“Avatar” and Bridging the Uncanny Valley

May 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

Neytiri cradles Jake's body in "Avatar"

Neytiri cradles Jake’s body in “Avatar”

In the interest of timeliness, I wanted to write about a key moment in James Cameron’s Avatar. Here’s a movie with two worlds: human and Navi, or rather human and CGI. There’s basically a different filmmaking mode for each — the former is a cold and dry technological and mechanical world like Alien, and the latter is a lush computer-generated tropical world of flora and fauna.

Each of these worlds is populated with a different humanoid lifeform, and the two different lifeforms don’t really interact (except in the big battle at the end, when they’re still really interacting distantly through a blur of action). Were they to interact, the film would risk sinking into the uncanny valley where the contrast between human and CGI characters becomes creepily apparent.

This is a wise decision by Cameron — it’s much easier to grow accustomed to the film’s two worlds separately, and the story carefully immerses us in one, then the other for long stretches each. But almost inevitably, there’s one moment where the worlds cross, namely the scene in the picture above (I’m truly sorry I couldn’t find a better picture — I’m not even certain this one comes straight from the movie).

Here, toward the end of the movie, the central couple share a moment, Neytiri in her Navi form, and Jake in his human form. In a sense the scene is nothing special — she cradles him mother-like, the disparity between their forms is shown directly (blue and peach, large and fragile), but they don’t care because they’re in love. Nobody’s calling Avatar an adventurous piece of storytelling.

But here’s the remarkable thing about it: when I saw this scene in the theater two years ago, all I could think was what an obligatory moment of cross-cultural sweetness it was. He’s in her arms, they say “I see you” to each other, their love is real, and racism is solved. I wasn’t thinking how weird it is to see a CGI and a regular human body intertwined like that, and I wasn’t studying their motions looking for seams or flaws in the presentation. After I got out of the theater, on my way home, then I realized I’d seen a human actor and a CGI one holding each other close, and all I’d thought was how trite it was!

In a way, what a terrific achievement Cameron pulled off! The CGI medium disappeared and all that was left was a straightforward love scene. That is, the computer animation disappeared into the scene, wholly integrated, leaving only the storytelling. This is the first time I’ve ever seen anyone or anything truly bridge the uncanny valley, and I know it was truly bridged because I wasn’t thinking about how real it looked, I was thinking about the story! It’s the kind of achievement that’s so deep I didn’t even realize it was there until I reflected on it.

So let’s give Cameron credit. Avatar is totally conventional when you look at its story. But the achievement of that conventionality, the successful construction of an ordinary love scene through CGI, is a strange kind of triumph.

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