud­ing in amaze­ment dur­ing a shot in which the liq­uid metal robot T-1000 (Robert Patrick) lit­er­ally turned itself inside out. There’s noth­ing in Avatar to com­pare to that com­mu­nal moment of delighted awe in 1991; my 2010 Avatar audi­ence oohed and aahed dur­ing the first 3D effects vis­i­ble in the attached trail­ers (mostly for dis­pos­able kid­die movies like Despi­ca­ble Me), but our eye­balls were already beaten into sub­mis­sion by the time the main fea­ture rolled, and the packed house sat silently through the 162 minute-long bar­rage of computer-processed flim-flam.

I’ll spend a para­graph on the pos­i­tive: Steven Soder­bergh, who pre­vi­ously col­lab­o­rated with Cameron on Solaris, report­edly said after see­ing the film that “There’s gonna be before that movie and after”. It is inar­guable that Avatar marks the tip­ping point in at least two key film­mak­ing tech­niques we’re cer­tain to see even more of in the imme­di­ate future: 3D pho­tog­ra­phy and vir­tual film­mak­ing (the con­gru­ence of pho­to­re­al­is­tic CGI with motion cap­ture, basi­cally a tur­bocharged update to the old prac­tice of roto­scop­ing). The superla­tive 3D is applied equally well to both the live-action and ani­mated sequences (indeed, most of the film is a meld­ing of the two). It’s more refined and sub­tle than any 3D film I’ve seen before, includ­ing U23D, Beowulf, and Cora­line, all of which resorted to in-your-face show­ing off com­mon since the early days of The Crea­ture From the Black Lagoon (1954) and Dial M for Mur­der (1954). Mean­while, the motion-captured CGI char­ac­ters are even more smoothly inte­grated with live-action pho­tog­ra­phy than pre­vi­ous high-water marks like the T-1000 in T2, Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) in George Lucas’ Star Wars pre­quel tril­ogy, and Gol­lum (Andy Serkis) in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings tril­ogy. And that’s not even to men­tion the star­tlingly detailed and immer­sive computer-generated back­grounds and environments.

Yes Keys to Ascension Roger Dean AvatarDetail from Roger Dean’s cover for Yes’ Keys to Ascen­sion on the left, Avatar on the right. As artist & film­maker Dave McK­ean rightly opined on Twit­ter, “Roger Dean should sue!”

The other big talk­ing point is of course its stag­ger­ing expense. It’s hard to remem­ber now, years after Titanic’s box office receipts broke records world­wide, but its $200 mil­lion bud­get was orig­i­nally an object of ridicule and put the very exis­tence of two vast cor­po­ra­tions at stake (20th Cen­tury Fox and Para­mount). Avatar inflates the accoun­tants’ cal­cu­la­tions to the insane level of circa $237 mil­lion, but Cameron’s instincts appear again to have been right; Avatar has already (at this time of writ­ing) earned a bil­lion dol­lars world­wide, a mere two weeks after release.

As guest Dork Reporter Snark­bait wisely pre­dicts, 10 years from now Avatar’s spe­cial effects will be laugh­able, and all that will be left is the story. And when that story is a warmed-over retelling of the Euro­pean con­quest of Amer­ica (more recently retold in Ter­rence Malick’s The New World and as Slash­Film notes, Disney’s Poc­a­hon­tas) set in a sci-fi world seem­ingly stolen from the paint­ings of Roger Dean, isn’t the hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars worth of tech­nol­ogy and years of pro­duc­tion all for naught? It’s impos­si­ble not to com­pare this folly to the Star Wars pre­quels, made long after Lucas fell down the rab­bit hole of obses­sion with film­mak­ing tech­nol­ogy and no longer had any­one around him will­ing or capa­ble to say no. This Dork Reporter hap­pened to watch (500) Days of Sum­mer and Up in the Air right before and after Avatar, and can attest that there is no sub­sti­tute for good writ­ing and act­ing. Peo­ple will still be rewatch­ing films like those long after Avatar is forgotten.

Offi­cial site:

Must read: The blog Papyrus Watch catches the use of the cliched font in the movie logo and sub­ti­tles. Papyrus was designed in 1982 and is now com­monly found pre­in­stalled on most computers.

Buy any of these fine prod­ucts from Ama­zon and kick back a few pen­nies to The Dork Report: