Tuesday, December 22, 2009

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*!!


  1. I'm really surprised you gave this such a high rating.
    It was a technical marvel, and they did a mighty job of bridging the uncanny valley.

    But in the first 5 minutes of the film I'd sussed the storyline and the arcs for all the characters. Bored.
    The creature design didn't make much sense either. Why didn't the giant Thundercats breathe through their necks and have 6 limbs like all the other wildlife?(other than the opbvious answer: it would make them too gross to sympathise with)

  2. Oh man old post.
    My score was basically subtractive. In retrospect I might give it three and a half now, but I was really enjoying myself for a while watching this movie then it all just fell out the window. Not the budget or the special effects, but the story.
    I gave it four stars because I thought James Cameron was close but he dropped the ball. I guess when you think about it that's actually the biggest fuckup you can make in film...

  3. LOL!

    I'm generally behind the times. ;-)

    You're right, almost there but fumbles when it counts, youch!
    There's an opportunity to surprise us in the sequel....?