Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar: Review and Analysis

This is going to be a long rant. When I make an argument I try to cover all my bases, so that even if you disagree with me you can understand where I’m coming from. As with most of my blog posts, its more about collecting my own thoughts than it is about writing something that anyone would actually want to read. However, I’ll try to break it up into categories to make it easy to skim for the 3 of you that may actually want to read this.

First of all, I know I’m going to get this response: “Why do you care so much, it’s just a movie. Either go see it or don’t.” So I’ll counter that now, before I get started. One day I hope to work in science-fiction and fantasy. I hope to write novels, short stories, video games, and maybe even movie scripts. It’s very important to me where trends in genre-fiction lead, and if people start to abuse science-fiction and fantasy as something that is only a good excuse to make a special-effects movie, that is a very bad thing for me and my chosen career (not to mention the genre of fiction I enjoy the most).

On 3D:
This is a separate criticism I have that isn't really about the movie so much as it is about the "intended medium", but it seems that it’s impossible to discuss Avatar without mentioning this elephant in the room. So, here goes. 3D is pointless. It doesn't add anything to the movie. It's a gimmick intended to entertain children, which is why it’s usually only featured in kid's movies. The sad part is that Avatar didn't need this. The visuals were wonderful without shoving things down my throat every few seconds. James Cameron has said that the ‘new 3D’ solves all the old problems of 3D - eye strain, bad projection, a drop in visual quality, etc. This was not true in my experience. The glasses are dark and even with the new technology the picture is still blurry, and after the first hour my eyes and head started to hurt. The fact is that the technology isn't there yet. We still have to put on ridiculous glasses to try and fool our eyes into thinking that the picture is not in 2D. Maybe 3D will work as a medium if they ever develop a means that doesn’t involve the glasses, but until then I'm just not interested. It hurts, its blurry, it’s too dark, and more than anything else it’s a meaningless distraction.

That's my biggest problem with 3D.
It was constantly distracting. When I should be focusing on the characters and the scene, I'm instead watching the 3D effect that is protruding into my face. There were many, many scenes when I was drawn out of the movie and forced to look at some peripheral piece of scenery that was drawn into the foreground with a 3D effect. If I'm looking at the back of a fern instead of the characters on screen, something is wrong.

It changes the way a director shoots a movie. Instead of shooting a scene in a way that would enhance the storytelling, you're inevitably going to shoot every scene in a way that maximizes the 3D effect.
You're going to create set pieces, locations, props, and characters just for the sake of their impact in 3D rather than for their impact in the story. This happened throughout Avatar - monitors, holograms, floating mountains, flying insects, floating seeds, unnecessary foreground pieces, etc - were all added in for the sake of 3D alone. I bet the movie would be 20 minutes shorter if they took out all the scenes that were stretched just to milk the 3D gimmick.

Nobody talks about the real reason directors are pushing 3D film-making. We don't have 3D television sets. We don't have 3D computer screens. We can’t get 3D movies on Netflix or DVR. They're making movies in 3D to force people into the theater that wouldn't normally go, because that's not something we have at home, at least not the kind they’ve been showing in ‘new 3D’. Also, you can't pirate a 3D movie. If you want to see a movie in 3D, you have to buy a ticket. If you enjoy it, that’s fine, but
don't let them fool you into thinking this is about anything but money.

Good Points:
First of all let me say that Avatar blew away my expectations for its CGI characters and settings. This was the first time that I’ve seen CG characters in any medium that looked truly convincing. I knew I was in trouble when I caught myself thinking that the main female Na’vi was actually sexy. It’s better than anything we’ve ever seen, and frankly I hope that George Lucas is damn embarrassed by how good it can be done. However it’s not universally convincing, as we still have a ways to go with facial recognition and animation before we’ll have 100% believable characters, but the moments I was drawn out of the movie due to bad effects were few and far between. Mostly this happened when they smiled awkwardly or tried to exhibit a more complicated emotion than the facial recognition seemed capable of duplicating. It certainly helps that Cameron chose to make the Na’vi different enough from humans that we won’t be spending the movie thinking about how wrong they look. Still though, they never really attempting to hide the fact that everything was CGI. They put characters in locations and situation that made me shake my head and say "no, that's just silly".

There were a few characters in the movie that I relished their screen time. One of them was the Colonel, played by Stephen Lang. He chewed up the scenery and spit it out like a true gritty, warmongering Colonel should. He was a stone cold badass, and completely dedicated to killing everything that got in his way. It was over the top and I loved every minute of him.

Sigourney Weaver also did very well, though she wasn’t on screen as much as I would have liked. All-in-all the acting for Avatar was really pretty well done, and the only actor I felt didn’t really deliver the goods was Giovanni Ribisi as the head of the corporation. I don’t blame him for this though, I think he was miscast. He was too young and squeaky for the role. Really though, pretty good performances all around, considering the one-sided characters that they were given.

Bad Points:

So if the movie had good effects, good characters, and good acting - why didn’t I like the movie?

My problem with Avatar is all in the plot and the writing. Let me summarize the basic premise of Avatar for you.

A human corporation and their private army of mercenaries go to a foreign planet and battle with the natives in order to control the planet’s resources.

So the first question anyone should ask when reading the above is “where is the human government?” From the start of the movie it seemed like they were setting up to answer that question. The following three lines take place in the first 20 minutes of the movie:

"Back on earth these guys were army dogs, marines, but up here they're just hired guns."

“I served three tours in Nigeria, not a scratch”

“I pulled your record, Corporal. Venezuela, that was some mean bush.”

The movie is telling us a few things about the setting with these lines. We know that there is a Venezuela and a Nigeria. We know that there is a Marine Corps, and therefore a United States government. The movie is saying that it takes place in our timeline and little has changed about Earth’s international politics 200 years in the future.

So if they’re all Americans, where is this American government? Why is this un-named corporation given free reign over an entire alien world? This is the only alien world that exists, as far as the movie has told us. Where are the diplomats? Where the politicians? Where is the government agency that would most certainly be in charge of this expedition? The movie never makes any attempt to explain this, and that was my first problem.

But that question only lead to more unanswered questions. How did this one corporation secure the rights to the entire planet of Pandora? Did they buy it? Who did they buy it from? Wouldn't there be many corporations, governments, people, and organizations competing for land and resources on the planet?

So who’s in charge of securing a relationship with the alien race? The corporation? According to Giovanni Ribisi’s character, the only thing stopping them from killing every single Na'vi that gets in their way is “bad press”. Bad fucking press? Who are these people that they can get away with goddamn GENOCIDE and the only thing that's stopping them is that it won't look good in the papers? Why is none of this ever explained!?

I’ll tell you why. The movie relies completely on humanity, and more specifically Americans, being a greedy bunch of stupid warmongers that are only interested in profit. If there was a government organization stepping in, as there certainly would be, it makes it so much more difficult to lecture us about how evil and greedy we are. Bringing the government into the picture would allow for some gray area, and James Cameron has no time for ambiguities in this movie. Americans are almost universally evil in this movie, and that’s that.

This brings me to the Na’vi, who are universally good. The only aggression the Na’vi show are a few arrows in the giant skyscraper-sized bulldozers that are tearing down their homes and sacred spaces. Most of the dialogue before they head out into the forest implies that the reason they’re so well armed is because the native animals are dangerous, not the Na’vi. This is another point in which the movie's symbolism falls apart.

We get it, okay? You aren't exactly being subtle here. Hell, you took subtlety, raped it, set it on fire, and threw it at a camera. Na’vi = Native Americans. We've cracked your code. If we didn't get it from the facial construction, constant references to 'savages', bows and arrows, horse riding, tribal society, white oppression, accents, spears, shamans, braids, beads, hairstyles, or connection with nature - then having them whoop and yell like they're in a John Wayne movie isn't going to help. When I heard this movie had a plot similar to Dances with Wolves I didn’t think it was literal. The Na’vi aren’t a metaphor of Native Americans, they ARE Native Americans. They just happen to be tall and blue Native Americans.

For that matter, why does no one make this connection? This isn't an alternate history; this is the future in our own timeline. Why doesn't anyone say "you know this is awfully similar to what we did to the Native Americans. In fact, they even look and sound almost exactly the same. Isn’t that weird?" For a movie so invested in white guilt, it completely ignores the real world effects that white guilt would have on this exact kind of situation. This is where the government that the movie completely ignores would come in. WHERE IS THE GOVERNMENT??? This wouldn’t be such a big deal except that the entire movie relies completely on the corporation representing all of humanity and having complete control over our interaction with the Na’vi.

The Native American metaphor does not work in this situation. You see, while most of the Native Americans were peaceful, there were many that did do horrible things to the American colonies and people. In much of the American West, stepping a few feet away from the nearest fort would earn you a tortured death at the hands of several different Native American tribes. I’m not trying to say anything white Americans did to Native Americans was justified, but atrocities were committed by both sides. That’s what largely justified treatment of Native Americans to white Americans at the time. It wasn’t just racism, Americans thought of the Natives as violent because some of them were.

However at no point in the movie do the Na’vi do anything even remotely violent towards the humans until provoked by mass murder. Even then, the chief of the Na’vi specifically tells his warriors to only attack if the humans attack first. There is no provocation; the humans just do it to get them to leave so they can drill the oil -- sorry "Unobtainium" -- from underneath their homes. Yeah, you thought you could sneak in a metaphor for the Iraq war in on top of the Native American thing, didn't ya? You might have gotten away with it if you didn't use phrases like "shock and awe campaign", "winning hearts and minds", "our only security lies in pre-emptive attack”, and "fight terror with terror". Very subtle, Mr. James Cameron, very subtle indeed.

The plot of Avatar is just another stock white guilt story meant to make us feel bad. The only difference being that in Avatar, the white characters have to literally step into the body of the natives before they can feel anything but greed or bloodlust. Lord knows they couldn’t have characteristics like ‘sympathy’, ‘compassion’, or ‘spirituality’ as white humans. If the movie wasn’t so stuck up its own ass lecturing us about how horrible Americans are it would be a really remarkable film, and it might have been one of the greatest science fiction movies of the last several decades.

Ask yourself this: If you took away the 3D and you took away the special effects, would you walk away from the movie thinking it told a great story? I don't think you would, because the storytelling and the script are so basic and derivative that you should probably be a little bit insulted. However, this all depends on why you go to the movies. If you go just to be entertained for the 2 and a half hours you're there, I think you will be. If you go looking for something to make you think a little, or to tell you a compelling story, the movie falls flat on its face.

For me, it’s just a spectacle. The characters and acting aren’t phenomenal, but they aren’t distractingly bad either. The effects are spectacular, but not good enough to redeem the bad premise and nonsensical world that the movie takes place in. To me, that’s the most important thing in a sci-fi movie; to make a believable setting. Avatar failed at this.

The following points are ridiculous, but weren't really my major problem with the movie. They just added up to create one of the least believable worlds I've seen in Science-Fiction in quite some time. It's more or less just a list of bullshit this movie shoves in your face and yells "ACCEPT THIS!". This is a big problem if you're vying to be a Sci-Fi masterpiece. Your world has to make logical sense without the viewer stopping, getting drawn out of the movie, and mouthing the words "what the fuck?" at the screen.

USB hair

A ponytail is a collection of thousands of single strands of hair tied or braided together to have the appearance of a single bulk of hair. The biological tentacles of the Na’vi make no goddamn sense being at the end of their ponytails. Think about what kind of construction their hair would have to be. Are the individual strands of their tentacle tied in with the braided ponytail itself? Is there a central structure that the hair is wrapped around? Why did it have to be hair, when every other creature in the entire movie has some kind of head tentacle? And it's not as if the connection is a male/female connector and the Na’vi are the only ones with 'male' ends - all of the connections are the same strands of pink bits that intertwine. The only reason the ponytails exist is because Cameron thought tentacles would make the Na’vi look too 'alien'. Unfortunately hair USB plugs, even in the context of the movie, makes no sense. Should've just gone with a tentacle appendage, since you established that was the norm.

Floating Mountains

"The legendary floating mountains of Pandora? Heard of them?" No, I haven't fucking heard of them. You can't pass off floating mountains like it’s blasé. If you're going to rely on 3D gimmicks, you could at least give us the courtesy of not making them important plot points and pivotal settings. Here's how Sigourney Weaver explains it: "there is something really interesting going on in there, biologically." Wait, what? You can't just wave your hand at something and say "biology did it". You might as well say "a wizard did it". Biology is not Geology, and neither one explains the physics at work for floating magic mountains. Even if you get us to accept that there is some kind of 'flux vortex' that causes the mountains to float...where does the water in the mountains' waterfalls come from? One or two more lines about magnetism and electrical fields probably could have made this at least passable - but as it is it just insults us by basically telling us that we're going to believe it and like it because they said so. Sorry but this doesn't happen except for on Heavy Metal album covers.

Unobtainium? Are you fucking serious with this shit? Do I even need to explain why this is ridiculous? I literally laughed out loud when I heard this in the theater, and then I realized that the characters were serious. They kept saying it. It made me sad.

The problem that occurs if you aren't properly explaining things and silently telling us to "just accept it" is that you're basically saying "it's just a stupid sci-fi movie, don't ask too many questions, nerds". You cheapen your own movie when you do this, and at worst you insult your audience. Sometimes you pick enough nits and the whole movie can collapse.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Avatar: Pre-Movie thoughts

Consider this my review, not of Avatar, but of the hype surrounding Avatar. I'll be seeing it in the next few days, but I wanted to get any bias I may have out of the way so that when I make statements about the movie AFTER seeing it, you know where I'm coming from.

I'm consistently being told that Avatar is the next greatest science fiction epic of our time. I'm told that it will 'change the game'. I'm told that seeing it in theaters will be like seeing Star Wars for the first time. I have a problem with all of the above, and I'll explain why in an easy to follow point-by-point discussion.

1. "Avatar is the next greatest science fiction epic of our time!"
This is something that is consistently spouted off not just by the marketing from the movie itself, but by reviewers who are enamored with the idea of Avatar before even going to see it. What gives it the right to have this title before most people have even seen it? Is all that it takes to award someone 'greatest sci-fi epic of this generation' impressive special effects? Is it just because it was directed by James Cameron? Let's look at the greatest genre-fiction movie of the last generation. Star Wars was popular not just for its effects, but because it told believable story with depth and meaning in a wholly fleshed out setting. The special effects just made it convincing, they are not what made it great. To be great it has to really make me believe in the setting, and to do that it has to have good acting with interesting and deep characters. Ultimately it has to tell a relate-able human story in a new and interesting way. I don't care if it's just the plot of Dances with Wolves in a sci-fi setting. Star Wars was just 'The Hidden Fortress' in Space when you break it down to its base elements, but it told the story in an entirely new and interesting way and was different enough to be distinct.

2. "Avatar will change the way special effects are done in movies (it will change the game)!"
This is one that everyone seems to agree on. Why? Do you know the price tag for this movie? Do you think every producer will shell out $500 million for special effects? Of course fucking not. That's more than all three Lord of the Rings movies COMBINED. Nobody is going to be making movies like this for a very long time, and when they do every single one will be for movies that are advertised like Avatar - based on special effects alone. When a movie is advertised as just expensive eye candy, I get suspicious. That's how the Star Wars prequels were advertised. That's all that the Star Wars prequels were. If we're entering an age of expensive special effects movies with no heart then you can count me the fuck out. If you have a $500 million price tag, fine. But you damn sure better do something meaningful with that money. James Cameron if you turn down the path of the dark side, as Lucas did, consume you it will.

3. "The special effects are such a leap forward that seeing it will be like seeing the original Star Wars for the first time!"
I hate computer generated characters in live-action movies. I am yet to see a movie with characters created entirely by CG where I'm convinced that they exist. I'm not talking about the odd monster or robot, I mean fleshed out full on characters with speaking roles and meaningful dialogue. I don't think the technology is there. Every single one of them has either been laughably out of place (Jar Jar Binks, Watto) or purposefully disturbing (Gollum, Davy Jones). Basically they fell into the Uncanny Valley, a concept of which I will remind you of with this helpful chart:
The question with Avatar is: where do the N'avi fall on this line? I have yet to see a computer generated character that I felt was on the 'good' side of the Uncanny Valley. Looking at the previews, I'm still not convinced. While it does look like a step forward from, say, the Star Wars prequels - it's only a tiny step. It is not a huge leap forward from what I see in the previews. It's still obviously CG, it still lacks believability, and it's still not across the valley.

Now, all that being said I reserve the right to have Avatar change my pre-conceptions. But it better be damn impressive if it wants to achieve the title of a great sci-fi epic of our generation, let alone the greatest.