By this time you’ve likely read plenty of Avatar reviews out there or, more likely, you’ve been to see the movie yourself. My own feelings about the cinematic quality of the film are mixed, but that’s not the point of this piece.
Because watching Avatar didn’t actually make me excited about watching Avatar, if that makes sense–it made me excited about watching future science fiction and fantasy movies in a way that no other film has to date.
I was lucky to be brought up in the 80s, at the height of the Jim Henson‘s workshop, when movies like The Dark Crystal defined my childhood and made me, at such a young age, truly believe in magic. Those were important years, and nothing inspired me so much as fantasy in film. The Last Unicorn, The Hobbit, Time Bandits: the list goes on.
But something happened with the introduction of CGI that, in some ways, have aged films of the last ten years more than those of the 80s and early 90s. It’s like we took a few steps back and had to redraw everything from scratch again. Watching some of the broom-flying scenes in the first Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, for instance, or even some of the parts of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings already feel dated. It’s strange to think that the puppets and animation of my youth seem to hold up better in some ways. (Not all films held out, of course. There’s the weird case of the Ninja Turtles franchise, which started out surprisingly viable and not that bad in terms of animatronics, and then, by the third film, turned into a complete farce.)
Except now, I think the game has finally changed. WETA has demonstrated that, in the last ten years, CGI has truly gone beyond what seemed so monumental during The Lord of the Rings films in the early 2000s. I kept looking for those glaring errors, kept scanning the screen, the shots, for moments of real weakness (i.e. when Neville went on that errant broom ride in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone and he looked a little better than a stuffed beanbag being flailed about; or those scenes in LOTR when the hobbits just didn’t look short enough, in spite of the camera tricks). But those that I found in Avatar were exceptionally minimal.
Avatar is not a great film, at least, not in terms of what the movie says or achieves from a thematic standpoint (in other words, it’s been done before… but I digress). However, the presentation, the experience of the film, the detail of the world and the remarkable depth of emotion conveyed in the CGI characters is something altogether new and thrilling for me, fangirl as I am of fantasy. While the 3D was a bit distracting at first, in the end I saw the importance of it. It was another layer of depth, another way to draw the audience into the world.
For years I have dreaded seeing fantasy adaptations for the screen, fearing that the result will never even graze the surface of my imagination. This includes nearly every film with a dragon made in the last two decades. Now, I say, bring it on. Let’s get some Pern on the screen, some worlds teeming with alien life, vast ancient monumental cities. Let’s really push the envelope now that we can do it well.
The aesthetic of Avatar, I think, far eclipsed everything else about it. I believed in the world even if I didn’t think the story was that great. Every bug, mushroom, flying creature, hairless dog, and fern frond was a painstakingly real and believable as my own back yard. And that is the key to good science fiction and fantasy: creating a believable world, a world in which you get blissfully, thoroughly lost, and regret having to come back from.
So, readers. What SF/F worlds do you want to see recreated on the big screen in the coming decade? Do you think that, now that the genre is appealing to a larger audience that we’ll have a chance to see more of our beloved books and TV shows in theaters? Or are there canon books that you’re still dreading, regardless of the advances in technology?