Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Let's Talk About Avatar...

(Caution: May contain traces of spoilers...)

You might have heard of it. That movie with the blue aliens? James Cameron's big bad-ass $200 million comeback picture? The one that is critically acclaimed and Rotten Tomatoes Certified Fresh? I saw it on Boxing Day and thought I would give it a few days before I commented.

Let's get this out of the way early: the film is a technical masterpiece. The editing, visual effects, sound, sound editing, musical score...it all kicks ass. Unfortunately, watching it in the 3rd row in 3D doesn't kick ass. I was constantly swatting at the bugs in front of my face. So what's my problem? I've heard the word "revolutionary" being thrown around in reference to this picture. And that's not entirely accurate. The film makes extensive use of performance capture, which is 14 years old. The 200 people in the world who owned an Atari Jaguar would know this. Beyond that, we saw it in The Mummy, the Star Wars prequels, the King Kong remake, Lord of the Rings, Monster House, Crappy Feet, The Polar Express, and many more. James Cameron has been on the visual effects frontier before: remember when the T-1000 melts into a puddle and then reconstructs? We shit our pants! But we were also witnessing major breakthroughs in CGI. Now, Cameron finds himself 10 years behind the curve. He did make some improvements to performance capture though, like better facial expressions. But it wasn't the same, because you knew exactly how it was going on. All those Na'vi people were actually wearing body suits covered with many small sensors and performing in front of a green screen. It was better in the case of Terminator 2 when you had no idea how these effects were being created, or even in the original Star Wars trilogy, when all the alien creatures were actual physical manifestations, and the way the human characters interacted with them.

Cameron says his inspiration for the film was "every single science fiction book I read as a kid." He should have thrown in a few films too. Every time I think about it, I find more films that Avatar directly ripped off: The Matrix, Pocahontas, Braveheart, Dances with Wolves, The Core, and FernGully. It even rips off Brother Bear, which itself is a retread of The Lion King. Are we so desperate for ideas that we're now on 3rd generation retreads? Further proof that there are only 14 scripts in Hollywood.

This is one movie that you have to shut your critical self off for, or else you'll be shooting holes in the plot the whole time. The most glaring one is the unobtainium (which is slightly less valuable then nevergetium), which has anti-gravitational properties. The corporation wants this one plot of land so they can strip mine it, but the natives refuse to move because they consider it holy ground. But are there not entire mountains of the stuff floating in the sky where no natives are living? What's the reasoning here? Any sensible resource company would do anything to avoid fighting a war. It's very expensive, and bad PR.

If I were an American soldier, I would be really offended by this movie. The security personnel in this film are depicted as low-IQ morons who kill without feeling, with one exception. And the Colonel Quaritch character is so cliche and "Hoo-rah!" that I knew what he was going to say before he said it. When they are killing natives, it is depicted as a tragedy. When the natives are killing them, it's depicted as jolly good fun. That's the picture of morality that Cameron paints in this film: no grey areas. You either sing and dance in the forest with the Na'vi, or you burn their babies alive and piss on the ashes. Not exactly fair, is it? I also enjoyed the slow motion used in the battle scenes. Every war flick since All Quiet on the Western Front has done it. I thought it was a nice touch.


To be fair, none of it would have mattered if the film had had a twist ending. I needed to be wowed in the end to make up for the previous two and a half hours. And it set itself up for a twist pretty well, in my opinion. I was expecting Jake Sully to die, or perhaps Neytiri, or maybe the Jake Sully avatar would die and he would end up going back to earth with the rest of them. Who knows. But, no, Cameron presses the religion button very hard, confirms the existence of a soul, and has it transferred to the Avatar body. There's your Deus Ex Machina to top it all off. Everything is wrapped up in a neat little package and the audience goes home feeling good.

So anyway, go see Avatar if you must, and shell out the extra couple of bucks to see it in 3D. But if you don't like science fiction or appreciate good screenwriting, you'll be in for a rough ride.