DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Avatar

Thursday, 24 December 2009

Avatar

AVATAR (2009) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Jake Sully, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Wes Studi and Giovanni Ribisi

**

By Greg Klymkiw

Given how little use I've had for James Cameron since his great film "The Terminator", I was prepared to hate this movie. I don't, however, hate it at all. Much worse is that I am rather indifferent towards it. On the plus side, it has terrific special effects, a serviceable science fiction premise and it's never boring. On the down side, it has terrific special effects, a serviceable science fiction premise and it's never boring. In other words, the picture is neither a win or a loss, but a draw and in my books, a draw is definitely nothing to be proud of. In fact, there are times when a spectacular loss can be endowed with considerable merit in its folly alone. Alas, this is not such a movie.

Of course, some might wonder why I have no use for Cameron, especially considering my penchant for genre pictures. Well, there are a lot of reasons, but the big three are as follows:

1. Cameron somehow managed to lose the sense of humour he displayed in "The Terminator. Humourless action movies are a dime a dozen and he's been strangely unable to crack a dark sardonic smile since Schwarzenegger uttered the famous words, "I'll be back."

2. Cameron utilizes (save for "The Terminator") lots of noise and bluster to generate suspense and excitement - pounding your pulse rate with wild cymbal-smashes and brute-force baseball bat blows instead of finely wrought and generated thrills that stick in the craw, slide slowly down the throat, burrow into the innards until they shockingly charge back up through the upper torso and uncontrollably spew globs of nasty undigested bits of viscous-enveloped matter into the audience's collective faces.

3. Cameron is earnest. Being earnest is bad enough when it belongs to dour National Film Board of Canada documentaries about children with learning disabilities who find teachers they can really relate to, but when it hangs like a constipated turd from the anus of an action director, it's virtually intolerable.

"Avatar" suffers from all three, but what made it SLIGHTLY watchable for me is that the bluster is finally more controlled, and therefore, ALMOST effective while the earnestness factor manages, at the very least, to generate some surprisingly interesting ideas regarding other life forms in the universe as well as some noodlings on the themes of American colonization, genocidal acts on behalf of corporate superpowers and the exploitation of natural resources

At the end of the day, though, the movie leaves me cold. I admire some of the craft, but I never have the feeling I'm experiencing a picture that truly engages.

One of the primary reasons it doesn't fully engage is that it's impossible to latch wholeheartedly onto any of the characters. If the movie had been endowed with at least a villain on a par with Schwarzenegger in the first "Terminator" instalment (which gave that film something to negate the dour humourlessness of the rather dull Kyle Reese, the "hero" played by Michael Biehn), then structurally and otherwise, "Avatar" might have gone the sort of distance it needed to go to achieve the same kind of relentless energy. Instead, we're forced to follow the slender tale of a paraplegic soldier whose mind melds with an avatar of an alien on a distant planet so he can join a scientific team to gather data that will allow an American corporate superpower to exploit the natural resources of the planet. While amongst the planet's blue-coloured indigenous populace, the soldier comes to understand the simple, spiritual and wholly environmental ways of these New-Agey warriors and joins them in battling the nasty, would-be conquerors.

The characters are finally little more than caricatures and ultimately, since most of them are jolly blue computer generated giants that are oddly not very pleasing to the eye, it's no wonder we're not too wrapped up in their struggle. This is not to say that caricatures in an action picture are always a bad thing, but there has to be some zip and oomph in the writing to give them the resonance that makes you bounce up and down in your seat with the same kind of giddiness that Schwarzenegger inspired in "The Terminator". All "Avatar" has going for it is a humourless hero and heroine and a couple of villains who offer little more than mild amusement value.

Another disappointing element of the picture is the IMAX 3-D format itself and the fact that the true joys of 3-D are never exploited to their fullest because Cameron is so humourless and earnest that he doesn't actually let himself loose and wholeheartedly embrace the real reason anyone might want to see a 3-D picture. In the 50s, when 3-D burst on the screen, filmmakers went out of their way to throw things at the camera lens (or audience) so that it actually felt like a tomahawk or spear or some other projectile was hurtling right towards you. During the brief revival of 3-D in the 70s and 80s, it was more of the same - most notably in Paul Morrissey's film of the Andy Warhol production of "Frankenstein" (AKA "Flesh For Frankenstein") where gooey, blood splattered guts dangled disgustingly before you. In recent years, 3-D has become so boring, so non-exploitative that most of the 3-D films are better off being viewed in flat 2-D. The exceptions to this are few and far between - the otherwise unwatchable "Polar Express" and the unjustly maligned "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" at least delivered on the roller coaster ride pleasures to be had in 3-D. "Avatar" is far too humourless and earnest to engage wholeheartedly in the deliciously exploitative pursuit of throwing stuff in our faces and/or taking us on harrowing amusement park rides. Cameron's more interested in using the 3-D technology to paint a portrait of a "real" fantasy world. This doesn't really cut the mustard since it's not a real world anyway - it all looks and feels computer generated.

This is not to say I have a problem with special effects LOOKING like special effects. The great stop-motion animation of Willis O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen look like effects - in fact, they ALWAYS looked like effects, even when I was a kid I knew they weren't "real". That, of course, never mattered as there was also a huge effort to create a world that existed ONLY on the silver screen while making us care and believe in ALL the characters such as those in "King Kong" or "Jason and the Argonauts". When we watched those movies, we truly felt immersed in a cinematic land of spectacle, but the pictures worked because the stories themselves seemed infused with a heart, a core of human emotion and where the special effects were there to truly serve the STORY and CHARACTER.

With "Avatar", it's the opposite of that. Cameron, always the technophile knot-head, cares more about the effects and visual razzle-dazzle than anything else. This should have come as no surprise since it doesn't take much to remind me of the fact that in the appalling "Titanic", so much time and attention was lavished on making the great ship sets as technically and historically accurate as possible, while spending no time or effort on making the characters SOUND, MOVE or even LOOK (beyond the costumery) like they lived in the Edwardian period (save for Billy Zane's mincingly delicious bit of nastiness and Kathy Bates impersonation of Shelley Winters in "The Poseidon Adventure").

Sam Raimi is the perfect example of a truly great filmmaker since many of his pictures are laden with makeup, optical and/or digital effects, but they're all there in service of the movies themselves, as well as being infused with a delicious, nasty, funny pulp sensibility. Or how about the wonderfully insane Paul Verhoeven who dazzles us with his dark wit and delicious comic-book stylings? These filmmakers are certainly in direct contrast to Cameron who is, finally, a cold, calculating man of craft - a proletarian George Lucas, if you will. And on top of it all (and not the top of the world, by any means), Cameron is just one big square.

One thing in Cameron's screenplay for "Avatar" that I responded to positively was the world of the aliens and how a blend of the spiritual with physical allowed the blue goodies to live as one within their natural world - tethering soul and physiology so that all living creatures are tied together and not just with each other, but with the dimension of the afterlife and the ghosts of the past and the spirits of the planet's ancestors. This is such a lovely and intriguing element that it's sad to note that it leads us to one of the big flaws/holes in Cameron's screenplay. When the scientist, played by Sigourney Weaver, pleads with the corporate boss to not unbalance the delicate balance of the aliens' world, it's simply all too predictable how the New World Order-styled nasty-pants played by Giovanni Ribisi rejects this. What didn't jell with me on this front was the fact that Weaver's character could and should have used her expertise in dealing with corporate lackeys to fund her research by trying to argue that the minerals the Americans are trying to exploit are, in fact, less lucrative than trying to get to the bottom of how the aliens live. This latter secret seems even more ripe for corporate exploitation and that this is NEVER even brought up is an idiotic omission.

As the story, such as it is, is crafted, this logical pitch on the scientist's part is all but ignored (or not even considered) by Cameron's script. One can only surmise that if it HAD been bandied about at the writing stage, the possibility of Weaver pitching the Aliens' ecology as being far more valuable than the mineral deposits might have completely decimated the need for Cameron to blow things up real good.

There would then be no bluster and no noise. And that, finally, is all Cameron is really all about.

Boring!

"Avatar" is cold, lifeless, humourless and only marginally better than Cameron's previous work in this genre (save for the original "Terminator"). Like most of his films, it's aimed at all the fanboy (and fangirl) bone-brains who get off on attending screenings dressed as their favourite characters. No doubt, the "Avatar" fans will be arriving en masse to the theatres with blue paint smeared all over their faces and making all the Star Trek, Star Wars and Rocky Horror deadheads look like Rhodes Scholars.

Happily, the picture's adjusted for inflation gross will still never begin to approach that of a REAL hit like "Gone With The Wind". However, "Avatar" - no matter how you slice it - is going to be one hell of a monumental hit by contemporary standards.

It could, however, have been so much more.

17 comments :

Paul Richards said...

As noted by "Telly" in a comment on Owen Gleiberman's column about the "so-so story" in Avatar:

"Enough with the “simple story, cardboard characters” argument. STAR WARS, BATMAN, SUPERMAN, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, and plenty other classic films have had archetypes instead of characters and tropes instead of plots, and they still became cultural phenomenons. AVATAR is an extraordinary, astonishing experience that redefines how we watch films, and the fanboys are complaining about “so-so stories”? Gimme a break! You want a stupid ass blockbuster? Try TWILIGHT or TRANSFORMERS"

It is SO trendy for film critics to rail upon Cameron, in some limp-dick attempt to up their own imagined hip quotient. And typically, as with this review, the critic goes in already disliking Cameron intensely - at least here, the critic admitted that up front, which is about the only sincere part of the review.

"Being earnest is bad enough when it belongs to dour National Film Board of Canada documentaries about children with learning disabilities who find teachers they can really relate to, but when it hangs like a constipated turd from the anus of an action director, it's virtually intolerable." Seriously, are you shitting me? No pun intended. Good Lord, what a bunch of intellectual masturbatory hooey.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Dear Paul: I admit it might have been interesting for me to spend some space on the archetypal values inherent in the comic book style of Avatar (which don't really work as well as they could/should) and the work I cited from Raimi and Verhoeven (where archetype is expertly handled), but I chose instead to touch upon the aspects caricature inherent in both the form and the abovementioned. You clearly did not read the review as your initial criticism of it is in no way, shape or form related to any aspect of what appears within the body of the piece. If you have any desire to read the piece and offer criticism that can be addressed and/or constructive rather than skimming the piece in order to launch into an erronious knee-jerk response, I would be delighted to read and respond in as considered a fashion.

As for the masturbatory aspects of my piece, I am guilty as charged. As Woody Allen said about masturbation: "It's sex with someone I love."

Mark A. Fedeli said...

excellent retort there, Greg. and wonderful review. i've enjoyed reading you these past couple days.

Paul shoots holes in his own argument by listing a few terrific films which have horrendously made sequels that are lacking the very same quality story/character that Avatar is.

so as Greg compared Avatar negatively to Terminator in this respect, I hope Paul would compare Phantom Menace negatively to a New Hope; or Crystal Skull negatively to Raiders; or Batman & Robin negatively to Batman. i won't touch Superman but how about Jaws: The Revenge negatively to Jaws? can we agree on that?

I hope you can see the difference, Paul. and if you loved Avatar, that is awesome. no one would take that away from you. but as trendy as you think it is for critics to pick on silly things like story and character in these blockbusters, it's just as trendy to use the defense you've used, which doesn't actually have anything to say about the film, but only goes after those with the, i don't even know, the temerity to not love everything about it?

Paul Richards said...

.: I guess I did go a bit overboard. I do apologize for finding reviews like Greg's, which smack of intellectual and academic superiority, to be incredibly tiring to read and process. I apologize for that reaction. I read it and feel like as a reader, I'm having a strip torn off me, even if I agree 100% with the issues raised. It's like I'm in Film Criticism 101, and need to be taking notes while I'm reading it. And forgive me if I find a sentence that ends with "hangs like a constipated turd from the anus of an action director" to be really pretentious. At least Greg recognized that he was having a good pudpull when he wrote that line. I give him a thumb-up for that admission.

Avatar's story is not strong, but again, as "Telly" noted, what's the big deal in using tropes and archetypes? When's the last time we saw a truly original movie, period? I do long for the time when Cameron can find the balls to direct a screenplay superior to anything he could muster himself. But Greg's review lets the reader know right from the start that he is not a fan, by the most remote stretch of the imagination, of Cameron's work, and that he went in excepting to hate it. So much for being objective.

I liked Avatar. I didn't love it. But I say again, it is SO frakkin' trendy for film critics to bash this movie from every possible angle.

Whatevah. To respond to some of Greg's negatives: I found the LACK of 3-D right-in-my-face to be incredibly satisfying. Such a parlor trick wasn't necessary to keep me interested in the proceedings.

"Boring." I was never bored. There were times, especially in the 2nd half, when I wish he hadn't focused so much on shit blowing up. I do wish he had played the biologist angle a bit more, indeed.

Greg has had little use for Cameron since the first Terminator. I saw Aliens, and found it to be considerably superior to Ridley Scott's first movie. The film resonated with me powerfully and deeply, and as a viewer, I found myself anxious and at times completely claustrophobic with fear as he worked the aliens closer to the small cluster of humans. The attention to detail, including the sets, was brilliant. And Cameron introduced us to Bishop, perhaps my favorite movie character of all time. It was one of my top 10 favorite movies of the 80s. I guess my taste in movies must hang like a constipated turd from my anus.

Greg writes: ""Avatar" is cold, lifeless, humourless and only marginally better than Cameron's previous work in this genre (save for the original "Terminator"). Like most of his films, it's aimed at all the fanboy (and fangirl) bone-brains who get off on attending screenings dressed as their favourite characters. No doubt, the "Avatar" fans will be arriving en masse to the theatres with blue paint smeared all over their faces and making all the Star Trek, Star Wars and Rocky Horror deadheads look like Rhodes Scholars."

Well, I'm not a fanboy, I don't dress up in costumes to attend movie openings, and I didn't find the movie to be cold and lifeless. Humourless - yes. But that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Anyway, that's about it. Thanks for the reminder about the Woody quote. Woody also wrote my favorite line about sex, when Diane Keaton says to him, in Love and Death, that "sex without love is an empty experience", and he responds, "Yes, but as empty experiences go, it's one of the best."

Peace out.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Dear Paul (PART ONE):

Never express regret about going overboard and NEVER apologize for ANYTHING. I'm paraphrasing, but I do believe John Wayne's character in John Ford's Rio Grande says, on more than one occasion, and to a variety of characters, "Don't apologize! It's a sign of weakness!"

It's always best to go in with both guns blazing.

It is unfortunate you found my approach to the movie superior and academic. All I can say is that I hate reading most contemporary criticism because it often feels like a glib consumer report with no point of view other than to guide the viewer as to where they should place their hard-earned dollars when deciding upon what movie to see.

For better or worse, I try to write reviews that I myself would like to read. That, is not as self-indulgent as it might sound. Prior to a definite and gradual decline in serious mainstream criticism since the 80s, reviews, by and large, had far more food for thought and were written, not just by fan-boys, but people who had a considerable background in a variety of areas - not just cinema, but literature, philosophy, history, fine art, etc. This resulted in reviews that DID provoke a response and often, responses that were more than up to the level of the pieces themselves. The reviews also gave like-minded readers food for thought. Not a bad goal.

Now, you may well believe I am failing in this respect and I am happy to acknowledge your right to take this position, but again - my yardstick is myself, my own desires, my own standards. They're not better or worse than yours, just different, but are definitely designed to provoke both a response and thought.

And yes, I enjoy a good pud-pull. I don't only enjoy writing them, I enjoy reading them. Alas, there are not enough critics who do either. John Simon was especially adept at this approach and I looked forward to his pud-pullery with baited breath.

Now, as for Avatar, you keep bringing up this issue regarding archetypes. Again, I have not condemned their use in cinema at all. In my previous missive, I even stated this quite plainly and, for what it's worth, my piece does refer to the use of caricature (quite different, but not unrelated) and how this can be an effective dramatic tool. My quarrel with Avatar, is that neither of these elements are dealt with in an adequate fashion. You may choose to disagree and present an argument with respect to that and I'd be happy to respond, but you're currently flogging a dead horse.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Dear Paul (PART TWO):

Also, you charitably note that I wear my Cameron bias on my sleeve, but you suggest that doing so contravenes the notion of objectivity in the analysis of the film itself. On one hand, there is a part of me that says a critic need NOT be objective and that what is needed is A POINT OF VIEW and a strong one, at that. In spite of this, I also tend to agree with you, insofar as a good analysis will spend some time focusing on elements that either work, or could have worked, or should have worked. You can choose, of course, to agree or disagree with my points of view, but I do believe I fairly focus on both ends of the spectrum in terms of the picture's pluses and minuses.

You suggest that critics are bashing Avatar in order to be trendy. I cannot ultimately speak for others. Speaking for myself, I have no need to be "trendy" - in fact, I personally find the whole notion of someone going out of their way to be "trendy" IS, as you suggest, rather sickening and pathetic. For me, I am more interested in examining my response to a picture and analyzing this response and, by extension, the picture itself. I've seen over 30,000 movies in my life. In fact, I love movies more than anything. I'd prefer it if EVERY movie could be a movie I'd love. That, alas, is not going to happen, but I do think it's important to examine WHY I don't love it or like it, just as it's important to present the opposite as well. (I recently saw and loved "Invictus" and went out of my way to examine WHY I loved it. I'd say this is far more interesting than just saying I loved it.)

Did I expect to hate "Avatar"? Yes, I did. However, I did admit in my review that I did NOT hate it - that, even worse, I was indifferent towards it. Indifference towards a picture is a horrible feeling to have when you love movies. HATING a movie, is far more gratifying - as a viewer, never mind as someone who writes about it. However, analyzing a movie that leaves one indifferent is even more of a challenge and one that I particularly enjoy tackling.

With respect to the 3-D effects, this is partially just a matter of taste. I want in-your-face, you don't. Fair enough. That said, it's important to note that "Avatar" being, essentially, a mass entertainment, has a responsibility to pushing certain buttons of expectation and by NOT doing so, it is Cameron who is the snob, not me, or anyone like me who DOES want some in-your-face razzle-dazzle.

You have, by the way, taken my statement "Boring!" completely out of context. At the beginning of the review, I take considerable pains to point out that the movie is NEVER boring. What I am referring to in my final statements is that Cameron's APPROACH is boring. You might argue successfully that I did not adequately convey this, but I did examine the section in question quite thoroughly and feel that this is, indeed, quite clear.

As for the comparison you make between Cameron's take on the Alien saga in contrast to Ridley Scott's, we may simply be forced into the unenviable - we must agree to disagree. Scott's "Alien" is a horror film of the highest order and his visual rendering of Geiger's designs is staggering. Cameron, on the other hand, morphs the continuation of this story into an all-out noisy action film with some proficiency, but none of the creepy, crawly quality Scott employed in his original. Bishop was, indeed, an engaging character, but not enough to make me feel like there was a need to make a sequel. Alien was a movie that just should have remained a one-off experience. As a series, it's an example of the law of diminishing returns - at least for me.

I am, as I'm sure you are, grateful that you aren't one of those loser face-painted fans. That, for me, would be a fate worse than death itself.

Steve said...

On several levels, Paul is right and Greg is wrong. Look, I've been a science fiction fan for over 50 years, but never a "fanboy" in the usual sense; I've never painted my face (blue or otherwise) and only once worn a costume to a convention. (Be fair, it was the inaugural of a convention that I founded; that was 30+ years ago.)
That said, Cameron has made a movie that satisfies on many levels; sure, the plot is as old as the Western; the characters are cardboardy standups; it's not a pure intellectual rhapsody about environmentally wonderful beings who live in peace and harmony with Mother Nature; and it's certainly not a pure action film. (Too much Ferngully about it...) And the 3-D serves the story and only occasionally throws things in your face; how disappointing for Greg.
So what?
What Cameron's given us is an immersive experience with something for everyone--environmentalist, fanboy/grrl, action-movie lover and so on. I found the Nav'i quite compelling; neither human nor alien--facial features you can identify with, not as obviously CG as much of the CG we see nearly every day in blockbuster movies--they have the proper weight, their lips are synched with their words, and so on.
Sure, there are quibbles in this movie--there are quibbles in EVERY movie including whatever your fave is, be it Citizen Kane or Revenge of the Nerds--again, I say, so what?
It's a frakkin' movie! It's entertainment, not some Pulitzer-worthy angst-ridden Great American (Canadian) Novel, nor yet a scientific treatise on ecology... you pays your money ($15 in my case) and you takes your chances.
It was not humourless; if you didn't see the humour, then you probably need a humour checkup. It was not boring; if you were bored, then it's your problem, not Cameron's.
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves when it comes to film appreciation.
BTW--Aliens was in its own way as good a film as Alien. Not better, not worse--they each have something to offer a discerning viewer.
Why don't you, Greg, get off your high horse and just WATCH the dang movie without your nose in the air--it probably blocks your view.
And we can do without the potty mouth, thank you. I realize society doesn't disapprove of foul language as much as it used to, but really... do you know your audience well enough to know that they appreciate talk of turds and anuses in a movie review? (Unless, of course, you're reviewing John Waters or some such bound-breaking director/auteur.)

Mark A. Fedeli said...

Steve, using only your own words, I'm not an environmentalist, i'm certainly not a fanboy (in this sense), and i judge action-movies as i judge citizen kane.

so, if "the plot is as old as the Western"; if "the characters are cardboardy standups"; if "it's not a pure intellectual rhapsody"; if "it's certainly not a pure action film. (Too much Ferngully about it...)"; and if "the 3-D serves the story and only occasionally throws things in your face"; what the heck about it would make a person such as myself see it or want to see it (assuming i hadn't seen it already), other than hype?

i can tell you straight-off that blue cat-people (creative choice by Cameron), alien territorial battles, 3D technology, or Sam Worthington didn't pique my curiosity in the least. so, what then?

the defensiveness of the people who like this film, and (so far) their inability to articulate why they liked it beyond criticizing why someone didn't like it, is astounding. if you liked it, just explain why, don't attack the critic and try to guess at his motivations. that's a bigger and more hollow cliche than anything you've accused Greg of.

Sure, Greg may have gone in to the experience feeling very dubious about what he was about to see. just as it's only natural that some people go in as apologists for what they were about to see.

Steve said...

@Mark--you asked a question that should be answered, "What... would make a person... want to see it?"

First, point out what in my comments is, "in your own words" defensive? Or inarticulate? Maybe it wasn't detailed enough for you, but I did say it had "something for everyone," didn't I?

So you only go to see movies with brand-new plots, apparently. Which probably has severely limited your movie-watching life in the last couple of decades, hasn't it? And since you don't like "cat-people" you probably don't like other kinds of aliens, no matter how well realized (and these are superbly realized... in spite of their tails, pointy canine teeth, slanted eyes and dappled skin, they're recognizably close enough to human (at least, according to the movie, that our DNA can "meld" with theirs) to be likable, recognizable "people" whom you can empathize with and sympathize with.

If you only like in your face," 3-D, then pick yourself up a nice set of LCD shutter glasses and get a copy of "Bwana Devil" or "Friday the 13th 3-D" so you can have spears and eyeballs (and popcorn!) thrown at you. That will be better than this 3-D, which only gives you dizzying heights and dazzling vistas and the sense of "being there."

It has action of several kinds (the most noticeable being the blowing up of stuff that @Greg mentions), not just the technological, but the human (or alien) kind of action; also the ecological, Ferngully stuff is an integral part of the storyline and part of the movie's raison d'etre, not just tacked on.

Sure, it's thin science, and if you paid attention to the script, which @Greg apparently didn't, you'd see that there are no ghosts and no "afterlife" per se--that the minds of the aliens (and Sigourney Weaver's character's) are uploaded into a giant (apparently) planet-wide "neural net" with googolplexes worth of connections.

There's a "noble savage" sort of feel to the Na'vi (sorry, misspelled it first time) that is dispelled when you realize they don't *need* technology to fulfill their lives as we do. And that their civilization focuses on a different kind of life than we have. So they aren't savages or primitives at all.

Actually, why do you go to any movie other than hype? If you listen to the blurbs before you see any movie, they're all the greatest movie ever made... what makes you choose one over another?
This movie's hype is no worse than most movies'--and not all of it comes from the studio--some comes from audiences and critics who have already seen it.

And not all are fanboys. I saw it in a very mixed, very full theatre on Christmas Day--and the audience applauded when the movie was over.
Not many audiences do that at the movies.

The movie is not about "alien territorial battles"--it's about Big Business displacing the native life, despoiling their heritage, their culture and their so-called religion (actually part of the above-mentioned neural net) to mine a mineral called "unobtainium" (a fanboy joke for sure), which is a situation and a motivation practically all native cultures on THIS planet can understand--as it's happened over and over on Earth.

As for Sam Worthington, you kind of forget him, as his Na'vi avatar is actually a better actor than he is anyway. Zoe Saldana's character is (maybe it's a guy thing) much more watchable, imho.

Is it Citizen Kane? Nah. Is it Stagecoach, Casablanca or Gladiator? Well, I found it more watchable than the latter. It's a movie--just entertainment--yet, because of the well-realized alien setting and the 3-D immersion, more compelling than many.

So that's my opinion of why to go see the movie. Articulated well enough for you?
Hope so, because I refuse to continue this discussion if it devolves into argument.
Thanks.

Mark A. Fedeli said...

Steve, no one is arguing, we're all here having a spirited discussion. And speaking for myself, i have not leveled any personal attacks or negative assumptions about anyone here. second, regarding the notion of defensiveness, you are defending the film and i am defending the film critic. we're all defending something. and keep in mind, more so than the contents of the film itself, in a sense i am debating the existence of the film as it pertains to Greg's post and the comments since received. i dont argue likes and dislikes with people. it's a no-win for both.

furthermore, much of your reply to me is laced with straw-man arguments. that's blatantly obvious and if you really want me to point them all out i will in a different post.

My comments are very careful not to out and out insult the film or anyone who likes it, they are only to point out that, for many people, maybe even before seeing it, there just isn't anything about it that registers as being remotely interesting (whether as story or as cinema).

i would never question the pure enjoyment you may have had at this film or any other. i am aware there is an audience out there for everything that appears on a cinema screen. and i am mature enough to understand that enjoying 2+ straight hours of time once in a while is about all we can ask for in this life.

i only wanted to emphasize that, even in theory, this picture is certainly not for everyone (and certainly IS for others). it's not a zero-sum game by any means. let me give you a terrific example:

i am a huge bob dylan fan, and so are a few of my friends. heck, call us fanboys for the sake of argument. however, we are split right down the middle when it comes to "I'm Not There", something that should be an outright, without-question, awesome-fest for all of us. however, some loved it, some hated it; some can take it, some can leave it. all that diversity of reaction from within only a very specific cross-section of men in their early thirties who would gladly give a nut for anything on-screen relating to Dylan.

so, if one of those whose crank didn't get turned by Avatar happens to be a critic, as Alan and Greg, you owe it to yourself to temper your rage against them for merely being explicitly clear in making that fact known. far better for them to talk about the film at all than to ignore it.

and finally, if you can look in the mirror and honestly say you came into this film with no interest in making any apologies for it whatsoever, then you would have the right to pick on Greg for going into it with even a small measure of worry. i know i am guilty in my way as well; i think most of us are. and i assume, as an avid sci-fi fan for 50 years, you would be too.

Greg Klymkiw said...

RESPONSE TO STEVE (PART ONE):

Dear Steve: I will quote a few of your statements below and respond to them accordingly.

Steve SAID:

"On several levels, Paul is right and Greg is wrong."

Greg RETORTS:

I have been called worse things than "wrong". Seriously, though, in any lively discourse, it is less about right and wrong, but more about engaging in a dialogue with respect to differing and/or similar views on a particular matter. I'd prefer to think you simply agree with Paul. There seems little sense in hurling words like "wrong" as invective (unless, of course, one is specifically referring to a factual error).

Steve SAID:

"Look, I've been a science fiction fan for over 50 years, but never a "fanboy" in the usual sense; I've never painted my face (blue or otherwise) and only once worn a costume to a convention. (Be fair, it was the inaugural of a convention that I founded; that was 30+ years ago.)"

Greg RETORTS:

You've got me beat by ten years on the sci-fi-fan front, but I will not let that cause me to kneel to your wisdom, but merely to acknowledge it with, I might add, considerable admiration for your dedication to the genre. As for adorning myself in something other than what I normally don in the course of any given day, the only time I wore a costume was to a frat house party in the late 70s where admission could only be gained by wearing a costume (togas were not the pre-requisite attire, any costume would do). I refused to wear a costume in a traditional sense, however, and came dressed in a bright orange coloured orlon sweater. The bouncers at first refused to admit me, but I gave my rotund belly a pat and remarked, 'Fuck you! I'm dressed as a goddamn pumpkin!' This, of course, secured my admission immediately.

Steve SAID:

"...Cameron has made a movie that satisfies on many levels; sure, the plot is as old as the Western; the characters are cardboardy standups; it's not a pure intellectual rhapsody about environmentally wonderful beings who live in peace and harmony with Mother Nature; and it's certainly not a pure action film. (Too much Ferngully about it...)"

Greg RETORTS:

Well, Avatar is certainly not any ONE of the above as you suggest, but is rather endowed with a hodge-podge of the aforementioned elements. There's certainly nothing wrong with throwing in everything including the kitchen sink - God knows, I have loved a good many Brian DePalma and Sam Raimi efforts that do the same. The difference is that structurally, there has been (and often very successfully) in the likes of DePalma and Raimi, an attempt to weave the hodge-podge in a clever fashion so that we either do not notice until the film is over and/or, it is utilized as both a stylistic flourish and an element of the cinematic storytelling process to satisfactorily move the story forward in surprising ways. As per usual, Cameron, who prides himself on "story", is simply sloppy in his assembly of such elements. Sure, they can have entertainment value, but they could be so much better. To reiterate an earlier point I made to Paul - I'd have been very happy to have liked the movie if it had worked with the same kind of precision that the abovementioned filmmakers are capable of - one that even Cameron fluked off in his original "Terminator" film (perhaps what worked, though, had more to do with Gale Ann Hurd).

Greg Klymkiw said...

Response to Steve (PART TWO):


Steve SAID:

"And the 3-D serves the story and only occasionally throws things in your face; how disappointing for Greg.
So what?"

Greg RETORTS:

So what? Well, I believe my feelings about the use of 3-D in Avatar have already been amply delineated in my review and subsequent responses, but I will add that Avatar, being a pure "entertainment" (as you note) and as a B-movie with a triple-A budget, errs in not providing elements that could have enhanced it. It's an exploitation movie (not a dirty word in my books) that does not seek to exploit its audience to the fullest and in a manner that could have had those who already love it, love it even more. As for the 3-D "serving the story", I'd like to know how it DOES, precisely. You have certainly not elaborated on this and having watched the movie a second time just this afternoon in regular 2-D, I can assure you the format is not missing in the least from the overall experience of watching it. In fact, the movie had the virtue of not boring me on a second viewing, but did, in fact, force me to feel like it's one big missed opportunity.

Steve SAID:

"What Cameron's given us is an immersive experience with something for everyone--environmentalist, fanboy/grrl, action-movie lover and so on."

Greg RETORTS:

In what way or ways, precisely is it "immersive". Is it the 3-D that is the sole element that does this for you, or is there something more?

Steve SAID:

"I found the Nav'i quite compelling; neither human nor alien--facial features you can identify with, not as obviously CG as much of the CG we see nearly every day in blockbuster movies--they have the proper weight, their lips are synched with their words, and so on."

Greg RETORTS:

I certainly, on the surface, cannot argue with your assessment of the Blue Navy Bean Aliens, but I found their design to be rather unpalatable to my eye. This, I'm afraid is one of those personal taste issues that begs those within the discourse to finally agree to disagree.

Steve SAID:

"Sure, there are quibbles in this movie--there are quibbles in EVERY movie including whatever your fave is, be it Citizen Kane or Revenge of the Nerds--again, I say, so what?"

Greg RETORTS:

You seem awfully fond of the expression "so what" which can, on occasion be utilized to great effect, but only after all possible avenues of discourse have been exhausted and it's used for an ironic punctuation to a particular discourse. I've used it myself. Alas, you are using it within the context of what you call "quibbles". Whether these are mere "quibbles" or considerable flaws, it's simply never enough to throw one's hands up and say, "so what". It's far more engaging to examine these areas and analyze why they are present and how they detract from the experience of seeing the picture itself. It's like giving up when the going gets tough which, frankly, is not the manner in which I choose to render criticism. You, however, may wish to choose this path and it is, in a democratic society, your right entirely.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Response to Steve (PART THREE):


Steve SAID:

"It's a frakkin' movie! It's entertainment, not some Pulitzer-worthy angst-ridden Great American (Canadian) Novel, nor yet a scientific treatise on ecology... you pays your money ($15 in my case) and you takes your chances."

Greg's RETORT:

Well, if it's just a "frakkin' movie" you seem to be awfully heated about defending it, and by extension, Paul's previous statements. It being just a movie means nothing within the context of a site that features movie reviews and gives people an opportunity to respond to said reviews. The fact that the writers are all taking the time to state their cases suggests that we all care about cinema beyond simply declaring, "It's just a 'frakkin' movie!'" As a sidenote, is 'frakkin' a Nav'i word? Have you descended to the level of Trekkies who utilize Vulcan in their everday speech? Please illuninate me.

Steve SAID:

"It was not humourless; if you didn't see the humour, then you probably need a humour checkup."

This is the sort of critical discourse that leaves me shivering in my panties. That said, the handful of lame guffaws the movie generates has less to do with the overall TONE of the movie which is, indeed, humourless.

Steve SAID:

"It was not boring; if you were bored, then it's your problem, not Cameron's.
The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves when it comes to film appreciation."

Greg RETORTS:

A most clever use of Shakespeare. Alas, it is moot as you obviously did not thoroughly read the review nor the previous posts. The review clearly states that one of the positive aspects of the movie is that "it's never boring". The only thing the review cites as boring is Cameron's style.

Steve SAID:

"BTW--Aliens was in its own way as good a film as Alien. Not better, not worse--they each have something to offer a discerning viewer."

Greg RETORTS:

We must agree to disagree.

Steve SAID:

Why don't you, Greg, get off your high horse and just WATCH the dang movie without your nose in the air--it probably blocks your view.

Greg RETORTS:

I think I'll keep my nose in the air, thanks. It's somewhat more pleasant than lodging it in Mr. Cameron's anus.

Steve SAID:

And we can do without the potty mouth, thank you. I realize society doesn't disapprove of foul language as much as it used to, but really... do you know your audience well enough to know that they appreciate talk of turds and anuses in a movie review? (Unless, of course, you're reviewing John Waters or some such bound-breaking director/auteur.)

Greg RETORTS: The last time I checked, "turd" and "anus" were perfectly acceptable words within the vast domain of the English knowledge. The same, I fear, cannot be said for the Nav'i dialect you chose to utilize earlier - the word was, I believe, "frakkin'".

Greg Klymkiw said...

Responses to some of Steve's comments to Mark's thoughtful posting:

Steve UTTERED:

"Sure, it's thin science, and if you paid attention to the script, which @Greg apparently didn't, you'd see that there are no ghosts and no "afterlife" per se--that the minds of the aliens (and Sigourney Weaver's character's) are uploaded into a giant (apparently) planet-wide "neural net" with googolplexes worth of connections."

Greg retorted:

A reasonable interpretation of the pseudo-science-babble. It's one of the aspects of the film I genuinely find interesting. Too bad you were too obsessed with the babble to be inspired by the spiritual subtext.

Steve SPLUTTERED:

"Actually, why do you go to any movie other than hype? If you listen to the blurbs before you see any movie, they're all the greatest movie ever made... what makes you choose one over another?
This movie's hype is no worse than most movies'--and not all of it comes from the studio--some comes from audiences and critics who have already seen it."

GREG RESPONDS:

Personally, I go to see every movie released theatrically - more often than not in theatres with real people rather than private screenings. I read no reviews in advance, I read no advance puff pieces, I never watch trailers and since I do not watch TV I never have to inflict myself with whatever hype is there. All I read are the listings - title of movie, theatre locations and showtimes. Alas, I cannot avoid billboards and posters. Hype is for the masses. Not me.

Finally, two additional points:

1. At least your comments to Mark elaborated on a few points as to what you liked and why. They are all points well taken, though not necessarily agreed upon by me.

2. Thank you for clearing up the important matter of how "Na'vi" is properly spelled. My life is now complete.

Steve said...

Greg--as you pointed out, right and wrong should be reserved for matters of fact. Sorry.

I'm not defending Cameron. He's the director, but I'm not talking about him, I'm talking about the movie, which is a COLLABORATION amongst Cameron, his actors and a host of computer people, all of whom had a much more direct input into what we see in the film than Cameron, unless he actually drew, animated and textured Pandora and the Na'vi, which I sincerely doubt. And, as a friend lamented, too bad Cameron insisted on writing the film himself rather than having a professional writer take the plot from outline to finished script.

Like you, I came to this movie with only a faint hope that it would be good and/or watchable; I thought Titanic was an overblown mess (although it looked great), and I didn't hold out much hope for this film. I'd heard that it was a tree-hugging, crystal-sucking New Age-y global-warming environmental threnody, if you will.

The movie surprised me by being not only watchable but, in more ways than one, involving. I hate it when a director tries to push my emotional buttons. But maybe because I was busy looking at the background, and maybe because the CGI was relegated to its proper place as a structural element of the film, and not the major character, I got caught up in the film.

Mostly, as in (let's say) Terminator: Salvation, a film heavy in SFX points out the effects by saying, "Hey, look at me! Aren't I clever?" by having oh, maybe a 30-foot-tall robot smashing things. The CGI in Avatar was simply all around the viewer, and the set piece for CGI (the crashing of the big tree) wasn't obtrusive as a set piece, unlike the 30-foot robot in Terminator: Salvation.

And I wasn't blown away by Cameron's 3-D; it seemed very 2-D in a number of places, unlike other pure CGI 3-D movies like Up or Monsters vs. Aliens. But it was used effectively to show that the Na'vi had no vertigo and mucho strength, agility and stamina. It was both world- and character-defining.

About the Na'vi characters I stand firm. After my initial surprise at their size and elongation (with lighter gravity it makes sense), it became easy to accept them as "human" characters, because the CG endowed them with real, human expression.

Yes, the storyline was simplistic: a wonderful alien world, with peaceful nature-loving aliens, is home to some mineral that Earth desperately wants and/or needs; the aliens seem to be simple primitives with a tree-hugging religion; humans can't breathe on this world, so to use diplomacy and convince the natives to let the mineral be mined from their sacred groves, an avatar is grown from gene-spliced human/native DNA instead of just wiping them out and mining the mineral. The crippled ex-Marine inhabiting the avatar "goes native" and starts an insurrection to drive the evil humans from the planet.

That's pretty basic; but at least Cameron dressed it up with some sympathetic characters, both human and Na'vi. And gave us at least a tiny bit of justification for all the tree-hugging, and at least some reason that Sully, the Marine, sided with the natives rather than his own people.

Be fair, Greg--wasn't there at least a tiny bit of you that wanted to be there, riding banshees, eating juicy alien fruit and generally enjoying the heck out of life? I know there was a little bit of me that envied Sully.

Anyhow, I'm going to close this out. I've said what I wanted to say; sorry if I don't respond to you point by point. (Oh, one thing: sure, turd and anus are perfectly acceptable words: would you shout them in the supermarket? You can make your point without coarseness if you so desire. Those words have no shock value amongst adults, and only serve to demean and devalue your review, in my opinion.)

The discussion was fun; hope you enjoyed the opportunity to defend your views as I did.

Paul Richards said...

Greg: Frakkin, frakking, what the frak - all terms used in lieu of "fuck" in the recently completed Battlestar Galactica tv series.

I know you said you've seen 30,000 movies, but I confess to be surprised that you were unaware of this word and its use, in what many critics, fanboys, and fangirls call the best tv series of the Aughts. (I put it at #2, after The Wire). Then again, it's not fair of me to assume you ever watched an ep of the show.

But if you can make the time, you will not be disappointed.

Anonymous said...

I do not believe the simplistic story line to be a disadvantage. Also, I do not believe it is some sort of hippie tree-hugging propaganda. Its simply an action movie that adapts many aspects of colonialism to a space-age setting.

Personally, I enjoyed it because it immersed me into another world. The CGI effects were amazing and the world Cameron crafted was unlike anything I've ever seen before. The story-line was sufficient enough to keep the movie flowing without inconsistencies, and I felt there were minimal flaws in the plot. In response to the "unoriginal cookie-cutter" analysis of the plot, I respond by saying that yes, although it may not be the most original plot, I believe it was how Cameron handled this simple plot that made the movie enjoyable. He applies colonialism (seen in pocahontas, dancing with wolves, ferngully) in a futuristic space-age setting. This demonstrates the nature of humanity, our greed, and how some things never change, even though we as a human race claim to be getting more advanced. The simple good vs. evil conflict conveys this very clearly and, at least to me, made the movie engaging on an intellectual level.

Finally, I find it disturbing that so many hate on this movie. I feel that they hate on it for the wrong reasons, most of which are inconsistent. For example, the recycled story. If you hate this movie for having a recycled plot, then you should probably hate the majority of movies made within the last 20 or so years. I believe that the MAJORITY of the hatred of this movie is based solely on either a) dislike for james cameron b) excessive hype - anything that is hyped too much is bound to have large amounts of criticism targeting it. this in turn causes point c) "We build them up to knock them down - it has become trendy to dislike it, parody it, and jab it, which is what usually happens with anything big.

These are my reasons why I liked Avatar and why I disagree with much of the criticism towards it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I've read many reviews and many of the critics sound like elitist film snobs. To clarify, I feel that many critics are stating that anyone who enjoys this movie is intellectually vapid and simple minded, which is certainly not the case and an unfair assessment on their part. I have no problem with people expressing their opinion, but do not sound like a condescending high brow.