I saw Avatar over the weekend with my friend Joe Bonadonna. He is more tolerant of this picture than I am. I confess to being of two minds about it.
On the one hand, I am envious of any fanboys out there aged 11 years or more because they get to live in a period of fanboy heaven in which imaginative movies that look this good hit the mall on a regular basis. This is what sitting in the auditoirium of a movie theater is now for. When I was a kid in the early sixties, we could never have dreamed that we’d ever see movies with monsters and creatures and landscapes done like this.
On the other hand, the imaginative pictures we did have were so much better written than this that to make any comparison is quite pointless. You could see the strings on the wires of the Martian spaceships in The War of the Worlds, but the movie had an excellent script, one of depth and suspense, and it featured good acting. It goes without saying that the scripts for the Ray Harryhausen movies of the period were well thought-out and featured good-looking leads and great character actors. The stop motion of Harryhausen (and of Jim Danforth and others) may seem dated to some young moviegoers today, but the one thing these movies had in spades was imagination. These movies required the suspension of disbelief.
Remember the dinosaurs in the Jurassic Park movies, how perfect they are? They’re so technically perfect or believable that, after the first jolt of surprise at seeing them, the sense of wonder vanishes. Mine did, anyway. They’re like lions in movies. In the 1910s and 1920s, maybe it was thrilling to see lions endangering Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan or prowling down the path after pith-helmeted violators of the African wilds, but pretty soon, the lions got boring—predictable and boring. On the other hand, when you look at the dinosaurs in the original King Kong or the stop-motion pterodactyls of Ray Harryhausen, they still kind of work; they capture your imagination because they’re flat-out weird. They don’t move perfectly. We can’t deny that they’re alive—we can see that—but they’re just damned peculiar in the way they’re alive. We have to suspend our disbelief to involve ourselves in what’s going on, and once we do that, we’ve bought into it, weirdly moving dinosaurs and all. We’re now part of the show. We’re not simply passive voyeurs; we’re helping to make the imaginative story happen by willingly suspending our disbelief to become actively engaged.
Now, the goal of Harryhausen and other animators was not to do things half way. They were doing the best they could to create as vivid and believable an experience as possible. Still, the technical limitations of stop-motion photography meant that we had to use our imaginations to help. And the harder Harryhausen tried to top himself or improve his skills, the more we had to buy into it. If we wanted to, we could, at any time, have thrown up our hands and walked away by deciding that we’re no longer buying into it. But even my uncles, say, who didn’t suspend their disbelief enough to enjoy a pterodactyl flying around believed, or bought into, the agony of the actors portraying soldiers in World War II, and those scenes were just as conventional and technically imperfect as the pterodactyl scenes. Just as demanding of the suspension of disbelief.
It may be unfair of me to consider Avatar as a movie with special effects inserted into it because clearly what James Cameron was trying to do was to present the whole movie as so perfect a special effect that it becomes a virtual reality. It achieves this, and not just by the 3-D effects but because of the actors involved. For me, the movie was almost like listening to an old radio show: the acting, the emotions, the story came through the voices of the performers. Sure, we had extraordinary facial features and realistic expressions on the blue creatures of the planet Pandora, but the voices of the actors are what sold the show, at least for me. Insofar as that was the case, I was suspending my disbelief and working with the picture to make it as real for me as possible.
But the very fact that Cameron was creating a virtual reality seemed to work against itself. I’m not sure that I can explain this perception of mine to my own satisfaction, let alone convince anyone reading this of what I’m getting at. And maybe it’s simply a matter of my getting to be too old to suspend my disbelief when it comes to much of anything anymore—politics, religion, blue people on the planet Pandora, what have you.
Except for my three-year-old daughter. She and I can sit on the floor, each of us with a little puppet or doll or stuffed animal, and share a conversation or adventure through these little boogers, and she is instantly into it. Daddy is no longer in the room; her stuffed animal is talking to the stuffed animal in my hand, and she and I are out of the picture. And the part of me that is observing this, that third-person entity that shows up in car accidents to watch it happen in slow motion or that arrives like a guardian angel to whisper some warning in my ear, that third-person part of me is in awe of the ease with which my daughter accepts the reality of two made-up stuffed animals talking together and becoming friends.
And maybe that is what I miss and what I found lacking in Avatar, except for the wonderful emotion in the voices of the performers. The lines they had to speak were worse than anything in an old B movie. The script was patched together from Edgar Rice Burroughs and Anne McCaffrey and Ursula LeGuin novels. The soldiers walking around in twelve-foot tall Rock ’em Sock ’em robots were recycled from one of the Alien movies. The ten-foot-tall indigenous people duking it out with the corporate soldiers give us a good idea of what Barsoom will look like when A Princess of Mars is made.
But all of these perfect cartoons with their perfect computer-generated effects make me want to watch an old Western in which the special effects were inside my head. There’s a reason why the Dr. Who television show has been so popular all of these years. The special effects are done on a shoestring budget. But the imagination is there, the dialogue and the wit and the fun, the insistence that we are as much a part of the show as the performers. And that is what I find lacking in Avatar.