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Let’s start with a given: James Cameron is a great film-maker; any director with a CV that includes Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator and Titanic has earned that designation.  Whether or not Titanic is on your Top Five Best Ever Films list is irrelevant; a film that can gross more than $1.5 billion knows a thing or two about what cinemagoers want.

With that in mind and as we have been tracking both the 3D and augmented reality trends for 12 months now, several of the team here went to see Avatar yesterday evening in order to sample Cameron’s latest release which, if you believe the marketing, is the future of cinema.  In the seats beforehand there was much merriment as friends laughed at each other in their 3D glasses, although as they are now plastic and not card, they have the effect of turning everyone into a simulacrum of Jonathan Meades.  The mirth turned to genuine amazement when the short animated just before the film showed the capability of the new technology; the dog and ball are certainly worth the 50p cost of the glasses and do go quite a way toward the price of the main attraction – “if the whole film is going to be like this”, we whispered to each other, “wow!”.

So what did we think?  Well, a bit of a let-down to be honest.  Firstly, the genre for the film may not have been the most effective choice for demonstrating the future of cinema.  On several occasions, the rapid interchange actual and CGI sequences left you feeling that you were watching a commercial for a games console release, where the statement ‘representation of actual gameplay’ appears at the base of the advert.  Yes, the CGI work is exceptional but you keep thinking ‘this is a computer game’.  Now, part of Avatar’s significance is its blending of real and CGI imagery but not only has that been done before (think back to Tron, however clunky it may have been in 1982 – but wait to see what next year’s remake is like) and, as above, the stuff is out there already in TV ads so isn’t exactly innovative….

The other issue with the choice of genre is that it looks like a compendium of other sci-fi concepts and scenes from previous films, so the film itself isn’t original or distinct enough.  Time and time again, we found ourselves thinking ‘that’s out of…’ or ‘seen that in…’: the film feels like it has been constructed with bits & pieces from (in no order of priority or appearance); The Matrix, Aliens, The Abyss, Total Recall, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, Jurassic Park, Dune, Last of the Mohicans, Return of the Jedi, Lord of the Rings and the Halo game series.  Granted, Aliens and The Abyss are Cameron’s previous works and both are excellent films but do we need to use the same exoskeleton suits and transport ships as in Aliens or photoluminescent creatures as in The Abyss?  Isn’t Cameron supposed to be showing us the future as opposed to the past?

Neither is it helped by the casting of Sam Worthington in the lead role, last seen in the mediocre and franchise-dilutive Termination Salvation as there is too little clear water between both films.

In a Sunday Time interview last month, Cameron describes himself as a storyteller (there being several important differences between a director and a storyteller) and Titanic’s commercial success is due in no small amount to the two stories that he interweaves.  The question in Avatar is what story is he trying to tell

At times the film reverts to storytelling mode, although it is simplistic; the message of the colonial invaders wanting to mine the planet for unobtainium (sorry, wasn’t that what Braz built Virgil out of in The Core?) at the expense of its sentient life-force is just too clumsy and one-sided – why not make Pandora a suburb of Copenhagen?  The concept of a disabled person being able to regain the use of their legs via their avatar is more interesting but the potential to develop the dilemma – would you sell out your principles if it meant getting the use of your legs back by way of reward? – is only touched upon, as is the question of what kind of society would it be where the only way to receive such medical benefit was by payment.

There is a difference between authenticity and visual impact and this is perhaps at the heart of what 3D is about.  We all knew that the Terminator was a model and that Arnie didn’t really have a red LED for an eye but we loved it because of, well, just above everything else; the cinematography, the music score, the plot, the direction and so on.

Film quality has improved immensely over recent years, with digital cameras and ever higher picture definition.  Watching a movie at home in full HD compared to old analogue is a revelation and the increase in detail, depth, colour etc. all go toward making what you are looking at closer to ‘reality’.  However, items appearing to emerge from the screen and hover above your head aren’t about reality, they’re about increasing your emotional experience…or more precisely feeling different emotions; you can’t somehow imagine watching Kramer vs Kramer or Love Story in 3D.

Think back to early 3D films; there were shots where an item was deliberately made to move toward the camera, purely for the 3D effect – something which, after the first few occasions, became wearisome.  The opening few minutes of Avatar seem to have gone down the same route; do we really need two people standing next to each other to be shown in 3D when they are…er…just standing next to each other?  Later in the film, the 3D does certainly add an extra layer of depth to the motion scenes and give that extra sensation of movement but as most of these are CGI scenes, the effect is somewhat lost as your brain has already worked out that the tree, spaceship or background aren’t actually real.  Again, it’s a computer game on the big screen.

Perhaps the best way to sum up the newest application of 3D is ‘value-added’; like its relative augmented reality, it puts an extra layer of impact or experience into something but on the basis of augmenting it and not replacing it.

Going back to the opening remark, great film-makers don’t automatically make great films.  Avatar is a good film in that it is entertaining (if a little long) but it isn’t a great film.  It may be a slow burner and grow over time but we think that whilst it does represent a crossroads, it is more of a signpost for the future direction as opposed to a benchmark or standard of what that future will look like.  Unless you are going to discard HD – or until 3D technology is seamlessly integrated with it – the future of 3D is about enhancing the viewing experience, in which case you can’t help think that other torch carriers for the next generation of 3D, such as Up, Toy Story 3 (along with the 3D re-releases of 1 and 2) and Alice in Wonderland are going to be more effective and relevant at getting audiences onside as they are focused more upon visual impact and not authenticity.