There’s no bigger movie discussion on the internet right now than Avatar. Rather than throw out a bunch of Advocates this week about the film, its impact, its reception and the reaction to my review, I’ve decided to do one editorial made up of several short sections.
Like the GOP in the Bush Years
I find myself being misrepresented about Avatar. This isn’t that surprising – it’s the internet, after all, where measured reactions are suspect and everything must be boiled down to ‘It sucks!’ or ‘It rocks!’ – but it is disheartening. Jeff Wells at Hollywood Elsewhere has essentially named me and Ain’t It Cool’s Mr. Beaks the leaders of the jihad against the movie (he has an article headlined ‘Tempest In Their Souls’), when we both actually thought it was at least resoundingly okay. We also both see major problems with the film and think that the movie will not last beyond the initial dazzle of the 3D showings – Avatar is a film without depth and once the movie lives in home video its stature will almost surely decrease.
What’s frustrating about all of this is that, even if I did hate Avatar, which I didn’t, I’m standing in the minority. The critics love it, the buzz is strong and while the movie didn’t break any real records it opened well. I’m reminded of the GOP during the Bush years, when they were whining and puling despite being in complete control of the government and, for a while, having the overwhelming support of the people. It reads, to me, like massive insecurity, like people know once they come down from this high they’re going to have to face the big, dumb blue cat next to whom they’re waking up and have to make small talk and even fix it some Tender Vittles for breakfast before it finally leaves. I don’t know the last time I saw a fanbase be worse winners than the Avatar fanbase, who will apparently brook no deviation from the ‘It’s a game changer! It’s amazing! It’s wonderful! It changed my life/understanding of cinema!’ party line. Any dissent at all is tantamount to full on treason. You had best keep your problems with the design of the direhorses to yourself, or you might end up in some kind of gulag.
The latest tact is to say that those who don’t like Avatar must simply have something wrong with them. In that Wells article he has some anonymous internet commenter compare not liking Avatar to not liking Arcade Fire’s Funeral, which is kind of hilarious. If Funeral is your idea of major, ground breaking music, you must get all the songs on your playlist from car commercials. It’s a really good album, but it’s a completely mainstream, totally unchallenging record that’s tailor-made to be used in advertisements. It’s actually a pretty good comparison, I guess, as Avatar is completely unchallenging mainstream fare that requires little by way of intellectual engagement and never threatens to make one uncomfortable or even make a viewer tense, since it’s almost completely free of drama.
The Unchanged Game
Something that keeps baffling me is the heaps of praise the film is getting for its design and its FX. I’m not saying that either is bad (although I don’t personally like the designs), just that neither is particularly special. The hype machine has said that this is a game changing work of visual FX and opinions dropped right into line with that, completely ignoring truly stunning FX work like Davey Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean (I honestly thought Jones was achieved through CG-enhanced make-up) and the old Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The Fincher film gets overlooked because it’s just not that good, but the reality is that the work done on that little old boy is beyond remarkable, and that most viewers probably couldn’t tell when Fincher was using FX, a body double or some other kind of cheat. It’s seamless in the best possible way in that you don’t even think about it.
Many people are going gaga over the world design in Avatar and the ‘immersive’ nature of the FX and the 3D. I found the 3D in Avatar to be really good… just like the 3D in Coraline. I wonder if many of the people talking about this stuff simply don’t see many films in 3D, because 3D has had a banner 2009. Coraline was spectacular, Up was delightfully subdued and artful and while I haven’t seen it, I’ve been told that Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs was eye popping. This isn’t me trying to put down Avatar – I do think that Cameron has done sublime work with the application of 3D – but it is me trying to put it all into context. And maybe to stick up for some of the guys who have been doing terrific work in the field but who don’t have the publicity machines behind them that James Cameron has.
Even setting aside my personal problems with the designs of the creatures in Avatar I didn’t find any of them all that groundbreaking. Critics have said that the world of Pandora is unlike anything you’ve ever seen and I have to wonder how much science fiction or fantasy they’ve consumed in their lives, as the world of Pandora is an awful lot like what I’ve seen. Plenty of times. That’s setting aside the fact that the animals on Pandora are just slightly weirded up analogues to real (or familiar mythological) animals on Earth – space horses, space wolves, space dragons. I thought the ice planet monster in Star Trek was more unique in design than anything in Avatar, and all the direhorses and viperwolves and whatever else could have easily been part of the menagerie in Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. I’m not saying that the FX work on these creatures was on par – in the intervening years FX has come a long, long way – but simply that this fucker would not have looked at all out of place on Pandora:
And that jungle – yeah, it looked real, but the fact is that photoreal CG environments have been here for a while. I think that Avatar certainly improves on what has come before, but it’s no leap. It’s not a jump. You’ve sat through a dozen movies in the last two years that had invisible tiny CG effects and background elements and you never, ever noticed them. That’s the modern state of the art. The film certainly didn’t create a jungle that was unthinkable or completely alien, and making the plants glow at night – an effect that could have been achieved thirty years ago – doesn’t really count.
The faces of some of the Na’vi are impressive in their range of emotion, but I still think the Na’vi themselves are a cheat. Their faces are designed to mitigate that uneasy Uncanny Valley feeling – you’re not getting weirded out by the soulless doll problem that Robert Zemeckis keeps facing because these characters just don’t look human. It’s the same reason you don’t get weirded out by Buzz Lightyear’s face. Interestingly, it seems like Zemeckis is catching on to this – Scrooge in A Christmas Carol has a fairly cartoony face, and he works much better than Zemeckis’ previous protagonists.
To me this emperor is wearing a wife beater and boxer shorts. He isn’t naked, but he is not dressed in the resplendent finery so many think he has on. What kind of irks me about it is that Cameron walks on and gets all the credit when his movie is really just the latest stage in a long-running process of visual FX evolution.
Haters Be Hatin’
This is just a quick aside: I don’t have Twitter or Facebook so you can tell me what a dick I am for not liking Avatar enough for you. I’ll block you in a heartbeat, since those follower numbers mean nothing to me. If you want to tell me I’m a dick for not liking Avatar, feel free to email me. But just because I have a phone doesn’t mean you have the right to call me and be a jerk, and the same thing goes for Twitter and Facebook.
And for the record: this is what I do for a living. If you don’t like me broadcasting my thoughts on the biggest movie of the month, please don’t follow me. Getting annoyed that I talk about Avatar is like getting annoyed that a political pundit talks about the president. You’re missing the point.
Cameron vs Native Peoples
There’s a lot about Avatar that is over-familiar, hackneyed and trite. But what’s sort of disturbing about Avatar is the way the movie continues that old racist trope of the white man being the only person who can save the noble but still helpless savages. Annalee Newitz at io9 has written a truly remarkable blog post about it – she’s level headed, she’s smart and she gets right to the heart of the matter. Click here to read it.
Cameron vs Bigelow
One of the most interesting aspects of the awards season will be watching James Cameron going up against his ex-wife, Kathryn Bigelow, who has been getting a ton of attention for her Iraq War bomb squad movie The Hurt Locker. To my mind there’s no contest: Bigelow is the director of the year, even if The Hurt Locker doesn’t quite make my top fifteen of 2009. The film is made up of exquisitely tense set pieces, each directed with a sure hand that milks every single frame for a ton of emotion and terror. The Hurt Locker is certainly not changing the face of narrative cinema, but Bigelow has taken what could have been a fairly rote war story – hey, this guy is reckless! He doesn’t take the right precautions! What kind of a crazy man must he be, and is this the kind of crazy man it takes to fight and win wars? – and turned it into a minor masterpiece of dread. My problem with the film is that these incredible set pieces never quite come together to make a complete movie, but what she’s done in these individual pieces is often breath-taking.
Contrast that to what her ex has done – his movie is also a really rote tale, and is also made up mostly of set pieces (or in Avatar‘s case, a bunch of fucking montages). But where Bigelow is able to not only ring every drop of tension from the set pieces, she’s able to get lots of character work done. I don’t just care about the bomb exploding because it will be scary, I care about the bomb exploding on these guys. That’s what elevates a movie, and that’s where Bigelow – with a fraction of the budget that Cameron had on his extravaganza – wins. She took a standard story and some stock characters and imbued them with real life while putting them in awesome set pieces. The funny thing is that this used to be what Cameron did so well, and it’s why movies like Aliens and Terminator hold up years and years later – there’s more to them than the set pieces and the FX, there’s an honest connection to the characters that keeps bringing people back to the films. Will anyone care enough about Jake Sully to want to return and hang out with him for two hours in a couple of years? I suspect not.