12/22/2009

James Cameron’s George Lucas’ Avatar

Posted in Reviews at 1:11 pm by Stephen

Two centuries and $75 billion in the making, Avatar has received strong reviews and big box office, though I personally found it to be a bit of a disappointment. It’s an amazing looking movie — especially in 3D — but it seems like director and writer James Cameron spent all that time working on the visuals when he could have taken a few more passes on the script.

As I’ve made pretty clear on the show before, I’m a huge James Cameron fan. I can quote the whole screenplays to Aliens and T2 by heart, and I really enjoy his other work (caveat: I haven’t seen Piranha Part Two: The Spawning). Avatar is a movie I’ve been looking forward to for more than 10 years, since I read early script reviews of it back in the mid-’90s. Especially then, the idea seemed amazing: Cameron uses computer generated images to build an entire world. It seemed like the high-concept sci-fi that Cameron is so good at, and the man has always been at the forefront of special effects.

And because we tend to remember Cameron for his directing and groundbreaking visual effects work, I think it’s easy to forget that his movies work also because he’s a skilled writer. Aliens (does any action movie this side of Die Hard have as many quotable lines?) and T2 feature nonstop action and tension while also building strong characters, from the transformation of Ellen Ripley into supreme badass or the surprisingly sweet relationship between a boy and his terminator, Cameron has given us memorable characters with strong arcs. Something like The Abyss is as much a character study as it is a sci-fi epic, and of course Titanic features a pretty good romance in a historical setting. Even in movies like Aliens, Cameron has managed to sketch out memorable supporting characters despite not devoting much time to them: minor roles like Hudson or Vasquez or even Bishop are all basically archetypes more than fleshed out characters, but written with enough wit to make them memorable.

Which, sadly, is more than I can say for Avatar. Instead, Avatar gives us Aliens meets Dances With Wolves. It’s the story of former Marine Jake Sully (played well by Sam Worthington in one of the movie’s stronger performances) who joins up with a sinister corporation to extract some sort of Macguffinite resource from an alien planet. Sully, using a pretty cool bit of plot device technology, gets his mind linked into an “avatar,” an alien body fused with his DNA that allows him to control a giant blue cat alien to try and make nice with the native inhabitants of the planet.

Here is where things go south: the entire blue alien cat society is basically ripped out of the “Noble Savage Cliche” book. They are peaceful people (who are also fierce warriors) in tune with mother nature who just want the humans to stop desecrating the blue alien cat sacred grounds. The blue alien cats have no love for human technology or war and just want to be left alone. In a not-at-all telegraphed plot twist, Sully decides he likes being a blue alien cat better than a human and teams up with them to fight the sinister corporation.

I’m not opposed to this sort of plot on principle. I love Terrence Malick, who has basically made this story five times. But the genius of Malick is to acknowledge that modern, industrial humans can’t just return to nature and have everything be fine. In Malick’s movies, characters bring their baggage (both psychological and otherwise) with them, spoiling and corrupting the very tranquility they seek.

Avatar isn’t really interested in these kinds of questions. The aliens are stunningly rendered using sophisticated motion capture technology that qualifies as the best we’ve ever seen. These are the most compelling computer generated actors we’ve seen, outshining the work Peter Jackson did just a few years ago. But it’s a sign of the movie’s misplaced priorities that the aliens look so good while being so boring.

Almost none of the aliens have distinct personalities, and what little personality they do have can be wiped away in a moment when the plot requires it. One of the tribal leaders hates our hero at first, then later almost immediately comes around when they need to join forces. The blue alien cat love interest has no distinct personality whatsoever — she is a blank slate, seemingly free of all motivation beyond “I love the hero” and “I am a fierce warrior princess.” As is so often the case in poorly written science fiction, the alien society seems entirely homogeneous. If there are any disagreements between any members, we really don’t see them. Do any of them like the humans? Are none of them interested in the human technology? Are we really expected to believe that a sentient race wouldn’t be more interested in mingling with interstellar visitors?

Again, the movie isn’t interested in these sorts of questions, which hurt its attempts to provide an anti-imperial message. It doesn’t take much to view the profit-minded corporation waging war to obtain a scarce resource as an allegory for modern America, but the stereotypes seem at least 150 years too old. The truth is, Americans haven’t been fighting pre-industrial peoples in more than a century, so if I’m intended to view this as a criticism of American foreign policy, it would be nice if the critique seemed at all relevant. There’s no nuance or subtlety at all: imperialism bad, nature good. Military bad, tribal military good.

Frankly, this is the sort of weak storytelling, flat characters, and dull dialogue that became a trademark of the Star Wars franchise during the prequels. I think the comparisons between those films and Avatar are apt: both featured mind-blowing visuals that used the latest in computer generated effects to tell a story that was ultimately pretty lifeless. In both cases the stories attempted to be epics that had something meaningful to say about human society, but in both cases they came up short in that end.

I realize that my review probably makes it sound like I hated the movie. I don’t, but I also don’t hate the Star Wars prequels, either. Like the prequels, Avatar had enough thrilling moments to make it mostly enjoyable. Cameron remains a great director of action scenes and as I mentioned before, the overall look of the movie is pretty stunning. Watching it on the big screen definitely provides some moments of wonder.

Avatar is also the biggest live action 3D release of all time, and in that regard it lives up to the hype. This is the first time I’ve seen a 3D movie where I was mostly glad for the 3D. I got some eye strain at first, but once I got over that got used to the look — the polarized 3D seems to add a bit of blurriness at times that distracts me — some of the 3D moments are breathtaking. It gives me a glimmer of hope for 3D in that some of the most interesting 3D experiences weren’t big action scenes, but simple shots of environments or people. Getting subtle depth cues for the contours of faces is surprisingly effective, and seemed to help the sell the idea that these CGI blue alien cats were actual living, breathing people.

So while I don’t think Avatar is a movie I’ll be watching in 10 years while I’m putting on Aliens for the thousandth time, it was a decent experience. Before the movie came out I told Sam that I thought it would be either a great film or a colossal failure, and it turns out I was wrong about that. It’s a pretty standard sci-fi action movie elevated by some wonderful visuals that never really achieves the greatness I would have hoped for.

6 Comments »

  1. Randy (1) said,

    December 22, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    I totally agree with the “Aliens and Dances With Wolves” comment. That was exactly what I said when I came out.
    I liked the movie enough, but not enough to see it again.

  2. Sam (405) said,

    December 22, 2009 at 4:25 pm

    I won’t be able to see Avatar until January — I’ll comment about it then, here and/or on the podcast — but the mention of Piranha 2 made me remember something I learned about it recently.

    Possibly the reason it’s apparently bad (I haven’t seen it either) is that the producer took over after the first week. Here’s the story as recorded on the IMDb trivia page: “Credit for directing this film was given to James Cameron. Most of the work was actually performed by Ovidio G. Assonitis, the film’s producer and prolific film-maker. Assonitis was dissatisfied with Cameron’s progress after the first week and took over. According to “Dreaming Aloud,” a biography of James Cameron by Christopher Heard, Cameron did do the shooting for this movie, but was not allowed to see his footage and was not involved in editing. He broke into the editing room and cut his own version, but was caught and Assonitis re-cut it again.”

    Cameron later called Piranha 2 the “finest flying piranha movie ever made” but also said it plays better if you’re at a drive-in and drinking as you watch it.

    Since it’s questionable if Cameron can really be called the director of the film, despite being credited as such, it occurs to me that he would have been a great pick for our Top 6 Directorial Debuts list way back in Episode 9. That was a crowded playing field — to cover more of it, Stephen and I agreed not to pick any of the same choices AND exclude Orson Welles simply because it would be anti-climactic for him to walk away with the well-deserved #1 spot — but still. By disqualifying Piranha 2, it means “The Terminator” is Cameron’s first movie. Talk about a debut!

  3. m.s. (1) said,

    January 1, 2010 at 4:24 pm

    @Stephen. Thanks for the review!

    But really, Avatar is not great?! I am at a loss for how you could not see Avatar as great. So I’ll address a couple of you’re points:

    1) “modern, industrial humans can’t just return to nature and have everything be fine…characters bring their baggage (both psychological and otherwise) with them, spoiling and corrupting the very tranquility they seek.”

    a) Agreed. If Avatar were Cameron’s response when asked how to solve the world’s problems, then I would also be less enthusiastic about the movie. But no one asked that question to spur the movie’s production.

    Avatar is Sci-fi/fantasy, like Lord of the Rings, and so when Jake Sully finds peace among the Na’vi, the story is not so different from the fellowship of the ring being tranquil in Rivendell. No one said Peter Jackson was being simplistic when he put beautiful elves in glowing trees. So why should Cameron be criticized for essential the same story component?

    2) “It doesn’t take much to view the profit-minded corporation waging war to obtain a scarce resource as an allegory for modern America, but the stereotypes seem at least 150 years too old. The truth is, Americans haven’t been fighting pre-industrial peoples in more than a century, so if I’m intended to view this as a criticism of American foreign policy, it would be nice if the critique seemed at all relevant.”

    b) Sure the United States is not fighting Indian wars, but indigenous people’s rights in the face of globalization and resource-extraction are still contemporary. Some examples include - three rivers damn project in China forcing re-location of thousands of families from their ancestral homes; Nigeria oil conflict where rebels are fighting for a share of oil revenue produced by Shell, who caused massive pollution and destroyed fishing livelihoods; mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia that decimates small communities with pollution, noise, and erosion; Amazon Indians losing rain forest homes to logging and development…the list goes on.

    I see Avatar as timely and not overly-simplistic, and displaying fantastic technology, the movie is great.

  4. Stephen (221) said,

    January 2, 2010 at 3:30 pm

    Hi m.s., interesting feedback. I’m glad that you — and a whole lot of people — love the movie, and like I said I enjoyed it myself. Cameron is one of my favorite filmmakers and it’s nice to see him having this success. But, yes, I do not consider it a great film and in fact would rank it among the weakest of the Cameron filmography (not intended to be an insult considering how highly I rate his work).

    To address your points, I’m not sure I fully understand the LOTR argument. The Fellowship doesn’t find lasting peace in Rivendell, and indeed the point of that sequence is its members can’t stay there. Also, I do indeed take issue with many of the ideas in Tolkien’s work (I think that most of those story decisions belong to him rather than Jackson and his fellow screenwriters). I’m pretty far from the first to point out that Tolkien’s depictions of cultures and societies are problematic at times. But I’d still say that the fully realized world Tolkien created is far more complex and nuanced than that of Avatar.

    I have no problems with the general idea of nature being beautiful and offering a sort of sanctuary to humans. In fact, that impulse to return to nature is a powerful one and should be explored. Again, people like Malick have made careers exploring that exact theme. I just wish Avatar had explored it with more depth and nuance than it did.

    Your second point is fair; I certainly agree that the broad theme of advanced civilizations exploiting the resources of less advanced civilizations is relevant. In fact, unlike many of those who seem to be attacking Avatar, I am in general agreement with its politics: imperialism is a pretty bad thing.

    But its Avatar’s depiction of the actual civilizations in conflict that rubbed me the wrong way. The Na’vi culture is pantheistic, non-industrialized, and tribal. They are a proud people, peaceful but also fierce warriors when called to defend their home. They fit just about every (positive) American Indian stereotype. Pretty much every human in the film is a white American. I don’t think I’m misreading the film in believing these are intentional.

    Because the civilizations are so familiar, it makes it very difficult for me to think of the story as anything but a sci-fi take on a very specific period in American history. Perhaps Cameron is trying to remind us of the tragedy that was America’s handling of the American Indians and draw a parallel with modern events? I’m not sure, and the ending muddies the matter even further.

    Honestly, my feeling is that the film’s politics are pretty nebulous. The plot fuels everything, and politics disappear as the story requires (so do fully developed characters, sadly).

    As an interesting aside, CHUD published a look at an early Avatar treatment, back when it was called Project 880. That original story seems to be more of what I was looking for: a bit more depth and nuance to the story. It answers many questions I had about the story and the world. Given that the movie is already pretty long I sort of understand why much of that didn’t make it into the finished film, but I sort of wish it had.

    The link to that breakdown of the difference between Avatar and Project 880 is: http://www.chud.com/articles/articles/21969/1/PROJECT-880-THE-AVATAR-THAT-ALMOST-WAS/Page1.html

  5. Comfortably Numb (1) said,

    January 21, 2010 at 7:48 am

    Stephen your review in general is accurate. I very much would have enjoyed deeper dialog and a stronger plot. I went for basic entertainment and got it, therefore it has a very high ‘popcorn’ rating from me and I consider it money well spent. I don’t care for lack of suspense and the 10 or 15 min gun-ho action and it’s over. As for something that has a ‘repeat view’ or ‘follow v2 and v3′ goes, it fails. Technically it was spectacular, great animation and cinematography, but I won’t be pulled in for more of the same old stuff. Cameron needs to get the next one into the A1+ rating, something as watchable/gripping as the Abyss. Perhaps a heavyweight star or two can be engaged, after a good script writer that is. However, if the plot is rumored to be as week as the first, then I’ll wait by the TV to complete the trilogy viewing.

  6. MoviePoopShoot (1) said,

    January 22, 2010 at 11:17 pm

    Stephen, your review is dead-on. The movie, which I will concede is beautiful and will no doubt pave the way for future special effects and movie experiences, was, at its core, a fraud. The 3D effects, the motion-capture animation, and the detailed digital rendering was, in all, lipstick on a pig. What’s really interesting is that the main character of the movie, Jake Sully, is a man pretending to be something that he is not, and eventually convinces himself and (most of) the audience that he is. The movie, itself, parallels that very stance. The movie is a all sizzle, but no steak, and when I left the theater, I left hungry. You have to recognize its achievement in the visual aspect of cinema, but for this movie to receive the praise that it eventually will in the upcoming awards season, it can only be described as fraudulent.

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