Over the festive period (and before the snow!) I was lucky enough to fit in two cinema visits: Avatar and Sherlock Holmes. On the way home my friends and I fiercely debated Avatar in particular - and the idea of style over substance. Two of us openly mocked the plot (or lack of it), despite being blown away by the visuals, while my other friend stated that the story worked well enough to hang the technology on. It got me thinking: do you absolutely have to have substance if the style is good enough? Here are some of my thoughts.
Although Avatar is a recent example, there have been other occasions where substance has been sacrificed for the sake of style. In the case of the Transformers franchise, substance was bludgeoned almost to death and then burnt at the pyre while Michael Bay cackled maniacally. Possibly while wearing a cape. In this example many found the plot laughable and complained that giant robots beating up each other just didn't make up for a lack of decent story, no matter how good it looked, so here I would suggest that you do need some substance.
On the flip side there have been films that have concentrated on the substance at the expense of the style - or produced spectacle almost incidentally. One recent example is Moon - an excellent and critically-acclaimed film that many people skipped. Was this on account of the lack of spectacle? Was it passed over because viewers felt that they could easily watch it on DVD and didn't need the big screen experience? In this case, would more style have encouraged more viewers? Must you always have both style and substance?
The issue of source material should also be addressed - does decent source material guarantee the substance so that directors need only concentrate on the style? Certain films have married style and substance with aplomb, and these have been developed from extremely strong source material. Here I give the Lord of the Rings trilogy of films as my example. Peter Jackson took a beloved source material and created three films filled with high spectacle and (at the time) ground-breaking FX techniques. Here PJ made sure that the style matched the substance.
At the other end of the spectrum is The Spirit. The source here is a series of comics, appreciated by many for the visual narrative developed by Will Eisner. The noir storylines and wry comedic touches, matched with stunning character development and drawn with a monochrome pallette, left people desperate to see the film - which turned out to be a triumph of style over substance. All that rich source material ignored! Only empty spectacle remained - and this was not done well enough in this case to make a successful film.
Clearly decent source material does not guarantee a film with both style and substance!
In the case of Avatar my complaint was not that there was no story (as with The Spirit) - just that the plot had been rehashed and virtually plagiarised from other films (I'll mention Fern Gully as the usual derisive comparison). There was little originality to the story - which, considering the breathtaking original visuals, made the film seem all the poorer. I didn't complain about *no* plot - but I was left extremely disappointed by the unfulfilled potential. In my opinion Avatar could have been the best film of all time. Instead it was a very good advertisement for future 3D films.
Having said the above, I do confess to sitting enthralled during the whole film (only briefly jarred completely out of it by the use of the word unobtainium - I mean, seriously!), so maybe the substance just isn't required when a film is made with the unbelievable style of Avatar.