Thursday, January 7, 2010

Avatar (Film)

I've never been more wrong. It's a triumph.

As the immortal Mash taught us, Avatar is truly the greatest ever film about blue pretend cat people. And likely to stay that way for some time.

The 3D effects are absolutely gobsmacking.

It's like being at a theatre in-the-round. The flat screen of the cinema is replaced by a stage. Red Indian types do indeed fire arrows straight at camera. And it's utterly glorious.

You can tell how good a video reproduction technology is by wondering whether you could mistake the screen for a mirror. This is a big step closer to that ideal.

Saying that, it doesn't quite work. There's a slight weirdness about very close objects, which I think is down to a mismatch between focus and parallax. Presumably this effect will become less noticeable as the technology and technique improve, and as we learn to watch 3D films.

Because we will. Traditional film will soon look as weird as black and white. 2D will become a special effect.

The CGI is also absolutely extraordinary. It's slightly cartoonish, and I imagine that it will soon date, but I can't tell what was acted by real people, what was done with models, and what was done entirely in silico. It's all extraordinarily lush and beautiful. You could not have done this ten years ago.

The really stunning thing is just what sort of fantasy this sort of technology is going to allow us in the future. It will soon become cheap and make its way into television and computer games. And at that point, it will just be waiting for its Milton.

Bloody hell. Can we film Paradise Lost now?

As for the actual story, well, it's a simple melodrama, but then so are a lot of good films, including Star Wars. Granted the Na(ti)vi are a little too good to be true, but their earth-huggery is explained perfectly adequately by the literal interconnection of their world.

Apart from making an apology for the American genocides, Cameron manages to get in a couple of nasty digs at the occupation of Iraq, and one or two other politically correct references, but it's done cleverly, doesn't jar, adds to the film, and frankly needs saying. One of the things I've always liked about America is the fact that it can sometimes look itself squarely in the face. Which England can't, and which Europe has no desire to do.

As science fiction, it's plausible. The two implausible assumptions are the idea of humans physically travelling to other stars, and the avatar technology itself.

But you're always allowed the first assumption for free in SF, and making a second and running with it to see what will happen is almost the definition of hard SF.

All the rest of it doesn't seem at all unreasonable if 'unobtainium' is a sort of organic superconducting brain-stuff. Which explains why it can't just be synthesized on Earth.

In fact the only bit of the film that I found did jar my willing suspension of disbelief was when the hero talks about 'taking it to the next level'. But actually that's probably exactly the sort of language that a space-marine would use to describe the defining moment of his life. It sounds weird to me, but that doesn't mean it's out of character.

On the whole, I think Avatar actually does bear comparison with Star Wars. I don't think it's as good. It doesn't have Star Wars' wholesale brilliant thieving from Kurosawa or the Ring. It doesn't have John Williams' wonderful score.

But it's a good effort in the same bracket. And much more of a science fiction story than Star Wars was.

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