Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar

Let's get this out of the way: Avatar is a beautiful movie.  Stunningly, even shockingly beautiful, and not in the inert, static way of Watchmen or the more recent work of Tim Burton, which emphasize the creation of detailed, meticulously crafted tableaux.  Avatar is beautiful in a cinematic way.  The individual details of its locales are lovely, but it's the movement--walking, running, swimming, flying--within those locales that takes one's breath away.  And breathtaking as its beauty is, Avatar isn't eye-popping.  The film encourages you to forget that you're watching computer generated characters in a computer generated environment, and its use of 3D technology is subtle and thought-out.  Avatar is the third 3D film I've seen this year, and if Up treated the technology as an afterthought and barely made use of it, and Coraline went out of its way to poke the audience in the eye (and made me very queasy in the process) with Avatar James Cameron has fully integrated this new tool into his director's toolbox, using it not to draw attention to itself but to create a fully immersive environment.  There are people for whom this kind of aesthetic achievement is sufficient in itself to make a successful piece of cinema, and if you're one of those people then God be with you, but I'm not.  So having established just how beautiful Avatar is, let me pay it the greatest compliment that its beauty will buy from me: Avatar is beautiful enough that for most of its 160 minutes, that beauty is very nearly sufficient to distract from the fact that it is such a boring movie.

I use that word deliberately.  Avatar's problem isn't that it has a stupid plot or that it is racist, though both criticisms are true.  The latter should probably bother me more than it does, as it turns out that all the Dances With Aliens/What These Blue-Skinned People Need is a Honky/Pocahontas in Space jokes were dead accurate.  The thing is, though, we started making those jokes when the first trailers and plot descriptions rolled out.  We all knew what we were getting into when we bought out tickets, and it seems almost redundant to criticize a movie that wears its racism so proudly on its sleeve.  When the film's production designer obliviously explains that making the film's Others blue-skinned aliens freed the filmmakers to tell a story that would have been considered racist if told about humans, and doesn't see the problem in what he's saying despite the fact that the only thing distinguishing those aliens from stereotypical Native Americans is their blue skin, what is there for a humble blogger to add?  Of course, the very fact that such opinions are held and expressed means that it isn't pointless to criticize Avatar and films like it for their racism, and I'm grateful to those who have done that work already, but that racism is not, to my mind, a problem that could have been fixed and whose repair would have made Avatar a better film, like the Nigerian characters in District 9.  Racism is baked so deeply into the film's makeup that if Avatar were not racist, it would be a completely different movie.  This is, perhaps, desirable, but it's not a particularly meaningful criticism of the film as it turned out, nor the reason that it fails.

Similarly, when initial reviews of the film called it technologically groundbreaking but moronically plotted, my reaction was: And?  So?  Therefore?  This is a James Cameron movie we're talking about, right?  Cameron is one of my favorite filmmakers.  Aliens and Terminator 2 are films that I can never get enough of.  I saw Titanic twice at the movie theater, and not for the love story.  I even like The Abyss, which a goodly portion of Cameron fandom seems to consider a snoozefest.  But as much as I love his movies, I can't deny that technologically groundbreaking but moronically plotted is a pretty accurate description of each and every one of them.  Avatar's plot--a human marine infiltrates the native population of an alien planet in an attempt to persuade them to move away from a priceless resource his employers want to get at, goes native, leads alien revolt--is not significantly dumber than that of any of Cameron's other films, and neither is it a huge break with tradition for him to cast a black-hearted, baby-killing military-industrial complex as the film's villain while making sweeping, vastly oversimplified statements about the wonders of nature and the evils of technology. 

The reason that Cameron's previous films worked despite their silly and simplistic plots is that he has an almost preternatural talent for writing engaging action narratives within the boundaries of those stupid premises.  It's a very simple formula--a sequence of set pieces in which the characters encounter and overcome a life-threatening challenge, each iteration raising the stakes and ratcheting up the tension while also laying the groundwork for the film's culminating life-threatening challenge and the method by which the characters overcome it--and Cameron's gift is the ability to string together these challenges in a way that seems organic, and to build towards the film's climax without letting the story go slack or overwhelm the viewer.  At the same time, Cameron knows how to write characters--not as Dostoevskian portraits of complexity and contradiction, but as recognizable and easily distinguishable individuals.  At the end of the wakeup from cryo scene in Aliens, we know most of the important marine characters--Vasquez is a butch woman, Hudson is a clown, Gorman is a green officer, Bishop is a robot.  None of these are particularly nuanced or subtle characterizations, and they are never expanded upon, but they are vivid and effective, so that later on in the film, when Hudson goes to pieces, or Vasquez and Gorman die a badass death together, we're affected.  Cameron can craft these kinds of plots and characters because he knows how to write essentially, making plot points and lines of dialogue do double and triple duty, leaving not a single ounce of fat on any of his narratives.  In Aliens, Hicks gives Ripley his locator bracelet.  It's a gesture of friendship and perhaps nascent romance, which brings Hicks into focus and sets up his greater importance in the film's second half.  Later, Ripley gives the bracelet to Newt, as a way of establishing their mother-daughter bond.  At the end of the film, Ripley uses the bracelet to find Newt in the queen's lair.  A single prop fuels two character dynamics and a major plot point.

There are, in other words, two James Camerons.  There's the detail-obsessed technophile, who invents new kinds of submersible cameras with which to film the wreck of the Titanic on the ocean floor, recreates the ship's interior down to the wallpaper and table settings, waits twelve years for filmmaking technology to catch up to his vision before he makes a movie, and then uses that technology as if he's been working with it his whole career.  And there's the writer, who knows how to sweep viewers along into his story, create characters whom the audience will immediately latch onto and wish to see triumph, and arouse fear and tension when those character are put in harm's way.  The problem with Avatar, the reason that it is a beautiful but boring movie, is that only one of those Camerons turned up to work.  When Avatar reaches for our emotions, it reaches exclusively for a sense of wonder at its beauty.  Not joy at the characters' triumphs, not fear for their lives, not love or hate or horror, only wonder.  Yet for all that emphasis on wonder, there is not a single scene in Avatar which is the equivalent of the "I'm the king of the world!" scene in Titanic--no moment in which we experience the characters' happiness vicariously.

The reason for that is that Avatar deliberately short-circuits that vicarious reaction by leaving its characters out of the equation.  Avatar's characters, and particularly Jake Sully, the human lead, aren't people in their own right, but avatars for the audience.  Their purpose in the film is to provide us with a point of view from which to see its beauty.  Jake is a blank, a black hole at the center of the film (and quite stupid to boot--there is not a single moment when one senses that he can guess the consequences his actions, no matter how obvious those consequences might be) and this is entirely deliberate.  His purpose is to give us a window on Cameron's technological accomplishment, but because no matter how immersive 3D technology is, we never forget that we're sitting in a movie theater, the only reaction we have to that accomplishment is wonder.  We don't feel joy, we don't feel exhilaration.  We don't feel like the king of world.  Cameron knows this, so he doesn't bother to make Jake feel these feelings either, and neither does he try, as he did in his previous films, to create tension or fear.  What's left is a plot we all recognize, whose beats are slow and predictable.  It's pretty easy to guess which characters will live and which will die, and since Cameron has done so little work to invest us in them, it's hard to care about either outcome.  And thus Avatar becomes boring.

It's interesting to look back on 2009's science fictional film output.  At the end of a decade so thoroughly dominated by comic book and superhero films, 2009, through a confluence of scheduling issues, saw these drop away (except for the abysmal Wolverine) to make room for a slate of, at least on paper, very interesting science fiction projects.  Even if we discounted the extruded science fiction products like Transformers 2 and Terminator: Salvation on the one hand, and the independent and semi-independent outsider efforts like Moon and District 9 on the other, we'd still be left with a whole raft of bold, risk-taking films: Watchmen, which tried to adapt one of the most difficult, critically beloved, and unwelcoming graphic novels ever written; Star Trek, a reboot of a franchise worn into the ground by its previous handlers and left behind by most of its fans; 9, a steampunkish animated film geared at adults (which, with its emphasis on visuals over plot and characters, feels like an appetizer for Avatar); Avatar, a lavishly expensive experiment in an untested technology from one of the most famously temperamental and self-indulgent directors in the business.  Such a wide variety of styles and approaches, and yet nearly all of these films ran the gamut from beautiful failures to deeply flawed successes.  Moon is the best science fiction film of the year, but it's also the one whose ambitions were slightest--a short chamber piece whose success was derived mainly from the strong performance at its center.  It's the cinematic equivalent of a short story, and though these are rare enough that efforts like Moon should be cosseted and protected like hot-house flowers, I'm also partial to the space operas and planetary romances to which the cinematic medium is so uniquely suited.  It's been a long time since we've seen a successful one of these, and if James Cameron can't even deliver one up, what hope is there for the future?

13 comments:

telepresence said...

I agree with this pretty much entirely, although I'll give the movie one moment or sequence where it really felt joyful to me, the part where Jake and Neyteri are first flying around on their respective bird thingies and mock dogfighting/flirting. Especially in a sliver of a scene where they're just sitting together on the ground and Neyteri is swooping her hands around going over some clever maneuver. The joyfulness of the flight, the sense of freedom, plus the general beauty and the whole "perfect first date" vibe made this the emotional high point of the movie for me.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

I think in general Neytiri is the most successful aspect of the film's script, the point where it comes closest to the kind of movie I expect from Cameron (the actress has a lot to do with this too, of course), and that scene is one of the few instances in which she's allowed simply to be - and to be fun and awesome - rather than playing the role of Sully's enabler and love interest. Of course, the downside of scenes like this is that they throw an even sharper light on the fact that Avatar is the first of Cameron's film's in which the most prominent female character, even if she isn't the lead or co-lead, doesn't at least have her own story - even True Lies was as much about Jamie-Lee Curtis's journey as it was about Arnold's.

Max said...

I totally agree with this review, its basically Dances with Wolves without memorable or interesting characters, without a soul. Why is it that these days people can be satisfied by these impersonal and shallow character portrayals, I found the characters extremely wooden and formulaic.

Athena Andreadis said...

I couldn't agree more:

Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas

Greg Princeton said...

Whatever the reactions are, the movie is a must watch due to its larger than life special effects and story line.

Sara said...

Just saw it, very beatiful of course, but little to no emotional impact. I did like the scene of Neytiri and Sully discussing flying; it felt spontaneous. The only scene that really made contact for me was Sully's first jaunt in his avatar. I was grinning at his joy in walking and running again and I wish they had spent more time on this stage.

Raz Greenberg said...

With regards to the last sentence in the review: interestingly, though science fiction was always a solid money-making genre for Hollywood cinema, space opera never seem to have been a major part of it. The serials of the 1930s and early 1940s had their share of space operas (mostly inspired by newspaper comic strips like "Flash Gordon" and "Buck Rogers"), but interest in it seem to have pretty much died afterwards - we had alien-invasions, and apocalyptic visions, but very little space operas per-se (of course, there were films like "Alien" and its sequels that borrowed elements from the space opera, but I'm not sure they'd qualify as such). There were exceptions like "Forbidden Planet" and (of course) "Star Wars", but the success of these films, especially Star Wars, appears to have been influential in every respect OTHER than their genre. I can think of exactly one post-Star Wars cinematic space opera that made a big enough splash - "The Fifth Element" - and even this one, although a Hollywood production, has more to do with the director's French background than with anything American.
On television (and its cinematic spin-offs) space opera is a little bit more successful, and still you can count maybe 4 or 5 shows in the genre that actually made a really big cultural impression. It's a lot less than what you have in (say) the Japanese media.
So, even though space opera is considered very much a Hollywood genre, it really doesn't have such a strong presence in the American media.

Kyle said...

I saw it and it was “meh.” It WAS beautiful, I’ll give it that, but it was, as you say, boring. And you’re right, Cameron the writer wasn’t there to see what was going on.

I would take some exception to say that the movie was racist though. I thought it was more about racism than racist. The plot is simple, of course: “White man wants what colored people have.” And Giovanni Ribisi’s horrid performance of over-the-top corporate hack, solidified it, in my view, as Cameron’s wholly un-subtle stab at white man, corporations, etc. And in a way, it’s very cowardly of him to make the film and then cast it as corporations=greed, and leave government contact out of it. When Ribisi said, “Unobtanium,” my eyes rolled, and I thought… “Cameron shouldn’t do satire. He doesn’t have the gift.”

My favorite movie of all time is Lawrence of Arabia, and as my wife pointed out to me, it’s the exact same plot – except Avatar had the usual boring love interest involved. Blech. I loved Dances With Wolves, and my favorite Sci-fi book is Dune. All pretty much the same plot. A pity Cameron didn’t review any of these before writing Avatar. He could have picked up some pointers.

I personally wished he had pushed the envelope just a little further. The Unobtanium could have been something that, say, helped restore the Earth, repair the environmental damage wrought by man, or something like that. Introducing that would have given it some shades of gray and given me some pause to think, instead of: White People Are Evil. Hey, maybe you’re right, it is racist! Ha Ha.

I didn’t find the 3d to be all that great either. Introduce a wild enough movement and the picture seemed to flatten out, rendering the 3d all but moot. Though I admit, when the camera was still, I tried batting at a few flies here and there. I’m trying to find a theater near me so I can appreciate the beauty of the picture itself. Maybe if I can find an IMAX that has the 3d I’d see it again – the picture is brighter and the glasses won’t dull the picture, as it did in the regular theater I saw it in.

I wish the Cameron that wrote The Abyss was there. I’m of the opinion that it’s probably his single most successful movie for balance of character with the other-world alien thing. You mention that most people think it’s a snoozer, and of course when you’re making an “action picture” which in Hollywood is the only thing you can make from Sci-fi, to bore is the biggest sin. I personally would have liked more of that interaction between Bud and Lindsey here in Avatar. And yes, I would agree with others here, that the montage of them flying seemed to be the closest we get to a true emotion.

Overall though, I have to agree with much of what you say, which is why I love reading your stuff.

Anthrophile said...

The bit that takes it over the edge from "about racism" to "racist" is the bit where the outsider becomes more successful and impressive at being native than the actual natives, and without him they are lost, weeping and disorganized.

Raz Greenberg said...

Kyle,

I thought the same when I heard the name "Unobtainum", and even mocked it in my review, but then someone brought my attention to the fact that it's actually a slang term used by real-world scientists for rare materials:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unobtainium

So, Cameron wasn't trying to do satire, but rather give his film a more authentic scientific feeling. In this case, at least, he probably deserves more credit than he got.

Kyle said...

Raz,

Thanks for the info. In a way, it almost makes the movie dip another point. At least when I thought he was trying to be clever...at least he was trying. Now, it just seems even lazier to have the battle be over something that has even less substance than it being satire.

Anthrophile:

Yeah, actually I was just trying to be tongue in cheek about the racism bit. Sometimes humor loses it's edge in print. I blame me.

Anonymous said...

Wow I cant believe this is the same movie I saw. First of all the 'racist' overtones need to be done away with, if you cant come out of your bubble long enough to see this is not even REMOTELY racist, then you live in such a sensitive world that there is no way you could possibly survive in the real one. If you must classify this, it would be that a corporation is pushing out the 'little guy' to get what they want, which was the metal Unobtanium.

That being said, I first give the pluses of the movie: Colorful, technically amazing for special effects and you HAVE to see it in 3D or your wasting your money. Ok, thats all the pluses. The story was simply dumb and the plot had holes so big you can fly a space cruiser through it with a palette bomb in back.

Acting was phoned in, there was more expression on the Smurfs faces than the real people. My biggest problem, however was the plot. Ok, I have to ask, but why are the blue people, who are so in tune with their planet, so quick to go to war? They did not even once try to send out a peace convoy, much less did one person protest. Not even one peace council or puffing the peace pipe. Even the spirit mother one, the prophet woman, she was all up in arms yelling and whooping it up ready to fight at a moments notice. Seems to me a peaceful race wouldnt be so warrior like, with all the bow and arrow and knife fighting skills, nor would they eat meat. Look how they reacted to any challenge, they tie up the person, attack them with knives or generally threaten to kill them until they leave. Wow, enlightened arent they?

Second, the military guys were portrayed as dummies. How on earth can they fly all the way through space, to another planet and not have access to HIGH ALTITUDE PRECISION BOMBING? I mean we only perfected this in WWII people. Why did they have to go so low to the ground, so slowly in BROAD DAYLIGHT? Who on earth thought up these tactics? They could have simply sat in near orbit, pelting the planet with MOAB's until the blue peril was gone. Load up the loot and fly off. They military was played like suckers, or more accurately how liberal Hollywood sees the military. And not one scientist there had access to any satellite communication that could send back some of this video of death and destruction to CNN? Come on.

I suppose you can call me a troll, but I am speaking honestly and not caught up in the hype. This movie fails to entertain in any deep, meaningful way simply because of the contradictions and how the director chose to 'dumb down' the reality of it and make it into some sort of silly cartoon, with a horribly simplistic plot.

The movie was in the range of what, 3 hours? They couldnt have teased the audience with a storyline that didnt require mere puppets to act it out?

I suppose in a culture where we see a fantasy movie as 'racist' perhaps Cameron chose the best path. Most of the mouthbreathers that saw this movie simply munched their popcorn and watched the pretty colors. I for one felt cheated and ripped off at a movie that had no storyline, little acting and nothing more than eye candy to offer.

Avatar is like going to a buffet at McDonalds, sure your full, but look at the junk you just ate.

Consa said...

Avatar is a good love story and the movie effect is very good.

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