Monday, January 25, 2010

Rants on Avatar

I'm in a bit of a "damned if I do, damned if I don't" situation concerning Avatar, director James Cameron's epic 3D action film currently burning up box office records, becoming in six short weeks one of the top grossing movies of all time. If you have been following my Twitter since Avatar's release, I have been talking non-stop trash about the film. From the first trailer, I thought the whole thing looked incredibly stupid, but when the "Avatar is changing movies as we know it" campaign started, I, for lack of a better word, lost my shit. This angered fans of the movie, I'm sure, but, consequently aligned me with those (admittedly few and far between) haters of the movie. This is not entirely surprising given my track record with blockbuster action films, but I digress. Now that I've finally seen the movie, my problem has now become how my reaction will align myself with everyone else. I didn't outright hate Avatar like I thought I would (my friend Sammi told me to keep an open mind and I did the best that I could) but there's no way my reaction will please the fans who may not be calling it the "greatest movie EVER OMG" but were still impressed by the film. Of all the times to end up in the middle of a discussion, it has to be with the most financially successful film of our time. Go figure.

I'm one of those old dinosaurs who truly believes that CGI and computer-related special effects have ruined the movies. Often times I find they are used simply for spectacle and, as a result, do nothing for me in enhancing my movie watching experience. I don't care if they just blew up the fucking Empire State Building--that doesn't mean the surrounding film is any good. Give me Godard shooting a film about Maoism in what looks like my parents' basement or Hepburn and Grant running around the New England countryside chasing a leopard any day of the week. With that being said, I must admit that I thought the 3D special effects in Avatar were nicely done. Rather than rely solely on stupid 3D movie tricks--you know, something randomly getting thrown at the screen just so the audience can go, "Whoa, 3D, man!"--the film subtly immerses us into this invented world of Pandora. You feel a part of the movie in ways I have not experienced before. You're not "there" per se, but it is a hell of a lot closer total immersion in a film world than any CGI fuckfest I have seen before.

As great and inventive as the special effects were, I cannot fully support Avatar because, no matter the film's excessive stylization and massive visuals, we have seen everything else in the film hundreds of times before. The film, numerous times, has been compared to Pocahontas but I actually thought it was closer to another Disney film: The Lion King. With the Na'vi's deep connection to nature and the other creatures who live with them, the odd African tribal music that punctuated the score and the finale, which might as well have had a chorus of Na'vis high-kicking a verse of 'Circle of Life,' I was expecting Simba to pop out eventually and help Jake Sully fight off the Army. While the script wasn't as atrocious as I had heard, I was still concerned that most of the characters were nothing but one-dimensional stereotypes, firmly on either side of good and evil and amped up to 11. The bad guys are so unstomachably bad, I could hardly stand the implausibility of some scenes. Aside from Sigourney Weaver as the no-bullshit, ballsy scientist, the acting is fairly rote as far as these things go. The only truly awful performance comes courtesy of Stephen Lang as the juiced-up, maniacally evil Colonel who often feels like one of those cartoon-ish clowns in an early 3D video game from the early to mid 90's that would shout at the camera with the most godawful lines ever written. And I know it's unfair to compare to a director's earlier work, but the scene where the Army knocks down the tree the Na'vi live in pales in comparison to the terror Cameron drums up for the finale of Titanic. Even the finale, as epic and thrilling as it is (I, at one point, found myself shouting "Kill whitey!" and breathed an epic sigh of relief once the Colonel was killed), was really nothing that an above average action director could have done given Cameron's massive budget. Maybe if Avatar hadn't been billed as the Movie That Changes Movies As We Know Them, I could be a little more fair towards it. But to truly live up to that billing, I expect a little more than I was given in this film. C+


samanthamdownes said...

i give my approval of this're welcome ;)

Adam M. said...

I'm glad you didn't hate it, but I still think you're a grumpy grumpy pants. I never understood-- and I just as much didn't understand here-- the argument that a film with a bigger budget, more populist approval, greater awareness, and a larger P&A campaign deserves to be judged more harshly or with a sharper critical perspective than smaller, independent, or unknown filmmaking efforts. Why can't films be judged based on their own merits, and their own merits alone?

I must say I loved this line:

" I, at one point, found myself shouting "Kill whitey!" "

I think I did that during 'It's Complicated.'

Anonymous said...

Does he have the Vonage® symbol on his forehead? Is this film trying to convince me to switch my telephone provider?

Dame James said...

Samantha: I'm glad you approve. Too bad we couldn't completely agree on the film, though.

Adam: I was as fair as I could be with Avatar but I'll be the first to admit that I have a strong bias against blockbuster action films. It's not because they make massive amounts of money but, rather, I find most of them to have utterly ridiculous narratives and, yet, they are always taken so damn seriously. My God, lighten up, you're not Schindler's List for Christ's sake. Yes, it would be great if we could all judge films based only on their own merits but we don't live in a vacuum. We each come with our own biases, both positive and negative. (And don't tell me you don't have them because I knew based on the way you have been salivating at the prospect of Avatar all year long you would give it an A).

And I don't buy your argument that smaller independent films get a free pass, so to speak, while big budget films are judged more harshly. I think the Academy does that to for sure, but, on the whole, the critical community seems fair for the most part. Besides, more people are going to see these blockbusters so that allows for more wide-ranging opinion to seep through.

Kameron: Haha I didn't notice that before. Subtle promotion at its best.

Adam M. said...

James - I salivated for a year over The Lovely Bones, too. But I sure didn't give that an A. I gave Avatar an A because from my evaluation, based on its merits alone, it deserved an A.

If Avatar had had zero hype behind it-- if it were somehow an independent film that was "discovered" at a film festival (a la Precious at Sundance) or the like-- I doubt the response would have been as ferocious from detractors (you included). If anything, hype engenders doubt and even disapproval in most.

I think it works both ways though. I have a hard time believing that most critics would say 2012 was a better film than Nine. And yet, 2012 scored higher on average (according to RT). In this instance, the hype didn't deliver, so the film was crucified. With Avatar, the hype delivered.

Mike Ellis, The Jolly Reprobate said...

"special effects for spectacle only and not to further the story": in art school, we called this the Phantom Menace Effect.