Avatar: Is There Substance in Style?


Cooper Theodore

Style over substance is a common expression, but it implies that style has no substance. At all. Is that fair? I saw James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water recently, and like most people was amazed at the visuals. I was also extremely underwhelmed by the plot, pacing, and characterization. There were major plot holes or contrivances, moments where the story drags considerably to emphasize the visuals, and so much wasted potential with character development that I started wondering if it was intentional (sequel bait possibly). After I saw it, I confidently put this in the long list of movies that I consider to be style over substance.

Now I wonder, why is that a problem? If it is, by how much? The art direction of a movie is extremely important. Avatar: TWoW isn’t just stunning to watch because everything looks so realistic. The artistry behind the designs of the creatures and landscapes is eye-catching, not to mention the shot composition. Teams of people worked to make all of that as beautiful as they could, and with whatever portion of the estimated 350 million dollars it cost to make the movie, they did it. Really well.

At the end of it all however, it’s supposed to be a story. Even nature documentaries have small narratives they try to incorporate. When I watch interviews with artists and musicians, they talk about the stories in their paintings or music. Stories are what stick with people. The most stunningly realistic painting with nothing to say will eventually be forgotten in place of one that engages the audience with interesting questions, humor, or story telling.

This isn’t to say Avatar: TWoW has no plot or even that it’s incredibly bad. It’s just okay. And for a movie that cost $350 million and had so many people working on it, it seems a shame that that’s the case. It makes me think of Star Trek, the original TV show with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy. It’s campy. The sets are terrible. The action is laughable. Many of the aliens look so fake, it’s hard to take them seriously as threats. Despite all of that, it sticks with me. Kirk and Spock are fun and interesting characters. The plots of their adventures created questions I hadn’t thought of or took something I knew and flipped it on its head. It’s the writing that keeps a show like that relevant, in addition to the many talented actors and people behind the scenes.

So, is it fair to say there is no substance in only style? Probably not. There’s much artistry in Avatar: TWoW, and I don’t resent the money it’s making. The visuals are worth the price of admission. However, in a question of art, that’s all the movie has going for it. Like its predecessor, it will likely be forgotten after technology has improved to the point where the best you can say of it is “it holds up well visually.”

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