This is a slight departure for me in that I usually only write about my own projects, and this isn’t exactly a review, but I went to see Avatar for a second time yesterday (courtesy of the lovely people at Dolby) and a few thoughts occurred so I may as well write them down here, this is a blog after all and it was James Cameron (and more specifically Stan Winston) who got me interested in the whole field of special effects in the first place.
Specifically it was the Terminator which I saw when I was ten at a friends birthday party that did it (yes I know it was an 18 at the time ! ;0). We also saw Creep Show II which gave me nightmares, but I was absolutely fascinated by the scene in the Terminator where he repairs himself. I couldn’t believe someone had actually built, not only the robot, but also a replica Arnie too.
I enjoyed Avatar perhaps even more than I did the first time around and having read a few reviews I wanted to comment on the criticisms of the plot. Mostly to say that I agree – the plot is Dances with Wolves in Space, or Pocahontas (Smurfahontas) etc etc, but (for me at least, and I think for many people) that doesn’t matter.
Later Cameron and Winston productions (T2 and Aliens) cemented my interest in SFX along with Predator (also a Stan Winston film) and Alien, Robocop, even Alien 3.
Now what do all these have in common? Namely that it’s the production design and special effects that make or break them. Now you could argue that they have to – ‘these worlds don’t exist, you have to create them’. A case in point is Predator. The production actually stopped filming once the initial alien design failed and they were left with what was basically a fairly standard eighties action film set in a jungle. Then Stan Winston got involved (interestingly it was apparently James Cameron who suggested that the creature should be given mandibles) and transformed the film into a cult sci-fi classic. The quality of the special effects lifted an otherwise humdrum film to be much more than it otherwise could have been.
Similarly with Alien – would we have heard of that film if it hadn’t had HR Geigers staggeringly, well alien designs? Ridley Scott’s sets helped of course ;0) But my point is if it hadn’t had those two things it would probably live in the bargain bin priced at £2 and still be called Star Beast.
Describing Avatar – it’s about these twelve foot tall blue elves who live in a giant tree right…? – sounds ridiculous but it’s a testament to the quality of the FX that the incredible is portrayed so credibly. The CGI is actually astonishing, for the most part completely photoreal – it really does look like they went and filmed in actual jungle locations. If you haven’t seen it yet I really do recommend you make an effort to catch in the cinema, it simply won’t be quite the same on DVD or Blu-ray.
There’re alot of bad special effects out there (you only need to scroll down this blog to see some examples ;0) but when they’re done well they make a film much more than it otherwise could be. There’s no substitute for the story of course, but I say they can turn an otherwise familiar narrative into much more.
So it is with Avatar, yes the plot’s familiar, yes you’ll instantly recognise the walking robot suits, drop ships and space marine stereotypes of Aliens (so much so that my brother swears it’s set in the same universe), but the production design, the special effects and the world are realised in such a believable way that you can happily lose yourself in the world of Pandora for 2 hours 40 minutes and even take comfort in the fact that the plot delivers everything you expect it to. And that’s the power of good special effects.