January 13, 2010

Disappointed with Avatar.

I hate to start out this blog post with this title, but that is how I feel after just coming back from seeing Avatar in 3D.  I may rant on for ages about this, but I don't want to.  Because I did want to like this movie.

I'm all for something original being told.  I know that only so many stories can be told, after a certain point, most stories are the same.  That's fine.  As a writer I know that and battle with this inevitability.  You can't always blatantly say something's not original enough.  But for me, it was that there were not enough original things.

To hopefully move along my banter in a smooth way, I'm going to divide this post into the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.  Like that hasn't be done before.


The Good

You can not knock how beautiful this movie is.  You can not deny that every damn detail on the silver screen was captivating the audience.  Even if I didn't see it in 3D, I would've appreciated everything I saw.  It was awesome.  And I loved looking at it.

The CGI acting at some points was better than the real acting.  Facial expressions and subtle movements were great.  I might just have noticed it because of all my theatre experience, but it was great to see CGI finally capture that so perfectly.  Not at every moment, but a good number of them.  For once, it didn't feel like I was watching a fancy cartoon.

The pacing of the story, although predictable, was good.

The one thing that I thought was surprisingly thoughtful was the idea that the plant life and animals were on a neural network that connected the entire plant.  It was a very empathic network, and allowed the native flora and fauna to communicate with each other.  It was easy to see why the Na'vi respected the land they lived on.  They had literally felt it.

The Bad

Yes, it was Dances with Wolves with aliens.  Yeah, it is the white hero fantasy.  I'm a jaded educated minority who has realized it's going to take a long time for people to stop caring about that story.  Luckily I don't feel I'm a minority in my opinion here.  History will run its guilt-ridden course. This issue doesn't irk me much.

It was a fantasy movie trying not to be a fantasy movie.  For me, sci-fi is about humanity's complex questions and ethical choices that possibly have no precedent.  Star Trek does that really well, so do great writers like William Gibson and Isaac Asimov.  And it's not to say that sci-fi must be trying to answer a question, but it tends to.  Fantasy tends to be about epic adventures, destiny, fantastic heroics that are necessary to save the world.  Avatar is a fantasy movie in that sense.  Sure, there were no elves, but there were goddamn archers and old gods that lived in trees.

The animal life on that plant, to my standards, were ridiculous unoriginal.  This is how it went: "Let's make a horse, but give it SIX LEGS!  Or how about a pteradatctyl with FOUR WINGS!  What about a GLOWING weeping  willow?  Shit, aren't we creative!"  No, you fucking aren't, nor ever were you actually creative.  You decided to take something that actually exists in the real world and give it a new paint job.  Congratulations, you paint well.

The Ugly

As I mentioned before, I can get over the "racist" tones of the white hero story.  To a lot of people, and to many of them subconsciously, becoming white is the way to redemption.  That's our culture.  I live with it every day.  It's easy to ignore it.

My problem is when every single damn tribal culture needs to have braids, feathers, and beads, or else you can't understand that the culture is a "live on the land" type of culture.  Seriously, guys?  You invent a whole new planet with a whole new slew of natural resources, and you've decided to base the Na'vi costuming on things you grew up reading about in National Geographic?  We can't have tribes who, I don't know, actually have clothing made from the animals in their damn ecosystem?  That's right, the Na'vi feathers don't appear on any animal in their ecosystem.  I don't know what they made their beads from, but I didn't see anything that could become clay in that movie.

I might be a bit sensitive about that particular lack of creativity, but it's because I'm tired of every tribe having the same traits.  Even if you look around the world you will see there are groups of nomadic or nature-bound people who have *gasp* ACTUAL CLOTHES with NO FEATHERS OR BEADS!  Sometimes they make tapestries or sew together animal skins that don't look like leopard print.  It just points out to me that the designers of this project went out of their way to make the Na'vi look "ethnic" rather than "alien".  I know I can be sensitive to things that elude to racial stereotypes, but that was definitely what first struck me when I saw the Na'vi in their hometree.

Speaking of which, WHY IS THERE ALWAYS A DAMN TREE?  Why can't it be a peat moss or a brain coral, why always a tree?  Again, super uncreative.

Finally, I hear the Cameron is trying to mold Avatar into the same kind of hit franchise that Star Wars and Star Trek is.  In the sense of getting it so big people will have Avatar conventions.  You shitting me?  Nothing in this movie touched me enough that I have to go and talk to other people about how much I love the Na'vi way of life.  I'm going back to the petrol-using urban ways right after this.  Star Trek showed an idealistic universe where unifying different minds was a goal, not an impossibility.  Star Wars tells an epic story of a young man who finds a strength he never thought he had, and how he must save an entire universe from his own father.  Avatar doesn't approach the same kind of connection that either of these franchises did when they started.  People wrote in to change the name of a space-faring ship from NASA to Enterprise.  No one is going to care about Avatar that much.  It's not original enough, expansive enough, or captivating enough to do what Star Wars and Star Trek did without trying in the first place.

As much as I am complaining, I don't think Avatar is a bad movie.  The story is well told, and it is beautiful.  But don't expect it to change the movie industry.  Don't expect a whole bunch of Avatar geeks to be talking about as much as Twilight fans debate Edward versus Jason.  Just expect people to enjoy it and then move on.  It just isn't that special.


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  2. Oh, but what about the Na'vikin that are already popping up?!? They are TOTALLY Na'vi on the INSIDE and HAVE BEEN since birth but didn't KNOW IT until they saw the GREATEST MOVIE EVER MADE.

    Na'vikin. I shit you not.

  3. I didn't find it particularly racist, just terribly cliche. For all the advancements they made with the CGI, they really should have made a better story to do it justice. It was "cute" but definitely not a classic, and i'm disappointed that it will be classified as such with all the attention it received.

  4. i'm sure there are feathered somethings somewhere on Pandora. and beads can be made from lots of stuff, not just clay. glass, wood, bone, rocks, etc. and evolutionarily, i think that a lot of the creatures make sense in their environment. most of the animals have six legs; the birds fit in with this by having 2 pairs of wings. the pandora wiki says that the Na'Vi lost 2 appendages when they evolved to stand upright.

    braids are practical. they keep your hair in a controllable bundle that protects your weird external spinal cord. and they're easier to animate than each individual strand of hair.

    all human cultures recognize trees as a symbol of life. in the same way that water is always a symbol of life. full stop.

    what a lot of the design choices boil down to is that it needed to be new-ish, but still familiar enough that the creatures would resonate on an archetypical level. brain coral wouldn't work for a culture that lives in a forest, and in any case it doesn't symbolize life (brain coral, what we see on land, is a skeleton.) structure, maybe. but not life.

    what i found particularly fascinating was the relationship the Na'vi had to light. the dark was not quite as terrible a thing to them as it is to humans, which says a lot i think.

    that, and the whole film's relationship to technology specifically. what we watch is a story telling us the usual, that technology can be used for good or bad. what we see are characters rendered almost entirely by computers that we empathize with more than the characters portrayed by humans. it's a movie about immersing yourself in your avatar, about losing touch with which world and which life is the real one, and movies live or die based on their ability to do just that-- make you forget the real world, lose yourself in the creation for 2 hours. the cinematic implications of the film are more important than the originality of the plot IMHO.

    i don't disagree that it isn't original and there were some unsettling racist whatsits going on there. but it had to be familiar enough that the average movie goer would accept it, if only from a financial standpoint. your ability to branch out and do controversial and/or new things decreases proportionally to the amount of money invested in the project.

  5. Sara, you come across as mildly abrasive in your post. I, personally, still liked the movie. While I don't agree with many of your points D20Sapphire, I can still see how someone could have the same issues you do. That's fine by me, a movie is not an absolute, there are different perspectives you can approach it from.

    In the end Cameron was trying to make money, and the movie looked good and was well directed, but Cameron's not a great or creative writer, and it shows in this movie with its ammount of cliches and issues. I still liked it, but maybe that's just my initial reaction, and as my brain digests it more I may find myself to be underwhelmed by it.