Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar Review: Nothing Is What It Seems

I just saw James Cameron's Avatar. I'll break this review into three parts. The first is just about the film itself. The second is about what I think Cameron was trying to accomplish and what I think he's accomplished with this film (hint: it has nothing to do with "revolutionizing" movie making). The third part is more of the second part, but with spoilers.

But first, let me describe how I see a James Cameron film. When I was a teen, I saw Terminator and, like most of my friends, it blew me away. Like Close Encounters before it, it was a perfect blend of the ordinary and completely alien. It also had a swagger to it that appealed to me as a young man. It wasn't until Aliens came out, however, that I learned to recognize the director's signatures: the strong female protagonist; the relentless enemy which was somehow of our own making; the fading, but all-important ember of humanity. When Abyss came out, I was vaguely disappointed until I saw the director's cut (the one that changed how we thought about director's cuts). In its final version, it was nearly the same story as Terminator and Aliens, but it chose a new alien world to explore rather than the shattered future or a marooned spaceship, it was the ocean depths.

So when Titanic was announced, I was confused. It seemed as if it was both not his genre and at the same time something he'd already done. How little I knew. Nearly everyone I've talked to saw Titanic as a love story between DeCaprio and Winslet. Of course, the promotional material for the film didn't help that impression. However, if you dig a bit deeper, it was Cameron up to his old tricks again. Rose is our strong female protagonist; the sea is our relentless enemy, but the ship succumbs to it through our own negligence; and finally there is the fading of humanity. In Titanic we experience death from a dozen different directions. Rose undergoes a transformation due to the death of Jack, sure, but there's also the band that goes down playing; the man who will sacrifice anyone to get off the sinking boat. The movie is full of a dozen ways to die and and even more ways to face it. It is, in fact, a story about the nature one one's choices in the face of death.

So, when I went to see Avatar, I expected all of those things... and got none of them. So, on to the review. (more...)

From the moment the film begins until the introduction of the avatars, there's a sense of deja vu that I felt. This was the opening of Aliens, and there's no mistake, there. Cameron likes to use the military as a moral blank-slate. As the plot was set up, everything was foreshadowed. I won't spoil anything yet, but you know from a fairly early point how this is going to play out, just as you did in Titanic, when the computer model showed the boat sinking. You get to see Avatar's boat sink in a way, and you know what you're in for. The journey is another thing.

Overall, I'd say that this is not Cameron's best work. It's hard to be absolute about these things, but I'd argue for either Abyss or Aliens in that slot. Then again, coming in third in that lineup is quite the achievement. I do think that this is a better film in terms of pacing and drama than True Lies or Titanic, both of which I enjoyed.

Much will be made of the CG in this movie, so I should touch on it. There are times that it's distracting. Some of the glowing fauna is just a bit too cutesy, but I can forgive that. The creatures are stunning, but we've gotten a bit used to that. What's really amazing is the fact that next to nothing in this world was real. The trees, the ferns, the water, even some of the humans in the background are CG. The aliens are beautifully rendered, and I'm supremely impressed with the skin texture which finally reflects light with the correct mixture of rough and smooth that's been lacking in so many films.

OK, so let's talk about why Cameron made this film. Before I saw it, I was convinced that he was pouring so much money into it because he wanted to build a next-generation digital worlds studio and be able to farm that out to movies that could afford it. I still think that that was a motivation. However, I'm starting to see something that makes me think he's a move ahead of me on the chess board.

I play World of Warcraft. It's a fun game, but that's not why it's so popular. It's popular because it's a rich world with so much depth that every time someone goes to play another game they find it lacking. There are over 150 zones in the game, each with a fairly rich and detailed backstory. That's a lot of story to come up with, and you can't just drop it on people, you have to give them some way to absorb this backstory and feel that they know the world. World of Warcraft did this by introducing the Warcraft III game and its expansion: The Frozen Throne. I now believe that Cameron has done this by introducing a movie. To explain why, I have to get into spoilers...

Spoilers below.

We first see our hero learn to ride the local equivalent of a horse. It's a rather boxy looking mount that's not terribly interesting. Then he learns to ride a flying beast. Eventually he tames the great predatory flying mount. Meanwhile his lover tames her own unique mount that the world gives to her as a gift. I sat through these waves of unique mounts thinking: this feels like an MMO. That's odd. Then I began to consider what had come before. Each different area of the world had its own unique look. There was the dark, glowing fungus forest. There was the cleared human encampment. There was the great tree they lived in. There were even floating mountains. It seemed every act of the movie introduced at least three settings, each with a radically different look and feel. Sound like the ground work for an MMO? It does to me.

So, here's the pitch for the movie: World of Warcraft has 12million subscribers at $15/month. If you give me $300m to make the most expensive movie ever, I'll get about half that subscribership and pay you back out of petty cash in the first year... oh, and the movie might make some money too, but who cares. Now that is a sales pitch.

I can't be sure of this, of course, and Cameron was talking about Avatar before EverQuest was popular (perhaps before it existed), so it may have been an idea that came late in the process. Still, they did spend an awful lot of time establishing races, classes, mounts, zones, even quests that are the core of any MMO.

I have to admit that if it is the groundwork for an MMO, I'll play it.