Still Feeling Blue

A real treat today – it’s my birthday and so it’s great to hand the site over to someone who actually knows about film while I put my feet up with the residue of some Christmas Pud, Brandy custard and a fresh bottle of something sparkling. Rob over at Excuses and Half Truths kindly agreed, with only a small amount of grog and even less coercion, to contribute to MB. The downside for him is I will reciprocate. However, Rob’s first is his reaction to that bluest of movies, Avatar. Happy New Year!

A pre-Christmas treat TLC and I promised each other was a trip to the cinema to see Avatar. There had been some humming and hahing about whether to see it in 3D or not. TLC was concerned about headaches, but eventually decided that it would be worthwhile watching the movie as James Cameron had intended.

She had no problems with the 3D, falling straight into it with utter abandon. I wish I could have said the same. It took me a good hour or so before I could shake off the impression that everything had been shot with a lens with an impossibly shallow depth of field and a tilt-shift focus. Every element of the frame seemed to be sat in its own distinct focal plane, in a way that had no relation to the way things worked in the real world. In closeups, the tip of a character’s nose would appear to be floating in a slightly different place to their cheeks and brows. I guess the best way to describe it would be to consider the frame as a deck of cards, where one card would be that tip, the next the curve of the nostril, the next the point where the nose melds into the cheek and so on. It was an illusion of depth rather than a window to a new world. It was deeply un-nerving and incredibly disappointing.

I should explain that I suffer from astigmatism, which affects the way I focus on the world. My eyes are ever so slightly rugby-ball shaped, which can be easily corrected for, but does mean that accusations of yours truly having a skewed view of the world are more accurate than you think. Clearly, this had an impact on the 3D effect, and although I shook the stacked-card effect in the end and tricked my poor over-loaded brain into letting me fall into the screen in much the same way as everyone else, I was simply unable to immerse myself in Pandora.

Which was a real shame, because although it’s not the radical step forward in movie-making that James Cameron would have us believe, it’s also a solid and endlessly entertaining chunk of SF. It’s not hard to find antecedents for the storyline of course. There have already been accusations of plagiarism. I’d prefer to be generous and mention that Avatar is open about its influences. I’d certainly mention Harry Harrison’s Deathworld and H. Beam Piper’s The Fuzzy Papers as tales that I was reminded of very strongly while watching the movie. These are all perfectly good sources to crib from, and I’m more than a little relieved that SF film-making is moving away from the 1950s mindset and themes it’s been stuck in ever since the late 70s. (that’s the subject for another post, I think…)

Then there are the hysterical complaints that the film is nothing more than an example of White Man’s Guilt storytelling – an SF version of Dances With Wolves. This is just plain lazy, if not a little dumb. It’s a film about colonialism and mankind’s ability to ruin an environment and move on, and that’s a much bigger canvas than the petty complaints of racism can cover. Avatar is broad-stroke film-making, big, loud, pretty and stoopid. It has it’s heart in the right place, but it ain’t subtle. The villains are exceedingly villainous, the heroes are entirely saintly, and in amongst the day-glo and primary colours, there’s little room for shades of grey. I think anyone that expects otherwise is either being disingenuous, overlaying their own agenda or simply spoiling for a fight.

I don’t consider that Avatar does anything new, but it does it beautifully. Weta Digital have exceeded their own high-water mark with the effects, and the fifteen years of R&D and the huge budget are all up on screen. The visual invention of the film is ceaseless and intoxicating.

Yes, sure, the story is simplistic, the characters are cyphers and the script is full of eye-rolling moments (hey, maybe it was the eye-rolling that helped my eyes make sense of the focus!) but that’s an accusation you could lay at the feet of any number of big budget Hollywood movies. Avatar is filled with puppyish charm, good performances that show off the motion capture technology brilliantly, (Zoe Saldana is especially good) and it doesn’t suffer from the pacing problems that frequently plague films of this length. I was never bored. It motors along when it needs to, but is not afraid to take its time when there’s something cool for you to look at. I walked out dazed, a little woozy, but happy. It’s not The Abyss, certainly, but it’s also not Terminator Salvation, and we should all be grateful for that.

Excuses and Half Truths


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