Monday, 11 January 2010

A Stunning Visual Experience: Thoughts on James Cameron's Avatar

Yesterday, I finally went to see James Cameron's Avatar in 3D. I had heard a lot of good things about it (primarily about the visuals) as well as a fairly equal amount of criticism concerning the film's lack of originality. Either way, my expectations were fairly high.

And Cameron delivered.

Avatar (in 3D) is one of the most stunning visual experiences of my life. In that regard, Cameron has clearly taken the film medium to a new level. In terms of the story told, I can understand the criticism that it is not original. It simply isn't. Not even by a long shot. If you have seen, say Dances With Wolves and Braveheart, the film is not likely to shock or surprise you with its plot. Nor is Cameron's critique of corporate culture and non-ecological thinking by any means subtle. However, what is all the more fascinating in that respect is that, despite being so unoriginal and unsubtle, it is nevertheless ever so topical and current. And sadly so, I hasten to add. Because it would have been nice if the human race could ever learn something from past mistakes and leave greed (corporate or otherwise) behind.

All of this aside, Avatar tells its story well. Not only in a purely visual sense, but also in terms of storytelling. While it is original neither in terms of themes nor narrative structuring, it nevertheless tells its story in a way I find compelling. Don't get me wrong, the visuals are clearly part of this, but then again, the visuals are also very much a part of telling stories in the medium of film. Cameron's film may not shock or surprise me, but it can still make me invested in the narrative, its world and the characters in it. So, the MacGuffin (of a sort) of the film is neither innovatively nor subtly named (as if all things in real life are), but really, how much of the narrative focuses upon the Unobtainium itself? It is there simply to present the reason for corporate or imperialist greed in whatever form it appears (oil, ivory, diamonds, animal hides, you name it). Would the film really have been so much better if Cameron had come up with a better name for it or invented a more subtle political spectrum for his story? Sure, it might have added dimension to the film, no argument there, but would it necessarily have made it a better story? I'm not so sure. We live in a culture which (sometimes quite paradoxically) puts too much emphasis on originality as if that in and of itself would grant a work artistic or narrative quality.
(In fact, the criticism surrounding Cameron's film has very much reminded me of this particular hobby-horse of mine yet again and as a result I aim to deal with that subject more closely in an upcoming post.)

All in all, Avatar is an enjoyable story and, more than anything else, it is a stunning visual experience. If ever there was a reason to urge people to get out of their sofas and head down to their nearest cinema (and preferably then one with 3D capability), this is it.

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