Technical prowess: The Whale vs.Avatar

March 11, 2023

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March 5 2023

Technical prowess vs. Difficult subjects:  Avatar vs. The Whale

Even though there are vast possibilities in technical prowess and creativity in recent years, contemporary cinema shows vast differences in this regard, from films that are so technically basic that they could have been made in the 1950s, to films that rely essentially on technical prowess to reach the audience.

In terms of technical sophistication, it would be hard to find more contrasting films than Avatar and The Whale. Yet, their differences are not only in technique, and we will come back later to other important differences between the films.

But let us start with how technically sophisticated, or not, some of the important films of 2022 are.


In the no technical prowess category, we can find, in addition to The Whale, TAR, Women Talking, Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris, Living, *and, to a large extent, Triangles of Sadness.  All of these films, in terms of technical sophistication, could have been made in the 1950s.

In the middle ground category of technical prowess, we can mention a film like Don’t worry Darling, where there are super-impositions between dream and reality and between present, past, and future. In that same middle ground category, there is Aftersun, a story of a young adult female who is remembering through home videos a vacation with her then-depressed father in Turkey. The home videos are complemented with blurring and on-and-off images of the vacation.

In foreign films of 2021-2022, the Norwegian film The Innocents (2022), a story of not-really-innocent children left to themselves, some images mix the past and the future, and dream and reality. In that same category of foreign films that are moderately technically sophisticated, we can mention the Mexican film Sundown ( a late 2021 movie not to be confused with the previously mentioned Aftersun), the story of a British family vacation in Mexico, during which there are impromptu images of the family business, which is a food processing enterprise dealing with pork meat, showing the animals appearing surprisingly on the screen at the most surprising moments.

Entering now the more technically sophisticated category of films of 2022, there are the nominated Bullet Train and the acclaimed Everything Everywhere All at Once where technical sophistication is an important ingredient of the films. The same can be said of Babylone, although in that case, the technical prowess does not distract from the story.


RRR and Avatar

In the not-so-distant past, a foreign film that would qualify as one of the year’s most technically sophisticated films would have been quite surprising. Yet, this is the case with the Indian film RRR. As is often the case with Asian productions (in the case of many films from China, specifically), the technical sophistication has to do with weightlessness, with actors flying over obstacles, buildings, and enemies. There is grace through it all, even reaching a poetic dimension, all the while serving the story. In this case, the technical prowess does not distract from the story but serves it. It even reaches an almost ideal balance.

In the case of Avatar, it is the technical prowess that leads the story, and the story is a servant to the technical prowess, a simple introduction to cinematographic wizardry. The celebration of family, friendship, fidelity, and kindness is thus all artificial and a necessary and unavoidable component of technical prowess. The film is out of whack, it is disproportionate. It is not a question of quantity, but of proportion, in the sense that if one’s complete attention is drawn to the technical, it is neglecting something else, in this case, the story

Let us go a little further.

Let us compare The Whale and Avatar. The two films are not only different but on opposite ends of a continuum. The Whale is overflowing with content and essentially free of sophisticated techniques, while Avatar is full of technical wizardry and lacks real content. Could it be that when there are real and important subjects that are addressed, such as obesity, depression, and homophobia, there is no real need for technical prowess?

Would it be unfair to Avatar to state that, by its technical wizardry, it is neglecting important and real subjects of our time, and a form of denial? If it is indeed chosen as the best film of the year, it would be another indication that when the chips are down, Hollywood,  at least this year, chooses denial over content. Hopefully, it will not win as the best film of the year, and there are no indications that it will. With good reason.