There is something terribly wrong about the quest for immersion. By which I mean complete and total immersion, eradicating any partial possibility to have a single toe or hair in the world you just stepped out of. Perhaps my bias towards immersion rests upon a nugget of ignorance regarding the exact motivation one may have in order to accomplish virtual reality – the application of which may find suitable use in realms of scientific enquiry, operating as a form of total interactive simulation. It can act as a training mechanism for athletes or pilots in training perhaps. So it becomes necessary for me to isolate the topic to immersion for entertainment processes.
Probably the modern medium with the most literal pursuit for immersion is the video game. However, before virtual reality devices started to get marketed, from gaming devices to headsets where you attach your phone to act as a screen, there was James Cameron’s Avatar. It must be stated that I am not a fan of James Cameron (I enjoyed Terminator 2 however), so some bias will follow. The film, as we undoubtedly all remember – either having seen it or heard of it from the countless articles and friends that came out of the newest and most innovative 3-D movie going experience to date – as “it seems awfully similar to Pocahontas.” Indeed, the fundamental silhouettes of the two stories are similar – a storytelling error seemingly more noticeable in the recent catalogue of summer blockbuster films (but truthfully, it is not a problem isolated to the current state of the entertainment industry). “But the CG and the animation were so beautiful. And the 3-D! It was like I was actually there!” That is fine, but if you take it away, say you watch it at home with that old CRT your parents refuse to throw away. Then is it the same? Obviously no. The primary visual gimmick is lost. Of course you can argue that that destroys the work as a whole. Disjointing the work from its observable context. This is fair, so let’s consider as it was meant to be, in the theater.
I watched this movie about two weeks before its run in the theaters concluded. At first, I was amazed. That bubble…But then that bubble burst, because the narrative kicked in. The point is, you can fill the world with as many CG animals, plants, lights, blue people, mechs, battles, airships, floating islands, waterfalls, and bubbles as you want, it can feel immersive, surrounding us in a spherical visual dome, like the silver screen is surrounding us, (although this is not the case with Avatar if we are to assume that the immersion is total – meaning we can’t tell the difference between our world and the fictional one) but eventually this new world will just become a world, and like our actual world, we will get bored. We will want entertainment, and hence, we hypothetically need a movie inside the movie for us to stay invested. Or perhaps we need a game inside a game. Essentially, it is back to square one.
Avatar gave me nothing past the visuals; hence I came out of the movie fairly bored. I did not care about the main characters, or the blue people, or the hair lovemaking.
I do not think immersion is bad in conjunction with well-developed narratives. But I do believe an isolated drive to make the best graphics possible is just silly and frankly a formal dead-end. This is because immersion does not have to occur physically – through visual, sonic, and physical construction. Rather, it can occur through a good story. Something Avatar lacked.