Monday, December 14, 2009

AVATAR - you can have too much of a good thing

AVATAR is the much hyped new film from writer-director and special effects obsessive James Cameron - the man who brought us TITANIC, ALIENS and TERMINATOR. Let us say that James Cameron has consistently pushed forward the technology of film, and has produced consistently thoughtful sci-flicks. Indeed, I would argue that he deserves more kudos than Spielberg - creating fewer but more consistently entertaining and polished blockbusters. But let us also admit that Cameron is the master of hyping himself, and has saddled us both with Celine Dion and with a 130 minute movie of arse-numbing proportions.

First, the praise. AVATAR is a technical marvel. Not because it does anything new - rather, it pulls together all of the advances of the last five years and pushes them further and does them better than anyone else. The 3-D is immersive rather than trying to shock us. The CGI is photo realistic. The characters and animals have weight and heft. The natural science detailing on the plants and animals is breathtaking. Fantastic creatures seem real. It is easy to mock a director who goes to the lengths of actually inventing a new language for his fictional race, the Na'vi. But it works. Much like LORD OF THE RINGS, AVATAR works because it makes us believe in an alternate world, and through believing, we care about its future.

AVATAR is also tightly structured and directed so well that it maintains momentum throughout its runtime (which is not to say it couldn't have done with being a good forty minutes shorter). Cameron may be a master of CGI but he never forgets that story comes before technical wizardry. The movie plays a three-act drama. We are in a dystopian future where humans live on a dieing world, and have colonised a planet called Pandora, in order to mine a precious metal, whose main deposits lie underneath the "hometree" of the indigenous Na'vi people. In Act One, the audience invests its sympathy with the hero and heroine. A disabled jarhead pilots an avatar Na'vi body in order to infiltrate the tribe and negotiate a relocation by any means necessary. Problem is, he becomes fascinated by their respect for nature and falls for a Na'vi chick. In Act Two, the stakes are established. The army, impatient for profits, decimates the hometree, scattering the Na'vi people, and destroying their trust in the Jarhead. The science team establish that the whole ecosystem of the planet is connected and a powerful source of energy. In Act Three, we have the dramatic climax and resolution. The Na'vi regroup and with their human allies take on the colonials.

The strength of the AVATAR story is that James Cameron knows who to weave successful aspects of genre fiction into his more modern allegory of environmental degradation and ruthless military exploitation. We have a good old-fashioned romance between the jarhead and the Na'vi chick. We have a coming of age story, as the jarhead learns the rules of the new world. We have a buddy movie as the jarhead bonds with the science officer. And finally, we have a spiritual story of redemption. I love the fact that Cameron is willing to tackle both issues of science, politics and religion in the same film - to that end, it reminded me a lot of the better aspects of Ronald D Moore's BATTLESTAR GALACTICA.

Given all these positives, it isn't a surprise that I had a good time watching this flick, even though it did seem just too long to spend in a cinema for what should just be a bit of entertainment, albeit intelligent entertainment.

But there are negatives. AVATAR features some of the most hokey dialogue and two-dimensional characterisation seen on film since STAR WARS. And maybe that's no coincidence. Maybe when a writer-director is having to balance different genres, a large cast, action, technology and romance, it's just too much to ask to have good dialogue and nuanced characterisation too? But then again, BATTLESTAR GALACTICA did, by and large, pull that off. One of the strengths of that series was its ability to present conflicted characters who changed, evolved, and felt three-dimensional. By contrast, in AVATAR, you're either a righteous hippie earth-child or a cigar-chomping, profiteering rat-bastard. And characters say the stupidest things. Towit, jarhead to Na'vi chick: "why didn't you kill me?" Na'vi chick to jarhead: "Because you have a big heart." I mean, no-one, not enough imaginary aliens, speaks like this! There's also something slightly hypocritical in a movie that thinks nasty evil people who blow shit up are bad, but nevertheless wants us to be excited by a final act which is basically about people blowing shit up in more and more noisy ways.

Ultimately, AVATAR is such a feat of imagination that, like STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE, it survives the hammy dialogue and weak characterisation. It's nice to spend time in this world. It would've been even nicer to have been all done in two hours.

AVATAR is on global release.


  1. BillFenner19671/1/10 8:03 PM

    Your comment about the technical achievements of this film is spot on in that Cameron didn't really "invent" anything new -- despite some press reports claiming he did -- but rather consolidate what already existed and throw x amount of millions into improving them. And so he also tried to do the same with the screenplay -- Dances with Wolves/The New World/Lawrence of Arabia, etc -- except, no amount of millions of dollars can get around the ability to write a good story, characters and dialogue. I think Cameron used to be a better writer than he is now, director too. Aliens, of course is superb, and even in True Lies he showed he wanted to spend time on characters, though ultimately that film doesn't hold up, I think.

    The key scene when I knew we weren't in for anything deep was the moment Sully gets into his avatar for the first time. He's a paraplegic in real life and now he not only has legs, but literally in an alien body, and so how does Cameron deal with this extraordinary moment? By showing him implausibly leaping off a table, refusing orders to stay still (he is a Marine, after all) and then staggering outside and going for a run, which culminates in yet another dumb Hollywoodian quip: "Cool!" or something like it. All that in about 45 seconds. Thus ends Cameron's depiction of a man realising his dream of walking again coupled with an out-of-body experience that ought to have begun an even deeper exploration of what it means to inhabit a weak and vulnerable shell of flesh and blood when in the future consciousness -- or dare I say the mind and spirit -- can be transported, manipulated and redefined in ways truly "alien" to the human reality.

    But no ... instead we get elongated smurfs riding dayglo dragons battling The Bad White Men in between speeches of save-the-planet-bumper sticker-philosophy.

    And it's not the hard-on for special effects that has ruined Cameron. Remember that Stanley Kubrick, in his day, was just as much into the technical side of film making as Cameron is now. When 2001 came out 41 years ago that also happened to show off the most state-of-the-art SFX in cinema history up till that time. The difference between that and Avatar? Story. Characters. Dialogue. IDEAS! They cost nothing but are worth everything.

  2. I think where you stand on Avatar depends on how far you think the visual beauty and technical achievement compensates for the simplistic, some would say, patronising characterisation, narrative and politics of this film. Even its defenders admit that the characterisation is hokey. Despite slapping my head several times at the lame dialogue and the basic concept that once again a white male American Jar-head could become, after a month or so, the bestest Navi ever, I did have a decent time simply looking at this flick.

  3. BillFenner19672/1/10 11:10 AM

    My experience was essentially the same as yours in that I enjoyed the film, never felt bored and marvelled at a lot of the visuals. That said, why can't we have both a good story and technical brilliance? Like I said with Kubrick and 2001. These two elements are not mutually exclusive. It annoys me when people -- professional film critics especially -- will give a film a positive review and say, as you said, the story stinks but the CGI is fantastic. Movies ARE stories! If there's no story there's no movie.

  4. Okay I can't resist a reductive declamation!

    "If there's no story there's no movie".

    Depends on the genre. Arguably the summer blockbuster can succeed qua summer blockbuster simply with a string of high budget special effect laden set pieces, so pleasing the target demographic who are presumably all suffering from ADHD anyway.

    I agree that in this case, Cameron DID want us to engage with the characters and politics so that, on his own terms, he did fail by not creating a sufficiently compelling story.

    I can think of lots of films that are anti-"story". Indeed, Michael Haneke seems to spend his entire time holding two fingers up to the idea that film-makers should tell nice stories.

    And what about movies like Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin, which is basically a series of shots of women watching cinema. A powerful film, but no story...?!

  5. BillFenner19672/1/10 7:56 PM

    I adore Haneke's films and I see all of them as stories. Now, he may tell his stories in a different manner than most others, but the fact that we the audience can be engaged in seeing characters perform actions, interact with others, etc, is, by definition, a story. I think it's a myth to say that so-called arthouse European films (for example) eschew story because a story isn't limited to three act structures, plot point A followed by plot point B, and so on.

    The key point is this: are you dis-engaged with the characters and do you not care what happens next? If the answer is yes than there is no story being told, or, at best, there is a story being told but extremely poorly. As long as we the audience care to watch, listen and/or read to what someone is telling/showing and/or singing to us, then that means it's a story.

    This may be a semantics thing here, and I don't want to quibble since I think you and I are on the same page (no pun intended!) but I do truly believe movies are stories. They can be told in an infinite number of ways, but they all are, at the end of the day, stories, pure and simple.

    Oh, and by the way, this time next year there'll be another "landmark" 3D movie, and then yet another the year after that, until at some point people will be looking back at Avatar the same way we, in 2009, look back at, say, the original King King from 1933 and only see the flaws in the special effects, singgering at how silly it all looks. That's the unavoidable nature of technology -- it becomes outdated, and fast. A good story, however, never ever does, and never will. This is why the tale of the big monkey being taken to New York in chains is still interesting and exciting and has been retold three times since it was told the first time.

    Story is King!

  6. I think your definition of story is too loose - basically you define it as anything that engages you intellectually or emotionally. I define a story as something that has a narrative arc, whether linear or not. I regard Haneke as being post-narrative and post-story - his movies are about playing with our expectations about what a story is. His movies deliberately alienate us from the subject matter. His skill - his playfulness - is being able to be simultaneously working on both a story and post/meta-story level.

    Anyways, this is all quibbling. We both agree that Cameron should man the fuck up and write characters, dialogue and events worthy of his technical wizardry!

  7. BillFenner19673/1/10 11:06 PM

    "Cameron should man the fuck up ..."

    Unlike our differing ideas on the nature of story, this is a statement without an ounce of ambiguity! You're right, on this we are in 100% agreement.

    Bloody King of the World ... woo -- boo!