Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Closing thoughts on Avatar

Two posts on the same movie in a row?

The difference here is that THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS. If you haven't yet seen the movie, read the post below and save this one for later.

So I watched Avatar again in 3D today, and I have to say, this is the way to view it. Seriously, I am against the idea of 3D movies in general (or was until today), but Avatar has not been dealt with as a gimmick. The 3D here is simply immersive.
Anyway, 3D aside (I do believe this movie is best experienced this way), my second viewing did not change my view of the movie but it reminded me of a few things I wanted to address previously.

Spoilers ahead.

  • The score grinds in the second half. The music isn't inherently bad, but it is very poorly chosen, especially during the big confrontation. What I liked was that shots of the Na'vi at the beginning of this sequence were accompanied by epic battle music (though it did sound suspiciously like it came from the Pirates of the Caribbean scores) while the accompaniment for the humans was more dark and military. The problem came when the animals came to save the day: gallant, heroic music as you have heard it in god knows how many children's Disney films.
  • Speaking of music, Gladiator started a trend (and did it well) which has since been improperly ripped off by virtually every single movie to come out of hollywood: the 'Arabian vocal death'. Someone gets shot / stabbed / exploded / dies of aids, and the next five minutes feature muted sound effects (if any), echoed dialogue (if any), and soft, sad string music accompanied by a [insert exotic ethnicity here] woman warbling her guts out. As if it weren't bad enough that James Cameron's composer had stooped to this (and that Cameron allowed it), it happens THREE TIMES during the film.
  • The walkers don't look -quite- as bad as I remembered, until the animals start bowling them over. They are prime targets of one of my ultimate pet hates in CGI, "faux-tion blur". There is a certain point beyond which motion blur looks fake. Is it just me or do they actually crank it up beyond realism for these movies?
  • The bitch in the helicopter is just annoying. She thinks she's so badass and she's not. I hate characters like that and I was relieved when she died.
  • I realise that my favourite Na'vi are the scientist ones. Grace's avatar actually looks like Sigourney Weaver back when she was young, which is all kinds of creepy, in a cool way. Norm also has some incredible facial acting, and in his human clothes he looks like a dork trapped in a killing machine's body. The juxtaposition is brilliant.
  • I should point out that Pandora as a CGI environment is stunning. This is at least one area in which CGI has truly excelled in recent years. As my friend David pointed out, keep your eyes on the grass when the choppers land - that's all computer generated.
  • The turning point for the quality of the plot, I think, was about when Grace shouted "murderer" as the Great Tree began to fall. From that point on, every character is jolted from a latticework of complex motivations and desires to either "I am a nature-loving hippy and we are raping our Mother Earth" to "damn blue monkey bastards, let's kill them all and make some cash". At this point I was really disappointed at how brutal the message of the film was, considering how subtley it began and how long they kept this going for.
That's about it, really. Anything else I have to discuss are niggles or statements of the obvious.

[/Off chest]

Avatar - Four stars

Okay, so where do I begin with a movie like this? There is a lot to discuss.

First of all, let me say that this film was damn good. Secondly, I will say there were a few story elements that prevented it from being perfect. Thirdly, I'll add that although I had heard this from many people, the form which these story problems took were totally different to how I had imagined.

Worry not, there are no spoilers ahead. So with that in mind, let's start at the beginning.

This is where James Cameron shines. We are thrust directly into the story of Jake Sully. Avatar is a difficult movie to reduce to a synopsis without it sounding very silly - for a start, Jake Sully is in a wheelchair. When I first heard this, I moaned and rolled my eyes. What a move.
But alas, upon actually watching the movie, it was nice to see that it was dealt with incredibly well. We are not led to hold Jake's hand and feel sorry for his plight, it's just another dynamic of his character.
We are treated pretty quickly to the forestry of Pandora, as well as the Marines military that pervades the human base. What I like about these machines (bar the walkers, which I will get to in a second) is that they look plausible. All the trucks, choppers, VTOL aircraft and cruisers look like they could exist in twenty years' time, a delicate mix of progressive design considerations and "one-foot-in-reality" conservatism. To use Turkey City Lexicon vernacular, these are actual machines, and not fucking magic.

Once we see the Avatars, however, it becomes obvious that we are in another world, something new and different.
The Na'vi look fantastic, startlingly expressive and human, and it adds a huge dimension of empathy to the film. But a question I have been asking for a long time and have been unable to judge from the previews is, "was it worth it?"
James Cameron and his team over at WETA have been working on this new motion capture technology for almost a decade now, and they have said that it will revolutionise film-making as we know it. Excuse me, but that's a pretty big claim.
While these guys were working round the clock to create something that didn't look "CG", Industrial Light and Magic beat them to the punch years ago with their own super-real micro acting humanoid: Davy Jones.

Davy Jones looked so real, from head to toe, even in the extreme closeups, that I was convinced - let me repeat that, CONVINCED - that he was Bill Nighy in makeup from my first viewing. Damn good makeup, too. I didn't realise gyro tentacles had come that far since Hellboy, and man, he looked fishy. But there was this NIGHY-ness about him that discarded any notion that he could be computer generated. Alas, when I found out he was totally rendered in 3D I had to take stock of what I knew about filmmaking and special effects.
Did Avatar have this impact on me? No, it did not. I could still tell the Na'vi were 3D models. That said, it's easy to forget it pretty quickly and get lost in how human these things look.

Do they look better than Davy Jones? No, they don't. Do they look worse? Not really, no! Less convincing, perhaps, but their performances are convincing and at the end of the day, that's all that matters.
So what advantage do WETA have over ILM? That, at least, is simple. Davy Jones had a team of about twenty of ILM's best animators working hard on the one character. By comparison, his crew were neglected with about one animator each and the result was passable, but very "hollywood CG". Avatar, on the other hand, sports a very large cast of Na'vi (several hundred, in fact) who all look convincing. The special effects are not a revolution by any means, but the logistics of these special effects are. I am personally very excited to see what other filmmakers do with this technology.
Unfortunately, not all the effects are this good. Well, they are GOOD - better than most of the competition I have seen - but there is still that unavoidable fakeness in the creatures, and indeed, the clumsy, organically-moving walkers that I was kind of hoping WETA would have been able to eradicate with all this damn hype.

So back on topic, why did I only give Avatar four stars?
Well, it was nearly five, you know. In fact it was five for a while.

Without revealing any of the story, I will say this: James Cameron stopped trying halfway through. What began as a violently creative tour-de-force of sophisticated ideas and subtle writing was suddenly crushed to death by heavy-handed moralism and generic, by-the-book hollywood scriptwriting, the likes of which I haven't seen since the first Transformers. Perhaps worse.
The second half is still enjoyable - hell, if you are just in it for the special effects and explosions, this film will set your balls on fire from beginning to end. But unfortunately it's like an accidental homage to Adaptation. Ever seen that movie? It begins with Charlie Kaufman, the superman avant-garde scriptwriter, writing himself into a script filled with intense, mould-breaking ideas. Unfortunately, he can't figure out how to finish the film so he takes a hollywood scriptwriter's workshop, and the rest of the film functions like a paint-by-numbers hollywood thriller. It works brilliantly as a post-modern statement on the industry; it doesn't work in Avatar.
You will know what I'm talking about. One minute it's a Cohen Brothers movie in outer space, then WHAM! It's Captain Planet meets Fern Gully. With obligatory Lord Of The Rings-style battles.

I think by these standards I have realised that Avatar is definitely best enjoyed if you view it as a pastiche work. It has a lot of James Cameron to it - hell, Sigourney Weaver, giant walkers (though the one from Aliens ironically looked better, these ones move all cartoony just like in Matrix Reloaded + Revolutions because they're from CG hell), bad-guy US marines - but you will constantly be making comparisons to other movies, try as you may.
"This reminds me of this movie." "Huh, that's just like from that other film." "That bit really reminds me of this."
I kind of hope this is intentional. And it might be - the super-valuable resource the humans are after is called "unobtainium", which is a well known Science Fiction injoke. I think a lot of it IS intentional, but in many cases it just seems like James Cameron was beaten to the punch. A lot of this movie you will have seen before. The sad part is, James Cameron probably came up with it first.

I will give James Cameron credit, though, for bringing this world to life so fluently. It is very clear that Pandora is his high-school brainchild and that he has been aching to get this thing to the masses for a long time, and for the most part he has executed this very well. Particularly as you 'discover' Pandora alongside Jake, it's pretty much impossible not to be spellbound by the poetry in motion that is Pandora.
If anyone frequents ConceptArt.org or reads ImagineFX, they will know what to expect in terms of environments. The difference here is that it moves.

So please, James, for your next movie, go nuts with your crazy special effects and fancy-fresh ideas. But for the love of fuck, maintain your enthusiasm for originality for the entire film and don't try and shove a preachy message down my throat. Then I will give you five stars.
But hey. Big words coming from someone who is looking forward to seeing it in 3D tomorrow. Like I said, it is actually a very enjoyable and clever film - it's just impossible for me to take off my script-analyst hat these days, and the film is not devoid of problems in the script department. It's just...

Gah! He was *SO CLOSE*!!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Order of movements - Avatar, Princess

I'm going to see Avatar as soon as I get paid, which should hopefully be soon.
I've heard a lot about it from friends, and the general consensus seems to be that the effects and world are amazing, but the story is hackneyed.
Comparisons have been drawn to a dozen other movies, and I get the impression that the story was stuffed in to fit the world and the graphics, even though this is apparently James Cameron's high-school baby.
This annoys me because I know James Cameron can do better. But I need to see the movie before I can make a proper assessment. So that's what I'm going to do.

Then, in the new year, I will go see Princess and the Frog.

In the meantime, have some cheese.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Friggin' Aussie release dates...

I was all fired up to tell you I was going to check out this new Princess and the Frog movie. But as usual, because I live in Australia, I will not be able to see it until after every single American who is waxing lyrical about the bloody film in journals right now. I will have to wait until January 1st. Who the hell watches a movie on New Year's Day?
Oh well. It could be worse - Australians are forced to wait, invariably, for at least six months to see every Pixar movie that comes out, six months after Americans have hyped it to the point where I don't even want to see it anymore. Up is probably good, but I haven't had the desire to seek it out, even if I am a Pixar fanboy.

Let me tell you what my first thoughts about this movie are. Hopefully, I will be wrong.
Throughout the nineties, Disney Corporation had mutated into a horrible parody of what it once was, as a result of the slimy Michael Eisner ensnaring control of the board, replacing creatives with corporates and kicking the last Disney off the payroll. During this time of chaos, the studios pumped out some really sorry films that, let's not mince words here, sucked balls. Probably the last good 2D Disney animation that I have seen was The Lion King. After a bunch of box-office failures that frankly looked uninspired and forced even from the promotional posters, Eisner more or less claimed that 2D was a dead art and needed to go. Pixar was making squillions and all the other major studios were vomiting out horrible imitations like Shark Tale and Robots that served no more purpose than to employ a bunch of Maya wizards.
They only got bums on seats because the audience didn't have a choice. 2D was dead, apparently.

Now Disney pulls an about face and says they want to make a 2D film. Admittedly and forgivably, this is probably as a result of John Lasseter getting on the board. Like him or not, John Lasseter can at least be credited with giving a fuck about animation, a rare treat at the controls these days.
Whether or not he had anything to do with it, however, this huge revival of 2D films is... a princess story.
Alright, so Disney are famous for them. But it's been done. All they've done this time is made them black. My thoughts keep diverting to The Cleveland Show, but surely it can't be that bad.

All my American friends are praising the film enormously, and I feel an obligation to check it out. I'm not going to judge this film based on previous failures, but I will admit right now that my expectations are low. In 2010, I will be putting up a review that will reveal - at least from my personal point of view - whether this truly is a return to form for Disney, or the only 2D film that has come out in a substantial period of time that hasn't made people want to kill themselves instantly, and thus reaching the status of "the best 2D film of the decade" by default.