The Avatar (2009) Potpourri: Medium Is Not The Message

Avatar (2009) needs no introduction. The most expensive movie ever made is a testament to James Cameron’s courageous vision of an immersive cinematic experience to out-Lucas the Star Wars legend – an ambition he harbored since he watched it in 1977 as a truck-driver. Avatar Poster

Cameron has uplifted the benchmark for Hollywood blockbusters and created a new level of entertainment. Suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride. It will be an unforgettable experience.

The Medium

3D

Should You watch it in 2D if 3D tickets are not yet available? No.

It’s like this. Let’s say you’ve never flown in a plane before and are given a choice of flying business class in the flight next week, or economy today. You will enjoy the economy ride, but you will miss the comfort of business class. From another, more important perspective, it’s a question of experiencing an art form as the artist wished it to be experienced. If artistic integrity matters to you, watch Avatar as Cameron intended you to watch it.

Cameron has likened 3D to the addition of color in cinema, which reveals how integral it is to the Avatar experience. He invented a new generation of high-resolution, maneuverable, 3D cameras for Avatar and persuaded Sony to manufacture it. Read more of the background story here.

The use of 3D in the film is extremely subtle. It never distracts, but simply adds to the immersive experience.

Uncanny Valley

Cameron and Weta Digital’s greatest achievement in Avatar in my opinion is conquering the uncanny valley. The evolution from motion-capture to performance-capture is a milestone in film-making. It took Weta one full year to perfect its algorithms to map the actor’s expressions onto the animated characters without creating the uncanny valley revulsion and actually making them empathetic. You can read more about this behind-the-scenes technology here.

The Message

The Potpourri

Sci-Fi? Yes. Romantic Adventure? Yes. Action/War Movie? Yes. Political Statement? Yes. A Green Statement? Yes.

The movie is all of these packed into a 160-min blockbuster. Leave your fine cinematic sensibilities behind if you want to enjoy the immersive experience. Avatar was not made for art film critics. It was created to awe and it does that exceedingly well.

The Sci-Fi, Romance, and Action-War genres are given full treatment beyond your wildest expectations and imaginations. An alien civilization with its own language, inter-species romance, and futuristic battle spaceships in combat with aliens riding on monsters will leave your appetite for Sci-Fi, Romance, and Action fully satiated.

Anti-War

A moral message of anti-war underlies the movie, but is rendered impotent as the movie uses full-blown action war sequences for the intended purpose of entertainment. Artistic integrity? No. Hypocritical? Yes.

One line in the dialog on “answering terror with terror” almost made me feel that Michael Moore was involved in the script-writing. There are actually only fleeting passages in the movie that actually evoke an anti-war sentiment, the rest of it is where you actually enjoy the thrill of war.

The Green Balance of Life

The only personal review I had read before watching the movie was by Nita, who was moved by its green message that stressed the Balance of Life. I found the green message quite far-fetched, unsubstantiated, and unscientific. I’ve argued before that we need to pull religion out of environmentalism and take a scientific approach if we’re to care about our planet.

The nature-worshipping alien civilization on Pandora practices an occult environmentalism that harks back to mysticism. Such a mindset is actually harmful not just to planet Earth, but to human beings as well. Learning to live with nature requires scientific observation of nature, invention of medicines to treat natural diseases, the invention of disaster-response infrastructure to deal with natural calamities, and so on. It doesn’t mean relinquishing science to live in harmony with nature in caves or under a mystical tree as the aliens do on Pandora.

This nature-worshipping message is delivered to us via a medium of extreme hi-tech engineering. Does the message overrule the medium? In Avatar, the message fails, the medium triumphs. In this case, the medium is not the message.

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  • Fast Dots

    Hi Mahendra,

    I saw the movie over the weekend, and had a slightly different take. I do agree that its extremely well done; I have never been so amazed by the imagination of the writer / director / cinematographer that has also been executed brilliantly. Thanks for the links to the popular mechanics article – will check it out.

    I agree with you about the green message in the film as well – re: mysticism vs scientific inquiry. To me, Pandora seemed like a manifestation of Gaia (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gaia_hypothesis). While I agree with the need to maintain a symbiotic relationship with ones surroundings, I disagree with the motive (deference to some mystical power).

    Your assessment of the 3D version is where I differ with you. I saw the movie in 3D, and have to say that 3D didnt add anything to the story telling at all. (OK, I havent seen it in 2D yet). The difference between flying coach and flying business is an order of magnitude in comfort level, whereas the impact of 3D was marginal in my opinion.

    Happy New Year!

    • Hey Fast Dots, thanks for the feedback and the link to the Gaia hypotheses. Yes, that perfectly describes it (the Gaia article on Wikipedia also includes a reference to Avatar the film).

      Regarding 3D, I agree it didn’t add to the storytelling at all. It simply added to the immersive experience. If it was anything more than that, I wouldn’t watch more than 1 such 3D film in a month. Because it is so subtle, I can watch 3 films a week of this kind. My point, and I guess Cameron’s objective, is that 3D shouldn’t be disruptive to the cinematic experience we are used to, it should simply augment it.

      • Fast Dots

        I think people who wear glasses are less likely to enjoy another pair on their noses – thats literal immersion ;-). My point is that I want stuff coming at me in 3D (startling me and so on) for me to bear the pain of another pair of glasses!

        • Ah, yes. It must be painful for those with glasses.

          I understood your expectations from 3D. Formally referred to as “breaking the fourth wall”, casually referred to as 3D of the “Chhota Chetan” variety. I understand that you need that to make the discomfort worthwhile! 🙂

  • Your title summed it up for me!! The 3-d was subtle, but did not add to the narrative, the sense color can. I am still waiting for a true 3-D narrative to come along. Apart from that, the imagination, the creatures.. the forst.. all very surreal and beautiful.

    oh I see the husband has already left a comment!!

    • Hi Dottie, thanks!

      A true 3D film that adds to the narrative would be nice as a different experience, but I wouldn’t want it to be part of every movie experience. 🙂

      Beautiful, surreal…an absolute wonder! Cameron is truly a king of royal blood, eh?

  • Anonymous

    I know I will certaínly NOT WATCH this movie. I refuse to have my intelligence insulted by such a pathetic attempt of brainwashing my mind.

    Why pathetic? Because Marketing Strategy is the key word here. Green is en vogue in the recent times.

  • hello..
    no, i haven’t seen Avatar and while i ws in two minds till now, i will definitely see this after reading your review. regarding 3D– due to my headaches, i have avoided seeing these films so far even when the multiplex is right next door. let’s see 🙂

    • Gauri, definitely watch it. 🙂

      3D glasses can aggravate your headache, so either skip the 3D or wait till you’re better.

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  • I like the Avatar 3D film, particularly the story line, not only it brings a very new feelings however inspiring ideas of humanity. I heard the New Avatar 2 is comming soon, can’t wait to see it again…!