The Bigger Picture: The Game Has Not Changed

Written by Film, The Bigger Picture

It took me a while to get around to seeing Avatar. One reason for that, also coincidentally one of the reasons I have been a pretty lazy contributor to Popdose lately, is because I have been trying to finish my own film project for well over a year now. As the usher said to us before the showing, “You guys must be the last people in the world who haven’t seen Avatar yet.”

I was cautious going into Avatar. My expectations were very measured; having listened to both the over-the-top praise and the silly criticisms in has received. That morning, I overheard a man complaining that it was “absolutely the stupidest thing” he’d ever seen. Others had told me that the effects were the most amazing movie experience they’d ever made. Well friends, special effects do not a movie make.

I donned my 3D glasses, trying to keep an open mind but expecting to dislike it. And, for the first hour or so, my eyes mostly rolled behind my Spaceman Spiff goggles. Sigourney Weaver, usually so good at the tough gal roles, was astonishingly bad. Much has been made of her character’s constant cigarette smoking and the negative influence it could have on children, because every teenager wants to be just like the lady on the AARP Magazine cover. I scoff at the notion that movie characters should be castrated because of societal concerns, but nonetheless the cigarettes seemed both completely out of place and a forced prop to insist that her character was stressed.

James Cameron is mystifying as a screenwriter. At times, he is capable of fairly poetic dialogue, and he uses Sam Worthington’s video log to mostly good effect. Despite this, he has also written some of the most annoying secondary character dialogue this side of George Lucas. Avatar is rife with this. It’s not necessary such a terrible script as it is uneven. Even Worthington’s dialogue is spotty. Someone needs to tell Cameron that it’s not necessary for his characters to exclaim “shit!” every time they stumble. Nor is it necessary for the word “bitch” to be used in such a juvenile manner. Cameron has always liked the hard-ass Marine characters, but ever since Aliens, he has written them in such a stereotypical manner that they seem to be overflowing not with testosterone, but rather Human Growth Hormone.

The script does get a little better as the movie progresses, and somehow I looked past the very predictable and derivative plot and really did get sucked in. Much of this is due to the extraordinary experience the 3D provides. The technology is very well utilized, and the goggles keep outside distractions away. If you allow your eyes to follow the falling ash, the speck will linger below the screen for a split second. It is truly a beautiful trick of the eye. And while the visual experience is very immersive and beautiful, the actual planet and creature designs are not exactly original or even logical.

This brings me to my point. Many have proclaimed Avatar to be the “game-changer” for Hollywood, often drawing comparisons with Star Wars. Cameron’s budget has been reported as $237 million dollars. Star Wars was made with a remarkably small budget, and many of the special effects it employed were ingenious but ancient tricks finally perfected by a very young ILM. If Avatar truly is a game-changer, then what has it really done for the average filmmaker?

There will almost certainly be a flood of poor knockoffs within the next several years. This happened with Star Wars as well. Most will be conceptually weak, and won’t use the technology correctly. As flawed as Cameron is as a writer, he has the fortune of having a great mind for visual storytelling and can make you feel for his characters with affecting visuals, such as Sam Worthington’s immobilized stick-figure legs.

So where does that leave those of us at the very bottom of the industry, trying to break in? None of us will have the opportunity to utilize said technology for quite some time. As much as Star Wars did for effects, it can also be credited for encouraging independent filmmaking. What Avatar does is give Hollywood the chance to keep their grip on your cash for just a little longer, keeping their old business format for at least a few years.

Imagine if every Hollywood movie were shot in 3D. What chance would that give the independent filmmaker, still working with HD camcorders? It would severely limit the prospect of that occasional breakthrough Indie picture that we have all become accustomed to once or twice a year. I try not to fear this future, as my strength as a storyteller begins with the script. In a world in which anyone can make a decent looking movie now, I am determined that my leg up will come from strength of story.

I left Avatar thinking that it was neither as great nor as bad as anyone had ascribed it to be. But with my filmmaker’s mind, I often think about the things I would change or the things I appreciate. Film is so often about distraction, and Avatar owes much of its success to this notion. It dangles shiny things in front of your eyes, that you might overlook the severity of its flaws. For your sake, I hope you can overlook the use of “unobtanium.”