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Monday, February 21, 2011

Star Wars vs Avatar

The first article I wrote for, the website that I have been steadily writing for ever since. It may not be timely - and I'm surprised that it's actually way shorter than most of my reviews - but since when did discussions about Star Wars have to be timely?

James Cameron’s Avatar has garnered more than its fair share of attention since its release in December 2009. In no short time, it has taken the major award ceremonies by storm, developed a sizable fan-base and became the highest grossing film of all time. Add all that to its sci-fi/ fantasy setting, classically simple storyline ("Pocahontas in space", indeed) and groundbreaking special effects and it isn’t that hard to understand why it has been called "this generation’s Star Wars".

Me, I don’t buy it.

Putting aside the fact that calling anything "this generation’s Star Wars" is about as unlikely a claim as calling the latest teenybopper band "this generation’s Beatles" - I simply don’t see Avatar having Star Wars’ longevity. They may share some seriously clunky dialogue but Star Wars wisely takes itself a lot less seriously, is more tightly plotted and, most importantly, has a host of far more memorable characters. Only Avatar’s staunchest, most unyieldingly fanatical of fanboys would dare to suggest that Avatar’s characters have anything on the iconic personalities that people the Star Wars universe. Avatar doesn’t boast so much as an Obi-Wan Kenobi, let alone a Darth Vader or Han Solo.

Of course, Avatar should have Star Wars beat on a purely technical level and, it does. Between the vivid, painterly alien landscapes and the shockingly expressive and life-like motion-capture techniques used to bring the computer-generated characters to life, Avatar is a sumptuous, visual feast on every level. Add to that the latest in 3D technology and it should surely offer an immersive experience the like of which cinemagoers could only previously have dreamed of. Astonishingly enough, it doesn’t. Not even close.

For all of the leaps and bounds that Avatar made in creating technology specifically designed to bridge the gap between the creator’s imagination and what can actually be shown on screen,Star Wars still did a better job at drawing the viewer into the universe that Lucas created. Most brilliantly, it did it with nothing more than the following simple phrase: Episode 4: A New Hope. With those words, Lucas throws the viewer smack into the middle of something; the middle of a story, the middle of a saga, the middle of a fully formed universe. Playing like the latest installment in an old adventure serial, Star Wars may have told a fully understandable, self-contained story but it did so while constantly hinting towards a far great "universe".

However much has been made of Lucas’ stilted dialogue, through small details like side remarks and a knowing glance, he had the uncanny ability to immerse you fully into his universe. Lucas and a vast array of novelists, comic book writers and video game designers may have expanded on the Star Wars Universe over the years but all of that was built upon tossed off lines of dialogue and background characters that Lucas suffused throughout the original films.

The universe of Star Wars, in short, feels lived in. Avatar, on the other hand, for all of its technical wizardry, still feels like a coldly artificial construct. I may well be in the minority on this but, as far as I’m concerned, Avatar’s greatest failure is that I never managed to shake the artifice of what was happening on screen. I was kept so far out of this world, in fact, that I had to constantly remind myself that the main character was supposed to be interacting with an actual alien planet rather than a computer-generated virtual reality program.

In stark contrast to Star Wars, Avatar relies so heavily on the effects that it neglects entirely to draw the viewer into the world through the heart and soul of all filmmaking: honest to goodness storytelling. Contrast the way everything in Pandora is painstakingly laid out through the most expeditionary of dialogue to the tantalising hints, vague gestures and background details that Lucas employed to breathe life into his creation.

Since debuting in 1977, Star Wars has consistently, through every medium imaginable, had its story and its universe expanded upon, often with little more than the most tangential of ties to what occurred in the main stories of the films themselves. Will Avatar ever be able to match this? Time, I think, will prove that it very emphatically cannot.

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