We finally made it to Avatar last night and had a thoroughly enjoyable cinematic experience, if not a life changing one. Cameron deserves credit for the massive undertaking that the movie undoubtedly was but has it changed the face of cinema? Not as profoundly as many think.
What surprised and interested me in equal measure was how little the 3D added to the visual impact of the film, apart from dodging a stray explosive charge that appeared to be heading for the row behind me the visual depth didn’t really amplify the immersive experience all that much – much less so than than the 3D Imax documentary ‘Under the sea’ we saw last summer (as it happens in the world’s lo-logo Futuroscope, mercifully free of film studio branding and offering an intelligent take on the moving image).
What intrigued me much more about Avatar, which efficiently synthesizes every culture-clash mythopoetic dystopian sci-fi trope going, was the other 3rd dimension – height. There’s an enduring fascination in our culture – from ancient myth or 19th century fairytales to 20th century science fiction and the flying function in Second Life – with discarding our gravity-induced shackling to the earth. You can see the power of ‘the above’ in more symbolic form in The Red Balloon and whether in Up, Howl’s Moving Castle or Tarzan, the urge to be able to effortlessly inhabit a three dimensional world regularly manifests itself in the movies and to that end Cameron cleverly deploys 3D as much if not more in the vertical plane than in the horizontal. This is perhaps a reflection of the limited scope for impact in the horizontal plane when not in ‘shoot em up’ mode. In the latter, where spacecraft, missiles, flames and debris winging by your ears are motivated by the script, a director can exploit 3D for dramatic impact but in other modes e.g. the pastoral which is such a key feature of Avatar, there are only so many reaons to have flora or fauna float out into the auditorium. But the vertical world of the Na’vi opens up a whole palate of perspective shots where vertiginous waterfalls, floating mountains and swooping Ikran-rides allow the 3D toolkit to be deployed to the max. Whether the verticallity of Pandora came first and 3D helped give it life or conversely the need to design a world which could exploit 3D when not in game mode led to the floating mountains isn’t clear but what Avatar clearly does is take our desire to get off the ground and give it an additional cinematic dimension.