The Ryan Lambie Column: Avatar – a video game unplugged?

Is Avatar more a videogame than a movie? Ryan has a few thoughts...

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

By now we’ve all seen the trailers for Avatar, and a lucky few of us have seen the fifteen minute preview footage at 3D cinemas. While I can’t say I was wholly unimpressed by what I’ve seen so far, there was something faintly troubling about it at the same time – and not just, as our own Martin Anderson pointed out, the fact that Avatar is more fantasy than hard SF.  It’s something that a number of viewers have commented on, including the Guardian’s Anne Pickard: Avatar looks more like a video game than a movie.

With CGI being used with increasingly wild abandon in Hollywood movies, you could argue that such a criticism is redundant. But in the case of the current crop of Hollywood blockbusters, from Transformers via Die Hard 4 to this December’s Avatar, big budget cinema experiences appear to be morphing into a formless, oddly inhuman chimera that resembles a video game cut scene more than the medium we’ve been munching popcorn in front of for decades.

It’s ironic then, that as video games have acquired greater depth, with games such as Mass Effect and Bioshock packing genuine dramatic weight and moral consequence, that mainstream cinema should be becoming, in some cases, increasingly shallow and lacking in dramatic substance.

Of course, the people who make video games are still struggling with the integration of characterisation and plot with an interactive experience; it’s a tricky balancing act that even the most talented developers can get wrong. Overlong cut scenes leave the player with a tedious lack of involvement, while the legion of muscle-bound soldiers and space marines populating the gaming medium is proof that genuinely three-dimensional characters are tricky things to create on a computer.

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Worryingly, cinema now appears to be having a similar difficulty integrating humans and CG in a believable fashion: almost anything can be created to a reasonably convincing degree using CGI, yet very few directors appear to be capable of harnessing its potential to positive effect. Notable exceptions aside – not least David Fincher, who has integrated digital effects subtly and tastefully in his films for well over a decade – CGI appears to be an Achilles’ heel for most modern directors.

As an example, compare the original Indy movie, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, with its most recent sequel, Kingdom Of The Crystal Skull. While there are undoubtedly other fundamental issues with the latter film (not least the presence of Shia Labeouf), I would argue one of the prime reasons for its almost complete failure as a piece of entertainment was its over reliance on computer generated effects. Nuke-proof fridges, gratuitous monkeys and risible alien manifestations were all thrown in for no reason other than because George Lucas, or Spielberg – or a CG guy at a workstation – felt like throwing them in the mix. The Indy of 1981 remains a classic and likeable hero because of his flesh-and-blood humanity; he feels pain, gets tired, and makes world-weary remarks. The Indy of 2008, hopping and skipping in front of a green screen and reacting to entities that are evidently nonexistent, short circuits this sense of humanity and danger.

When a game like Gears Of War and its sequel – for my money two of the best shooters of this generation – concentrate on a breathless chain of increasingly spectacular set pieces with little regard for logic or plot, it barely matters: it’s the interaction that matters.

But when a movie breaks down into a disconnected sequence of digital fireworks with no dramatic weight or the distraction of buttons to press, the results invariably fall flat.

The new tools afforded by CG have given filmmakers the ability to create wildly elaborate scenarios that would previously have been unachievable. But the ability to suddenly exclaim ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ and make that idea a (virtual) reality within a few months isn’t always to the betterment of a film as a whole.

The conveyor belt scene in Star Wars: Attack Of The Clones is a prime example of the ‘wouldn’t it be cool if…’ mentality; conceived after the bulk of the picture had been filmed and only added in at the last minute. This scene, which sees Natalie Portman jumping and ducking through a droid factory, is overlong and does nothing to further the plot. This scene, like so many others since, looks like a promo for an unreleased video game tie-in.

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And while we shouldn’t judge a film too harshly from a meagre few minutes of teaser footage – and a director of James Cameron’s calibre certainly deserves the benefit of the doubt – it does appear that Avatar springs from a similar school of filmmaking; one where the CGI experts dictate the narrative flow of the movie rather than the writer or director, and where human actors are lost in a pixelated storm of digital overload.

It’s clear that Hollywood feels threatened by the growing success and cultural significance of the game industry – it’s been said that the newly adopted 3D technology used in Avatar will help to combat piracy, but it could be argued that it’s also an attempt to reclaim an audience that has been increasingly diverted by computers and consoles.

But all the 3D gimmickry in the world won’t save a film without a story to tell; and when CG takes precedence over engaging characters, the result is, to paraphrase the Guardian’s Anna Pickard, like watching someone else play a video game.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.