Monday, January 18, 2010

The Many Levels On Which Ted Was Disappointed by James Cameron's Avatar

AS A MOVIEGOER

I’ll start with this one, because it’s the most obvious. All along I’ve been hearing about how this movie is supposed to be some great paradigm shift, an incredible spectacle that will change the face of moviemaking forever—but to me, it’s just the newest toy. Cameron didn’t do anything new with his special effects; he just spent more than anyone else did.

Jurassic Park, in 1993, was a game-changing movie because it used computer-generated special effects—still a burgeoning field—and did something amazing with them. Filmmakers have been doing creature films since King Kong (and probably before, but I wasn’t a film major), and technology has followed: from stop-motion to blue-screen to experiments like Lucasfilm’s hybrid ‘go-motion.’ Spielberg took the latest and best technology, and made a dang good creature film with it.

But here’s the rub: CGI isn’t new any more. I saw Jurassic Park in the theater when I was—wait for it—eight years old. I grew up with this technology. Avatar is using the latest, the best, the sharpest computer graphics, but it’s still just computer graphics. It’s not a paradigm shift; it’s just the latest coat of paint. All the jungle scenes looked pretty, and those blue cat-people looked moderately realistic, sure, but to me, Cameron was just showing off how much money he could spend. And as a guy who likes movies, I want something a little more than that.

AS A SCI-FI FAN

Okay, Mr. Cameron. You’ve created this whole fantastic new world. You’ve got blue-skinned cat-people, six-legged horses, crazy-looking dragon-bat things, tentacle-trees, all these cool animals and plants and whatnot. And best of all, any fauna larger than a dog has a natural USB plug growing out of the back of their skull, so you can communicate with and control them with just your brain alone. But you don’t do anything with that.

I’ve read a lot of sci-fi in my day, and some of my favorite books—Alfred Bester’s The Stars My Destination, Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead (a weaker book than Ender’s Game, but still good), pretty much anything by William Gibson—take some technology or ability or feature, some fantastic premise, and thoroughly explore the ramifications and implications of that premise. You look at how society has changed, how people have adapted to this strange new world—you take the science, and you make fiction out of it. That’s the friggin’ definition of the genre.

But think about this: you’ve got an entire planet where all of the animals, for some reason, have direct brain-plugs sticking out of their head. What would their society look like? What would their relationship be with their pets, or their beasts of burden? What would their concept of ‘self’ be, if they can so easily interface with another living being?

None of these questions are satisfactorily answered in Avatar. The society of the Na’vi is just a straight-up tribal system—or, more accurately, some middle-aged white guy’s stereotype of a tribal system—with nothing that reflects their strange biological apparatuses. (Apparati?)

Look at it from the other direction, too: why would the Na’vi, and every other animal, evolve such a biological apparatus in the first place? What would be the reason for such a strange feature appearing in every species on the planet? Do they all have some common ancestor? Was there some unimaginable, planet-wide disaster or pressure that would cause such a feature to appear? Moreover, if every animal has such a similar brain structure, why are the Na’vi the only sentient species? If there’s some kind of planet-spanning neural network, can it somehow drive or even control the evolution of lesser species?

I’m not saying that any of these questions should have been asked in the movie—it was already almost three hours long; any more and my butt would’ve gone numb—but there’s just so much opportunity that was wasted. Cameron created this entire ecosystem that had the potential to be endlessly fascinating, but ended up just being…boring. Ordinary. And when I watch a sci-fi movie, I want it to be extraordinary.

AS A WRITER

I’m going to skip lightly over all the various ways in which Avatar failed as a piece of cinema—the overly broad characters, the dialogue that alternated between boring and ridiculous and pretentious, the overwrought climax—and focus instead on the opportunities the movie missed out on.

Basic premise of the movie: in order to make friends with the blue cat-people, the humans have created cloned cat-people bodies into which they can project their consciousness and drive around. As premises go, it’s not too shabby. It may not be the most original idea in the book, but there’s still plenty of interesting things you can do with it.

Except, of course, James Cameron didn’t do anything with it.

I remember watching an early scene where the trigger-happy Military Guy is talking with our Protagonist, the guy who can plug into a cat-person body, and the Military Guy is strapping himself into a giant mecha suit while he talks. I found myself wondering: is the movie perhaps going to make some kind of comparison between the Protagonist riding a cat-person and the Military Guy riding a mecha? Is James Cameron going to try and make some kind of statement about our tools and the way they become part of us, or we become part of them?

Lots of people have blasted Avatar for being a crappy rip-off of about a dozen other movies—Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, FernGully: the Last Rainforest, take your pick—and, yeah, it is. But what's sad is that it didn't have to be so derivative. A competent writer/director could have made this into a story about literally walking a mile in another man's shoes, or about borrowing culture, or about treating culture as something that can be borrowed. This could have been a movie about the omnipresence of our technology, about what happens when our tools become invisible to us. This could've been a story about self-discovery, about a character realizing that he's always been the odd man out and finding a family in the most unlikely place.

But it wasn't. It was loud and dumb and unoriginal. And the potential that was wasted makes it so much worse.

AS A MODERATELY ENLIGHTENED WHITE GUY

I want to be very careful about this bit, because it’d be very easy to accidentally offend a whole lot of people. Let’s start with this: I was pretty dang offended by large chunks of this movie, and I’m about as white as it gets, so I can only imagine how a person of color would feel after seeing Avatar.

The movie features an entire army of white guys coming in to a world they don’t fully understand, treating the native population like animals and eventually trying to murder them wholesale in order to get access to some fancy natural resources. So it’s pretty obviously an allegory for America, most of Africa, Australia, Afghanistan—really, any country that was exploited under colonialist/imperialist policies in the past three or four centuries, take your pick. And in the rich tradition of other movies about White Guys Doing Bad Things, it features a large cast of non-white guys: the Wise Old Shaman, the Hot-Tempered Warrior Guy, the Nurturing Mother Figure, and, of course, Sexy Young Warrior Chick.

Basically, if stereotypes about “native cultures” were a valuable ore, Avatar would make the California Gold Rush look like a tea party. That’s a given. But there’s a line about halfway through the movie that really just made me laugh out loud, it was so ridiculous.

Sigourney Weaver’s character, Noble Scientist Woman, has just discovered that not just the animals but some of the plants, too, have some kind of brain structure that connects them; thus the trees that cover the entire planet actually form some kind of gigantic neural network. Or something like that, I don’t know. Anyway, she comes out to tell this to Rapacious Corporate Evil Guy, who plans to bulldoze the blue cat-people village while cackling villainously. She explains her findings, he scoffs contemptuously, and then she says this:

“We’re not talking about some pagan voodoo here, this is real!”

Setting aside the problem of describing something as both “pagan” and “voodoo,” which is a whole theological-semantic argument that I really don’t want to get into, the implications of this line, at least in my reading, are tremendous. Think about what this means: what’s happening on this planet is “real.” The animistic belief structure these primitive cat-people have is “real.” So that must mean that the “pagan voodoo” beliefs of, say, Native Americans, Australian Aborigines, Africans, or any other Brown People are, of course, not real.

When the Na'vi talk about speaking with their ancestors, they mean it literally; they plug their brain-tentacles into a grove of tentacle-trees and hear the actual voices of those who have died. But when any of these “pagan voodoo” believers talk about speaking with their ancestors, of course, it's just a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. Clearly. Maybe if these people had real beliefs, maybe if their stupid religions were based in science, like ours, then we wouldn’t have wiped them out.

That’s what really cracked me up. Now, I’m sure that James Cameron didn’t mean it like that, I’m sure he meant it as a commentary on these ignorant white people who can’t accept the wisdom of these Noble Savages or whatever, but still, the implications are there.

AS A BIG FAN OF THE RECENT ANIMATED NICKELODEON SHOW AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER

This show is completely amazing, and now they're making a live-action movie trilogy out of it. But now, thanks to Mr. Cameron's crap opus, they have to use the shortened title The Last Airbender instead of the full name.

This makes me angriest of all.

IN CONCLUSION

Avatar sucks. It sucks on multiple levels. The fact that it was so widely hyped before release only makes the sucking more significant; the gap between what was promised and what was delivered was so huge that it totally cancels out anything good in the movie.

Don’t see it. Seriously. There are better movies to spend your money on. Lots of better movies.

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