Since the recent premiere of James Cameron's super-production Avatar, the mass media in general and the Internet in particular, have flooded with comments, reviews and opinions that oscillate from absolute praise to bitter criticism -in both cases, more or less argued and according to most different criteria.
Without trying to contribute to the film's myth but considering it as the socio-cultural phenomena that has become, I consider it an interesting means, a basis or starting point to reflect on the past and future of the cinema and on the development of visual culture in the context of digital society.
A Cinematographic Revolution?
In fact, we've been hearing about Avatar for many years now. After the great box-office success of the Titanic, James Cameron promised this another super-production based on an idea he had been working upon since 1994. When filming began in 2006, the expectation around the film began to become bigger and bigger. It was supposed to be the film that would revolutionize cinema and that would change the way we perceive it.
For many people, it has succeed and Avatar represents the new future cinema, a before and after in cinematographic practices. And as we'll see, from a certain point of view, this statement is true. However, we can't accept it without a careful analysis.
On one hand, the notion of revolution itself implies the idea of a radical change comparing to a previous situation. But if we observe cinema's evolution in the last decades, specifically from the massive use of digital production means, we'll see that Avatar is just one more step in this evolution. It clearly belongs to the cinema of spectacular and digital effects that after it's beginning in the 80s, reached its very peak in mid-90s with films such as the Titanic and the Matrix. In a different line, are also remarkable Toy Story and other digital animation films that greatly amplified the aesthetic possibilities and production tools in digital cinema.
But Avatar not only has a recognizable previous trajectory in the visual field, in its most common side as special effects cinema mixing virtual and real, but also in its narrative aspect. Here, it directly links to the aesthetic of the so-called "post modern" films. Those films that, starting from video clip and video game aesthetics, began to use fast and fragmented rhythms, with subjective and impossible points of view that place the spectator in the middle of the action (think, for example, at the representative film Run, Lola Run). The combination of both elements, digital imagery and subjective narration, searching new kinds of spectator's immersion and experience supported by a surrounding sound, have defined all spectacular cinema from the middle of the 90's. As A. Darley explains, it's a kind of cinema that turns in certain way to its origins as a funfair spectacle.
In my opinion, apart from a very successful treatment of digital effects combined with a clever and spectacular design of the Pandora world -also full of references to video games and previous film imaginaries- Avatar doesn't propose anything never seen before in lesser extent. It's the culmination -for the moment- of a digital audiovisual hyperrealism that we've seen grow with technology and that includes a certain kind of shots and frames. And if it manages to surprise us in something, comparing it, for instance, with some video game graphics, it's in its treatment of human expressivity, based on real actors "digitalized" in post production process.
Frame of Avatar
But we could go beyond this reflection. Because this idea of a digital spectacular cinema of which Avatar is one more example, leads us to question the notion of cinema itself. All these films are not cinema in its strict and traditional sense: we're in front of some kind of audiovisual practice which using traditional cinematographic narration based on the ides of moving image, has become other kind of practice.
To determine what this new kind of practice is, we should deeply analyze the phenomena, turn to cinema's theory traditional debates about the nature and essence of cinema; discuss if it's narration, realism or edition what defines it. Maybe we can talk about Hypercinema or Postcinema. Maybe just about Digital Cinema, bearing in mind that Avatar is not the product that defines this change, but a product that follows -as we've said- a transformation of cinema itself due to the introduction of digital production tools.
However, we've said that Avatar somehow seems to mark a before and an after in cinematographic practices. Why? In which sense? I refer here not to cinematographic practices of production, but to consumption, to the relationship between spectator and the cinematographic spectacle.
Avatar has broken box offices since its premiere. It's been opened both in 2D and 3D version, being this 3D version the one that has exceeded all commercial expectations.
Of course, 3D is not new in audiovisual language, but we need to remember that until now it belonged to a different consumption field -specialized movie theatres as IMAX. The difference is that 3D has now fully entered commercial cinema theatres. In a very short time, all multicinemas in Spain have incorporated 3D projection. And Avatar did not begin this process: in 2009 we've had previous 3D-experiences, most of them with animation movies, such as Coraline or Up. But Avatar has marked a turning point in this kind of cinematographic consumption. Is has founded the formula, is has shown that cinema -not only children's cinema- can be again profitable for theatres.
Frame of Up
3D has been presented as the possible solution to box office crisis provoked by the other face of the digital world: the downloads and online streaming movies. And now, with this film by James Cameron, this solution seems to be confirmed. If in a cinematographic level Avatar is part of the evolution of that hybrid between cinema and the digital world, in a commercial level and in the field of cinema consumption practices, it represents one more step in an evolution that can be understood, maybe, in a more linear way.
I think this change in cinema theatres as of something similar to the change caused by talking cinema. It would be risky to affirm that 2D cinema could disappear like silent movies did. But in this way to an increasingly realistic -hyperrealistic- experience of audiovisual, it could be possible that 3D could become the normal cinematographic consumption at commercial movie theatres.
In the same way that when TV became popular cinema looked for new strategies, languages and experiences -some of theme linked to 3D specialized movie theatres- to maintain its commercial hegemony, Internet is making the cinema transform its strategies again. In this process, aesthetic, language and the notion of cinema itself are inevitably transformed.
The number of titles in 3D already announced and ready for premiere show this turning point, that doesn't consist in the "discovery" of 3D, but in its normalization at cinematographic production -thanks to the reduction of cost and effort- and, of course, in its normalization at common movie theatres. This normalization could be, in my opinion, the beginning of a process in which "going to the movies" could de synonymous to 3D cinema. We'll have to wait. Especially to see if 3D formats could work also in the field of a more narrative and less spectacular cinema.
Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. On of the next 3D premieres.
Of Avatars, New Worlds and Old Myths
Beyond what Avatar seems to tell us about a possible future of cinematographic practices, what can we find behind this futuristic story?
For me, the great novelty that the film raises dealing with its content and imaginary, is the notion of "avatar" itself. Until now, in the digital world, an avatar was a virtual identity one used when entering Cyberspace.
Apart from its fictional nature, Cameron's film has taken the notion of "avatar" beyond this meaning and, using future expectations of our nowadays scientific advances -such as genetics-, he has generated a new notion of this concept that directly deals with Post-humanism.
The imaginary of Science Fiction has been announcing it for some time now: it seems that the era of androids and robotic humanoids is now low-spirited. The cyberpunk imaginary of the 80s and 90s cyberpunk imaginary of circuits and metallic bodies -thanks to cyberspace mediation as a field of possibilities- is turning into a new humanoid type, composed by cells, of flesh and bones. When I talk of cyberspace as a field of possibilities, I think at films as ExistenZ, where neuronal connections led a virtual body -an avatar- into a virtual world.
In this sense, in Avatar we also find neuronal connections, obsolete physical and real bodies. But they are substituted not by a virtual alter ego, but by a physical body, a genetic hybrid of different species. It's a new way of understanding the avatar that could finish, as we said, with the cyborg to substitute it by a more pure post human. One transformed in its genetic basis.
On the other hand, we cannot talk about Avatar without making reference to the story that it tells. We can consider many referents in the composition of this colonization story. However, the most emphasized and commented is Pocahontas.
In fact, the resemblance with Disney's film, of its story and aesthetics -apart from obvious differences- can be amazing. I don't want go into details neither enter into a debate about the racist content of the film or the double morality that he plot can contain.
What I consider interesting to comment about this, is relevant in some way with the idea of the myth. Unfortunately, the arrival of colonizers to a "new world" that, along with its native population, is destroyed by their greed, is not a myth. It's a situation repeated many times in history. However, despite being a futuristic film, the story acquires in Avatar a mythic look. It recovers this history and adds to it -taken from Pocahontas- the idea of a spiritual connection with environment, relocating action in a new context.
If, as García Templado says, we take into account Levy Strauss' definition of myth as a "cultural creation that structures the articulated thinking, in which empiric categories can be used to formalize abstract ideas that take as referent any aspect of certain world conception"; and if, as García Templado himself shows, we complete it with T. S. Eliot's vision, who saw the myth as "an objective correlate in poetic expression that could discover deep feelings better that the use of abstract words", we can understand how this story with moralizing function articulates a determined conception of the world, where right and wrong, justice, human rights, etc. emerges.
In this sense, the history of colonization would be a contemporary myth, merged during de-colonization and narrated from that moment by different parameters, adaptations and evolutions.
So, on one hand, references to Pocahontas could be simply considered as manifestations of re-updating and quoting that post-modernism has defended so much. But on the other hand, that could be seen as a re-contextualization of this colonial myth -with its values, apart from whether we defend them or not- which needs to be told to new generations in its own language of "digital natives". Nowadays generations of young people -that live interconnected in the real time of the net and for whom the "future is now" thanks to technology- need to listen myths told by avatars in future time.
Not taking into account how it's done, with what kind of language, those mythic tales must be told. And this regulation of social imaginaries, this transmission of certain world conceptions, has been the function of the cinema for a long time now. Although its structures have changed and its languages and forms are different, cinema still has the power of telling stories and re-adapting subjects to new contexts as, in this case, that of digital society.
 García Templado, J., Ni es Cielo Ni es Azul. Estética de la Recepción. Ensayos de Semiótica Escénica, Narrativa y Publicidad. Ed. Laberinto, Madrid, 2004. Pág. 225 y ss.