Avatar Review: Did Avatar deserve the Oscar for Best Picture?

AvatarI haven’t felt the need to watch a movie on the big screen more than once for years, preferring instead to wait for the DVD release for repeat viewings, but last week I took myself off to watch James Cameron’s Avatar for the third time. My enthusiasm for this movie has grown with each viewing and unlike many other reviewers, including John Howell, my good friend and fellow writer for SFFMedia, I am as impressed by Avatar’s narrative, or at least the way in which the story is told, as the movie’s stunning visuals.

Whether you loved Avatar, were indifferent or hated it, there’s no denying that it’s a game changer. If there’s a down-side in this, it’s the risk of being too far ahead of the game, and this is likely to be the case when it comes time to take Avatar home on Blu Ray or DVD. While sales of 3D televisions are on the rise, most of us are still in the honeymoon period with our wide screen Plasma or LCD televisions and I suspect that Avatar is one movie that can only be appreciated fully on a big screen in 3D. Which is why I’m not waiting around for the 2D Blu Ray to watch it again. No previous movie has been so dependent on cutting-edge technology for its creation as well as for its viewing pleasure.

This is not to argue as some have that Avatar would be unmemorable without the cutting-edge special effects. I’ve always found this to be a bit of a strange argument as it’s based on an impossible and frankly pointless scenario: that it’s possible to judge what Avatar would be like without the cutting-edge special effects. As a line of argument it’s little different from declaring that The Lord of the Rings would be unmemorable if it had been, say, a graphic novel. Tolkien used the tools at his disposal to tell the story he needed to tell in the way that it needed to be told. Similarly, Avatar is the result of Cameron’s genius for creativity expressed through the tools at his disposal, which happen to be hugely expensive special effects and cinematic technology. But Cameron does not use technology in a gratuitous way. The technology he uses is what is required to tell the story, and the narrative is inseparable from the means with which he tells it. Avatar without the cutting edge special effects would not be Avatar.

At SFFMedia we don’t tend to double up on reviews of books and movies, in part because John and I generally don’t read the same books, in part because we tend to agree about the merits of the movies we jointly see. Both of us felt that Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and The Happening were abysmal; we both agree that District 9 was superb and Star Trek was great fun. We differed slightly over The Road, but with Avatar we’re light years apart and we left the preview back in December with very different feelings. John made his case in a review titled Avatar could have been so much more, and his main criticism is expressed with eloquent simplicity in a follow up article a few weeks later: Avatar makes 1 billion with a crap script.

To be fair to John, he is not alone in this indictment of the script. I simply disagree. I’ve read a lot of criticism of the movie and can’t help but think that part of the issue is that Cameron and Avatar are big, easy targets: how could anything this incredibly popular and commercially successful have any credibility whatsoever? Where’s the starving author or auteur? Of course, this is similar to the sort of criticism levelled at science fiction and fantasy all the time, that it has no literary or critical merit simply because it’s intended for popular consumption. And while it’s true that a vast amount of science fiction and fantasy is uninspiring, as Theodore Sturgeon famously said “Ninety percent of everything is crud”, so SF is no different from any other genre. Of course, given how much SF and fantasy is produced, that leaves a very substantial ten percent of quality material!

But I’m drifting from the point. The mere fact that Avatar is commercially successful is not sufficient grounds to stick the boots in.

Nor is it justifiable to dismiss the script and the narrative simply because it’s heavily dependent on jaw-dropping special effects and cinematic technology. I’ll quote John here, but could quote many others: “With all the time spent on crafting the look and building the technology to realise his 3D character and landscapes, Cameron has neglected to craft a story, characters or dialogue with any real depth, mystery or power.”

The argument for claiming that there is no real depth, mystery or power seems to hinge on a judgement that Avatar’s story is unoriginal and simplistic. Certainly it’s not the most original storyline and it has elements that are recognisable in say Dances with Wolves and Last of the Mohicans to name just two other movies. But these same elements were not original in those movies either and if Joseph Campbell is right and there is really only one story being told and retold in all sorts of different settings, what does it mean to claim something is unoriginal? More importantly, originality does not necessarily lie in the elements of a story, but in the ways in which they are brought together.

The elements that Cameron brings together in his script are drawn from mythology and these are by their nature fundamentally unoriginal and deceptively simple, and yet with myth the complexity and power is found beneath the surface. Avatar’s lack of originality is then the unoriginality of myth in which the same character types and situations occur time and again and at some level (the surface!) both are 2D, but beneath the surface there is a wealth of meaning and a universe of complexity. The characters in Avatar are archetypes. Moreover, in myth we know how the stories will unfold, but they have immense depth and emotional power nonetheless.

If we fail to appreciate, or simply dismiss the mythic nature of the characters in Avatar, especially that of Jake Sully who undertakes a proto-typical hero’s journey of self-discovery and enlightenment, then yes, I can see how one could feel that the story is crap and utterly dependent on technology for its power.

If, on the other hand, we recognise or at least respond to the mythic nature of the story, then we find it to be utterly engaging, fully satisfying and far more than eye candy. Whether intentionally or not, Cameron has tapped into something profound with this movie, capturing something of the spirit of this Age and realising in film for the first time a modern environmental mythology. Far from having an anti-progress message (one of Australian reviewer Jim Schembri’s more inane observations), the message is one of seeking balance. What humans perpetrate on Pandora is not progress, it’s rape and pillage on a global scale.

So, did Avatar deserve the Oscar for Best picture? When push comes to shove I’d have to agree that The Hurt Locker was, well, a more significant movie. As for an Oscar for Directing, the Academy is a long way from accepting the direction of CGI and special effects as being on an equal footing with the direction of actors. But I’ll end with this observation: I’ve watched The Hurt Locker once, and if I get the chance, I’ll experience Avatar again.

And again. It is story-telling and myth making at its very best.

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