Posted by: daveed | January 19, 2010

Opening Pandora’s box

From the mists of Pandora…
It’s the new JAKE SULLY ACTION FIGURE!
With POWER WHEELCHAIR GRIP!
Have him FIGHT OFF INSULTS about his handicap!
Or MOPE AROUND THE GARAGE waiting for his turn as an Avatarrrr!!!
(Acting ability not included…)

Yes, like most people in Western Civilization, I saw Avatar, the biggest damn juggernaut to plow into the cinemas since James Cameron’s previous epic. I saw it twice and now I know why it’s called disposable income.

The first time was in plain vanilla 2D, then in the full frontal glory of  James Cameron 3D®. I figured that if the film was as good as people were saying, what difference would 3D make? And it was true. It made little difference. It was disappointing both times.

Sure, the effects were amazing, the Pandora landscape exquisite. But the story was woefully anemic when it wasn’t utterly predictable. And aside from Sigourney Weaver’s Grace Augustine (who should have been the lead) there was little going on with the characters, blue or not. And don’t get me started on the Cameron’s Hollywoodized noble savage ethos that feels as if it was informed by a 1993 Earth Day rally.

Or worse:

As for 3D, it was interesting at first. I appreciated that the movie doesn’t gratuitously dangle junk in front of your eyes all the time. It was cool just to get a feel for the perspective, like when a branch passes in front of your view as the camera pans. It’s as if I was following the characters in a real-world environment. But after about an hour the novelty wears off and the film becomes a slog. Kudos to Cameron for pushing the technological envelope. However, I believe the spectacle merely masks the film’s shortcomings, judging by the unqualified praise it’s been getting.

It’s been reported that Cameron had been working on the script for years and it shows, from the dated dialogue to uninteresting human tech. (Download a PDF of an undated draft here). The machines the wicked humans use to destroy the extraterrestrial Eden looked like something straight out of 80s sci-fi. Or just ridiculous. For example, mech suits with robotic arms that hold over-sized knives and guns, instead of having the weaponry built into suit. Reminded me of Crocodile Dundee’s, “Now THAT’S a knife!” joke.

Sam Worthington is again a big nothing, acting-wise. I found his performance in Terminator Salvation to be merely serviceable; after this, I’m convinced that’s all he has. Upon leaving the theater, my wife summed up his contribution perfectly, “I just didn’t care about [Jake Sully].” Me neither.

His character simply does not change. He goes from being a human warrior to a N’avi warrior. There’s no inner conflict, no real transformation. His one physical flaw—paralysis—is meaningless since he spends most of the time in an über-able N’avi body.

It would have made a much better arc if the main character was a human scientist dedicated to non-violence, but has to become a warrior to save his N’avi friends. Or a warrior who must learn to find peace by letting go of his martial ways. But who wants to sit through a 3-plus hour Terrence Malick sci-fi movie? I sure as hell don’t. A 2-plus hour Cameron-does-Pocahontas film was enough.

Avatar is undeniably huge. Bigger than anything in a long, long time. It’s already won Golden Globes for best picture and best director, to say nothing about the billion dollars or so it’s raked in. But let’s not delude ourselves into thinking it’s because it’s a great film. Look at last summer’s steaming pile of Transformer shit. Damn movie was a license to print money, even though it was panned by nearly every critic with a working frontal lobe.

I recently re-watched District 9, one of my new favorite movies, and it kicks Avatar’s ass on so many levels, especially story and character development but also on the way more awesome mecha. Which is ironic because when I first saw District 9 in theater it was such an invigorating experience—I hadn’t felt that jazzed over a sci-fi movie since I saw Aliens in the theater back in 1986.

Avatar isn’t a new Aliens. Or a new Star Wars. I bet when it comes out on home video and people watch it in plain vanilla 2D on their televisions, they’re going to wonder what they ever saw in it. Regardless, it looks as if we’re going to be stuck with many more iterations of 2-plus hours of mere spectacle for a long time as Hollywood—and the movie-going public—crown Cameron “King of the World” again.

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Responses

  1. What is all the hoopla about then? I don’t get it. Is the praise for the technology or the shit-ass writing?

  2. I really do think the 3D put the zap on people. And that it’s an original(ish) story. There’s no pre-existing source material that requires prior knowledge of some comic book character. So it has, I think, wider appeal than say Wolverine or Transformers.

  3. I agree with your views and salute your superior level of taste. Avatar isn’t really a movie. It is a 3hr theme-park ride (Outer Space Mountain?).
    Rides don’t need much of a story, just a situation and an effective gimmick.

    (I also posted about Avatar, View-Master, and about bad movies lately.)

  4. Great post.

    Obviously I feel the same way (though you obviously feel it way stronger)

    I’m still lukewarm to the visuals. Everyone calling it a breakthrough film does a disservice to the legion of films (especially the vastly superior Pixar ones) that came before it. Avatar literally broke no new ground. It simply threw a ton of money at what had already been established.

  5. Michael, you make a really good point how the film was more or less an upgrade of existing film technology. I remember seeing the teaser trailers from last summer, and how lame the cgi looked. Obviously, the filmmakers polished it up in time for the release, but yeah, it wasn’t totally mind-blowing.

    I really do think that the general public will get its head out of the clouds once they get it on DVD.

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Augustyn, Michael Lee. Michael Lee said: David Augustyn takes down JC and Avatar! https://daugustyn.wordpress.com/2010/01/19/opening-pandoras-box/ […]

  7. […] amazing film, and quite possibly the best of its genre in decades, it totally kicks the crap out of Cameron’s 3D ripoff of, er paean to a bunch of other stories […]

  8. […] the one action figure to take your Pandoran adventure to a whole new level of bullshit… In […]


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