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!


Marc said...

>"I've met people of all ages, genders, and backgrounds that loved Aliens"

Yep, count me in on that. And Terminator 2 as well.

When I told my wife I was renting Terminator 2 and that she was going to love it, she gave me the skunk eye.

Two and a half hours later she's walking around the house going "Ka-chunk BLAM! Ka-chunk BLAM!"

Gawd I love her.

The Man Version said...

Marc, I don't blame you. You find a girl like that, you grab on and hold tight.

Too many innocent guys out there are victimized by their girlfriends/partners/spouses. You never know ahead of time if they have a tradition of, say, spending Super Bowl Sunday watching "Beaches" over and over, crying until they dehydrate.

I'm glad you avoided it.

Artful Dodger said...

Let me take an opposing view (albeit without having seen the movie).

First, I remember when Bob Dylan got booed off the stage because he dared to go electric (or to do his thing in a way his fans didn't recognize). He said he was doing it for himself and his fans could follow along or not. JC is doing his thing. You can follow along or not.

Second, if you look at what he does as some sort of art, think of the works of Da Vinci. There is no doubt that the "Last Supper" is intended to tell a story. OTOH, the "Mona Lisa" is just some lady sitting for a portrait. Is the one art because it tells a story and the other not because it doesn't?

Titanic was a love story. Story, story, story. Avatar is an action flick. Action, action, action.

Grab your Eight Dollar popcorn and your Six Dollar soda, sit back and soak it in.

The Man Version said...

If Dylan had grabbed an electric guitar and started playing covers of songs like "Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy," it would have annoyed even his most devoted fans.

Maybe there were people who wanted to just hear the sound of an electric guitar and didn't care about whether the song was any good. But couldn't they have also heard what they wanted in a GOOD song?

Same with Avatar. There are people who just want to see the amazing CGI. But you can put CGI in a good story too, right? Terminator 2, for example, was a good story and had incredible SFX for its time.

I do think Avatar is a work of art. It's just flawed.

And I would argue that Avatar is an action flick. It has action in it, but it reaches for a love story, a political commentary, and a philosophical treatise. I think Cameron *wanted* it to be accessible to all, but got lost in the visuals.

All my opinion, of course. I probably shouldn't take movie crap so seriously :) I just think it's a shame when something like this falls short of its potential.

BurntSynapse said...

Your review is pretty close to my feelings exactly regarding Abrams' Star Trek film, except that it was completely over the top in its pro-military & pro-violence advocacy.

There is no arguing with people who do not care about quality, content, characters, ethics, etc. If they do not care, then facts and reasoning are immaterial.

Living here in Patagonia, I have not seen the film yet, however an upcoming trip to Aspen will feature a stop in Denver at the IMAX to check it out.

Ever since I saw the preview, I've shared your concerns since it seemed that the entire plot was basically revealed in 10 to 15 seconds worth of dialogue.

Thanks for the review!

Jake said...

Probably one of the best visual scifi movies I've ever seen and I’d have to say with the addition of a 3-D that was not a distraction and IMAX it was a more than impressive experience that I’ll repeat in the coming weeks. And as has been said before there is a lot of Dancing With Wolves in there to which I’d add Fern Gully for the full native plus environment story line. I’ll also give Avitar my vote for having the best cam/alt/woo healing scene. Damn, the whole planet gets involved!!

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