Angry Movie of the Year – Avatar (Or, is 3D really worth $250m?)

Avatar is probably the first and last 3D film I will see. It’s been hyped quite a bit and even seems to have impressed the New York Times film critics, but in the end, these 3D graphics just couldn’t hide the flat, lumbering story. At the same time, the film just seems to be so big that there’s no way around it BUT to see it, have fun for 2.5 hours, and judge for yourself! After all, all the cool kids are doing it. And what the heck, it’s got Sigourney Weaver.

Bear in mind there are some spoilers below, but I try and keep them as vague as possible.

The Part About the Graphics

Ok, so Avatar has some fantastic visual design. I haven’t seen any world designs this interesting in a long time. There are floating islands, bioluminescent plants, giant man-eating panther-things, pterodactyls, ride armor, and gunships. In short, what Avatar does best is world building, and this means it is a great place to explore (or I suppose in this case, to watch other people explore). And hey, with a $230m budget, you can really afford to build something shiny.

The Problem with 3D

3D glasses have some issues. When you see the first sample images in the trailers, there is some initial oohing and aahing from the audience, but this goes away quick. There are a few places, such as precipitation, where the glasses can shine, but ultimately, they just feel like a really good LCD screen.

On top of that, they have some issues. First, they are a little uncomfortable to wear if you already wear glasses. They seem designed as one-size-fits-all, but end up being too tight. Second, 3D causes some big problems for objects moving at high speeds. The frame rate is already quite slow for blurring and choppy animation to be a problem, but this is doubled on the big screen and tripled with 3D glasses because they simply can’t focus. Finally, while cameras have been built to focus on objects in the foreground and background, Avatar does not do this and so the eye wants to see objects in the foreground but ultimately can’t focus on blurry things. In short: 3D isn’t that hot, and I don’t really see what all the fuss is about.

The Part about the Plot

The film starts out with a fantastic quote. You know right away that there is some good writing involved. The concept is also fantastic: a paraplegic soldier gets a second chance at life and the ability to run again thanks to computer technology and genetic engineering. The story echoes “True Names” in some places (a fantastically overlooked sci fi novella) and has some wonderful opportunity to comment on technology, but after the first half hour or so, the film takes a dramatic turn for the worse.

Despite Avatar’s 3D goggles, it’s a pretty flat movie. The plot, while overly complex and epic for its own good (it reminds me a little of The Postman), features stark representations of good and evil. Wall Street investors want to mine the planet for its minerals. The military is hateful and afraid of the indigenous inhabitants and is there to ensure the minerals get transported safely. Both will stop at nothing to get what they want, and few soldiers in the army seem willing to question the genocide they are about to enact. So the military-economic complex is bad, the natives and the planet are good, and no one remains neutral. It also means that the characters have little chance to develop (though Sully waffles between following orders and following his heart). Couple this with some head-scratching inconsistencies (why is a windshield unbreakable by an arrow in one scene but destructible in another?), and it’s simply too much.

The Part about the Hate

Because there is no gray area, the film is very stark in its statements, and seems full of the hate and frustration that has been deeply set into American politics. The film is pro-treehugger, pro-global warming, pro-conservation, pro-Gaia, pro-indigenous, and anti-military, anti-Wall Street, anti-Bush, anti-industry, anti-mining and deforestation, and I assume anti-Republican. It even finds time to rant against the economy. There is nowhere in here a pro-peace movement, probably because there is so much anger in here. The message seems to be: the world is screwed up, dammit, and we’ve got to shoot the people who are making it that way! Or, as my friend called it, “This film is a conservative’s worst nightmare and a liberal’s dream come true.” There hasn’t been something this cut-and-dried since FernGully.

The Part About the Na’vi

The Na’vi are the indigenous inhabitants of Planet Pandorra. Their main colony lies on top of a vast deposit of a rare ore (called ‘hard-to-find-ium’ or something), which the big, bad humans of course want all for themselves. So this is a traditional white folk stealing the land of the natives, which is a pretty common story though one worth discussing. However, the Na’vi themselves are actually kind of generic. They simply look too much like the Maasai of Kenya, down to the hair, accents, and neck rings. So they’re just not that original and are used more as a ‘generic native’. This portrayal seems just right out insulting when the exiled and now thoroughly loathed Sully returns to the tribe with something bigger and shinier than anybody else and they magically become awed by this phallic symbol of manly prowess.

It doesn’t stop here because James Cameron seems dead set on adopting the idea of ‘white folk here to save the brown brothers’ criticized by Rudyard Kipling. While he damns the military-economics complex for wanting to trade land for shiny beads, at the same time he adopts the idea that a white man with a big heart is the only salvation of the savages. So despite their portrayal of the Na’vi’s one-ness with nature and the humans’ complete obliviousness to it, Cameron ends up in my mind undermining anything he had built. There are some great characterizations of them though, such as when Jakesully tames his pterodactyl, but ultimately the vision is simply too shallow and stereotypical.

The Conclusion

Avatar ends up being a huge computer graphics orgasm that unseats George Lucas and Roger Zemeckis from their perches. James Cameron reportedly spent a decade working on this film, but it seems to me he should have spent more time on the script first and then made the technology to do it. As a result, the film seems more enamored by its own appearance that it lets the plot become too complex, having to compensate by flattening the story into concepts of black and white. Hopefully Avatar will not be remembered as James Cameron’s swan song, as he should still have a few good films left in him, but Avatar is no Titanic, except perhaps in the way it sinks.


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