Sunday, February 28, 2010


I didn't want to. But I had to. James Cameron's Avatar is undoubtedly the hugest movie of the year and maybe even the decade. And, you know, I enjoyed Titanic, despite the length. So, I figured I'd enjoy this, despite the flaws.

This movie is a marvel: It manages to be simultaneously amazing and boring at the same time.

Technologically, it's amazing. The 3D—I haven't seen the new 3D at all, so this is my first encounter with it—really works. 3D doesn't generally work well for me, as my right eye is significantly weaker than my left, so I usually end up with an uncomfortable feeling in my head. On top of the whole thing not being very impressive.

This works. The Boy and I both closed one eye at various points and agreed that it seemed to be pretty deep looking, even with one eye.

Even more, the CGI doesn't suck. I think we can all agree, at this point, that CGI sucks, big time. I mean, it's a great way—and the only reasonable way—to achieve certain effects. Some things just aren't possible without it. But it's overused. And usually painfully obvious. Except for a few scenes where the aliens interact with humans, it's seamless here. Though this is really due in part to the movie being almost entirely CGI, Cameron's standards have always been incredibly high.

So, as you're swooping around on WTF-the-planet's-name-is you really feel like you're riding on the back of a WTF-that-is, with your hot alien WTF girlfriend.

When James Cameron was a kid in Junior High school, he had all these great ideas. Unfortunately, he never grew out of them. Or ever even remotely challenged them. Or apparently even thought about them long enough to realize how crusty they had become.

This movie is so predictable, you know within the first 5 minutes of meeting every character not only whether they're a good guy or a bad guy, but how they're going to die. It's almost as if Cameron's never seen one of his own movies, even.

All your favorite James Cameron characters are here: There's the tough-as-nails marine sergeant (think Apone from Aliens), and the bitchy-but-competent scientist (Mastroantonio from The Abyss), the macho Hispanic chick (played by, heh, Jenette Goldstein and a lot of makeup in Aliens), the sort of bland quiet-but-noble hero one suspects may be Cameron's own avatar (played by Michael Biehn in both Terminator and Alien, Schwarzeneggar in True Lies) and the evil corporate guy (Paul Reiser in Aliens). It doesn't really matter so much that Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Sam Worthington and Giovanni Ribisi are in those roles here.

Well, Weaver's always great. And Giovanni Ribisi stands out, too. But they're just archetypes. No need to, you know, flesh them out or anything. Part of the problem is that the dumb marine, Jake (Sam Worthington, who didn't overly impress in Terminator: Salvation), is supposed to provide the dramatic tension by being torn between his human life and his life among the Native Americans (Navi, for short) and his marine commander's assurance that he'll get his legs back (yeah, he lost them in battle) if he cooperates with The Company's Evil Plan.

Yeah. You feelin' that tension? Me, neither. We've already established he's a Good Guy. Also, he immediately falls in love with his giant, functioning Navi body.

Wait! Did I forget to say what the plot was? OK, a distant planet has a rare resource—the bastard actually calls it unobtanium as if to rub our noses in the cliché—and the peaceful and nature-loving natives just happen to live right over it. Company Man Ribisi wants to relocate the Indians but barring that, he'll just blow them up. Worthington plays the crippled grunt whose identical-twin-ship makes him the only person suitable to use his late identical twin brother's avatar—a laboratory grown genetic mashup of human and Navi—to act as missionaries among the natives.

Now, look, you don't go to a Cameron movie looking for original stories, any more then you'd go to Stephen King or Shakespeare for them. There aren't really any original stories, and only a few that really manage to feel that way, so there's no shame in recycling. But doesn't it just make ya go, "Come on!?!?"

Still, same plot as Aliens (minus the avatar part which, I guess, isn't trivial), which was a great action flick. What kills this for me? The clichés are wrapped in a huge ol' layer of self-indulgent, almost masturbatory fantasy about the beautiful natives. (Almost? I'm being kind here.) The movie spends, literally, an hour in panoramas of swooping around on dragons, marveling in its own beauty, native orgiastic dances (that remind unpleasantly of the second Matrix movie), while sort of contradictorily lingering lovingly over the evil tech war machines that are going to destroy them.

So, yeah, an hour less movie (running time is 2:45) would've been a lot easier to stomach.

But it would have also helped if the damn thing didn't get right in your face and slap you with the stupid. But it does. A lot. The Navi are larger than humans, and their bones have a natural "carbon fiber" built in or something. But they're stone age people. And they're up against a civilization with faster-than-light technology.

At one point, Lang is concerned because, OMG, there might be as many as 20,000 Navi converging on them. Give me 10 guys with machine guns and enough bullets and I'll take on the 20,000 aboriginals. But they have way more than 10 guys. It looks like they have hundreds. And they have these super-duper flying machines. Explosives enough to destroy an entire mountain. Missiles by the gobs. Oh, and those cool waldos, like in Aliens, but with lots of military goodies attached, instead of just crate loaders.

They do have one weakness however: Nobody thought to make the glass in these super-military devices arrow proof. I'm pretty sure the windshield of my '91 Geo Metro is arrow-proof. Also, nobody wears any kind of protective vest. In fact, even the windows of the various human outposts aren't particularly tough, even though it's death to breathe the alien world air.

That's toward the end, but it surprised me with its stupidness. I mean, you kind of need some stupid to have a story, because what an Evil Corporation would do is simply wipe the planet out from space. Carpet bombing to clear anything that got in there way. Right? (The movie makes a little nod to what they can and can do by suggesting there are PR issues, but that's not an explanation that bears much scrutiny.)

But the movie starts out with a whole heaping dump truck full of ignorance, too. Cameron's view of the Marine Corps isn't just that they're bad-ass, but that they're largely without honor, so that your average marine would transition from fighting to defend his country to fighting for a mining company without even noticing the difference.

And then, there's the whole Avatar concept. While linked with your avatar, your human body is unconscious, though you can be woken up. When not linked with it, your avatar is unconscious and unrousable.

Anyone wanna guess what the life-expectancy of the average stone-age person is if they couldn't get up at night?

This actually comes up at one point, but the assumption is that—despite the packs of deadly animals—it's perfectly fine to leave your giant, tasty blue body lying around the rain forest at night.

And Cameron's understanding of how such primitive tribes actually lived seems to have stopped with a viewing of Dances With Wolves. (Yeah, this movie is sort of Dances With Smurfs.) Males and females—hated, mistrusted, alien males, that is, are just, you know, hanging out with, like, the shaman's daughter, all casual-like.

Their entire social structure seems to consist of, y'know, like, hangin' out, listening to the forest, and, uh, linking arms and dancing in front of the sacred tree.

Once again, archetypes. No need to flesh them out. Smelly Ugly Western Europeans = Evil. Non-showering-but-still-lemon-fresh Blue Aliens = Good.

Meh. I could go on and on (and on and on and on) but the overall effect of the movie is that of a guy who's just really enamored with his own juvenile creation, both in terms of a beautiful, symbiotic biological ecosystem, and a shallow, ugly straw-man-of-a-representation of the society that makes it possible for him to spend $500M to make movies.

The Flower liked it. That's about right. I would expect eight-year-old girls to react to this movie the way they do to unicorns and pegasi. The Boy, The Old Man and I just rolled our eyes and talked about the technology. (I'm very careful about letting the youngsters enjoy their movies, no matter how stupid.)

But I really can't recommend it. At two hours shorter, it would've been a kind of fun and exciting technology demo. At one hour shorter, it would've been a tolerable, but predictable movie. At its current length, it's an unrelenting exercise in stupidity dressed up in top-flight production values.

In the words of Dorothy Parker, there is less here than meets the eye. It'll win some Oscars, but I'd put it in my bottom ten for 2009.

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