(MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS FOR "AVATAR" AND "DISTRICT 9")
As I write this, James Cameron's 3D blue-cat-person extravaganza "Avatar" just won best motion picture (drama) at the prestigious Golden Globe award ceremony. Cameron himself was awarded the globe for best director, setting him on the path to potential Oscar glory. The film has made over a billion dollars worldwide and is climbing ever closer to the box-office gross record set by Cameron's own "Titanic". "Avatar" is a monster.
We have been relentlessly informed that "Avatar" would "revolutionise cinema" and be "like nothing seen before", that somehow our tiny minds were not prepared for the journey James Cameron had booked us on and, like a bad batch of acid, we would be forever altered by this trip.
But, settled in to the stadium-seating with the Eric Morecambe-style 3D gegs perched on my nose, as the beautiful world of Pandora spread out before me; a sense of familiarity begin to seep in. Cameron's world was lush and detailed, and the 3D helped to immerse one's self in the experience, but still I remained unmoved. Why could this be?
Well, it could be because Cameron has repeated his "Titanic" trick of Paint-by-Numbers Storytelling, going for the obvious and easy over the interesting or challenging.
The human villains are pure pantomime cliche (oily, selfish business-man more interested in chewing his breakfast bagel or practicing his putt than in the genocide that his actions cause. Macho, growly, heavily scarred military man who speaks like a cowboy reject from the A-Team and is just waiting for an excuse to blow up anything that he considers foreign.), while the aliens are the epitome of syrupy, idealised "noble savages", all "at one with the earth" and understanding nature and that.
The love story is facile and simplistic, the hero bland and impersonal, and the plotting predictable and laden with clumsy foreshadowing and leaps in logic. Why would the chief of the tribe, upon hearing that a human was amongst them in the guise of one of their own people, order his own daughter (who is betrothed to someone else) to spend every waking hour with said intruder in order to "teach him our ways"? The only reason I could think of is simply because Cameron needed Jake (the intruder) to be accepted into the tribe, and Neytiri (the chief's daughter) to fall in love with him, so logic and motivation is substituted with forced plot mechanics.
I think it was the overall predictability of the plot that muted my enjoyment of this film. A film should not strive to dissatisfy the audience, but it should try to give them what they want in a way they don't expect. Cameron's set-ups are so obvious and familiar that fifteen minutes into "Avatar", I knew how every story-beat was going to be hit, leaving the rest of the two-hours-forty to wash over me in a haze of emotional uninvolvement and surprise-free mild-interest.
A friend of mine compared this film to another big hit alien flick of this year: "District 9", claiming that they had basically the same plot (stupid human sent by greedy corporation to deal with aliens, learns his lessons, ends up fighting with the aliens against his own people), so how can one be predictable and unoriginal and the other not?
To answer this, let us look at the momentum, the narrative-drive, the DRAMA of the story in each. In Avatar, Jake's journey to understanding the aliens is basically like a frigging beach holiday. He larks around with a hot blue chick, looks at some luscious scenery, flies a dragon through some luscious scenery, gets welcomed into the tribe at very little cost and gets it on with the blue chick in some luscious scenery.
It's plain sailing for Jake, even when he gets booted from the tribe and has to risk his life to make a grand gesture by taming a massive dragon so he can bring all the aliens together. You might think, "He's really going to struggle to tame that massive thing! Only a few of the aliens have managed it in thousands of years!" But no. He just jumps on its back in a ten-second sequence - with voice-over, mind! - and then it's off to do a supposedly rousing speech that is more like Morpheus at the Cave Rave in Matrix 2 than the Braveheart/Gladiator/Aragorn vibe they obviously wanted.
The reason that "District 9" tells a similar story more successfully is that the transition for Wikus is greater than that of Jake (Jake: Human Soldier/Noble Na'vi Warrior. Wikus: Feeble Beaurocrat/Self-sacrificing Action Hero), and - crucially - it's NOT EASY. Wikus is put through the wringer to such an extent that our initial disdain for his smug, self-satisfied demeanour soon turns to pity, and then we are rooting for him to come good and do the right thing by the end.
"Avatar"'s plot remains unengaging simply because there is no real sense of jeopardy or pressure until towards the end, and by then we have assessed the tone of the film and know precisely how things will turn out. "District 9" keeps turning on expectations and producing surprises right up until its climax.
The fact of the matter is, however, that many people enjoy familiarity in their films. There is something comforting in a film unfurling in the way we expect (consciously or subconsciously) that many find emotionally satisfying. So perhaps it is this that keeps people returning to the cinema to watch "Avatar" again and again, like a bunch of horny "Twilight" fans. Or, more likely, it is the unmatched immersion in a fantasy world that Cameron offers.
The 3D technology is used to great effect here, with very few gimmicky shots of spears pointed at your eye or summat, instead the technique is utilised in giving depth and texture to the neon jungles of Pandora on a scale not seen before. Does it look real? No. Does it look cool? Hell yes. Is it the future of cinema? Hard to tell. Used in the un-intrusive manner apparent here, 3D could become the standard for all films, but there is still the tendency for in-your-face fairground attractionism which can detract from any genuine emotional reaction and replace it with "Wow! I thought that was going to smash me in the eye!"
So, "Avatar": The legitimate future of cinema? Or simply a caveman dressed in a Star Trek outfit? There is no doubting the technological advance this film represents, but will the technology forever be used to distract people from weak writing, like a cinematic version of the Assistant in a sparkly leotard, drawing the eye away from the Magician's sleight of hand?