Thursday, September 9, 2010

Avatar Sucks

"Have you seen Avatar yet?"

Not "have you seen Avatar." Not "Are you going to see Avatar." But "have you seen it Yet." My movie buddy talked as if seeing it had all the inevitability of another Rocky sequel. He's a chap who thinks Adam Sandler's 'Click' is a thought-provoking insight into the human condition though, so I guess I shouldn't put too much weight on that.

Avatar had a huge weight of expectation on it. Most expensive movie in history, most CGI, most blue characters since the Smurf movie; these things raise anticipation to levels not seen since Paris Hilton burst onto the movie scene. But Avatar delivered. The queues stretched past the pimply usher texting on his iPhone, engulfed the people buying fairly-priced popcorn and healthy beverages at the candy bar, swamped the knot of three people waiting to see Jack Black's Year One and generally made everyone else feel like less of a person if they hadn't seen it yet. AVATAR! You gotta see this thing man, the dude is, like, eight foot tall! And he's blue! And it cost, like, five hundred million bucks so it must be awesooome!

It sucked.

You probably gleaned my stance from the title, but I need to say it again: Avatar sucks. You can paint the characters any colour, you can put them in a luminescent forest, you can show dragons duelling helicopters in an alien sky, but unless you can make people care about the outcome of the battle, then your movie is just a demonstration of your CGI skill.

How did it suck? Let me count the ways...

-Unobtanium. Yeah, don't even bother coming up with a clever/credible MacGuffin, just call that spade a spade so you can spend more time on the effects

Stupid coincidences. An entire planet to mine, and the only viable deposit of unobtanium is right underneath the aliens' Magic Faraway Tree. Spare me.

-Hey! It's just Dances With Wolves In Space! We all know it. Cameron admitted it himself. And there's nothing wrong with that. Sure, there are only seven basic plots in all storytelling (which is Avatar?), but so long as you tell your story in an interesting way, it's still a worthwhile exercise. Unfortunately in this case, well...

-The climactic fist-fight. EVERY big budget action movie seems to end this way: villain and hero duking it out in a microcosm of the film's main conflict. This was one of the most contrived fights yet: the evil general climbing into a combat walker, surviving a hundreds-of-metres plummet from a burning ship and crashing to the ground a few metres from both the avatar hero and his unconscious human body. See 'Stupid coincidences'.

-Forgettable dialogue. Some movie quotes are so deep in our culture that a lot of people don't even know where they came from anymore. Case in point: the only line I can remember from Avatar is the evil general bellowing "You are not in Kansas anymore!" And Wizard of Oz is two hundred and six years old in the time Avatar is set. The lead character's dialogue rarely stretches beyond "Hey!," Whua?", "Whoa!" and "How you doin'?". Oh, and the mawkish "I see you." As if you could fail to see someone in a forest where the fricken' ground lights up when you step on it (bet that makes hunting at night tricky). The heroes are so busy being tall, blue and self-righteous that they had no time for anything more than twentieth-century urban patois and mawkish conservationist platitudes ("This world is alive!")

Painfully contrived action scenes. There are plenty of these, but the deal-breaker is the final confrontation between man and alien. When they decide to blow up the alien spirit-tree or whatever that thing was, why does the SPACEGOING shuttle craft approach the site in atmosphere at a nice, slow dragon-vulnerable speed? Why not nuke it from orbit, lob missiles, use artillery; in short, do anything other than take on the aliens at their own game? Regardless of how cool the resultant battle might have looked, there was no reason whatsoever for the humans to fight it.

Unoriginal characters. They're not necessarily bad things. They let us codify secondary characters and focus on the main play. But when EVERY character is a straight rip from other movies, you have issues. The Na'vi tribal leader was played by Wes Studi, Hollywood's go-to guy for dignified native american roles (oh look, he was in 'Dances'). The strapping warrior Na'vi seemed to fall between two posts: his accent and manner fluctuated between Kunta Kinte and Wind-in-his-hair. The young Na'vi who first meets the hero just had to be the daughter of the chief and the priestess: she's feisty, attractive (handy that the aliens were good and breasty, to really nail that 15-24 male geek demographic) and makes it clear that he'll have to work hard to win her over. The corporation's representative was basically Carter Burke from Aliens, with all the interesting self-serving connivery cut out. All of them plod tiredly through the same old noble-natives-versus-corporate-greed routine we've seen so many times before, simply filling the empty space between CGI battles. The only character I cared about even briefly was the helicopter pilot who chose to fight with the good guys. She was the only one not on railroad tracks, who made her own decisions according to her conscience. Tragically, she was Vasquez from Aliens, right down to the sweaty man-singlet.

Transparent plot hooks. The moment the chief's daughter tells the hero that the giant scary dragon-thing is nigh-impossible to ride, and that the last person to do it "brought the clans together in a time of great sorrow," there is NO question as to whether the hero will ride it. His entrance on the beast loses all dramatic impact because you know it's going to happen (thank you, go away, hurry up and get to the climactic fist-fight with the evil general please). And using a paraplegic as the main character? From the moment he first runs in the avatar body ("This is great!") you know there's no chance that the closing scene would see him back in his human body because hey, this is America, and cripples can't be heroes, right? And just in case there might have been any doubt, they dispel it by trying and failing to move Sigourney Weaver's "soul" into her alien body. Hurray, there's hope for the hero yet!

That awful, awful romantic subplot. It's not a blockbuster without the lead male falling for the feisty yet vulnerable (and inevitably hot) female support character. And sure, love conquers all, but why, WHY does she fall for the guy she knows is an alien in a vat-grown body? ("You see? It is a demon in a false body!") The instant she bounds onto the screen, all flowing hair and jiggling furry boobs, there's no question that the hero will end up, um, completing his primary mission with her. At least in Titanic, Cameron was good enough to kill off DiCaprio afterwards.

Comparisons with Star Wars. Okay, if you even momentarily thought this was as ground-breaking as George Lucas' 1977 space epic, you hand in your nerd card, right now. Sure, Star Wars looks cliche now, but that's because so many films have followed where it led. Galactica, Buck Rogers, Battle Beyond the Stars, Star Crash (for the most blatant example, try The Hoff With Lightsabre!): all of them cashed in on Star Wars' success. Yes, a big part of that was the special effects (which blew the budget out to a whopping ELEVEN MILLION BUCKS), and yes, the plot was almost a straight rip of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (watch the opening scene: you'll see where Lucas got his Star Destroyer entrance from). But the characters were real people, even when they weren't; you cared what happened to them. And thirty years later, despite three godawful prequel films, Star Wars is still held dear by millions. Even Ewoks couldn't change that. And what has Avatar brought to our culture?

Avatar porn.

That's pretty much it. There won't be a sequel, there won't be a sendup, there won't be re-enactment societies or cartoons or anything else, because if you take away the big cinema screen, there's nothing left of Avatar but a vague memory of a ten-foot-tall blue chick.
Look, if you liked it, that's great. But let's not pretend it was anything more than a CGI demonstration. Sure, wow us with colours and effects and awesome battles, but make us think, make us care, and please, PLEASE make us wonder how this thing is going to turn out.
It's our own fault of course. Every time I criticise Avatar, people tell me I should just turn my brain off and enjoy it. Huh? I LIKE listening to my brain. It tells me cool stuff like "Don't go out yet, you need pants," and "Kerosene may LOOK like Kool-Aid, buuut..." That's the issue here: If we keep paying to see films that don't engage us intellectually and emotionally, we'll just get more of the same. But if we save our hard-earned for the Hurt Lockers, the Inceptions, the countless other stories that are more memorable than the taste of the popcorn we ate watching them, then we'll get better films, we'll get films that fire our imaginations and inspire us long after the credits roll. I walked out of Star Wars wanting to be an X-Wing pilot. I walked out of Avatar wanting to punch James Cameron in the nose. An emotional reaction, sure, but probably not the one he intended. He had a chance to wrap the incredible technology and stunning effects around a believable, engaging story. Cameron could have followed up on his remarkable effort with Terminator and Aliens (no, not Titanic: even a giant boat can't make yet another Uptown Girl romance tale interesting). Instead, he went with the blandest, most cookie-cutter plot he could devise, to ensure nobody was distracted from the pretty colours. In this he was entirely successful.
If you don't believe me, try this: how many characters can you name from the movie? Do you remember the hero's name? The villainous general? Any of the Na'vi? Tragically, the only thing that stays with us from this movie is the hype, and a pair of ugly 3D glasses.

Of course, it's not the first time special effects were put before plot. Remember Independence Day?

Nah, neither do I.

UPDATE: Avatar sequel!
As if there wouldn't be a follow-up to a (financial) triumph like Avatar. A failure on my part to think otherwise, or to spend five minutes Googling . Apparently they're taking it underwater; maybe next an Ice Planet? Or possibly just the latest instalment in Cameron's numerous watery sojourns.

1 comment:

  1. When it comes to new visual tech (3D), they gave us a pretty darn good starter imho. Your arguments are sound, but, you gotta admit that it was friggin' pretty, duh!?

    As far as I'm concerned, plot schmot. I fail to see any difference between Avatar and almost every comic-book-to-big-screen blockbuster "Only At The Movies!".

    I say enjoy it for what it is, not what it isn't. If your brain can't enjoy the eye-candy and appreciate the 3D without obsessing over the fact that the movie is only hitting on your porno-bone, turn it off! ;P