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…!