First of all, if you can go see Avatar in full 3D, you should go just to see some very lovely exercises in technology. When my wife and I saw it today, that was probably the highlight for both of us, this experience of seeing things that feel truly three-dimensional and not like a series of cardboard cutouts set at various visual depths. For the most part, the Na’vi feel organic and believable, the animals are well-crafted, and the scenery is jaw-dropping. It’s fun and pretty and often very exciting, but there is a constant feeling that is best described by a fellow names Yahtzee.
In a review of the videogame Oblivion, Yahtzee says this about immersion:
“Immersion is when you’re playing ‘Condemned’ [a scary videogame] and your cat suddenly jumps on your lap only to be immediately launched off by a reflexive, cannon-like blast of terrified piss.”
(I always liked that image.)
Being sucked into something to the point that you forget that you are reading a book, or playing a game, or (in the case of Avatar) watching a movie can elevate the experience to something much better than simply a piece of escape. But watching Avatar, you never get pulled into in that way.
For example, I will give you some of the thoughts that ran through my 3D bespectacled head during the film:
“Hey, those flying dinosaur things are really cool! And they bond with them too? Neat! Wait, what the hell are those things now? Are those horses? Jeez, they’re just horses with an extra set of legs. They even snort and whiny! Did one of the Na’vi just call it a horse? Could they not come up with a more creative thing for the aliens to ride?”
“Cool, floating mountains! Glowing giant fungus! Oh man, we’re back at the stupid big tree again. How exotic…”
“Wow, that Neytiri is really hot, even if she is 8 feet tall and blue. She actually looks and acts like a real live creature. Oh look, here comes Jake in avatar form. Why does he look like one of the characters from that terrible Final Fantasy movie from ten years ago? And is that supposed to be a Boston accent? Man, it’s annoying to listen to. Good god! Is that supposed to be Sigourney Weaver’s avatar? She looks like a blue Shrek.”
Every time that I started to get into the world (which is beautifully rendered and richly detailed), something would yank me back out and remind that I was watching a movie. The scientist would hurl a chunk of exposition about the planet being a giant interconnected life force at a callous space marine Colonel, or the contrived love triangle would go through its spasms of “girl hates new guy,” “girl learns to respect new guy,” “old guy sneers at new guy,” “girl and new guy do it,” “new guys gets outed as a bad guy and things get awkward with girl.” And then I would feel like I’m watching a very pretty but very shallow sci-fi shooter.
It just sucks that all this work went into making a believable “alien” world but the Na’vi ended up sounding, fighting, and acting just like every native tribe depicted in every movie ever made since the dawn of cinema. They are noble and emotional and connected to the land and use bows and arrows and ride horses and woop and yelp when they are skewering space marines. They wear hemp jewellery and braid beads into their hair and worship an earth mother spirit thing. They paint themselves up before battle. They sit in big circles and sing.
But three things in particular really kept me from loving the movie, and would likely keep me from liking any movie that did them:
- Catch Phrases. There is no other way to describe a line like “I see you (meaningful pause with deep eye contact)…” that gets shoehorned into every scene they can find. You see it coming from a mile away every time that they use it. And you might actually be able to sneak by with that kind of crap if you didn’t then commission Leona Lewis to sing a theme song for your movie called “I See You.” At least Titanic didn’t have Jack and Rose coughing, “My heart will go on (meaningful pause with deep eye contact)…” at each other all the time.
- Boss Fights. Yes, there must be an action-packed climax in an action movie, but I’m really tired of the hand-to-hand combat scenes that get contrived for every protagonist-antagonist final encounter. Both of them are marines, and both have guns all over the place, so why are they fighting Bruce-Lee style?
- Walkers. Walkers are a stupid idea from an engineering standpoint: they are unstable, excessively complicated, and very likely the least useful kind of machine for navigating an uneven jungle floor.
Walkers that have to actually pick up a gun instead of having them built into their arms are worse, since it means that you can lose your weapon and get skewered by a giant Na’vi arrow. If the Ewoks can kill an ATAT, it’s a sign that the entire walker branch of weapons-design needs to go the way of the Chinese weasel-firing crossbow.
It really is a shame that a movie that James Cameron worked so hard to build in three dimensions somehow still feels so flat and unimmersive. It is ultimately a very pretty picture of things that other people have done before.