Friday, January 22, 2010

Late Avatar Review

I finally got around to seeing Avatar last night. I think just about everyone has had their say, and I do not have that much to add to the discussion, except to locate myself in it and maybe make a few rambling observations. Major Spoilers.

The visuals and the 3D tech were more impressive than I though they were going to be: I figured it would basically be like Coraline, and Beowulf and Up, but this was certainly a notch up. Everything was bright and crisp and clear; the depth of field really brought a lot, and Cameron, whatever his other faults, brought a lot to look at. The screenplay was basically solid, with introductions and call-backs -- introduce the hammerhead-rinos, bring them back; introduce how the mask works, bring it back; introduce the super-dragon, bring it back, introduce the dog monster, bring it back; introduce the magic tree, bring it back. The dialogue was less cringe-worthy than it could have been. It also had a lot of sweeping action that was also very good, pretty well choreographed and epic. The bad guy was evil in a fun way, and Sam Worthington -- who I did not realize until I got in the theatre was the guy who plays MacBeth in the 2006 Australian Machine Gun Version I show in class every term -- is basically good. Without the 3D those elements get you a C, with the 3D they will bring up to a B. As a $500,000,000 blockbuster movie, this is doing its job. It is not a work of genius, but like a well made table, it stands up. If that does not sound like much of a compliment, maybe it shouldn't, but so many blockbusters are just downright badly made -- Transformers, for example, or Phantom Menace, or the Matrix sequels -- you have to respond with some respect. In a perfect world Mission Impossible 3 and the Bourne Films maybe would not be on my list of favorite movies of all time, but I love those kinds of movies and mostly they are just done so goddamn badly you get really excited when one shows up that actually works as advertised.

The problem is that Avatar wants to bring a little more to the table -- it wants to say something about the War on Terror, and America and the environment. And this is totally fails to do, and also, in the process of so earnestly trying to say something important, destroys any of the wit or charm that would have saved it had it had nothing in particular to say. Star Trek and Iron Man were great blockbusters for this reason -- because themes of revenge or responsibility were there but no one was hitting the button on them that hard, and so they got to be primarily charming and fun. I, of course, don't really think big budget movies are really the best form in which to deliver messages -- I like the old studio mogul who said "if you want to send a message call Western Union." Dark Knight was maybe trying have an interesting idea in there, but the storytelling was so muddled that it got lost -- just as it did in Batman Begins.

What makes Avatar so aggravating is that the message is NOT muddled by the storytelling. It is just that the abstract idea in and of itself is terrible. This is why the movie generates such divided reaction. Because the story is serviceable, and visuals are amazing you can be very impressed. But because the ideas are terrible you can also dismiss the whole thing as terrible. It depends on what your value system puts more stress on -- idea or ride. You have the same problem in a lot of 24 -- the story can be very exciting but, yeah, it does seem to mostly to support torture.

I am with Neil and a lot of other people on the race stuff with the Na'vi -- they get to be the perfect "Other," variously reading as black (in the voice casting), arab (they are the insurgents protecting this natural resource the military wants), and Native American (in their respect for mother earth, with their bows and arrows, and animals and tribes, and thanking the animals they kill), and really whatever you want. And of course they are just perfect -- they live in a utopia and are everything the white men with the guns aren't (Jake even says negotiations are impossible we have nothing they want -- are they really going to leave their home for lite beer and bluejeans, Jake says). And our white guy gets the ultimate fantasy -- not only does he get to join the racial other, he also gets to be the most important one (as Neil points out, I think). It is the ultimate racial fetish, and it is bad news to fetishize "the other" in this way because it is not real -- it is a fantasy, and in the real world it is a fantasy that causes a lot of trouble. Avatar is actually a lot like 300 in the way it lays bear unconscious fantasies, except it gets to respond with the Jerry Seinfeld comment about the Chinese -- how can a comment be racist if it is a compliment? And the answer is because you are not engaging with a real person, just a projected fantasy, which no one can live up to.

This is bad but the real problem for me is that the fantasy is just silly so much of the time -- because Cameron seems to invested in it there is some very cheesy scenes, over-sincere. Even the superficial stuff is silly -- blue people riding magic dragons (you only get one and he is yours for life) I don't have a lot of patience for. And because of this sincerity to its images and ideas, the movie is completely uninterested in ironies like this is a 500,000,000 dollar technological spectacle telling us technology is bad (though to be fair Star Wars did the same thing when Luke trusts the force, rather than his fighter's computers, to take out the death star); like the fact that the Na'vi body Jake inhabits is every bit a piece of technology as the bulldozers. When at the end his Na'vi girlfriend holds his tiny human body like a baby, and it reminds us that she called him a baby several times at the beginning of the movie -- i don't think we are supposed to find this ironic, but it is, and it is pretty silly.

The issue becomes how much weight do we want to give that? How important is the message of the movie to you? How many letter grades does it loose because it can be silly? I spent most of my life loving superhero comics which are all about vigilante justice, heroes violating civil rights, spying, and punching people in the face until they do what they say. So I feel like I don't have that much of a leg to stand on the message point. So for me it gets a B- primarily because of how silly the Na'vi looked a lot of the time when we were supposed to take them seriously, as for example when the military guy asks Jake how it feels to be a race traitor and he just makes a cat sound at him. That may say more about my value system than the movie, but there you go.


Todd C. Murry said...

I agree with the base of your criticism, although I disagree with a lot of the rest of what you say. It is a problem when people who aren't extremists are disgusted by a blockbuster's message, and indicates the themes aren't feathered in very well. I totally agree that I'd rather have a plot that just kind of kept the movie together and let the appeal of the spectacle work. It's just that I see it as more of a mismatch in the story and the storytelling, where the latter outmuscles the former, and makes everything the movie's going for seem tinny and hollow (and it does the same thing to most of the characters... at least Col. Quintich or whatever seems like he's in the right movie). A simple plot of pretext-for-action would have worked better.

The names are an on-the-nose hoot too (Jake Sully? Grace Augustine? The corporate guy's name is Sellfridge? Really?).

Interestingly, my google confirmation word is "glansas," which gives me an idea for a gay pron script.

scottmcdarmont said...

I'm reminded of a review I once read of the Phantom Menace that said something to the effect of directors like Cameron and Lucas having "A poet's eyes but Tin Ears"

I often feel that folks like Cameron and Lucas are better suited to be producers... to do the big picture stuff... and let other directors and screenwriters carry out their ideas.

The Empire Strikes back is a perfect example of this; Lucas didn't direct it... he took a backseat so he could handle the visual effects part of the movie and, meanwhile, handed the Screenwriting and directing dutis over to others (Lawrence Kasdan and Irvin Kershner respectively). The Result: The best movie in the Star Wars series.

I'm reminded of a story about Kershner wrapping on a shot and Harrison Ford asking him "Is that because you got the best performance out of us or because that's the one where the visuals worked best?"

Kershner was smart enough to understand that its the former, not the latter, that is the most important and ultimately gives blockbusters like this something that gives them well, a bit more heart.

The best example of this is when Han Solo was saddled with saying "I Love You Too" in the carbonite freezing scene. He sensed that this line wasn't working for Ford and allowed him to improvise the now famous "I Know" line... and, thus, a classic scene was born.

Imagine a movie with cameron visuals but performances and dialogue out of a Tarantino movie? Would that be awesome or just overpowering?

My grade on Avatar: C

Beautiful visuals, I also thought the world of the Na'vi was pretty nifty, the ability to, literally, plug in to their environment was a neat Idea which was, unfortately, overemphasized with the ham-fisted storytelling.

The characters were all pretty one dimensional and the story took itself way too seriously.


I am now thinking about what Gay Prawns would be like....

cease ill said...

I found a ton of interesting commentary on the thread that yielded this straightforward one:

Melissa Jane Mitchell

As a Native American, I thought it was nice to see the natives prevail in the end for a change. If white guilt leads to writing more stories honoring other cultures, that's better than ignoring them altogether.

The thread began with a dissection of the "white guilt" aspect and veered quickly off into the numerous relevant tropes...all human races were once tribal, pre-agrarian people tied to the land, so I was fine with that and hope for deeper characterization and uncomfortable moral ambiguities (such as the basic conflict confronting Jake, but with more chin-holding afterwards) in any future films.
I guess that's the point on the noble savage critique, because it lets you glimpse how completely awful this really Could have been...the uneducated guy in the wheelchair who doesn't fit in is going to grab a lot of imaginations, even with the hammy bits as we rush towards the end.

Thanks to you, I've said a lot, anyway! (I almost want a tattoo to commemorate it!) Gratefully, I happen to be spotlighting Sri Lanka's issues with my humble spot on the blogroll this weekend.

neilshyminsky said...

In my arithmetic, the awful 'message' aspect needs to be counted against the film twice - once for the trite lesson that it intends to impart and once for the more deeply problematic lesson that it doesn't intend to project.

Geoff: I don't think that you need to undercut yourself, Geoff, by way of the comparison to comic books or superheroes - whereas most comics don't aspire to be much more than good (and only occasionally thoughtful) fun, Avatar aspires to be politically-relevant high-culture. It offers itself up as serious critique, which is why I think that the failure of that critique to amount to much needs to be more heavily weighted against it.

cease ill: I think that Geoff's critique addresses some of the things that Mitchell misses in the message you've quoted. I think it's especially appropriate that she describes how these characters will fit into the viewers' "imaginations" - and that, as Geoff notes and as I wrote on my own blog, it's dangerous to offer imaginary and idealized characters who might be mistaken for real people. This is not, as Mitchell writes, a story that "honor[s] other cultures" because it invents a culture that does not exist and, in so doing, creates a standard that no culture can/will match. And the ending is deceiving in its happiness, too - because, in the stories that this film riffs on, the natives never win and goodness has never been enough. (And it likely won't be enough here, either, since Cameron wants to make a sequel where the humans will undoubtedly return.)

cease ill said...

Neil: If you mean comforting storybook endings lead people to assume there's nothing in the real world that deserves their, I hear ya. That IS the downfall of the "message"-oriented big movie...take Sri Lanka:

cease ill said...

The hopeful bit is that the anti-imperialist/ pro-nature theme penetrates someone's consciousness, as does the generous "living with nature" world view. That message seems to preclude the easy solution of a happy ending, though...and it's not going to be so simple to rake in a billion dollars of movie goers with a depressing ending. I hope the happy ending doesn't make people too secure in their ignorance, and maybe someone will take their own hero's journey from it. There are few people like that.

neilshyminsky said...

re: Happy endings. My point was a bit simpler - the happy ending is a lie because it's never happened that way, anywhere, ever. But I think your's is a good point, too - happy endings are also like inoculations. Things will work out the end, after all - bad guys always get their comeuppance, good guys always get their reward. But there's no necessary reason that either should happen, is there? (Which is not unlike Marx's take on religion.)

Triumph of the Underdog said...

Here is the message of Avatar: All technology is bad, except for motion capture technology, which James Cameron now holds the copyright for.

Christian said...

Let's not forget that the nature the Na'vi interacts with is a computer in and of itself. It stores, transfers and manipulates data. Only difference is that the Na'vi interact with it in another way than we do.

It is technology. The point is weakened even more.

The whole dichotomy of the Nature V. Technology is faulty anyway.

Also: Inglypho! (Verification word)

Geoff Klock said...

Todd -- those names were kind of funny

Scott -- Star Wars was great in a lot of ways, but flawed. I feel like later filmmakers, who loved Star Wars when they were young, felt like it was ok to reproduce the same flaws, cause Star Wars said it was ok.

CI -- thanks

Neil -- I am not sure I agree that "Avatar aspires to be politically-relevant high-culture" though I see your point that it is reaching for more than your average superhero comic. I guess I feel like no one who needs that big an audience can claim to be "high culture"

ToU, and Christian -- good points!

cease ill said...

Maybe the Gaea-theory inspired "planet as a brain"---what was your point, Angela?---biological based mechanism is a metonym for an interactive, interdependent system, which is true of any biosphere as well. there IS no technology v. nature duality, really, in Pandora itself. As it stands, that's not the real message so much as one about competition versus cooperation, and for what it's worth, cooperative system ARE more successful.

Maybe it's about not treating people like dirt to get what you want, too, or perhaps it's an eye-opener to people who aren't thoughtful of the price of single-minded commerce in providing modern society's needs (though THAT is not a well-featured point; the dots are left to connect). I hope it makes someone grow up to be a bit more thoughtful; you know you never can tell!

The problem with the come-uppance in the real world, of course, is the chance that people at large will pay the price. We will have to change for sure if we are to survive past that point.

Geez...somehow, though, we made it through the Cold War without going "boom" so anything is possible! ;-) Cecil & Angela
P.S. German friend Bettina pointed out the Marine stuff was really foreign to European thinking! Agrees it was "geared to reach the San Diego Navy guy", fer sure. Thought every frame was a wall poster, though...

neilshyminsky said...

Geoff: I think that Cameron's ranting acceptance speech at the Golden Globes illustrates the pretension pretty clearly:

“Avatar asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other and us to the Earth. And, if you have to go four and half light years to another made up planet to appreciate this miracle of a world we have right here, then well you know what, that’s the wonder of cinema, that’s the magic.”

Dude thinks he's filming the Bible or something.