Dec 22, 2009

Avatar: Notes on a Second Viewing

Screened in 2D. Original review here.

As suspected, the 3D version of Avatar I experienced in IMAX on opening day was anything but the complete "immersion" that many have proclaimed in their hallelujahs of the film. (Granted, this might boil down to nothing more than a simple matter of personal preference, and my understanding is that anyone with either glasses or contacts is more likely to experience visual unpleasantries with the 3D Avatar.) Basking in the inviting - rather than imposing - environment of 2D, the ravishing landscape vistas and imaginative character/creature designs of Cameron's long-gestating baby were far more engaging to these eyes - viscerally, poetically, emotionally. That being said, I'm still not a fan of the work, and have to wonder if this is how the majority of Star Wars fans felt in the days and weeks after Episode I. On paper, there's certainly more to love than hate, but the experiential whole is still much, much less than the sum of the parts. Despite much in the way of considerable artistry, at the end of the day, I'd much rather play a truly immersive, Fallout 3-style videogame set on Pandora than slog through 160 minutes of the hands-off demo only to be left with blue balls.

Some films exhaust you out of sheer sensory overload or emotional experience, while others do so because they outstay their welcome. Avatar falls a little bit into both categories. Though certainly better off without the technology being so superficially flaunted (thankfully, the film avoids gimmicky 3D shots, but still), the fact remains that, once the novelty of the new toys wears off, there isn't much left in the way of either conceptual development or kinetic vigor to keep things afloat. As motion capture creations, the Na'vi are astonishingly real; once the initial amazement wears off, the blandness of the storytelling more readily rises to the surface. To these eyes, Cameron has always successfully juggled the dual sides of entertainment and substance until now, and while I was never one to go for the pre-release (hell, pre-production) Avatar Kool-Aid, the film still manages to set itself up for disappointment on virtually all fronts.

Much of Avatar suggests a work of nearly limitless potential having been watered down so as to appeal to a larger audience; that Titanic got away with a PG-13 rating was perhaps the greatest stunt ever pulled on the MPAA, whereas the relatively bloodless (figuratively and literally) Avatar instead plays into puritanical, family-friendly expectations. (I wouldn't go within four clicks of a fast food joint, but if the gluttony of tie-ins abound are any indication, you can probably get a Na'vi toy in your Happy Meal these days, natch.) This is particularly aggravating in that the film's anti-capitalist overtones are kept at a safe, whitewashed distance. In mounting so much around the historical trend of the developed exploiting the technologically inferior, the film trades almost exclusively in lip service, suggesting that Cameron was too timid to theoretically bite the hand that feeds him (this assumes he believes what he's selling us in the first place; Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith, WALL-E and Speed Racer all scrutinized similar notions of greed and justice to far more edifying ends, and each was loads more fun at that). Only the bravura sequence (spoilers ahead) in which the Na'vi's Hometree is destroyed (along with War of the Worlds, the most moving blockbuster evocation of 9/11 to date) does the film evoke a genuine sense of loss, fleeting though it may be.

Of all my second viewing fluctuations, I'm most pleased to say that the cast entire fares much better when not jumping off the screen like flimsy cardboard cutouts, which is to say that I no longer feel so ungodly embarrassed for the lot of them. On the page, Sam Worthington has less to work with here than in Terminator Salvation, but he proves an able everyman and gives the film most of what little dramatic resonance it has (here's to hoping this film boosts his career into the stratosphere). Cameron can't quite nail the one-liners like he used to, so moments of awkwardness abound even as the actors give it their all; only the delectable Stephen Lang, as the villainously single-minded Colonel, succeeds in creating a true characterization. In comparison, I'll take Lucas' prequels any day of the week, as those films' performances more acutely captured the archetypal B-movie essence at their respective cores - perhaps imperfect, but always feeling.

More so than a technical accomplishment, Avatar is a golden example of a director doing less with more, a trait exacerbated by the numerous instances in which it recalls his own Aliens - a film superior on every front, save possibly for makeup (personal preferences dictate that that film's model work and alien body suits outpace even the superb digital creations of Pandora and the Na'vi). Such overlapping elements - Sigourney Weaver, humanoid fighting machines, cartoonish military personalities - are largely superficial, but also point to more cardinal failures. A drag at 160 minutes, large stretches of Avatar actually demand a more leisurely pace so as to better absorb the sumptuous nuances of the world conceived for it. Even the most memorable of images often end up feeling like just another domino in the line of a plot too dusty to stand on its own two feet.

For a film so indebted to the dreamwalker experience, only two scenes - one involving a cluster of airborne, jellyfish-like creatures, the other witness to several Na'vi climbing Pandora's levitating mountain range - successfully create a mindspace of seemingly boundless wonder and awe. Surely, Cameron is flexing his creative muscles, but the film never overcomes the nagging feeling that he's also simply going through the motions, forgoing the expert potboiling of his earlier work. Was the King of the World afraid of boring an audience, of being labeled that worst of all monikers, artsy? If so, for shame, for what could have been the trippiest sci-fi smorgasbord since Kubrick took up the reigns of the genre has instead been reduced to a widget.


  1. I went to a Wal-Mart last night. There are McDonald's establishments in Wal-Marts, you know. As I walked past it, I saw that there was indeed a display case of Na'vi Happy Meal toys.

    I really wish that I had expressed my thoughts about the movie to you before your second viewing, not to try to change your mind or anything, but to see how you might react differently with a different perspective in mind.

  2. Your last few posts on AVATAR have been some of the best, most informed writing on any one film this year - Along with Jim Emmerson's numerous in-depth posts on INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Thank you (x3) for giving me great stuff to read all day.

  3. You actually *can* get a Na'vi toy in your Happy Meal! Granted, they're pretty cheap-looking toys, and I wouldn't want to "collect them all" myself.

  4. As for diminishing returns, that is true of most things in life. The thing is, for the people that like the film it seems that the initial return of Avatar is so huge that even a second viewing with 50% less return will still give them more enjoyment than watching a different movie for the first time.

  5. I saw this junk last night... what overlong, boring, techno-trash. Even the reviews that eviscerate the movie mention the so-called 'great special effects work'. No, they're not great, the audience is so assaulted by them constantly that they're not even good.

    You say it was nice not having the characters look like cardboard cutouts in 2-D, but that's all they are. Cameron's script is just filled with movie-trailer exposition and one-liners. Avatar makes the characterizations in the Star Wars prequels look like fucking Shakespeare --- they were weak in Lucas' films, but at least they were there. It's non-existent in Avatar.

    And the design of the creatures and planets has been highly lauded, as well, and this is another thing that made me scratch my head. The planet and creature design is disgustingly, hideously lacking in imagination. It's just a freaking computerized forest! And the creatures all look like their counterpart on Earth, except it looks like a 5 year old went buck wild with the crayolas.

    It was also boring. Very, very boring. The fanboys (hate to use the word, but if the shoe fits) are only eating it up because it ends with a big action scene, so as to attempt to convince you that the movie you just saw was exciting. It's the last thing you remember. The only thing worse than the scenes where character's open their mouths are the action scenes --- loud, dumb, and absolutely incomprehensible; almost, but not quite, on a Michael Bay level.

    And then, of course, there are the film's liberal fascist politics. They wouldn't bother me if Cameron wasn't so hypocritical about it: he hijacks 9/11 imagery to justify his big finale, which includes the gleeful and wanton slaughter of the 'stupid fucking White Man'. He's like a cinematic George W. Bush, using an act of terrorism to justify further terrorism.

    Your re-consideration is more than likely to fall on deaf ears, my friend. The Cult of Cameron doesn't care about any evaluation that doesn't affect the tomatometer score, as balanced as your take was. Dare I say this movie was in no way worth the extra time and money spent on it.

    Fuck this movie. Seriously.

  6. @ Ryan: I did want to mention that the critters were basically just six-limbed variations of their Earthly counterparts. Slipped my mind. :)

    Most of all I just wanted the movie to slow down. Imaginative or not, I wanted to see the jungle, and most of the time it was just a blur. Static shots, please!

    Hope you post something on this as Medly. Use your anger, Luke.

  7. I might. I have more pressing things to write up, like getting around to Mr. Fox and Kiarostami's sublime Shirin, plus my decade wrap-up. Plus, I'd really just be preaching to the choir at my blog.

  8. Anonymous5:01 PM

    @ Ryan Kelly: I think I heard somewhere (probably third-hand on some forum) that the original plans for the Na'vi was to be starfish aliens, though I might be mistaken. Now THAT would be interesting (or at least more interesting than blue hairless cats - hairless because of the rendering - maybe for the sequel technology will allow Cameron to let his 3D CGI cast literally grow the beard).

    Still a recognisable almost-Earth-based creature, but at least a damn sight more compelling that a horse with no name (but six legs) or a pteradactyl.

  9. FX and story aside, I think critics are overlooking one of the key reasons why this film is ground-breaking... and that has to do with it's affect on the Sci-Fi genre

    If you want to be totally immersed, go jump into a Holodeck on the Enterprise.

  10. Anonymous11:29 PM

    The story line is a composite of several good movies. The recipe for AVATAR includes ingredients from Dances With Wolves, DUNE, and The Matrix. Can't see it? Check out the name of the production company at the beginning of the credits: Dune Entertainment.
    Formulaic and compartmentalized, I kept myself entertained through the slow parts by trying to identify what "tasted a little like" this movie or that. Problem is, each "ingredient" overpowered the overall story.

  11. alright Rob and Ryan, since the coast seems to be clear and the trolls have left the building (er, bridge), I am now gonna express what I thought of the film. Don't worry, this is completely civil.

    I really do believe the film reminds me about why I love the art of filmmaking so much. Wherever the flaws are in Avatar, I came to ignore them in favor of appreciating the entire craft- the direction, the visual style, the screenplay... and Cameron did all of it himself.

    This is why I've always been fascinated with writer/directors. People like John Huston, Sam Fuller, Oliver Stone even- they each have a clear since of direction, but they also were committed to telling their own original (or adapted) stories no matter how crazy they were. And you gotta at least admire that audacity.

    I admired that, and more, with regards to Avatar. More than any other film this year, it's a towering example of just how far a filmmaker's imagination can go. Cameron has always been recognized as a visual genius, but his flair for emotional cinematic storytelling can't be denied, either. I think it's safe to say that Cameron has restolen the garter from Peter Jackson as the David Lean of our time.

    True, it's a conventional movie; it's Cameron's version of the Pocahontas story, basically (and yes, I had secondhand memories of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke also). But I very quickly became absorbed in the conflict of the film, and- what's more- I actually started to fall in love with those damn Navi people. I wanted to do what Jake does: become a Navi and claim a Navi bride. When a filmmaker can influence you like that, he's created more than just a movie!

    On a side note, I enjoyed that moment when the Colonel swerves the jet in an attempt to slide Jake off the roof- that was a direct personal reference to True Lies!

    My only overall complaint about the film is that Cameron uses the term "bitch" in his script too much.

  12. @Hugo: Fair point, but my experience has proven time and again that great films offer increasing returns with repeated viewings. Avatar dropped off the side of the cliff like an anvil.

  13. Anonymous6:50 PM

    I find it entertaining how you self proclaimed "critics", or whatever that title really means, feel the need to regurgitate the entire thesaurus to state your opinion about a single movie. Seriously, one paragraph should cover it.

  14. @Anonymous 3:50: If "sumptuous" and "phantasmagoria" are the entire thesaurus (a tool I rarely use, and did not on any of my Avatar reviews) in your eyes, then I can only wonder how close we are to achieving Newspeak.

  15. Okay, here's a test. If you felt the movie wasn't original, and the characters weren't deep or developed, or for the matter, any parts of the story that weren't good enough, then how would you have made it better?

    There's a line in the movie about 'filling an empty cup' or something like that, and I wonder if your cups were empty when you watched it again. Or were you spending time picking out its faults, rather then gliding along with the flow?

    Anyway, quite an informative and balanced review that you have, and based off one of your comments here, then I must say that Avatar is a great film (FOR ME) because it gave me increasing returns even on my 6th viewing.

    I'm gearing for a 7th already. Time to get me a new packet of tissue.

  16. "There's a line in the movie about 'filling an empty cup' or something like that, and I wonder if your cups were empty when you watched it again. Or were you spending time picking out its faults, rather then gliding along with the flow?"

    A good movie experience doesn't allow for time to pick things apart, and one of my biggest problems with Avatar is that I never felt a flow, just a long indulgence test with little dramatic texture. Still, I'm glad you love it. My creeping suspicion is that I'll find Avatar's broad emotional gestures less hollow on a smaller screen, and this wouldn't be the first time my opinion on a movie I disliked theatrically rose dramatically on DVD (Cloverfield is a prime example of such). I'll be giving Cameron's love child another go around from the comforts of home.

  17. Great film! But - should have been split into 2 films to allow for more subtlety and character development and avoid that "Aliens" deja-vu.

    Part 1 - The Fall of the Big Tree
    Part 2 - The Return of The King

  18. Meh everyone has their tastes, and I think Avatar reviews across the board are largely based on perception, rather than measurable flaws or virtues.

    To be clear, I am an Avatar fan, though I'm keenly aware of its plot shortcomings. I could rant on too how some lines in it sounded like they came out of a tacky 90s commerical ("Watch out, hot rod"; "hey look, it's meals-on-wheels" to name a few in the first opening 20 minutes), and how there certainly wasn't enough twists or substantial development on the antagonist (human) camp. I could complain about acting, or lack of a more comprehensive cast, yadda yadda. It has flaws, and I can understand how some would be grieved by them more than others. But, I think, for some or many out there, these flaws can be overcome by perceived and actual pluses.

    Actual Plus: Artistry. Do I even have to commend them on this? Well I do, because I'm sick and tired of people lamely lamenting "AVATAR sucks, what's the big deal?" without at least stopping their slick jaws long enough to add, "but at least the animation was good". Because it -was- damn good, and to not acknowledge that is a kick in the face to many creative geniuses that laboured tediously to put every leaf on each plant, every hair on every braid of these completely fictional creations. If the "intial amazement" wore off early for some, then I doubt these are folks that are very good with pencils and paper, probably better with the eraser, if you catch my drift. Those creative minds that watch this film will be engrossed for the entire 160 minutes because they will appreciate the endless work placed into every detail.

    As for "perceived" pluses, obviously if you're on the Na'Vi camp and have environmentalist views naturally, even lightly to moderate to hard-core, you will appreciate it more than someone who could care less what bin their empty bottle fell into. The anti-capitalist themes here were not whitewashed to me at all, they were very strong, and thus some left with a bad taste in their mouth, others left feeling their sentiments were finally reflected. Perception, opinion.

    Perceived as well is the enjoyment of anthropology, the study of other cultures. This, IMO, is where Avatar's success truly lies. Cameron's painstaking research to create a believable, relatable culture is where the appreciation begins. The whole first half of the film is about being immersed into Na'Vi culture -- traditions, rituals, celebrations, dress, food, adornment, environment, family relations, hierarchy, the Na'Vi are presented thoroughly. Where the film lacked in expanding other vital areas, it concentrated intently in this area. If someone is not really interested, finds their culture a bit weird, or is less interested in people and more interested in drama, conflict, action etc etc, this will be a fail to them. But for myself and anyone else who enjoys the study and history of exotic cultures in the real world, meeting this fictional representation is engaging as it must have been for Jake's character.

    SO there's my blah and blah. I've seen so many reviews that go "OMG PRAISE EYWA this movie will save the PLANET" and others that go "SUCKS ASS, BORING, REMAKE of TITANIC" and both are out to lunch. One camp won't tear themselves away from its impact to realize its flaws, the other won't tear themselves away from their disappointment to realize the virtues.