Avatar ★★★★

Wow. Wasn’t expecting for this to turn into a full-on research paper when I started, but here we are, references and all.

I’ve been seeing a lot of media about James Cameron lately. Over the last month I’ve been bingeing Corridor Digital’s VFX Artists React series, which I would HIGHLY recommend. It has given me an entirely new appreciation for what the VFX team brings to the table in productions. I’ve seen Avatar mentioned in a couple of their episodes now, and even 10 years later the artists are gushing about how impressive the VFX was, and still is, which got me interested in revisiting. I also saw Variety’s Directors on Directors episode with James Cameron and Denis Villeneuve, where they talk about Avatar 2 and Dune respectively, and they each give insight into their process. Hearing these two Canadian masters speak about their craft got me really intrigued in giving Avatar a re-watch. I will admit, I had also jumped on the “Fuck Avatar” train over the years. I watched it in theatres twice when it ran theatrically, and then never again. That faded memory, paired with the allegations of IP theft and its cookie-cutter narrative certainly dulled my appreciation of the work over the years.

A while ago I came across a Blu-ray of Avatar in a thrift store and said “fuck it, it’s $3. Why not?” and it promptly sat on my shelf collecting dust for months. Then a few days ago Ellen came over to watch Gogglebox, but upon realizing i left my laptop charger at work, we only got half way through an episode before the plan for the evening was overruled. I told Ellen to take a look at the movie shelf to see if anything caught her eye. She wanted something light, actiony, and fun. Avatar was the first thing that caught her eye. I’m the kind of person that will purchase a film knowing that I will eventually watch it, but not necessarily because I want to watch it IMMEDIATELY after I purchase it. I don’t often schedule a viewing unless it’s an event with other people, or if it’s a new release being seen in theatres. All other times, I wait until I want to watch a movie, and then I decide in the moment what I want to watch when I want to watch it. Maybe that’s why it took so long to get around to Avatar. Hell, I’ve got Criterions on my shelf from my first ever purchase from them that still have the plastic on from over two years ago! (I swear I’ll get around to watching 24 Frames eventually). So when Ellen chose Avatar, I knew it was the time. And honestly, it held up much better than I expected.

People say that Avatar, despite holding the title for the highest grossing movie ever for a full decade, left no discernable cultural impact. To that, I disagree. It certainly left an impact, good and bad. The impact was simply so widespread that people couldn’t trace it back to anything particular. Remember that time when EVERY movie was made for 3D? That was because of the success of Avatar. Remember the whole 3D TV craze in the early 2010’s? The first 3D TV’s were brought to market in 2010 so that people could watch Avatar in 3D from their homes. For better or worse, mainstream film would not be how it is today if not for this movie.

Many people write off James Cameron as a hack. He’s a Hollywood action/sci-fi director barely a step up from George Lucas. While his work may not be the most thematically dense or original, he is a master of technical filmmaking and every time he makes a film, he changes the way every other film is made after it. Aside from that he worked with NASA to design cameras for the Mars rover, he has PERSONALLY explored the bottom of the Marianas Trench, he is a devout climate change activist, and he consulted with Sony during the early development of the Rialto specifically so they could use the prototype to shoot the Avatar sequels. Seriously, take a look at this guy’s Wikipedia page, it’s nuts. On top of that, they have been needing to delay those sequels for so long because they had to first develop entirely new technology to allow them to actually capture and animate the film. This man has been at the forefront of cinema since Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and I have a feeling the Avatar sequels are going to make the biggest leaps in tech this side of the Millennium.

We can all agree the story itself is a bit half-baked. It’s a mash-up of FernGully, Dances with Wolves, and about a billion other things. Nothing is challenging to the mind, the conflict is very black and white, and it doesn’t add anything particularly insightful to the discussion. However, one of the golden rules of filmmaking is: “The simpler the story, the more freedom there is in how you tell it.” That is entirely the case here with Avatar. We all know the story here. It’s almost entirely composed of tropes we’ve seen 1000 times before stitched together in a Frankenstein narrative we’ve also seen 1000 times before. But because of that familiarity, Cameron doesn’t need to beat around the bush. He is able to spend the entirety of the movie world-building and showcasing the beautiful visuals in grandiose sequences of spectacle and wonder. It helps that they go for more of a stylized hyper-realism, aided by the fact that it was almost entirely filmed in CG, so they didn’t need to match as much real-footage with the animation. Since the environment and the entities were both from within that same virtual engine, they could effortlessly match the lighting, and since they weren’t trying to make it look exactly like real-life, the suspension of disbelief is able to be stretched out a little bit further. It worked. Much like A New Hope in ‘77, it got people back in those seats multiple times in theatres because it was so impressive. Look at Avatar’s contemporaries; none hold a candle to the visuals on display here. It may not be “The next evolution in visual storytelling”, but it is certainly the next evolution of visual effects, and a triumph of technology that is still tough to beat today.

That brings me to another note I had during the movie; “Why does this look so much better than most movies being made today?” Despite the huge bounds VFX tech has made in the last decade, Avatar manages to surpass a lot of them, and almost this entire movie is CG! The budget:shot ratio for this must have been so much lower than many films today considering how much VFX work was done on this movie. How does it maintain such a consistent quality across almost 3-hours when we have things like The Amazing Spider-Man 2 and Black Panther where the characters look like stretchy and weightless PS2 characters that don’t truly feel like they are a part of the world around them? I think this is a direct result of Avatar’s success, and the current accessibility of VFX. Avatar was made when big VFX movies like this weren’t the same norm as they are today. A lot of stuff was still being done practically on sets. The Lord of the Rings, the Harry Potter series, and Pirates of the Caribbean all started the decade using mainly practical effects in conjunction with VFX only when doing things practically was not an option. As the decade progressed, those series began leaning much more towards the VFX side, but nothing to the degree that Avatar would go in 2009. It was not easy doing this kind of work in the 2000’s. The CG graphics were very new, and artists were still learning how to replicate the decades worth of practical effect knowledge into the digital world to get things right. James Cameron assembled a team full of the most talented visual artists in the world to create Avatar, and because they were pioneering the tech, they didn’t have all the pieces they needed for a copy/paste workflow. It was not an easy task to make this kind of a feature at the time. They had to put SO MUCH EFFORT into the art direction for this film to make it look good, and because of that, you can really notice the details that would have otherwise just gone by the wayside. Look at the throwaway shot in the water after Jake jumps off the cliff to escape that predator. As seen in this VFX Artists React video, it is maybe the most well-rendered CG water I have ever seen, and it’s on screen for maybe 10 seconds? Nowadays CG has become commonplace in everything, and everyone can do it. And because “everyone can do it”, the supply of artists has gone up, and the concentration of talented artists has been diluted. But that’s not to say that artists that work on these modern films aren’t talented, but rather the expectation of the artists have skyrocketed. With advancements in tech, bigger and better things can be achieved, but these things take much more time. Everyone is relying on VFX to do the job for them now, but the studios don’t give them the time or resources needed to achieve what is expected (see the linked Black Panther clip from above as an example). How many times do you find yourself watching a $100 million budget blockbuster and see some janky CG and think “How the hell did that make it to the final cut?” Sadly, not everyone gets 10 years to make sure the effects are “just right” like James Cameron does.

It’s a bit disappointing seeing the overreliance of VFX, and the half-assed attempts at bringing it to life, but all that forgettable computer imagery really helps to make the diamonds shine through. Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, Dune, Interstellar, 1917, and the like all showcase INCREDIBLE visual effects that combine both practical and CG effects with an awe-inspiring attention to detail, all of which would not have been possible before Avatar. These films are the gold standard for modern visual effects, just how Avatar was before them, and still is today. I can’t wait to see what James Cameron has up his sleeve. December 16th, 2022 can’t come soon enough.

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