An Analysis Of The Work Of James Cameron & Avatar
Due to Kat Blood’s mention of Avatar yesterday I decided to resurrect an old article of mine from the early days of the now defunct The Number Of The Blog, defending the often derided Avatar. Hope you enjoy it and feel free to tell me why I’m wrong in the comments.
Well, this is going to create controversy, isn’t it? I fully expect some sort of flaming to occur in the comment section, but hey, I deserve it, right? Because I am defending Avatar, literally the worst thing to ever be created on this planet, ever. No, I don’t think so either, so why does everyone hate on it?
I personally think people have forgotten what Avatar actually is and decided to level their hatred at what it has become. Either that, or they just didn’t know what it was to begin with. Let’s start from the beginning, shall we?
Now, I am going to present you with a list; please tell me, what do all of the following have in common? There is one exception on the list:
Terminator 2: Judgement Day
Ghosts Of The Abyss
Aliens Of The Deep
If you said the exception was Avatar because it’s shit, congratulations! You are predictable and wrong. All of the films above, except one, are written and directed by James Cameron. The exception is True Lies, which only directed by him, but more on that in a bit…
Now, for a bit of background on Mr. Cameron….
He was a California truck driver who caught a lucky break when he started working with Roger Corman as an assistant. This gave him a foot in the door, and he was asked to direct a sequel to cult horror romp Piranha. Of course, this film was rubbish, Cameron knew that, but he also knew that it was the perfect way to get himself recognised and allow him to make his own projects. After Piranha was over with he conjured up a script for a little-known film called The Terminator and presented it to the studios. They gave him a very small budget and he went to work with Stan Winston on creating the iconic visage of the Terminator.
James Cameron is ridiculously passionate about film, but the one thing that has always interested him the most is how film evolves over time. He finds technology fascinating and almost all of his films, in one way or another, are glorified technology demonstrations. James Cameron wanted to use The Terminator to show the world what could be conjured with modern (at the time) special effects. The stop-motion Terminator chase sequence at the climax of the film is still one of my favourite sequences, and puts a massive smile on my face every time I see it.
After the mass success of The Terminator and the subsequent incredible rise in star power for Arnold Schwarzenegger; James Cameron, essentially an amateur to the business, was riding pretty damn high. So, 20th Century Fox approached him to do a sequel to Alien because Ridley Scott was uninterested. Cameron looked at what Scott had achieved and loved Stan Winston’s design for the eponymous alien. He wrote the script and created the concept of the alien hive and the infamous queen. Cameron wanted to capture the atmosphere that Scott had evoked, but then subvert it into a more action-orientated picture and surprise the audience. This worked phenomenally well, and yet again Cameron succeeded.
After that he moved onto making The Abyss, an idea of his own that really interested him. Cameron loves the oceans and the mysteries that lie beneath them. He decided to make a film merging his two loves, science fiction and the unexplored deep seas. In this film, Cameron attempted many special effects involving water that hadn’t been tried before, and again he succeeded.
Of course, you are starting to notice a pattern here… He then made Terminator 2: Judgement Day, which essentially was an extension of the work he did on The Abyss, imbuing liquid (this time of the metal variety) with realistic, fully computer-generated properties. Though it was liquid metal, but still in essence the same thing. Cameron also found a way to make one of the greatest sci-fi action films of all time, the second time he had done that in his still relatively young career (see Aliens).
After this, Cameron had two projects in his sight. In 1993, he had just completed his script for Avatar. Cameron believes in the project a lot and he really wants to make it; however his confidence wavers when he realises he doesn’t have access to the technology he would like to make the film that he wanted to make. Reluctantly. he stored away the Avatar script for a rainy day. Then, he started to develop his own Spider-Man script. Yet again he became disenfranchised with the technology that was available to him, feeling that it needed to be better in order to do the story justice. Cameron was displeased at this moment in time; for the first time he didn’t know what to do when it came to filmmaking.
Now, we encounter the exception: True Lies. Cameron did not write the script for True Lies; instead Arnie approached him with the script and said he really loved the character and thought that Cameron would really bring it to life. Cameron was shocked because he had become quite close with Arnie through filming the Terminator films and he had never heard of him taking interest in a role because he loved the character. Due to the aforementioned feelings,he agreed to help Arnie bring the script to life.
After True Lies, Cameron took a few years out to make Titanic, a film he was greatly interested in because of his passion for the oceans and it’s history. As much as I am not really a fan of the film, the main sequence, as in when the Titanic actually sinks, is flawless and breathtakingly spectacular. There is just no getting around how good the effects and tech are in that scene, for the time.
It is worth obviously noting that technology is constantly advancing and shifting, and Cameron has always been at the forefront, always taking advantage of it to enhance his films. So, at this point, Cameron’s next two ventures were actually deep sea documentaries, one where he travelled into the depths and filmed the sunken wreck of the Titanic in 3D, and the other where he journeyed down to survey the fish and other wildlife at previously unexplored depths.
To allow this to be possible, James Cameron actually had to invent technology. He invented cameras that could actually get a realistic 3D map of any image, and he programmed the software that ran them. He also developed the cameras sufficiently until they would run smoothly underwater and not be affected by the crushing forces of the ocean. This took years, but if Cameron is anything he is certainly a very committed man.
Now, finally, the moment we are all waiting for…. we reach Avatar.
After Cameron saw The Lord Of The Rings trilogy and saw the work that Peter Jackson had done with the latest development in motion capture software when it came to creating Gollum, he immediately loved it and felt that Avatar could finally be made and done justice. This obviously made him ecstatic and was enough to get him back into feature fiction filmmaking. However, he wasn’t quite ready.
During pre-production, Cameron actually developed his own motion capture software that projected the image onto the camera screen, instantly, whilst they were filming, instead of having to look at it later in the animation suite. This, of course, made filming a lot easier for both director and actors, and allowed him to create some more imaginative shots and framing that you wouldn’t normally find in a CGI epic. Cameron also invented his new 3D technology, which used a special type of camera that he invented, which captured multiple angles at once at a highly increased frame rate that allowed the image to then be mapped efficiently as a 3D image. It’s fucking cool stuff, really, and has changed the face of filmmaking forever, for better or worse.
Now, about my views on the whole thing…
Avatar is the perfect movie experience. It is not necessarily a great film, but the fact that it is a great experience is undeniable; see it in IMAX. Seriously. I think the problem that people have with Avatar is that it has become cool to bash/slander CGI , but I think the problem with CGI is a little more complex than the fact that it exists…
CGI is a great technological advancement for cinema. The problem is, Hollywood falls back on it constantly, because they are too afraid to try and do anything practical anymore. Often, to no fault of the directors of the Hollywood films, CGI becomes their main tool to tackle everything. This is somewhat to do with the studio bosses putting pressure on the directors to use it constantly and also because it can be incredibly difficult to pull off practical effects, often resulting in delays, money lost and even sometimes death.
Now, there is a whole debate here about that CGI companies, as in the institutions that build the effects, must be doing brilliantly in this very CGI era, but the truth is they are not, unfortunately Hollywood often stiffs them out of their full paycheque’s. Sometimes when you see dodgy-looking special effects? That’s often because the producer is asking an effects studio to do three months worth of effects for one month and at half the pay. It’s ridiculous, frankly, and though tons of these studios open every day, lots more close because of these ridiculous demands.
But, that is another debate. My point is there is nothing wrong with CGI in its purest form, but there is everything wrong with the overuse of it by lazy executives. Guillermo Del Toro is a fine example of a director who knows how to use CGI, by using it minimally and often to already touch up any physical or practical effects that he has already filmed, like an artist making fine strokes with a paintbrush to improve the overall quality of his work.
Avatar was the first film to actually make a fully-realised, almost completely computer generated world, but still allow humans to merge into it. Believe it or not, the actual work that Cameron did on the film, 40% of it was shot practically, it was then just altered to fit the rest of the world. Cameron is a director who is far from lazy; he built a lot of the mechanized suits and helicopters in order to get the shots that he wanted out of them.
Obviously, the effects in Avatar were also a massive gamechanger for the industry. Anyone who says that Avatar just looked like an old Final Fantasy game is a complete imbecile. I’m sorry to say it, but really look at the film and see the inherent beauty that is there. It is the first time a film has created a fully breathing world and eco-system of that magnitude. The Lord Of The Rings is a strong contender, but the problem with it is that Middle Earth just feels like a series of locales that our heroes wander through, rather than a fully breathing and living environment that has its own populous, its own wildlife and its own eco-system.
The art design was awesome, all devised by Cameron himself; he created a truly beautiful world, and all of the creatures were well-designed and based on creatures that he had encountered in the depths of the ocean. Obviously, someone can just as easily say, “What you talking about, it’s just a monkey with six arms! All the creatures just have extra limbs!” Which is very true, but Cameron never really has been the one for subtlety. I’d call him out if there were no other changes or design motives other than, MORE LIMBS! But there clearly are, just people seem to get hung up on one thing and go running with it.
One of the biggest problems that the effects in Avatar solved was the dead-behind-the-eyes syndrome. Talk to any special effects guy and they will agree that it is one of the hardest things to get right. And when Ney’tirri, (Zoe Saldana) pulls off an award-worthy performance, where we never see her real face, that is worth something. It is because of the technology that Cameron had developed; these creatures were alive and breathing, and you could feel that if you engaged in the film.
I personally found myself so captivated by the eyes, the fact that it seemed those creatures actually had souls and weren’t just the same bleary-eyed CGI abominations that you find in almost every other CGI epic. If this film had been tackled by anyone else, someone who did not care as much as him, it would have been far worse than you can imagine.
The last thing that I will say about Avatar, because there is plenty to say, (I realise this post is starting to get a little long ), but I felt that Colonel Quaritch, the villain played by the great Stephen Lang, is a villain that we haven’t had in cinema for a while. For me, he encapsulated the 80′s and 90′s ridiculous badass vibe of enemies that used to be found, but has since been exchanged. There is just something about Lang’s intense performance, as well as also clearly having a lot of fun, that really did drive the film for me. I love my villains, and he was a hell of a lot of fun to watch on screen; the way he convincingly delivered his woeful 80′s-style dialogue just had me grinning from ear to ear.
So you may be asking, what was the point of that list at the beginning? Well, to illustrate my point, darling…
James Cameron is a director from Day One who has always believed in technology. He wants to try and make the best film possible by utilising the most advanced technology that is available at the time. All of his stories are good! Cliched, yes, but all stories have been told before, it is simply how you choose to tweak them to make them unique…
Tell me any of his films were original and incredibly convoluted stories. Try and tell me that any one of the scripts he wrote was actually any good? In terms of dialogue, if you actually pay attention, they’re all pretty horrific, but at the same time that’s kinda why they are so goddamn quotable and popular. I don’t think it’s a stretch of the imagination to consider the possibility that when Mr Cameron pulled out his old Avatar script from 15-odd years ago, he did not rewrite it, seeing as a fair few of the colloquialisms featured in the film are very much recognizable as hallmarks of 90′s sci-fi.
The last thing worth mentioning is the 3D. Now, Cameron loves 3D. Me, not so much. However, I was pretty content to see Avatar in 3D the multiple times that I did, because for a one-off, tentpole picture I am very happy to pay bigger prices to watch in 3D. It didn’t offer much difference, admittedly, but the opening sequence displayed some potential for the medium. The problem is that 3D should only be used when there is a reason, or on a big film, every now and again, in order to create an actual event worth attending.
However, Hollywood just looked at the amount of money that Avatar made and decided to pretend that they could turn everything into 3D to try and make more money. This is an absolute scourge, and though this is actually Cameron’s view on the whole thing, it is not in his control. He may love 3D, but there comes a time when it needs to be admitted that it is not the be all and end all of cinema. Hopefully it is a fad that will pass soon, but then again every above-average budgeted film coming out in the next five years is projected to be in 3D.
Sooooooo… well, shit.
Ultimatum: James Cameron is no Michael Bay, he is a creator with the utmost creativity, albeit he is often focused on using technology to fuel his stories rather than good scripts. That is what made films like the Terminator films so popular. The problem is, back then it was an age when any little advancement was met with widespread awe. Now everyone is tired of advancement, no one cares, and that is kinda sad. Plus, he was a great script writer in the 80s’, where his style of writing was something that was incredibly welcome, but now it is seriously outdated.
It’s fine if you do not like the film, but I do not think it is fair to group it in with the likes of Twilight (Oh how I hate Twilight) and Transformers 2.
Avatar ended up smashing almost every record ever (later beaten by The Avengers) and was nominated for Best Picture. It lost the Oscar to The Hurt Locker (coincidentally directed by James Cameron’s ex wife, Kathryn Bigelow), but still received considerable praise. It received an extended cut and a second (albeit much shorter) theatrical run. It’s been a few years now since Avatar blew everyone away and already it doesn’t feature much in zeitgeist conversations. It did however pave the way for the new world of filmmaking and lead to considerable advancements in the industry, which has led to some awesome new films. 3D is still here and is improving all the time. In the hands of very capable filmmakers like Sam Raimi, 3D continues to evolve and be used in a variety of promising ways.
James Cameron has since announced that in the future he will only make documentaries or Avatar sequels, because he believes that he can convey any message/tell any story he wants through the world of Pandora. There’s no firm release dates on Avatar 2 & 3, but you can expect to see them sometime around 2015-16.