Avatar’s 3D CGI spectacular is a crazed Top-Gun-eats-The-Matrix Iraq war apology cum new age eco-fest. The film lurches from left to right wing and back again as fast as a blink, but y’know, who cares about the politics when the visuals are this crisp?
Avatar is advertised as the ne plus ultra of 3D image technology, and they’re not wrong. We in the audience are there as the camera swoops over the rainforest, outwits the rhinoceros monsters and leaps fearlessly into the abyssal waterfall. Fuckin’ yeah, as they say.
But this is one of the major problems of the film. You remember going to see traditional 3D films at the IMAX or Alton Towers? The ones where you’re sitting on a rollercoaster or you’re flying over the Grand Canyon or whatever? They’re pretty shit at storytelling, because the reason why they work is because they simulate 3D as you see it. It’s always from your point of view.
But because Avatar has to tell a story, the POV is all over the place. Sometimes we’re the helicopter shot, observing the massive military aircraft thudder into frame. Or we’re the crane shot, pulling out from the forest floor to a wide tracking shot of hero Jake and his alien squeeze Neytiri tripping through a day-glo night scene.
And this jars. The three-dimensionality is so in-your-face, you keep finding yourself sitting in a cinema watching it astound you. You want to suspend your disbelief, but you keep getting reminded of the film-making process.*
And when the hero, Jake, is getting chased by the leopardy thing**, the 3D picture runs away with him – but not as him. So the leopardy threat is never really scary. Especially as the forest is way too in focus. There’s so much cool foliage to concentrate on.
I’ll tell you when the 3D works brilliantly. It’s when Jake is sitting down, talking to a static camera for his diary segments. My god, his head may be several metres high, but its like he’s really there! I’m in love with him at these points. But elsewhere, he’s just part of a big swirly cacophony of amazing visuals.
I feel a conclusion coming on. OK here goes.
Either we learn how to watch 3D cinema without getting this gimmicky-Verfremdungseffekt feeling that I’ve been describing. Or 3D cinema sticks to using first person POV, old-fashioned rollercoaster-style (with maybe a cheeky ladder gag).
And I think we all know which one is going to happen.***
* 2D films guide the viewer’s eye to the important bits by using movement and focal clarity: they tell you what to ignore.
**All the creatures on planet Pandora (=“all-giving”) look and act like the raptors in Jurassic Park. Which is to say, magnificent. But also weirdly disappointing – Jurassic Park was sixteen years ago.
*** In a way, this is the moral of the film. The ‘baddies’ live in the real 3D world. By identifying with a hero who embraces artificial three-dimensionality, you get to save the world – and pick up a hot alien chick too.