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'Avatar' and the World of Pandora's Video Game Reality

James Cameron's Avatar has made $2.922 billion at the box office to date. Edged out by The Hurt Locker to win Best Picture at the Oscars, it's a miracle of a film from the Titanic director who made a name for himself doing the seemingly impossible when it comes to film visual wizardry. Introducing audiences to the world of Pandora often compared with Dances with Wolves, Thundercats and even Smurfs, it's familiar yet equally alien. While the star-studded cast had the likes of Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez, it's interesting to note that the breakthrough visual effects movie helped forge its other stars in Zoe Saldaña, Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang.

While not exactly anonymous, Avatar is much more in their DNA than the rest of the ensemble with the possible exception of Saldaña, whose role as Neytiri was always masked in digital. While an epic visual breakthrough, there doesn't seem to be a major fan base for the series and with the advances of video game environments, one has to wonder if this has got something to do with Avatar's world-building, effectively presenting two dimensions with one verging on what you could describe as a video game reality.

Avatar Video Game Reality

Released in 2009, there's been much talk about the long gestation period in arriving at a sequel that's been in the pipeline for ages. Avatar: The Way of Water is preparing to land with a rerelease of Avatar to remind viewers about the world of Pandora, catch them up on the story to this point and win over some young first-timers in the process. When Avatar hit cinemas in 2009, it basically reinvigorated 3D movie watching and ushered in a few years where almost every movie was trying to release a 3D version with an array of epic successes and dismal failures. Now that things have cooled off with this fad, filmmakers have got back to basics with aiming to deliver spectacle over pure gimmickry. While it'd be great for them to redouble their efforts in the actual screenwriting phase, spectacle is the cornerstone of most movies hitting cinemas these days ranging from action blockbusters to family-friendly animation.

In a bid to make Avatar the epitome of all things cinema right now, it seems you couldn't get a film that checks more boxes than Avatar, which attempts to blend the best of both worlds. Offering eye-popping otherworldly visuals and doing so with the buffer of an artistic rendering that makes the unreal seem real, Avatar is trying to be everything to everyone.

When the blockbuster sci-fi adventure released over a decade ago, it was at the cutting edge, presenting something entirely new. This novelty aspect led moviegoers to the cinemas in droves. However, as much as it was lauded with a Best Picture nomination for a job well done, it wasn't quite good enough to pip The Hurt Locker. It seems that the Academy realised that much like Titanic, as impressive and epic as it is within its time, it may not be as evergreen as one would hope. This must come down to the visual effects, which while fantastic in 2009, will undoubtedly age with the development of CGI and digital performance.

Bridging Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water will require Cameron's every effort to create a sense of continuity so that the age gap between the films and technologies isn't overt to distracting. While this may be passable for the first sequel this year, it's going to prove trickier with each subsequent sequel's release. The blue elephant in the room that no one seems to be addressing is... is it too late already?

As impressive as the effects are, the original film's design of the Na'vi makes it seem as though Jake stumbled into a video game. Perhaps this would've actually been a safer premise for Cameron. As immersive as video games have become, this concept seems much more plausible for a film that uses visual effects to breaking point. While the inhabitants of Pandora have real textures and facial expressions, the visual effects are just a few degrees too alien. The close ups are probably easier to manage, but it's when these characters move from a slight distance that the video game feel creeps in. Having synthetic characters against a "painted" backdrop just re-emphasises their artistry rather than creating a weighted feel. As realistic as their movements are, our brains are wired to detect incongruencies and nuances and while there may be enough eye candy to roll with it, there's also an overall sense of skepticism to overcome.

One wants to believe in the world of Pandora enough for the suspense of disbelief to hold and this is probably why Cameron's visual extravaganza captured enough wonder to exist. Employing about 20% reality and 80% science fiction, there are enough real characters to help anchor the world of Pandora, but these "cutaways" also recalibrate our sense of what's real. Dot and the Kangaroo featured animation against live-action scenes, which was so explicit that it became accepted, crafting its own strange appeal. Perhaps this is what has happened with Avatar. The animated world does clash with the live-action world but this contrast creates its own third paradigm where both can seemingly co-exist.

While this third paradigm's birth has enabled James Cameron to dream of creating a slate of sequels, he must realise that the franchise's success hinges on the financial success of selling the Avatar universe. Since Smurfs has been recycled a few times, one can imagine that the box office returns will be good enough to greenlight the sequels just based on the pop culture power that Avatar seems to command. However, this awkward balance is also probably why the world of Pandora and Avatar haven't resulted in legions of fans. It's a cinematic experiment that was indicative of its zeitgeist and while it immersed viewers in another time and place, the video game feel and see-sawing balance between real and unreal has made this third paradigm entertaining and eye-popping enough to endure... yet too far removed and detached to win over hearts and minds.