Avatar: Are We Confusing A Good Day Out With A Good Film?

Just off the South coast of Singapore there's an even smaller island called Sentosa which has been turned in to a kind of mini-resort with idyllic beach huts on islands to swim out to, dolphin pools, a World War 2 exhibit; everything you would expect from a tourist-orientated day out.

There is also a cinema.

Christened the 'Sentosa 4D Magix' it runs one of a number of films, including the production I was privileged to watch called Pirates, staring a man who never fails to make me laugh just by looking into the screen: Leslie Nielsen.

As you would expect from a 4D cinema, the 17-minute romp featured such novelties as your chair vibrating as rocks rolled down mountains, water spraying from the seat in front to make it feel like you were really on the high-seas, plenty of men with spears to accentuate the 3D element of the film and jets of air gushing out at your legs from below your seat to simulate rats on the loose.

All well and good you might be thinking. A nice guide to Singapore. Thanks Sam.

But there is a point and here it is; when I went to watch Pirates a couple of years ago on Sentosa I had a great time. I was travelling and a few of us staying at a good hostel (called Sleepy Sam's if ever you're in Singapore and need a place to stay) decided Sentosa was worth a day out so we went, we wandered round, had fun, watched Pirates. I laughed, I got wet and here's the crucial thing; I had a good film experience.

Which is a phrase I've been hearing a lot recently, mainly in relation to Avatar. 'It's an OK film', some people seem to be suggesting 'but when you factor in the effects and the 3D and... the effects and... the... 3D... it's a five star experience!' It's even got as far as Roger Ebert who was criticised by Kris Tapley on Twitter recently for reportedly writing 'a great film, it's not' yet still giving it four out of four although, I have to admit, I found no evidence of that passage in Ebert's main review. It's not only the critics either. Listening to a radio phone in in my car the other day, numerous people were claiming that it had a 'stodgy script', 'predictable big fights', 'wobbly acting' but was still a 'great film' because the experience of going was brilliant.

I think there's a danger here and that danger is in confusing a great experience with a great film. The two are separable and combinable and should be done so when necessary. Pirates for example, my foray into 4D cinema, was a great experience but a woeful film, suitable only for consumption in such an environment. The Godfather, still now, is both a great film and a wonderful experience to get immersed in on an afternoon or evening and it is so entirely without currently trending gimmicks such as improved motion-capture or 3D. Are we really saying that Avatar is as good as The Godfather because it made us go 'oooh' at some beautifully rendered visuals and spears pointing out of the screen? Is anyone going to stand up and say their experience of watching The Godfather would have been made better by watching it in three dimensions?

I suspect that a number of the people currently saying they can look past the script and the story and the acting and the predictability because of the experience, the majesty of it all, will not show the same forgiveness when they go and see the next Nicolas Cage, Will Smith or even, perhaps, Steven Seagal explosion extravaganza which uses new and improved stunt, CGI or even 3D techniques to improve itself.

Let me be clear: I don't think Avatar is a bad film, I think it is a good one but not a great one because it is flawed in a number of key places and facets, like the vast majority of films out there. I think the effects were impressive but I do not think they excused it it's short comings. I think it doesn't deserve to be in the IMDb Top 250 and will prove that the Oscars is a popularity contest, rather than awards ceremony if it wins Best Film, a prospect which is not unlikely, considering it is second favourite for a Golden Globe with most bookmakers.

I think a film's experience is about watching it and being immersed in it. If you went to Avatar and had a great experience and a good time but found all the problems with it that many have pointed out and are detailed above then you shouldn't be calling it a five-star film, because you didn't think it was; you thought it was a five-star experience, a great day out. On the other hand if you found yourself really enjoying your Avatar movie experience and thought the script wasn't too bad, the acting great and the whole package the real deal, then I accept your five star review of it. If though, you fall into the third category and are using the fact that it used new technology and 3D and great sound and excellent motion capture to excuse its shortcomings in key areas, if you are perhaps what may be termed, an Avatar Apologist, then I'm not sure that I do and I whole-heartedly recommend you go and watch Pirates because you will love it. I can even point you towards a nice hotel.

Look Further...

Agree/Disagree? Can you combine and separate how good a film is and how much you enjoyed yourself? Is Avatar a five-star film despite the flaws you recognise in it? Are there any other films like this?

There are loads of reviews out there to pick out and play 'The Avatar Game' with. In my opinion The Empire review, above, is firmly from an Avatar Apologist. The review from A Life In Equinox however, which I often find to be pretty close to spot on, firmly sets out the good and bad in Avatar and therefore, doesn't give it a perfect score whilst still recognising why, in their opinion, it was enjoyable and great as a film. You are excused from watching Pirates Ryan.


  1. Great writeup man. I agree on every account. And major thanks for the linkage (and compliment), besides I don't need to watch Pirates... I am a pirate (wooden leg, talking bird, eye patch, and all)! :P

    If only you had written this up yesterday so I could have included it in my Monday corner.

  2. Excellent insight. I think it's a very widespread feeling that people feel it's not a great movie but yet, give it a better than expected score because of the WOW factor. I admit I did ;)

  3. I know people have made those claims, but ok fine - the script was not excellent, but it was not horrible either, nowhere near horrible. A good script is more than about dialogue. Avatar is winning awards for best film, there's another award for script. I don't think the acting was stodgy...but oh well. I sincerely believed it was a good movie since visual effects really don't do much for me.

  4. Univarn - ...or get my entry in nice and early for next week ;-)

    Castor - One point I'd add to the article is perhaps a consideration on how well it will do on DVD. It'll be interesting to see if bloggers and critics decrease their scores when they see it in that medium (and if I was being cynical; once the fuss has died down!)

    Andrew - I think your argument's fine. If you thought the script was good, the acting fine and overall felt that you watched a good movie then I'm all for that even if, of course, I don't neccesarily agree on all fronts.

  5. Excellent article. I have intended to do the same, but I still haven't seen Avatar, and I think it would be hypocritical to talk about it without seeing it. Concerning the movie - I completely agree. The amount of hype it created is nowhere near it's value, but everyone praises it's 3D look. While I have nothing against 3D (or Avatar) to rate the movie as 10/10 just because of 3D is simply absurd. Unfortunately, many people don't see it this way.