Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar Review: OUCH!

"Avatar" is an incredibly lazy movie. I don't mean you'll fall asleep during it. It's got a good number of action beats and they're filmed in a competent manner. But still...

I have amazing amounts of respect for folks who make movies. I'm the sort who enjoys watching the commentaries on DVDs, and my favorites to date are those that go with the extended versions of the Lord of the Rings Movies. Just seeing all the effort that went into the writing, filming, costuming, prop-making and management... Frankly, it was an amazing undertaking that leaves me in awe.

You don't really see that in Avatar. Ok, sure the effects and the world are amazing, but haven't we seen all this before? The critters with multiple eyes and fan-like projects that wave like palm-fronds when they are startled, the floating mountains, the combat walkers, the glow-in-the-dark plants, etc, etc... Haven't we seen all of this before in various incarnations of the Final Fantasy franchise? Sure, it looks great, but I couldn't help but feel that, as gorgeous as it all is, it felt horribly derivative.

And that's the high point of the flick. The writing is probably the nadir. I should warn you at this point that spoilers follow, but seriously, after the first five minutes you could outline the rest of the flick in perfect safety. You've seen this film a dozen times at least.

This film has a blatant "as you already know" speech in the first act. While the words "as you already know" are never spoken, it is a conversation between two people who know everything that's being said. And the coup de grace is that they word "unobtanium" is used, blatantly, to describe the mysterious super-mineral that has brought humans to the planet. At that point, it became impossible to take the movie seriously.

What follows is stuff you've all seen before. The science fiction elements exist solely to justify the tropes you expect, once you know you're watching a kiddy-fare environmentalism film: the amoral corporate geeks, the hard-ass military guys who can't wait to unleash their toys and hapless soldiers on the noble defenders of nature, and the attack of the animals that shifts the momentum of the climactic battle. It even ends with a mano-y-mano duel between our hero and the bloodthirsty colonel. At least Cameron had the writing chops to give his military maniac a plausible excuse for wanting to drop a nuke in "The Abyss." Here, the colonel's desire to kill and destroy is simply who he is. It's almost too bad he didn't have a mustache he could twirl.

Much has been said about how the blue-skinned, vaguely feline natives are pseudo-Native Americans. Even that's giving the film too much credit. These are tree-hugging noble savages from Rousseau. If you want to seen Native Americans, rent "Apocalypto" or "Dances with Wolves." What you see in Avatar is milk-toast pap that Native Americans are rightly insulted to feel attached to. It is a white man's delusions of what he wishes Native American's were, without any respect for or even knowledge of their traditions, history, or culture.

Things just get worse as the film unspools. Laziness abounds: the amazing secret of the natives is never really exploited or played with, because that would mean deviating from the model. The final battle involves a military force attacking with short-ranged weapons, in spite of being written and directed by the man who gave nerds the phrase, "Nuke 'em from orbit; it's the only way to be sure." Both sides use ground forces in the battle without a tactical explanation as to why. The infantry and ground-cavalry units on both sides seem to have no reason for their involvement beyond a bloodthirsty need to kill each other (all to a heroic but forgettable Horner soundtrack). Or hero has to be rescued in the mano-y-mano fight with the colonel because he momentarily forgets that he has arms and legs.

Lazy, lazy, lazy... Sure, fun spectacle, but of the sort that demands you turn off your brain before things begin. It's hard to not feel the effort is half-assed in a world where you can rent far better films with great spectacle, excellent writing, compelling, complex characters and far more respect for the beauty, danger, and power of the natural world such as "Princess Mononoke." That's the film Avatar should be compared to, and it's one that it can't help but look wanting next to.

UPDATE:
AICN offers an interesting look at the science of Avatar. And I just noticed that this is my 666th post.

11 comments:

squidman said...

Great review that confirms my doubts about this movie...

While I haven't seen it yet, I am not sure if I should put out the money for it... Why? Because don't want to support the kind of movie industry that Avatar symbolizes... A film that spends 300 million $ on developing a "mind dazzling visual performance", while being directed by a man who wasn't ashamed to give the world Titanic, is a huge mistake.

It's obvious that the unimaginable investment made by the producers forces a pg-13 plot that will allow the movie to return their interests...

The part I hate the most, is that I do have to see it, in order to gain the full right to criticism, yet I already know I probably won't enjoy it...

G. Benedicto said...

Nice review. My expectations are never very high for any big budget Hollywood affair. I'm going to see Avatar in a couple hours purely for the visuals, and I'm not ashamed to admit it.

I wouldn't lean on "Apocalypto" overmuch for historical accuracy.

http://www.wired.com/table_of_malcontents/2006/12/apocalypto_myth/

Oddysey said...

As long as people say, "Yeah, the writing's terrible, but I'm going to see it for the special effects anyway" the writing isn't going to get any better. Why work harder if you can be lazy and still make money?

sirlarkins said...

"I wouldn't lean on "Apocalypto" overmuch for historical accuracy."

Or Dances With Wolves for that matter...

"As long as people say, "Yeah, the writing's terrible, but I'm going to see it for the special effects anyway" the writing isn't going to get any better."

Hear hear! We're living through a dark age of creativity in Hollywood.

squidman said...

Agreed, out of 10 biggest blockbusters in 2009, only 3 were based on an original idea...

G. Benedicto said...

We can object to poor writing until the Sun goes dark -- Hollywood will continue to be all flash and little or no substance, because the Lowest Common Denominator doesn't know the difference and doesn't care. You make due with the hand your dealt. Occasionally something great comes along. Studio Ghibli, for example, has produced some fantastic films.

Anonymous said...

You guys sound like a bunch of Reality TV addicts telling all your friends "Oh, I don't watch television at all ... and when I do I watch A&E and the History Channel!"

I guess pseudo-intellectualism still thrives in the D&D nerd circles.

sirlarkins said...

G. Benedicto: I'd be inclined to agree with you on first blush, but I can think of two examples from my own lifetime (or near enough) of periods when Hollywood seemed more open and willing to put out provocative, creatively daring projects (I'm thinking of the early- to mid-70s and the early- to mid-90s).

Certainly, things seem to move in a cyclical manner, vacillating between blockbusters and "indie" films. I think this blockbuster phase is particularly irksome since, as squidman pointed out, most of Hollywood's output these days seems to either be a remake or based on an existing property (i.e. superhero/toy movies).

Anonymous: You're not the same Anonymous who tried to troll my Distant Mirror post the other day, are you? Shine on, you crazy diamond!

G. Benedicto said...

"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public." -- H. L. Mencken

clovis said...

the movie was THREE hours
when two would have sufficed for such a simplistic and predictable plot . . .

did you ever doubt bows and beaks could defeat 22nd century military hardware?

However, what really creeped me out was the hairless blue felines . . .
that had the bodies of eleven year old girls . . .
almost makes me wonder if James Cameron is a pedophile

Eli Arndt said...

I should offer that I have heard some pretty positive reviews of this movie. Most people who claim it is derivative seem to quote either incredibly obscure, "pet" sources or draw from such broad catagorization that nearly anything could apply.

This movie isn't designed to be deep or a masterpiece of the art. But that's okay. There should be a place out there for movies that are fun, amazing and entertaining in that roller coaster way.

You know the best way to spoil an amusement ride? Analyze the science and physics of it.

-Eli