January 10, 2010

Avatar (01/10/10)

Lettergrade: C

In the time since Avatar was released last month, there had been a few evenings where my wife and I went out to dinner with the intention of catching the flick afterward. Both times, we paid the bill, walked over to the theater and then decided that we'd rather go home instead. We just couldn't get excited about seeing it, for one reason or another. Was it the crappy looking trailer? My innate dislike of 3D? The three-flipping-hour running time? The fact that we had just gotten Super Mario Bros. Wii?

Whatever the cause, we finally pulled the trigger on it over the weekend, primarily because of the positive word of mouth but also because the film's financial and critical success became too great to ignore. And while there's certainly a lot to appreciate about the movie, I must say that it left me fairly underwhelmed at the same time. Wonderful, sophisticated visuals, yes, but a lot of self-important message crap too, which alternates between feeling insincere (particularly when coming from the most expensive Hollywood blockbuster yet made) and well, just kind of stupid.

The film takes a story that should be quite familiar to anyone who remembers Dances With Wolves and Pocahontas, and sets it a couple hundred years in the future. A greedy, Blackwater like company has gone to a distant planet populated by the super tall, super blue Na'vi people in order to mine a rare mineral. Cameron reached deep into the folds of his imagination and came up with the name "Unobtainium," which, according to Wikipedia, is sort of an in-joke within the aerospace industry. That may be, but it still sounds really dumb.

Anyway, mostly made up of ex Marines and a handful of scientists, the company has long attempted to make friends with the Na'vi people under the notion that they can eventually get them to agree to leave the areas where the richest deposits of Unobtainium exist. No one, however, has been able to pull it off. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), an ex-Marine now confined to a wheelchair after injuries sustained in service to his country (whichever country he's from... it's unclear if "America" still even exists in this particular future). He quickly masters technology left over from The Lawnmower Man movies that allows him to inhabit an artificial body that looks exactly like one of the Na'vi people (or an "Avatar"), which further allows him to walk again and integrate himself into the Na'vi way of life.

The main problem is that this is a story you probably already know inside and out. Will Jake participate in the destruction of these mystical beings or will he turn on his own people in the name of what's right? Will he fall in love with the alien chick who's played by Uhura from the new Star Trek movie? Will he square off against the preposterously evil Col. Quaritch, played by the Stephen Lang (because Michael Ironside was unavailable, I guess) in time for the film's climax? The movie takes a really goddamn long time developing and answering all of these questions. Three f'ing hours in fact. And it is highly unwarranted time too: As soon as a new character or situation is introduced, you can forecast with astonishing clairvoyance how that particular component of the movie will play out.

It's an exercise in excess. Early on, the movie spends a good deal of time detailing the planet's ecosystem and some of the creatures who inhabit it. Okaaaaaay, but these scenes, in addition to being kinda ham fisted and cumbersome, don't have any real payoff other than serving as extended advertisements for the toys and action figures that might even be available for purchase in the lobby. They're not especially inspired creatures either. So it's a cow with six nostrils: Big whoop.

Cynical marketing motives aside, I think Cameron was taking the J.R.R. Tolkien approach of trying to give the world so much detail that you must believe it's real. I don't think it really worked when Tolkien did it either, though. C.S. Lewis had the right idea: Just tell the story, using only the details that you absolutely need. The world will fill itself in as you go. The earlier Star Wars movies understood how effective a reasonably economical approach can be too, and told better stories as a result.

And speaking of Star Wars there's a curious passage in the middle of the movie where Cameron has a character say that everything around us constitutes a "force that binds the universe together." At first I thought it was weird that a movie which strives to be unlike anything you've ever seen would crib a major, major concept from another popular sci-fi franchise like that, but then I realized that Cameron was doing that throughout the whole movie anyway. The Blackwater-type company in Avatar is an awful lot like the Company from his own Aliens, now that I think of it. There's a cheap knock off of the Paul Reiser character and the latina commando chick and everything. They even have the same mechanical load-lifters that they had in that movie, which are appropriately just the right size to get into a fight with one of the Na'vi dudes later in the flick. Also, consider a sequence like the lengthy one where Jake has to rope and tame some kind of pterodactyl (ala Eragon or The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising or the first twenty Neverending Story sequels), which is later followed by another scene where he has to woo an even bigger one. Per tradition, a Na'vi must approach and rope one of the things only when it does not want to be approached, and then force his or her disgustingly sexual nerve endings to intertwine with the other creature's nerve endings in order to form a bond. Uh... am I alone in thinking that this scenario sounds an awful lot like rape?

Another highly messed up thing that I need to mention is how morally indifferent Jake is to slaughtering a lot of his fellow ex-Marines late in the flick. Oh, and moving away from rape and mass genocide for a moment, I'll steal a joke from my buddy Mike S. here in reference to the unusual typeface that is used for the subtitles whenever the Na'vi people speak their native language. Mike argues that the Papyrus font belongs one place and one place only: On the menu at a Mediterranean fast food restaurant. It didn't really bother me at the time, but I must admit he's got a good point.

The Na'vi people are so heavily modeled after assorted bits of Native American culture and history that at times I wondered if making a VFX free version of that wouldn't be infinitely more interesting. I suspect it would. These don't even seem to be new effects that Cameron has used to gus his story up, really; they're just a little better and more articulate than what's been done before. And that leads me to my biggest gripe of all: the fact that this is a movie that exists only to advance the scope and scale of what's currently possible with motion capture / VFX technology. It's fine if movies have that as a secondary goal, but telling a good story must be first. Let me grouse about this for a bit...

Do you remember the summer of 1996, when everyone was blown away by the spectacle of Independence Day, only to rent the video six months later and realize that, in fact, the movie really sucked donkey nuts when viewed in your living room? That's the problem with this approach. VFX have a very short shelf life: What's dazzling today will outdone by whatever's coming down the road next, so why would you build your movie solely around a virtue that will be old-hat within a year at best? The Empire Strikes Back is still a great movie, regardless of how dated the effects may look by today's standards. Cameron's own Terminator 2: Judgement Day still kicks five kinds of ass, in spite of the fact that the once mind-blowing effects now appear a little crude. Jurassic Park? Egh, it now feels like a couple of great action scenes with a bunch of nearly unwatchable filler in between. You can tell Spielberg kinda knew it at the time too: Why else would he blow through a lot of important dialogue scenes in a single wide take where you can barely even hear what the actors are saying? Of course, though, Jurassic Park also went on to become the world's highest grossing movie for a while there, and Avatar seems to be threatening to at least get close. So clearly my opinion runs contrary to the basic laws of economics.

But I've got a beef with this annoying motion capture trend in the first place. I think it was highly effective for Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings flicks and Davey Jones in the last two Pirates Of The Caribbean movies, but in those cases it was used it sparingly and integrated with real actors. By and large, all CG motion capture movies like Beowulf, A Christmas Carol and arguably this - where you could just as easily have filmed real actors on a real set - are like jerking off to a computer graphic of Lara Croft. I know they couldn't have filmed Avatar's giant Smurf battles with an actual cast, of course, but doing something that's basically a big cartoon hardly seems worth it at all. It is simply not possible for me to care less about a computer generated army of whatever fighting another computer generated army and/or people standing in front of a blue screen. During those bulky sequenes, I just stare at the seat in front of me and think about how I really need to go to the hardware store before returning to work on Monday.

Readers of this blog (all three of you!) might know that I'm very anti 3D. We did see this one in that process, and I promise you it will be the last time. The semi-neat pop-up book effect simply will never be worth the sacrifice of sharpness and luminance for me. I went through the first part of the movie feeling like I wasn't really seeing the images the way I wanted to. I actually took my glasses off during the middle part of the film, preferring an image that was bright and crisp (albeit doubled) to one that was dim and fuzzy.

3D was developed in the 50s, when film studios were concerned that the growing presence of TVs in American homes might mean that fewer people would go out to the cinema. Feature films made use of special processes like wide-screen, stereo, and rich Technicolor imagery in an attempt to keep the box office busy. Many of these special processes stuck around and became standards, while others, like Cinerama, didn't. 3D is one of those cockroach processes that keeps coming back every generation or so to fight the same fight. It did in the 80s when people started owning VCRs (creating a similar concern that cinema attendance would dwindle) and it has in recent years yet again, now that living room theaters rival the experience you can get from going out, with big bonuses like convenience and the elimination of other annoying patrons whose parents never taught them to shut the fuck up while the movie is playing. I cannot wait for the 3D trend to die down once again. It's a cheap device and a huge distraction that has nothing whatsoever to do with telling a good story.

Unfortunately, in utilizing both motion capture technology and 3D as heavily as he did, I think Cameron lost sight of how to really make the most of this material too. Little concepts like brevity and originality took a back seat to the technology. He consistently blew the competition away when visuals and visual effects had limits, and in order to really knock an audience over you had to have a great idea. We're now in an age where if you have the budget to pay the computer artists, you can do pretty much anything and everything you want, which to me, takes out virtually all of the zaz. Art thrives on restrictions, they say, and Avatar had virtually none of them to contend with.


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