Top critical review
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on 16 May 2010
For months, people have been talking about James Cameron's sci-fi epic "Avatar" -- the exotic alien world of Pandora, the clash between the blue cat-elf natives and Earth's military, and the Pocahontas-ey love story that all movies of this type have.
"The Art of Avatar: James Cameron's Epic Adventure" could easily fill a vast tome that follows this movie from conception to finished product... but instead we get a lushly-illustrated, thinly picture book that dips into the origins of Pandora's designs, but not much else. It feels less like an "art of" book that explores the visuals, and more like a pamphlet advertising the movie.
Most of the conceptual art seems to revolve around the Na'vi's world of Pandora -- there are floating mountains, lush misty rainforests, vast lakes and twisting mushroom-shaped trees. Additionally, there are some studies of the bizarre flora (luminous, fungus-like plants and ferns) and fauna (the six-legged viperwolf, the vaguely reptilian/leonine thanator). Not to mention the Na'vi, the aforemented cat-elf aliens.
And there's also some focus on the human technology -- the sterile grey "shack" known as Site 26 and the Vietnam-era base around it, the clunky mecha "amp suit," the Dragon, and the chopperesque Samson (which looks a lot like something I saw in the anime movie "Appleseed").
Any movie as huge, elaborate and intensely alien as "Avatar" -- especially one decades in the making -- must have a small library's worth of concept art, outlines, backstory, and design work. And I'm sure this exists somewhere... just not in "The Art of Avatar," which is heavy on the finished visuals, but rather light on conceptual art, the evolution of the movie's style, and artistic bumps in the road.
Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of this book is that it spends a lot of time telling but not showing. The creators of the sets and special effects talk about all sorts of fascinating creative dilemmas and unconventional artistic decisions (aerial mountain shots! Francis Bacon! Undersea life!). But.... we don't see a lot of it, or the various steps that took them from A to Z. We're just told that hey, they had troubles with the six legs or the sleek biolab designs, and that's it.
And there's no real exploration of the epic Na'vi/human climactic battle, except for some pretty pictures of the AMPs charging around shooting and blowing things up. Or the science of Pandora's epic-looking landscape (just how do those mountains float?). Additionally, the prose parts of the book are as skimpy as cheap pantyhose -- every couple pages we have two or three brief paragraphs, and that's it.
I will say this: the art is STUNNING. Luminous, filled with light and mist, with plenty of epic shots of Pandora's rainforesty fantastical world. And they have some foldout sections that give further exploration of Pandora's wildlife (such as floating firefly... lizards?).
HOWEVER, most of the pictures are straightforward digital pictures, with a relatively small representation of maquettes and pencil/watercolor concept art. Most of what there is.... pretty much looks like the actual creatures/places in the movie -- for instance, there are only a few concept images of the Na'vi that don't look just like the finished product (head tentacles and cat lips). It took twenty years to design all this?
The digital art is vibrantly, exquisitely lovely, but "The Art of Avatar: James Cameron's Epic Adventure" isn't much more than a sci-fi picture book. Nice to look at, but it just left me frustrated by what WASN'T there.