Technology and storytelling: not mutually exclusive entertainments

We went to see Avatar last weekend. If you’ve been anywhere near media over the past few months, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty. We didn’t have terribly high hopes — the preview we’d seen months ago really was nothing special, and the animation actually looked less sophisticated than some of what we’ve already seen.

But we went, and had the full 3D experience (which I highly recommend). The movie was gorgeous. Some of the most beautiful visuals I’ve seen — in any format of film. The 3D was used carefully, so wasn’t just missiles blasting out of the screen and whatnot. More often it was subtle touches like floating pollen grains wafting among us. Lovely. And they’ve begun achieving things with textures that are spectacular. I’ve no doubt this movie will be the starting point for amazing things.

And, as they note in this post (humorous intentions aside), James Cameron does know how to put a scene together. Orchestration as opposed to mayhem.

However, the story was another matter. Now, yes, it’s James Cameron. You’re not there for stellar dialogue, intricate storytelling, or nuance. And you’re not going to get any. This was written with a club. Capitalism and environmental destruction bad. Living as one with nature good. Metal-clad bad guys do horrible things, but can be defeated by plucky natives and animals… at great personal cost. When you let go of your indoctrination, you can become eloquent, enlightened, and find love. Check your brain at the door: it’s paint by numbers; it’s not Rembrandt.

But what if it could be?

I couldn’t help but be disappointed by what could have been. The combination of those rich, intricate, beautiful visuals with a story that matched it. A story with nuance and textured mythology and 3-dimensional characters and moral dilemmas and bad guys you kind of liked and good guys you kind of didn’t.

Wholesale slaughter turns people off — we’ve seen too much of it. I don’t just mean emotionally, though that’s true, too. I mean mentally as well. There’s nothing to it but fast movement, loud noises, and carnage. Sure, big battles are exciting and move the story along… somewhat. But talk to Joss Whedon about the shock and power of a well-placed and well-timed single death. He can do more with offing a bit character than Avatar could do with one of the leads.

I understand the whole lowest common denominator idea in movies, books, TV, etc. And I get that it’s the intersection of investment and revenue potential. But I still prefer more of a long tail idea. I don’t think the NASCAR set is incapable of enjoying something that includes both explosions and thought. And I don’t think the Mensa set can’t appreciate a well choreographed action sequence.

Some day in the future I imagine someone will weave together that stunning technology with a story that makes both my brain and heart contort til it hurts. I can’t wait. Though I suspect I’ll probably have to see it at the Princess because the Galaxy will deem it incapable of raking in enough bucks.