Avatar: The $500m Kiss of Death

Posted on March 14, 2010

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According to the critics Sunday night’s Oscars were a dull affair. There was one very important aspect though and that was The Hurt Locker winning Best Picture. If you’d listened hard enough, you probably would have heard Indie filmmakers everywhere rejoicing loudly and proceeding to set aside a mere $100,000 to make their next feature.

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If you’d listened on Monday morning, you’ve have heard critics claiming that it was the wrong choice for Best Picture. Their argument? Simple. That Avatar was going to change the face of cinema as we know it. It’s a new wave of filmmaking that’s going to revolutionise our entertainment value and the meaning of cinema itself.

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Call me old fashioned, but I like the cinema just as it is thank you very much.

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I’ve got my qualms with both 3D technology and Avatar. And God knows I’ve got my qualms with James Cameron too. But the suggestion that Cameron has initiated a new wave of filmmaking is probably something more important to gripe about. Let’s just put it this way, French New Wave is more or less summed up by Jean-Luc Godard’s magnificent Breathless. The 3D, Pile-as-much-technology-in-as-possible “new wave” we’re seeing in the present day showcases Avatar, at best a remake of Pocahontas on a different planet. Oh and bucket loads of CGI and 3D stuff and those irritating glasses because, despite the fact that we all got intelligent there for the last few decades and actually wanted a film to engage us mentally, we’re suddenly unable to pay attention to something unless it LOOKS AMAZING.

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Which, let’s be fair Avatar does look amazing. In terms of effects and visuals, it’s probably the most impressive ever seen and congratulations to Richard Baneham and the rest of the Artistic Department on that note. But Breathless didn’t have that 3D look, Amelie, Reservoir Dogs, Caché (stopped counting how many mentions it’s got on this blog), Wonderboys, Eternal Sunshine…I could go on. None of these films had that trademark ‘Oh my god it’s amazing’ look that Cameron seems to have written a patent for. And yet all of them are better films than Avatar.

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Because what Cameron does, and it’s highly irritating, it’s that he refuses to hire an actual, professional scriptwriter, choosing instead to do the writing himself. Except when he goes off into exile where he comes up with all his ideas, he obviously locks himself into a room (which only works if you’re Martin McDonough) and doesn’t experience human contact for ten years because his dialogue is always so painfully clunky. Real people don’t talk like that Jim! Oh and don’t think Disney fans won’t notice that you’ve robbed one of their films…

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As for 3D, I realise that it’s in the teething stages but I still feel it’s a gimmick. A gimmick to draw in children and adults with a limited attention span. I saw Coraline in 3D a while back. It was a wonderful film but I’d have been just as happy sitting down, watching it in 2D. I recently saw Up without 3D enhancement and found it positively charming – something that wouldn’t have changed had I seen it in 3D, in fact I’d probably have enjoyed it less because I’d have been too busy adjusting the damned awkward glasses.

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But coming back to this idea that Cameron has initiated a new wave of cinema. It would certainly be a great way for him to cement his obviously overgrown ego, though he’s already a self proclaimed King of the World, one wonders what the step up from that is? Indie filmmakers would probably have a few suggestions…

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Because that’s really the main point of this article, what such success for films like Avatar means for the filmmaking world. I interviewed Brian Lally a while back about his film 8.5 Hours and he spoke highly of the independent filmmakers in America who were making films on shoestring budgets and doing very well with them. Look at The Hurt Locker even. Yes it had Hollywood backing but it was made for such a ridiculously small amount as 8 million, while Avatar cost 500 million. Is this to be the standard budget for movie making from now on? Because if it is, we’re doomed to a future of mediocre visual mind-fucks. The Indie filmmakers are also doomed.

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Where’s an Indie production company going to get that kind of money? And if the masses who loved Avatar have their say, standard filmmaking is not going to be interesting enough to hold our attention anymore. We’re going to need the pretty colours and non-existent lands to keep us intrigued. If that’s all you want, go watch the Cartoon Network.

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I guess, when it comes down it, it’ll be all about the cash anyway. Avatar has become the most successful film of all time despite being far, very far from the best. What does this say about us, the cinema going audience? We love the gimmick? We all secretly want to be blue people on the more colourful version of the forest moon of Endor (Alert: Star Wars geekiness kicking in). Or maybe we are all ready for this next step in filmmaking. Maybe we are all bored of looking at normal people in, sometimes normal stories. Maybe we are all ready to trade brains for blue… Maybe we would all be content to watch overly elaborate 3D and not consider how bitter we should feel that we can barely afford the cinema ticket to see a movie which cost the price of several million cinema tickets. Maybe the future of cinema is here and James Cameron will in fact be awarded and applauded until the day that he dies.

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In which case, I’ll be over here, throwing myself off the building and cursing James Cameron and Avatar the whole way down.

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