James Cameron, 2009
Pretty--exceedingly pretty. 3D is the only way to see this and one of the first implementations that isn't actively gimmicky.
Acting is at best functional. Threadbare storyline that you've seen before, done better, with better writers.
Playing the "what movie did Jim Cameron steal this from?" game. The 4chan planet. Borderline insulting plot.
Topline summary: go see it, while it's still in theatres.
Review (spoilers, none plotrending I hope):
I'm willing to be proven wrong, but I think that Avatar is probably not going to be a very good movie, and I'd like to be on record as coining Ishvatar to describe it as a massive money sink with the primary purpose of wasting perfectly good actors.
— Alex Osaki
I'm pleased to say that I was wrong.
Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi and Zoe Saldana are not especially good actors and therefore cannot be said to be wasted in this, a movie that, to its credit, never manages to be boring despite lasting two and a half hours. It does not, however, manage to be very good either.
Sam Worthington, who apparently has yet to recover the heart he gave up in Terminator, enters this movie having lost his legs as well. He is set to play Perseus in Clash of the Titans which, if this pattern holds true, will likely see him losing the use of his arms in that movie.
The overarching plot of the movie is that Worthington (and Sigourney Weaver, playing Sigourney Weaver) are capable of jacking in to the Metav--Matri--Avatar Program, where they are given corporeal bodies that take the forms of the indigenous creatures on the planet where Weyland Yutani is mining valuable resources. Proving that, in the next hundred and fifty years, humanity will become significantly more enlightened, Worthington lasts for two or three months in Second Life before having sex with anyone.
None of the characters are compelling in any way, and boil down to ridiculous stereotypes at one end of the continuum or another. They elicit no sympathy for their actions, and we never become invested because they're so obviously made of cardboard. It's somewhat ironic, for a movie that so heavily plays up its 3D elements, that the characters are so completely one-dimensional.
You know the plot of the movie from the beginning, for two primary reasons. Firstly, all of the actors in it are essentially playing themselves and none of them do anything surprising. Secondly, the hackneyed, ridiculous plot, which is a straight "find and replace" on several other movies/television shows/books, should be immediately apparent to anyone who has ever been in a movie theatre before.
The blue indigenous people, who wear skimpy clothes, hunt with bows and arrows, and worship Enya would essentially be a parody of every Native American culture in film, ever, except that they are played straight--from the tribal ceremonies to the whispering to vanquished prey to the "scooping up the earth and sniffing it to tell where the animals are" to the "this is a sacred place" to the "the Force binds all living creatures together and we must respect that".
It's the kind of condescending portrayal that borders on insulting and might be thought to be obsolete in a post-Sherman Alexie world, but Cameron sails on blithely anyway. This movie has apparently been in development since 1994, which probably explains the scene where Pocahontas-smurf saves John Smith (sorry, Jake Sully)-smurf from Kocoum-smurf and Powhatan-smurf.
This story, in which White Man Worthington is shown the error of his ways and the beauty of walking as one with nature, culminates in a climactic showdown between the forces of Civilisation and the forces of Nature. Because the movie does not feel any great love for mundane concepts like "originality" and because Cameron is not a good enough storyteller to pull off a Last Samurai ending, I'll award no points for how this showdown winds up going.
So. Don't see the movie for the plot or the acting. This is fine, because the film is essentially a vehicle for Cameron's special graphics macguffin. How does this work?
It works damn fine, people. Essentially, imagine the pretty parts of Skull Island in Jackson's King Kong, except in 3D. It falls flat only rarely, and forgiveably at those times. There is no point at which the CGI falls flat, and no point at which the uncanny valley makes itself known (this may be partly because the aliens are essentially human).
The planet is gorgeous in only the way that a turn-your-brain-off fantasy epic can be. It has massive, massive trees and huge leave and floating mountains and the mountains have waterfalls for some reason and the trees glow. Oh--yes. Everything glows. At some point, somebody got Cameron one of those fibre-optic rotating balls you get from Spencer's Gifts, and he loved it so much he decided it would be best if his magic planet was wired for FIOS.
It looks cool, though. It's best if you don't think about why the mountains float, or how the aliens are able to jack in through the fibre-optic in their hair (at least, unlike the Cylon cousins, they do not have to cut open their wrists to do so). The world has achieved a level of interoperability that boggles the imagination; the same glowing hair worms that connect you to the Internet also connect you to dragons and six-legged horses. It's pretty freaking awesome, and I do mean that, even if--as others have said--Pandora appears to be the site of the next Yes album.
That the planet is wired for Ethernet becomes a plot point when the Misguided Greedy White Men decide to cut the cord and the people of planet rise up in a sea of not particularly effective but very noisy and vitriolic Recreational Outrage. It's essentially like 4chan, except without the memes.
So. The plot is in a persistent vegetative state, but the vegetables glow--where does that leave us?
Avatar is a movie that, nominally, you see for the pretty. As with computer games, I'm not really sold on the graphics, and while it is technically gorgeous I'm not sure it's up to par with less technically-impressive but more artistic work like Miyazaki or even, in parts, Disney. Pixar realised a long time ago that the pretty wasn't enough--there has to be substance to back it up, or you become a flash in the pan.
Unfortunately, one gets the distinct impression that there was a point at which somebody burst into Cameron's office with the disturbing revelation that the entire budget had been spent on the scenery and the world, and there was nothing left for the storyline.
At this, though, Cameron simply smiled, lifting up a thick stack of papers. "Don't worry," he said. "I've planned for this."
"This is... this is like ten or twenty different movies, Jim."
Then James Cameron produced a pair of scissors and, with an eerie grin, began cutting the screenplays up. Every thematic and storytelling element of Avatar has been taken from something else. You can point to scenes and understand the influence, and it plays like a "greatest hits" album of a bunch of other films, some of them by Cameron himself (though Sigourney Weaver doesn't get to pilot one of the mechs, despite having a Class 2 Rating, and the character of Vasquez has been merged with Cpl. Ferro, the dropship pilot).
There are individual scenes that are cool, but they're tied together with such a tenuous thread that they feel disjointed and nearly always worked better in the movie they were taken from. It would be possible to "watch" Avatar simply by watching a bunch of other movies (Aliens, The Last Samurai, Braveheart and Nausicaa would be a good start).
But should you?
It's a tough call. It's graphically very impressive, and the world is beautiful--in 3d, the only way to see it, you find yourself turning your eyes up as though you were actually looking up the trunk of a massive, kilometre-high tree. On the other hand, you have to put up with two and a half hours of Dances With Catgirls.
The movie plays like an homage to--or a parody of--all the genres and films it liberally adopts, except you never get a wink. There's never a moment, like in Ocean's 12 or The Core, where you get the sense that the actors are in on the joke and enjoying their roles in the pastiche. Despite the sheer silliness, it--incredibly--appears to be taking itself more or less seriously.
Unlike 2012, there's never really a point where you get the sense that the movie has shot its visual wad, and it's definitely possible to keep watching. As such, it's something like a trip to the Louvre--a chain of impossibly beautiful but lifeless works of art linked by nothing other than the labour of love that birthed them.
On the other hand, unless you're good at turning your brain off, there are points where the plot is stupid enough to pull you out of the flow of the movie, and I'd say while it's definitely worth seeing, it's probably only worth seeing in theatres, on as huge a screen as you possibly can. Unless you have a million dollars to drop on your home theatre, Avatar is not a movie where it's worth holding out for the DVD.
Bottom line: I don't think my money was wasted, and I enjoyed the movie. I'm not sure I'd see it again on my own.
23.12.2009 - 10h00
|On second thought, and suspecting that I may have suffered from some hype backlash, I'm upping the score to a "4". It's not a bad movie by any means, and average is about right to balance the plot and the pretty.|
25.12.2009 - 11h45
|I think this review broadly says what I would say, though I think you thought significantly more deeply about it than I did, especially when it came to the lack of originality. I do appreciate your Pocahontas analogy, though, because it is so silly and true.
Pretty much the only movie I compared it to in my mind was District 9, which had many of the same flaws. I thought Avatar was much better because there are no major assumptions that are colossally fucked up. Sure, humanity's apparent hard-on for unobtanium and the writers' desire for political relevance led to some questionable developments on the planet and some horrible dialogue ("Shock and Awe!" "Fight terror with terror!"). Sure, it's hard to imagine a world evolving to create floating mountains or fiber-optic life. But dammit, at least it doesn't up and decide that something we know a lot about, like the nature of nation-states in the 20th and 21st centuries, and turn it on its head. ("Ah, yes, aliens. Well, our philosophy in the United States is that South Africa got 'em, so South Africa can take care of them. Without even remote interest from us. Because they have a good history with The Other, and their infrastructure and human resources are very much up to the task of dealing with creatures that just flew gillions of lightyears to appear at out doorstep. With huge guns.")
And of course Avatar was infinitely prettier than District 9. Especially those scantily-clad blue things. Mrrrrrowl.
And now I will concur with your finishing line. Merry Christmas, bitch.
26.12.2009 - 12h12
|I thought about it deeply mostly because I wanted to get to the bottom of why I disliked a movie so many other people seem to have enjoyed.
Actually, I think your District 9 analogue is pretty good. I watched District 9 again today, and I never really stopped to think about what, now that you mention it, is an exceedingly good point (handwaved in the movie, I think, by UN interference). The quality of the acting and the narrative itself, on a scene-by-scene basis, was enough to keep me engaged.
By contrast, in Avatar there is no real narrative to speak of to be drawn into, the characters are so incredibly flat as to be unsympathetic and irrelevant, and on a scene-by-scene basis the best one can do is see what went wrong.
In The Last Samurai, there's a scene at the end where the forces of chivalry (in the form of cavalry) run headlong into the forces of civilisation (in the form of gatling guns). Chivalry is mowed down without remorse. It's actually a poignant, remarkably subdued scene.
Cameron evidently saw this scene, because it's repeated in Avatar, but for whatever reason he completely stripped it of its poignancy or its impact. He attempts to compensate this by using his magical CGI to set a horse on fire, an image so intensely over the top that thinking about it now makes me giggle.
The biggest problem, the more I think about it, is that it is a parody that doesn't realise it's a parody. Even one good actor realising this--if the evil general had been played by Alan Rickman, or Dennis Hopper, or John Travolta say--might've lent this movie something redeeming. Star Wars is another movie that could be seen to trade on its special effects--it certainly isn't for the strength of the narrative or the quality of the acting.
Star Wars, however, had charm--which is why it is enduring. Avatar lacks this charm; the plot and the actors are handled too incompetently to be legitimately touching, but nobody ever breaks the fourth wall or lets us know that they realise how stupid the movie is. It's flat and soulless.
This is, I would actually argue, a problem with the visual aesthetic as well. It's grandiose and bombastic, to the point where it seems to lose track of itself. It lacks the gentle beauty of something like Miyazaki's work, and as a tour de force of raw graphical power I think it also lacks both the grace of Disney's animation and the charm of Pixar's CG. In essence it's art that takes itself too seriously, until it completely separates itself from the narrative and just shows off without any relevance to the plot.
I can't really figure out Avatar's high rating at the IMDb right now. I have to imagine that, ten years from now, we'll look back on it as an ultimately irrelevant flash--however pretty--in the pan.
26.12.2009 - 12h26
|I won't try and counter your originality or acting or writing criticisms, because I don't watch a movie-a-day like you do to know nearly that much about other films. And you've always been much more attuned to the subtle details of acting and writing than I am. My palate is rather dull and unrefined, perhaps. And I'm obviously not as smart as you.
But no matter how bad this movie felt to you, and even if I'm completely unable to say "you're wrong" in any of your points. The fact is that I enjoyed Avatar probably more than any other movie I've seen in a long time. I walked out of the theater thinking "Wow. Fucking wow." I was awed. I was amazed. I want to see it many times again (though I will grant this needs to be in large theaters, not DVD - I saw it in very very large screen 3D IMAX).
Maybe it's just because I'm much more proletarian in my tastes and I'm easily amused and so uncultured that a simple film with simple writing can draw me in and fascinate me. Maybe I'm just more able to let go of myself, suspend belief, and enjoy a film for itself in a vacuum completely separated from other films and the real world. Maybe this makes me a poor viewer. Maybe this makes me part of the problem of why Hollywood spends so much to make such apparently bad movies. Maybe I'm just too much of a cinematic simpleton to be capable of seeing how bad the movie is.
But damnit, I was entertained. I had a good time. I felt immersed. I felt awed. I enjoyed it. More than any other movie I've seen in or out of theaters in a very long time.
26.12.2009 - 1h30
|The only reason people credibly see movies (outside of class assignments) is to be entertained. That there are things that not everyone is entertained by is why we toss around the notion of the guilty pleasure. For instance, I greatly enjoy A Few Good Men, a movie that mostly serves as a vehicle for Jack Nicholson to chew scenery, and Top Gun, which is mostly a vehicle for homosexuality. As such, you like whatever you like; there's nothing wrong with that.
It's possible that overlooking plot, writing, and acting is part of a general decline in Hollywood, but I doubt it. For one, the writing in most movies has gotten substantially better over the years, in no small part because people demand that kind of effort. Acting as a whole is also substantially better; there are comparatively few bad actors, just a host of pretty mediocre ones. There are bad movies, however, and then there are bad movies. Live Free or Die Hard, for instance--think Swordfish with John McClane if you haven't seen it--is not a particularly good movie. There is a scene, for instance, where Bruce Willis somehow crashes a car into a helicopter. It's a popcorn movie. This is fine. There's a suspension of disbelief inherent in cinema anyway.
I think the real problem with Avatar isn't that its characters are wooden or that its plot, to the degree it can be said to exist at all, is old hat. Rather, the problem is that it doesn't seem to know what it's doing. The scenery is pretty, but it serves no function except to be pretty. A counter-example, for demonstration. Jurassic Park does essentially the same thing as Avatar--at the time, the special effects were completely in a league of their own. They were used, however, to drive the story--you'll recall the scene where we see the dinosaurs for the first time, the way the orchestra swells. It's intended to convey a sense of wonder and awe, because wonder and awe are key to Jurassic Park's narrative flow, as they're inverted later against the chaos of the park's collapse.
This confusion extends to the plot, as well. There are too many elements that are ripped wholesale from other movies for it to be completely on the level. Any movie where somebody scoops up a handful of earth and smells it or tastes it or whatever to determine where the game has been is already a parody of old Hollywood westerns. The dialogue, too, is satiric, full of the "No, brother. We must send sky-people back where they came." stilted Indian-English you'd come up with if you were trying to write a pastiche of the genre. But the movie never acknowledges this, unless it's meta-satire at a high level.
I felt that Star Trek went too far in the other direction--creating a movie of winks and jabs and "did-you-see-what-I-did-there"s--but not nearly so far as Avatar blunders through its hamfisted riffing without ever giving an indication that it's in on its own joke. By contrast, Avatar rips off so many other movies, and does so so blatantly, that the lack of in-jokes or acknowledgement of this borders on being eerie. It would be like if I rereleased Abbey Road with all the songs having completely different lyrics that made no sense except as references to the original Beatles songs, but then never said a word about the connection and acted as though it was all a self-contained work. And perhaps it would be entertaining, and perhaps it wouldn't.
But so what? So what if you don't agree with me? So you're a simpleton who doesn't care that he's watching the cinematic equivalent of a Lunchables, and I'm an ivory towered masturbatory asshole who can't internalise the MST3K mantra long enough to enjoy a damned movie without picking it apart; does that sum it up? The good thing about pop culture is there's room for everyone. We live in a world that has somehow managed to keep Miley Cyrus, Modest Mouse and the Mars Volta around, and if there's room for that there's presumably room for people who both like and dislike any given movie.
26.12.2009 - 3h58
|Hey, buddy, The Mars Volta is awesome. If you are trying to imply otherwise I will have to challenge you to a duel.|
27.12.2009 - 9h16
|Strictly speaking, I was really trying to imply nothing but that their name starts with "M".
If you'd like, I could say that I am split on the Mars Volta. On the one hand prog rock is ok, mostly. On the other hand, Pink Floyd's apparently successful attempt to clone themselves and emerge thirty years later from their vats--while technically impressive in a Boys From Brazil kind of way--makes me worry if other bands have done the same thing. Is Donovan about to return? Steve Miller? The Archies?
27.12.2009 - 6h39
|I am totally ready for the return of Donovan.
Also, just to keep you updated, my old friend invited me to hang out and either watch Sherlock Holmes or Avatar. Sadly another guy who's coming along has already seen Sherlock Holmes. So...
At least there's a good chance we'll see it in 3D.
(And seriously, fix the timestamps.)
27.12.2009 - 6h48
|I watched it again today. It works much better if you think about it as a parody from the beginning. The audience I saw it with today was much more genial; there was a lot of laughter. You may consider keeping that in mind.
I'll look at the timestamps when I'm busy building my other website.
28.12.2009 - 10h46
|Your other website?|