Thursday, February 18, 2010

Big Blue

Avatar stands as a wildly uneven summation of director James Cameron's career, embodying every good, bad, awe-inspiring, and downright silly and embarrassing thing about the self proclaimed King of the World. While being touted as the next revolution in movie making, what's most striking about Avatar is how derivative just about every single thing in it is: second hand memories of every science fiction, fantasy, and colonialist tale ever told in every medium abound, and the lack of good storytelling makes the presence of these cliches pretty much inexcusable. The world that James Cameron's film inhabits may be fully realized, but the gateway into that world - actual thematic substance - is virtually nonexistent.

In Jean Luc Godard's In Praise of Love, two characters discuss the massive success of the ex-biggest movie of all time Titanic in a restaurant, and one character states "Why bother saying or writing that Titanic is a global success? Talk about its contents. Talk about things, but don't talk around things. Let's talk on the basis of things." Substitute the word Avatar and Godard's observation is relevant all these years later. It has become virtually impossible to discuss the movie on its own terms, as almost any criticism of the movie can quickly be met with "2 Billion dollars worldwide doesn't lie" or "The numbers speak for themselves" and, yes, both of these observations are correct, but they don't necessarily speak to the actual quality of the movie, merely to the power of the media in creating an 'event'. Anything becomes an event if you say so for long enough, and Cameron was touting that he was looking to redefine movies before a single camera had begun rolling. All the controversy and speculation surrounding Avatar has only assisted in advertising it even more.

But the so-called revolutionary elements have been done before, and done better. The main selling point of Avatar is that it creates its own unique world and submerges the viewer into it via 3D technology, and even people critical of Avatar have cited that the world is immersive; I have seen very few criticisms of the creature and ecological design of the film's setting, Pandora. This is what really makes-or-breaks the film, subjectively speaking - if the viewer finds the cinematic world convincing and enjoys being in it, then it naturally follows that they will enjoy the movie (I have read reports that some people actually "experienced depression and suicidal thoughts after seeing the film because they long to enjoy the beauty of the alien world Pandora", a notion that, if true, makes me depressed and suicidal). Speaking for myself, I never forgot that I was looking at a computerized forest populated by computerized creatures. Though one can't help but marvel at the scope of Avatar's planet, it reflects a stunning lack of imagination on Cameron's part, as it's ultimately nothing more than a cartoon forest. The creature design leaves much to be desired, as well, because all of the animals look like their earthly counterpart with a skewed color palette and odd flailing limbs.

The obtrusive 3D doesn't help matters much; Cameron filmed the live-action portions with two 3D cameras in an attempt to mimic peripheral vision and, while this idea sounds intriguing on paper, it simply does not work. It makes characters look like cardboard cut outs (which is fitting, really), any implication of depth of field flies out the metaphorical window, and it can occasionally be disorienting, as Cameron will occasionally use a rack focus and the foreground, the pane that is popping out from the screen, will go out of focus. The animated portions don't fare much better, though they're at least watchable, as I don't recall any bone-headed directorial decisions on the level of the rack focus catastrophe. Cameron actually managed to make me physically uncomfortable while watching a movie, and at certain intervals I had to take off the 3D glasses in order rest my eyes. I've seen Avatar twice, once in skullfucking IMAX 3D, the other in my decidedly non-skullfucking home in 2D, and I must say it played much better in traditional 2D; though the inherent silliness is still present, it goes down much smoother, even though it's plain as day that Cameron composed many shots strictly for the purpose of throwing stuff at you, cheapening many of the moments designed for emotional impact. It's always about the spectacle in Avatar.

And as I noted earlier, the spectacle isn't even particularly well done. The action sequences are loud and incoherent - visual noise that, in many instances, isn't even context appropriate. Cameron's big finale is one of the most hypocritical and ideologically confused sequences of the last few years, one that includes the gleeful and wanton slaughter of the SFWM (stupid fucking white man) in his third act epic battle extravaganza. Cameron falls into the trap that Terrence Malick so wonderfully avoided in his masterpiece The New World: Cameron demonizes the SFWM imperialists in cartoonish broad strokes and fetishizes the natives in a manner that is simplistic, disturbing, and kinda perverted - Cameron stated in a Playboy interview that he told his special effects crew that the female Na'vi "got to have tits, even though that makes no sense because [their] race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals". In Cameron's world, the natives are pure, wise and uncorrupted - so much so that an early scene details the female Na'vi, Neytiri, in mourning over some wolf-like creatures that she killed to save the life of the protagonist, Jake Sully, who is foolish enough to thank her for saving his life. "Don't thank! You don't thank for this. This is sad. Very sad only", says Neytiri, proving her love of the planet and respect for all forms of life, though as far as I could tell not a single tear was shed nor a single moment of silence observed for all the SFWM that are killed in Cameron's big finale. In spite of Cameron's blatant anti-American baiting (no small part of its worldwide success, I would wager), he is little more than a cinematic equivalent of George W. Bush, using an act of terrorism - the raping and pillaging of Pandora, including the destruction of a sacred tree, which is a blatant hijacking of 9/11 imagery - to justify further acts of terrorism, slaughter, and destruction.

Cameron has never been known as a wordsmith - even his previous works, many of which I like very much, are sorely lacking in this department - but Avatar's spoken word is about as poorly written as anything I've ever heard in a Hollywood blockbuster; the script is stuffed to the brim with movie trailer style one-liners and scene punctuations. I wouldn't mind such awful writing if I could find other things to admire but the story, visuals, and acting don't exactly pick up the slack. Many have excused the banal writing because they find the visuals so dazzling, but I was never particularly dazzled; when on Pandora, Cameron's camera is constantly moving (so as to impress us with things flying out of the screen), and we never get a particularly good look at the planet because Cameron doesn't believe in static shots anymore, I guess (so 20th Century). What we're left with is a poorly written and badly acted cinematic light show - flashing fluorescents and whooshing sound effects, but no technique or substance behind them.

Avatar is an ingeniously marketed but ultimately empty piece of exhibitionist technology. It is expressly designed to be seen and disposed; the film doesn't linger on a single image, emotion, or idea long enough for anything to register. Like the 3D process Cameron employs, Avatar is just about throwing things out at you, attempting to delight and wow you with its sights and sounds, but its effect is ultimately numbing. James Cameron has shown himself to be in roughly the same film making class as George Lucas: a man who has always been on the forefront of pushing cinematic technology further, but in the CGI-era when anything that can be imagined can be put on a screen, they have allowed technology to override the human interest in their movies. In spite of the fact that Cameron waited 10 years for technology to catch up with his grandiose vision, he was probably better off when a lack of technology forced him to imaginatively make a movie.


Adam Zanzie said...

All valid points, Ryan. I like Avatar: in fact, the night I saw it, I perceived it as a great film. Now, I saw it in 2D on a Wehrenberg mega-screen, so I never had to deal with the 3D mindfucks that obviously had much to do with your disgusted response to the film. At the AMC where I work, occasionally I'll walk inside, slip on a pair of the glasses and check to see what the audience is so amazed about.

I haven't seen the whole thing in 3D yet, but what I saw seriously seemed to distract from the film's narrative. I kept looking around for a 3D effect, and couldn't really focus on the drama going on in the meantime. I can't imagine straining like that for three hours! Remember back when you reviewed Up? Another film from this year that we disagreed on, but I remember that I left a comment on your review in which I complained that I should have seen the 2D version of Up instead. 3D detracted from what I found to be an otherwise enjoyable experience.

If I appreciate Avatar a heck of a lot, part of it is because I'm glad Cameron, like Peter Jackson (in terms of his underrated King Kong remake) is unafraid to tell a good old-fashioned story like this that, honestly, isn't just out to get people's money. I did love the whole world of Pandora (we differ, too, on the effectiveness of the CGI graphics of the jungle, which swept me away). I wanted to do what Jake does, fly some mutants and claim a Na'vi bride. And, of course, another part of me appreciates the film because it's a liberal epic, and I don't see as much of those as I would like to.

I'm with you on that final duel between Jake and the SFWM (awesome term!), though. Avatar is apparently supposed to be about the War in Iraq and how the previous administration mowed down on a civilization that had never attacked them in the first place. It's supposed to be an anti-war fable. Yet if Cameron is electing to conclude his film with an ultraviolent battle between a hero and a villain- and has the nerve to expect us to hope that the villain gets killed in the end- then he is not really engaging the point of the story. You are absolutely correct that it is contradictory how the Na'vi don't mourn for the slain humans! What Cameron preaches is the equivalent of Al-Quaeda terrorists slicing down the Bush administration, and that's just plain wrong.

Avatar, Inglourious Basterds and The Hurt Locker are all good films, but I am enamored with none of them. Yes, people continue to insist that I'm wrong on Basterds, particularly, but to me all three of these films are bloated political Hollywood epics that embody the worst of the blacklashes in the media that have been developing in the year that followed up the last eight years. Maybe I'm fed up with all of the partisan cinematic fussing. I don't know.

Stephen said...

I sympathise with your views, Ryan. This is a funny and very well written review.

"The action sequences are loud and incoherent - visual noise that, in many instances, isn't even context appropriate."

I think the action sequences are loud because it is hard to do action sequences (explosions, crashing trees) without being loud.

I have never really had a problem with an action scene being incoherent. I've managed to navigate myself through the epileptic Transformers just fine. In fact, I thought Avatar's action scenes elegant and traditional in their presentation.

"Speaking for myself, I never forgot that I was looking at a computerized forest populated by computerized creatures."

Sometimes I did forget, especially with Neytiri. It seemed like they'd spent the most time and effort on her - or maybe it's Zoe Saldana's performance.

"The creature design leaves much to be desired, as well, because all of the animals look like their earthly counterpart with a skewed color palette and odd flailing limbs."

Lol! This is always the case, isn't it?

I think maybe it would waste too much time if the audience was always thinking 'what the hell is that?'. I think I'd always try to match or associate a new being to ones that already exist. The less like something we know, the more time used up. It has to be magical as well as halfway recognisable I think.

"This is sad. Very sad only", says Neytiri, proving her love of the planet and respect for all forms of life, though as far as I could tell not a single tear was shed nor a single moment of silence observed for all the SFWM that are killed in Cameron's big finale."

I completely agree and wrote something similar in my review at my blog. I don't feel like attacking Cameron himself. I feel like attacking those hypocritical Na'avi.

If you're interested Ryan my review and its extra bits and pieces are here:


Ethan Edwards said...

Call it my woman's intuition but I've never trusted liberal epics Hard face

You well know that one of the things George Lucas would always bitch about before writing a Star Wars script was the difficulty in finding "new" worlds for his characters to visit. That being said the plaided one would never rely too heavily on these exotic lands in order to keep his audiences interested, he instead kept his eye on the prize and stuck to his adventure movie.

And would somebody file a summons against Adam Zanzie for endorsing bestiality in motion pictures... first he had to stir up all of those awful memories of Peter Jackson's King Bong, and then he praises Avatar's romance.

Those Blue meanies were not attractive and many people have been suckered by James Cameron into believing they were fair game for romance just because Cameron stuck breasts on them, but if those things they used to domesticate the animals also serves as their reproductive organs... well then what the hell were they doing to the animals... I think that this David and Goliath story not only drew from what that young sheep herder did to the giant but what he was doing to the flock during those lonely nights of his.

Plus there is a certain impracticality to having your' reproductive organs hang that far away from your' body. Who has ever gotten their hair caught in anything?

Oh yeah and Mr. Glynn I'll admit that I took my glasses off several times to rest my eyes, but the interesting thing about your' case is that you need reading glasses and experience difficulty deciphering stop signs. That just occurred to me while I was reading review because it seems you are the most fervent detractor of the movies 3d visuals.

I also have to say Cameron did not go overboard with the gimmicky 3d objects flying in your' face, especially when you hold this film up to comparison to other 3d releases in recent years.

And Mr. Glynn I wholeheartedly agree with you on the Anti Americanism as being the reason for the film's overseas success.

Well... like the one sheep herder said to the next let's get the flock outta here.

Ryan Kelly said...

Adam, that's part of why I dragged my feet for so long with this review, because the night I saw this was so unpleasant that my initial draft came off as outraged and angry. Not that I'm adverse to coming off as outraged and angry, but only when warranted. My feelings toward Avatar are indifference, by and large.

But you're dead on when you say that it's a strain to watch a movie like that for 5 minutes, let alone 3 hours. Between this and Up, I am breaking up with 3D. Coraline's use of 3D impressed me, but there are two reasons for that: one,the movie didn't seem designed expressly for 3D, so it never felt like things were being thrown at you for the sake of throwing things at you and two, because the animators who worked on Coraline had an acute sense of angles, shades, and tonality and thus the 3D actually implied more depth, which is still the only 3D movie I've ever seen where the added pane actually gave a greater depth of field. All the other movies I've seen have just been a rip off gimmick that have cheated me out of extra money. I'm done with it.

You say that Cameron "is unafraid to tell a good old-fashioned story like this that, honestly, isn't just out to get people's money", and I'm not sure how to take this. On one hand, you could be suggesting that the artistry of the movie is Cameron's chief concern, which I strongly disagree with, or you could be suggesting that Cameron isn't just filling 3 hours with whatever, and actually wants to give you the most bang for your buck, and that I do agree with. Cameron is a natural born showman and wants to be a crowd pleaser. Doesn't mean his movie isn't lousy, though.

I like the idea of a leftist epic, of Cameron taking money from one of the biggest corporations in the planet (one that owns a news station dedicated to 'conservative' values, no less) and turning around and making an anti-military, anti corporate big budget extravaganza, but it doesn't work for many reasons, not least of which is the blatant hypocrisy. But it mostly doesn't work because Cameron is an awful writer who has no gift for subtlety or nuance, and I think that's true even of his best movies.

Your final paragraph here really illuminates your feelings towards the year's most warmly received films. Of them, I can only say I have any fondness for Inglourious Basterds, and even at that it's not my favorite Tarantino. I'd love to see QT upset the favorites on Oscar night, but I expect Avatar to be the best picture and for Bigelow to win Best Director. Whatever. There have been worse abominations in the history of the Oscar.

Ryan Kelly said...

Stephen, yes, action and noise are just about inseparable. But I found the pumped up volume in the IMAX theater to be especially migraine-inducing. I'd say the general incoherence of the action scenes is almost, but not quite, on the Michael Bay level.

Cameron definitely spent the most time with Neytiri, and Saldana's performance is very nuanced and expressive. I would suggest that the fact that people have said that she is 'sexy' (a notion that, again, disturbs me)is more reflective of the fact that you can't make Saldana unattractive if you tried.

As for the fact that in sci-fi or fantasy movies the creature are always similar to their Earthly counterparts - well, yes and no. Again, I'm only speaking for myself, but I could never forget that I was looking at drawn up creatures in a made up land. From the weird craoyla Rhinoceros thing that chases Jake in the beginning to the wolves that almost kill him I was just constantly struck by the general lack of effort in making unique creatures for a unique world.

Cameron only really values the Na'vi, which is why I think it's fair to blame them as well. He is sympathetic only to them and affords no dignity to a large portion of his human characters. He wants his audience to sympathize with the benevolent natives and to hate the evil colonialists, and he wants his audience to whoop and holler as they're all being brutally slaughtered. I don't buy it for a minute.

I'll be sure to check out your thoughts on the picture when I have time to properly take in in, Stephen. Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

Ryan Kelly said...

Ethan, don't worry, I will indeed call it your woman's intuition. You watch.

I don't think there's anything wrong with 'liberal' epics, per-se, but Cameron doesn't seem to realize that his 'liberal' values are just plain hypocritical, and ultimately the points he's trying to make are fallacious, because it amounts to "killing is wrong except when it isn't". He's still a war monger. Not even a proper liberal.

Though Adam and I disagree strongly, I don't know if he quite deserves to have a summons brought against him! At least not over this. But I do agree that Cameron's depiction of inter-species romance is perverted, and it made me uncomfortable, frankly. A critic that I am friends with on a social networking site (I won't say who it was, because he said it in a not exactly public forum) called this "The New World for sci-fi nerds", and while that's kind of judgmental, it really is also kind of accurate. Making the Na'vi exotic and 'sexy' is all part of the way Cameron fetishizes the Na'vi. It's not a nuanced portrayal, it's reverent to absurd proportions and simplistic and trivializing. And perverted. I mentioned that, right?

I do not need 'reading' glasses. I am nearsighted and have no problem reading text that is close to my face or seeing movies or anything like that. It's text at a distance that I sometimes struggle with, though I know what a freaking stop sign looks like, jerk off! But yes, it is my understanding that people who do wear spectacles had a particularly miserable time seeing this picture (I'd heard that beforehand and didn't wear mine because of it).

Sam Juliano said...

i completely and utterly disagree, but I'm not going to reiterate what I've said at other blogs. This film is the #2 film of the year for me, and that in my book DOES NOT translate to severe Cameron filmmaking issues.

Here's where it places:

1. Bright Star
2. Avatar
3. 35 Shots of Rum
4. Up
5. A Single Man
6. Police Adjective
7. Everlasting Moments
8. A Serious Man
9. Summer Hours
10. Tokyo Sonata

Ryan Kelly said...

Sam, I'm sorry that you don't find engaging with the actual substance of my views to be worth your time. Many people I admire very much enjoyed the movie, and I wish I had. I don't think I was unfair to it. Thanks for reading.

Sam Juliano said...

Ryan, it's too bad you took it that way, as that is NOT the way I intended it. I read your essay all the way through--and i tried to imply that the films belongs among the best films of the year. My prolific blogging just didn't allow me to engage you as well as I wanted to, but I have stated my views on this film at other places and at my own site. I just entered a very friendly comment at your Fort Lee post as well. I come here to support you.

Ryan Kelly said...

Sam, I know, and I apologize as that came off much bitchier than I meant for it to. But I was frustrated because I had no idea how to respond to your comment, because you didn't really respond to what I wrote, and I didn't want to leave you hanging as I try to make it a habit of responding to all of my comments. If you have the time, and want to get into what criticisms of mine you disagree with, I'll be here. If not, no big deal. We can agree to disagree, yes?

Must remember that text only conveys so much!

dental advices said...

i somewhat like how the story of Avatar was plotted. it's like leaving your own race and fight for what is right.