Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar is better than no tar at all

I'm still trying to decide if I liked Avatar or not. Almost every review I've read has made the same points: stunning visuals, weak story.

And they're right. Looking at Avatar was looking at art. I haven't been so caught up in the visual effects of a movie since What Dreams May Come. Even The Lord of the Rings movies, as beautiful as they are, never wrested my attention from the characters. Especially when Eowyn was on the screen. Rowr.

I'm over here, darlin'

For the visuals alone, this movie is worth a look on the big screen. That might be the first time I've ever said that.

As for the story, the common comparison is with Dances with Wolves, and I can see why. I have also seen it referred to as the Anti-Matrix and Independence Day from the aliens' point of view. The Dances with Smurfs line from South Park isn't as clever as it thinks it is -- the Na'vi are blue, but they are nothing like the Smurfs. Dances with Hypothermic Thundercats maybe?

But Dances with Wolves was a good movie. At the time, we were all generally fond of Kevin Costner, remember? He had done The Untouchables and No Way Out and Field of Dreams and Bull Durham. We liked the guy! It wasn't until after Dances that we got hit with Robin Hood and JFK and The Bodyguard and Fishtar (sorry -- I mean Waterworld). Dances with Wolves also brought Mary McDonnell to our attention. All of us Battlestar fans owe Dances some thanks.

Dances with Wolves was a beautifully shot epic with a moving story, reminiscent of Gandhi and Lawrence of Arabia. Yet Avatar is no Dances with Wolves. There are just too many things that make you wonder what director James Cameron is thinking.

Unobtainium. Give me a frakkin' break. I understand this might be some Hollywood inside joke, but please treat us (and your characters) like adults. For those who haven't seen it, unobtainium is the name of some hard-to-extract substance vitally needed by the Earth corporation sponsoring the excursion. Maria and I have been joking about this for a week. "It's a rare isotope of allovertheplacium," and "Can we just use the lookhereisalotium?" and "I think it's underneath the hipdeepinthisshitium." Maybe if they figured out why they needed it (other than "it's a vital plot contrivance to give us motivation to remain on a dangerous planet and menace the indigenous population"), they could think of something that already existed. They could have just said they'd found oil.

Cameron's soldiers are sociopathic idiots. You'd think that a man like James Cameron has had the opportunity to meet some military personnel who are not slack-jawed xenophobes with twitchy trigger fingers and anger management issues. These characters aren't even humans; they are bad G.I. Joe stereotypes barking cliches through clenched teeth. The head military guy is so comically over-the-top that you expect him to be a double-agent for the other side (maybe he was suffering the side-effects of unobtanium deficiency). His rush to blow stuff up before diplomacy could work might have been part of the reason there weren't any armed forces recruiting stations set up in the theater lobby.

Cameron's politics are getting in the way of his plots. I remember an article on WingNutDaily after his last film (Titanic, if you recall) claiming it was a piece of liberal propaganda designed to make wealthy people look self-absorbed and evil. That article was difficult to believe, since Cameron isn't known for his vast poverty. But Avatar didn't have any problems with cribbing from modern events, and didn't waste time on subtlety. One character referred to an impending unprovoked air assault as "shock and awe." Another scene was so reminiscent of 9/11 that I was a little creeped out. Several references to terrorism too. While I don't object to sci-fi films using current affairs for its themes, I get bored and irritated when I'm hit over the head with a stick labeled THIS IS THE MESSAGE SO PAY ATTENTION.

"I think he means us!"

Common responses to reviews like mine say things like "you don't go to a film like this for the plot."

Why? Why do we have to chose between visual effects and an engaging story? This movie cost $300 million to make -- they couldn't spare a couple hundred thousand to lure a top-notch screenwriter? The visuals wouldn't have been impacted, and there might have been an emotional connection to a broader audience. With each new Pixar film, I am impressed by how stunning it all looks, yet there is always more to it than that. The beginning of Up was the most moving moment I had in the movies all year. (And yes, I saw New Moon.)

It must be possible to make a film that reaches across the normal demographic lines and pulls in a wide audience -- one that doesn't say "this one is for the nerds, and they don't care about touchy-feely crap like plot or relationships." Cameron himself has done it before. I've met people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds that loved Aliens. Doing that more often can't be covered in that much unobtainium, can it?

But Cameron made his 10-year passion project and 20th Century Fox is raking in the coin and the computer people got to play with fancy new toys and I guess I'm the only one who's not happy.

I know this sounds like a negative review, but I truly am torn about this film. It is astonishing to see, and it has its moments. The problems I have with it are not insurmountable (which I guess is a bigger pity). I hope now that Cameron has this out of his system, he can go back to whatever he did when he gave us the first Terminator. If I want to see a movie with good SFX and a boring story, I always have George Lucas.

Happy holidays, everyone!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

A face for radio, and a voice for the written word

If you guys aren't listening to the wholly excellent and mostly sodium-free Amateur Scientist Podcast, you should be. I mean, really. What the hell is wrong with you? It now has 15% fewer calls to violent revolution!

This week
, in an effort to sex the podcast up, I explain what's going on with the so-called ClimateGate, dazzle with a wide range of realistic accents, and stress why you should keep a handful of silver bullets when you go to astronomy conferences. All in five minutes! You should not miss it!

Also, Brian Thompson contributes some information, I don't recall what. A breakdown of Heidi Klum's shoes during the most recent Project Runway season, most likely. I tend to replay Dido songs in my head during his segments.

So give it a listen. Subscribe today. Make it a part of your ritual -- it's probably time to update whatever your ritual is anyhow.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When does the fabulous weath arrive?

Woo hoo!

I remember a time, back before I was a novelist. Some of you may recall. We weren't sure if 2012 would be the worst thing in the history of the world, or only the worst thing for about a week before New Moon arrived. No one thought it was possible to just stroll into a White House dinner and shake hands with the president and make Joe Biden fall for the "pull my finger" trick eight times in a row. The forces of goodness and righteousness still held out hope that Auburn would beat Alabama. No one but climatologists and conspiracy theorists knew what "CRU" was. We were all so young.

That's my way of saying I hit my target on NaNoWriMo. 50,045!

The book isn't finished. I'm guessing it's about 15,000 words away. My fault -- if I thought of a scene that would be funny, I'd put it in at the cost of advancing the plot more quickly. I hope to have it available for anyone who's interested by Christmas.

I highly recommend NaNoWriMo. It was a lot of fun, and a huge rush to finish (in more ways than one - on Thanksgiving I was at 32k. If any of you tried to talk to me over the weekend, please try again). In April, there's something similar with scriptwriting.

But now it's done, and I can turn my attention back to what's important: the War on Christmas. Happy Holidays, all!