FEATURE: More Reflections on “Avatar”

22 04 2010

With the release of “Avatar” on Blu-Ray and DVD today, I thought it would be a good time to reflect on the impact and legacy of the biggest movie of our time.

First of all, let’s go back to the movie itself.  Back in December (after seeing it at the earliest IMAX 3D showing on opening day), I gave it a solid “A.” I saw it again at the end of March, and I still stand by that rating.  Here’s some of what I said then:

”Avatar” is breathtaking moviemaking at its finest, with astonishing visuals that are designed to do more than just floor you.  They engulf you and transport you to Pandora, a land of untold beauty complete with its own indigenous people, language, and wildlife, for an exhilarating ride and fascinating experience.

“Avatar” isn’t just a movie; it is a full-scale experience that your visual cortex will never forget.  If it is the future of cinema remains yet to be seen, but it will most certainly usher in a widespread acceptance of the motion capture technology.  The movie also secures its fearless helmer a place among cinema’s greatest pioneers, and it could even reinforce his self-bestowed “king of the world” title.

“Avatar” is one of very few movies of the past decades that deserves to be called an epic.  Everything is bigger and grander than we have ever experienced before in a science-fiction or action movie.  It is a tremendously ambitious movie, and director James Cameron gives his vision every tool to succeed.  Whether you like the final product is up to you, but it’s pretty hard to deny that the movie is of epic proportions.

I think that the mere size of the movie has led to some massive exaggerations of opinions.  Normal people who didn’t absolutely love “Avatar” immediately say they hated it, and if they did love the movie, it’s their all-time favorite.  The same kind of feelings spread into awards talk too; people were either completely behind “Avatar” winning Best picture or vehemently opposed.  Very few people seem to take moderate, or even less extreme, stances.  My two cents here: it’s fine to just like “Avatar” rather than love it or loathe it.  There is not a problem with just kicking back in your theater chair and being transported; you don’t have to be wowed or disenchanted.

I do have to share the most extreme reaction to the movie that I heard of – and this is not a joke.  There is a syndrome called “Avatar Blues” that psychologists are actually studying.  Large numbers of people flocked to the Internet to discuss the depression that they felt after seeing “Avatar.”  It may not be what you think, though.

Ever since I went to see “Avatar,” I have been depressed. Watching the wonderful world of Pandora and all the Na’vi made me want to be one of them. I can’t stop thinking about all the things that happened in the film and all of the tears and shivers I got from it.  I even contemplate suicide thinking that if I do it I will be rebirthed in a world similar to Pandora and the everything is the same as in “Avatar. (posted by “Mike” on an Internet forum)

You might not have been so blown away by the world of “Avatar” that you felt clinically depressed, but you had to have felt something.  Even if the story wasn’t your cup of tea, it’s hard not to have been struck by how intricately the movie was put together.  When I saw it a second time, I was floored by the impeccable attention to detail and just how thorough the world of Pandora was designed.

“Avatar” also brought consciousness of 3D and IMAX to a greater multitude, many of whom had never experienced either beforehand.  The movie absolutely blew away what we thought we could experience in the two mediums, and it has single-handedly been the catalyst for much of 2010’s discussions.  Because of the smashing success of “Avatar,” every theater owner is rushing to up his 3D theater count.  Our wallets have already begun to feel the pain from these additions with the soaring price of 3D tickets.  In addition, every studio is rushing to shoot their next big movie in 3D (acceptable) or convert their already complete movie into an extra dimension (unacceptable).  James Cameron has now become the wise owl in the tree on the matter, offering cautionary words to the future of the rapidly growing 3D market:

I draw a distinct line in the sand between films where you have no choice — “Jaws,” “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Indiana Jones”, James Bond movies, “Terminator 2” — I would love to see all those films in 3-D and the only way to do that short of having a time machine, is to convert them. Now, on the other hand, if you’ve got a movie that’s coming out in seven weeks and you wake up one day with a wind bubble saying, I want to turn it into 3-D, that’s probably a bad idea. “Clash of the Titans,” even though it made some money, has set off this controversy that we’re going to piss in the soup of this growing 3-D market. If you want to charge a premium ticket price you have to give people a premium experience. So I’m against slapdash conversion. And I’m against anyone who’s making a major tentpole movie whether it’s a new Spider-Man film or a new Pirates of the Caribbean film and they want to release it in 3-D but they don’t want to take the time and the energy to shoot it in 3-D. Again, they’re charging the audience for something that they’re not delivering.

And what about all that money it made?  Simply put, “Avatar” is the highest-grossing movie ever because it was more than a movie; it was a true cinematic event.  It was a movie that returned the urgency to take the whole family to the theater, and people were willing to spend the extra money to enhance their experience.  Once everyone saw the movie, they knew that watching the DVD or Blu-Ray simply wasn’t going to thrill them in the same way.  So they went back to theater and saw it one or two times more.  How else do you explain the movie’s opening only counting for 10% percent of its total revenue?  How else do you explain the minuscule weekend attendance drops?  How else do you explain the fact that “Avatar” made more money in its second through seventh weekends than any other movie made in the same frames?  Perhaps most telling of all, how else do you explain that 124 days after its first day in release and the day it is released on video, it is STILL in the top 12 at the box office?  You can’t deny it; “Avatar” is simply a phenomenon.

And if you think I’m finished now, that was just the impact of “Avatar.”  Now moving on to the legacy…

For those of you who might not have been bowled over by “Avatar,” think of it in terms of how it is going to forever change how we see movies.  Whether or not you had seen a 3D movie before “Avatar,” you have to admit that the movie raised the standard for the mediums to unthinkable levels.  I have seen three 3D movies since, and the only one that came close to providing anything near the experience was “How to Train Your Dragon.”  Without “Avatar,” not only would the 3D craze not have begun, but also the 3D backlash would not exist.  It’s disappointing to see movies not fully explore (and even abuse) the extra dimension.  “Avatar” has also revolutionized the motion capture system in ways that a moderately technically savvy movie blogger cannot even begin to understand.  I’m happy accepting the mystery and observing the difference.

As for the movie’s ultimate legacy, we are still pretty early to be evaluating such a thing.  After all, this is a movie that will stand as a crowning achievement in film for many years to come.  How can we, at just four months, expect to see what this movie will mean in the grand scheme of cinema?

I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t intend to act like I do.  But by analyzing the Oscars and the popular reaction to “Avatar,” I think we can get a pretty good picture.

The Academy gave it nine nominations including Best Picture, an extreme rarity for a science-fiction movie.  More importantly, this was the first Best Picture nomination for a movie shot in motion-capture.  It was the first Best Picture nomination for a movie released in 3D (technically, an honor it shares with “Up”).  For a long time, the industry has seen those as silly frills and not the stuff of serious cinema.  With the nomination, Hollywood signaled that they see the potential for them to become more than meaningless accessories.  A win would have showed total acceptance of the two.

As we all know, traditional Hollywood values won out at the Academy Awards with the triumph of Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker.”  I was very happy with that result; however, I would have been just as happy with an “Avatar” victory.  Why?  Because a win would have done very many beneficial things for the industry.  But for those staunchly opposed and set in a traditional definition of what the Oscars are, I think the nomination does great things as well.  A loss leaves the door open for other gifted filmmakers to pick up where Cameron left off and once again raise the bar.  Just last week, Martin Scorsese announced he would be shooting his next movie in 3D.  This is where I think we need to thank “Avatar,” because without its multilateral success, such directors would never have touched 3D.

As for popular reaction, there’s only one movie that I can think to compare it to: 2008’s juggernaut, “The Dark Knight.”  The two movies were both wildly successful, but the response differed for one fundamental reason.  “The Dark Knight” was a movie that appealed to our brain, and it’s singlehandedly to blame for every comic book movie since disappointing audiences.  “Avatar” was a movie that appealed to our eyes.  So there’s a reason that everyone’s Facebook status was “Why So Serious?” and not “I See You,” just as there is a reason that everyone wants to morph their profile into a Na’Vi and not into Joker makeup.

I think that when I look back on these two movies when I’m older, I’ll remember “The Dark Knight” as being a bigger movie event.  There was just a bigger urgency to see it, and everyone flocked to it instantly.  As for “Avatar,” people gradually trickled to it.  “The Dark Knight” remained a conversation piece for months after its release; I don’t ever recall much chatter about “Avatar.”

I’ll close on this note: in some of the first reviews of “Avatar” that I read, people compared watching it to how people in 1977 must have felt watching “Star Wars.”  I didn’t necessarily feel quite so amazed, but I can easily see how some people could feel that way.  Yet pop in George Lucas’ original classic today, and you’ll see a movie well-done with visual effects that blew the minds of moviegoers three decades ago.  Release something today with effects of a similar quality, and it would be received largely by laughing and sneering.  In thirty years, the visuals in “Avatar” will look ancient.  But we will still watch “Avatar” for the same reason that we still watch “Star Wars.”  The movie will not be remembered for what it is but rather for what it inspired.


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6 responses

23 04 2010
CMrok93

It will always be a great movie, the only problem is that it is just like other movies (Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai), so I think that’s where the bad rep comes from.

29 04 2010
Marshall

Don’t forget “Pocahontas!”

The plot similarities are prominent, but I’m OK with not accepting “Avatar” as a big plot-based movie. The visuals make up for what the story lacks.

22 05 2010
Mike Lippert

As I said in my review way back in December Avatar’s plot is made up of the elements of classic American westerns so arguing about the original of the plot is kind of futile. Hell, it even has just about all the same themes Cameron explored in Aliens. Still a great movie and very good post.

24 05 2010
Amy

I think a lot of the hate for Avatar was a counter for all the love it received – I don’t think it should have particularly won a Golden Globe, but then again I thought 2009 was sort of slow for award season. I thought Avatar was a good movie, I liked the experience on 3D, but I certainly wasn’t floored by the story or the characters… or even the graphics. I did love how they looked on 3D, but the 2D visuals didn’t do it for me.

Also, take into consideration I saw the film before it won the Globe… in my review of it, I said that the nomination in itself was going to play against it, in regards of negative critic.

28 05 2010
Marshall

You’re a first time commenter, so I’ll cut you some slack on saying that 2009 was slow for awards contenders. (“Up in the Air,” anyone?)

And I feel the same way seeing movies that I come in with a predisposition to hate it. I loathed “The Reader” because I knew it had taken the Best Picture spot from “The Dark Knight.”

On a different note, here’s a comment that Cinemaobsessed.com left about the article on a different post. I thought everyone who wanted to read the feedback on this post should be able to see it here.

“We loved Avatar… and we hate the haters. It bugs us how people bash the simple plot, but we believe sometimes films are stronger when they aren’t trying so hard to mess with your head and give you unnecessary twists and turns and subplots.

And yes, this is sci-fi Pocahontas… but what’s so wrong with re-telling a story? Hollywood does it all the time! And this one is retold in a way nobody has ever seen before. It was more than telling a story – it was the creation of an entire world.

There. I feel better after venting my two cents.”

28 05 2010
Amy

Lol, sorry. I meant to say it was slow compared to 2008, when I actually didn’t know which film to choose as favorite because I wanted to choose too many. In 2009, I liked films, and I found it difficult to choose a fave because I couldn’t feel any as faves… I liked Up in the Air better than Avatar ;P

I actually went in to hate it because when the trailer was released, and I saw it, I wasn’t impressed with the graphics at ALL. I thought it looked terrible on my screen, and it was playing on HD! And the posters were horrible, and everyone kept telling me to love it. But when the film ended, I didn’t hate it. Why is it that when you say to someone that you didn’t really love Avatar, then you must be a hater? I gave the film a solid *** 1/2, with a whole * for visuals because I did like the 3D, and when I told people that I thought might be interested in watching, I told them they should see it in 3D. So eyah, it was a great blockbuster best enjoyed at the theater, but would I recommend it to people to watch as a home rental? I don’t think so… though I still need to try those 3D tvs LOL

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