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.


  1. 1. I don't know who is saying it's the greatest sci-fi epic of all time, but they are damned wrong. It most certainly is not. It is however, the most complex and intricate fictional world that we've ever seen on screen. The plot, as you'll soon see, is very familiar, one might even call it "simple" and therefore can not live up to greatest epic of all time. But while some film snobs, like my friend Mike, thought the movie was a travesty because of the very simple plotline. I agree it was simple, but for a reason. He thinks's it was simple to be "dumbed down" enough to sell to millions of people and gain more profit. I thought that that was a pretty big insult to James Cameron. I don't think he was motivated by profit for this movie at all, if so, you'd think he'd have kept a closer eye on his price tag.

    2. It might change the way some special effects are done in some movies. Not all, of course. But you keep mentioning the $500 million pricetag. (Which I'm not sure has been confirmed, btw? I've seen figures as low as $300 million.) Regardless, you have to remember, he invented a camera for this movie, and that's no easy task. Years of research, patenting, paying everyone involved, yeah. Invented camera, man. There's a huge chunk right there.

    3. The effects ARE a huge leap. That's one thing nobody, not even yourself will deny once you've seen it. It's reidiculous. The movements are 100% believable because /the actors. actually. made those movememnts/. The motion capture was re-invented and every single facial nuance, every single pose and posture and eye movement, is 100%, or let's jsut say 99.9% the actors. The Na'vi characters are very much human like, so it all seems convincing. One thing that could have been different was the teeth. They have 100% human teeth, lol, but oh well.

    The uncanny valley is something used primarily for the explanation of robotics v. humans and how people will react to them and be comfortable with them. I suppose one could use this as an example of why CGI characters look "bad" in movies but, even if that's the case, they look totally believable here. =)

    Good blog.

    This is Charlie btw, but I think it may sign in as my brothers' Google account, I'm on his PC.