Thoughts on “Avatar”

I haven’t seen Avatar yet, but I’m considering it still. What bothers me about this is that I don’t know why I want to go see it.

First of all, I don’t really like James Cameron’s movies. In fact, when I was looking over his list of films recently, I discovered that my favorite of his movies is True Lies – which I enjoy almost entirely because of Jamie Lee Curtis’s transformation from clumsy awkward business-woman fantasizing over an exciting life (however false) into a surprisingly sexy “spy” convinced that her pretend role is part of a real assignment, even though it is actually constructed by her husband whose normal life with her has always been a lie. When Arnold’s eyes drop his tape recorder in astonishment, I’m right there with him every time.

The simplistic reality of a husband suddenly stunned at seeing his wife in a newly attractive light cuts through all of the layers of pretense, falsehood and deceit into a palpably real story of two people who love each other.

If I’m going to give Cameron credit, it’s for being able to reliably create exactly this type of moment. In Terminator 2, which has an equally if not more complicated story-line, Sarah Connor and gang track down the engineer who is building the technology that will become Skynet. We meet him first at his home with his family, and he agrees to plot to destroy the technology which he has been building by harnessing advanced technology from the future, based on his as-yet-incomplete work, left behind by the first Terminator film. All of these layers of metaphysical conundrum slip away as we see a man with a family back home, mortally wounded, holding onto his life long enough to detonate a bomb that will obliterate himself and the legacy he wishes not to unleash upon the world his children will grow up in.

I have heard many good things about Avatar. Alex loved the story and the story-telling. Cori finds the movie growing on her as she thinks back to it and thought everything was gorgeous (although she hated the use of Papyrus or whatever derivative for the subtitles).

I remain skeptical. I can’t say I’ve ever liked the whole of a Cameron film, for one thing, as much as I may hold a few moments of his stories very close. But there’s a more important problem I don’t know what to do with: motion capture.

Until earlier today, I hadn’t actually seen a trailer for Avatar in full. My impression has been that I don’t like the quality of the CG, and I am a long-standing skeptic of the use of 3D for anything but IMAX documentaries about outer space narrated by Tom Hanks or Sigourney Weaver. Part of this is my tendency to prefer minimalism. There is probably a lot of hoo-ha out there about the virtues of minimalism, but the only reason I think anyone subscribes to any point of view about creative work is because they believe it will positively affect the outcome of their own creative efforts. I like minimalism simply because I like constraints.

More importantly, I just don’t see how it’s possible to really do anything creative without constraints. I’ve often heard (and sometimes espoused) that design is about solving problems. I pretty much think the same thing about all forms of creativity, whether they be expressive or not. With design, it is easy to see its problem solving nature by thinking of an example. Take a newspaper. There’s an interesting design problem. We need something that is easy to scan for headlines, easy to read when settled on a story, easy to hold while reading and easy to carry around during the day, but also easy to print millions of copies of every day. Now there are some constraints! Oh, and by the way, we need to use typesettings throughout that reflect the history of newsprint journalism in this particular country while remaining easier to read at very small sizes despite variations in inking due to the high speed of our press.

Sometimes, we are working without enough of these kinds of constraints, so it is useful to impose some. That, perhaps taken a bit to an extreme, is my view of minimalism: making the problem more solvable by pairing down the tools with which you can solve it.

I may have to eat these words if I see the movie, but I’m inclined to think that Avatar is going to be yet another example of a big-budget movie suffering from a lack of constraints placed on the director. (I’m looking at you, George Lucas and Tim Burton.) I can only imagine how this might have gone:

James Cameron: I’d like to do a movie.
Studio: Finally! Why can’t you make more hits more of the time? We love you even though you’re crazy.
Cameron: Oh and I want to film it so that everything will be presented in 3D.
Studio: Sounds expensive, but people are eating that shit up these days. Disney’s been doing it for a while with some good results. You’re the boss.
Cameron: I think that a lot of the characters are going to be humanoid, but alien. Without going into too much detail, can I get an enormous budget to use motion capture on some actors’ faces and digitally turn them into, well, blue kitties?
Studio: I think you lost me, but let’s just go for it.
Cameron: So you’re saying that I can just come up with whatever the fuck I want and no matter how much it costs you’ll foot the bill and promote the thing like crazy with my name on it and we’ll all get stinking rich and get one thumb up from Roger Ebert?
Studio: Silver platter, buddy – unless you prefer gold.

Maybe Cameron’s team pulls it off – I honestly don’t know because I haven’t seen the movie. However, the odds are certainly stacked against him. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a movie make good use of 3D or motion capture. Alex, however, has likened Cameron to Steve Jobs (“a phone, an iPod, and a breakthrough internet communication device; a phone… are you getting the picture?”) and I would be a fool to take Alex’s opinion lightly.

Most importantly, I haven’t wanted to see the movie because I’m afraid that I want to see the movie just so I don’t sound like an asshole when I criticize it without having seen it. Sounds like a pretty dumb reason to see or not see a movie. So now that I’ve gotten the asshole uninformed criticism out of the way, I’m free to make my own choice about whether I want to see the movie.

Maybe there will be one of those magical Cameron moments that cuts through all the confusion about who is on whose side, and the metaphysical questions bound to come up when a man’s mind inhabits a body that is a genetic mixture of himself and an alien species which behind the scenes is being done by animating the results of an electronic capture of an actor’s movements. Maybe this moment will be Cameron’s own statement about the craft of movie-making and the age-old ways of story-telling and fiction’s relationship to the truths of daily life. Or maybe it will just all be an overblown sci-fi fantasy wet dream.

I guess it could be both.