Avatar (dir. James Cameron) being probably the most noteworthy film from 2009 that I hadn’t seen, I decided to sit down with it this week as my chronological project nears its end. And while I don’t believe that it was robbed of the Best Picture Oscar, I was surprised to find myself not hating it: there are some genuinely impressive capital-M Movie moments here, mostly in the first half and mostly having to do with shots of people flying on big dragon-like creatures through misty landscapes and so forth. Exhilarating and visually grand, these shots are pure cinema, and I found myself unable to resist them. (The by-the-numbers battle that takes up the film’s last half-hour, on the other hand, set my mind to wander. And that screenplay! But I digress.) Cameron’s talent—on full display in Titanic (1997), in which I do find big, old-fashioned-movie pleasure—is for spectacle, and when he gets it right, it’s good stuff. I understand as well that the film’s images work even better theatrically in 3D than they do on home video.
The film’s effects—well done as they are—struck me as one of the film’s particular points of confusion, however; I was never convinced that the live-action world inhabited by humans and the CGI-textured world of the Na’avi were continuous. Every time Cameron cuts from one to the other, I felt like I was jumping into a different movie. In other words, the balance between the live-action and animated elements of the movie feels disconcertingly off, so much so that I even began to wonder whether Pandora was supposed to be a virtual world accessible only via avatar rather than an extension of the same space occupied by Stephen Lang’s hawkish Army colonel. Furthermore, I’m surprised that Avatar does not seem to be considered an “animated film,” when a good half, if not more, of its length takes place among the CGI-rendered Na’avi. (Yes, yes, I know that live actors supplied the movements of the characters, but still—the Na’avi are animated creatures.) Shots like the one seen in the screengrab above, with their lushly unrealistic shimmer, could be mistaken from those in a Disney film. It’s the very animatedness of these images that makes them feel so incongruous next to shots of Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi standing around a very real-looking military base. Not a quibble, really, but something that kept gnawing at me as I watched.