Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Avatar made me blue

Because I wasted time and money watching it.

Mind you, it’s not because of the movie’s pinko, liberal, anti-imperialist, fuzzy-minded, bleeding-heart, liberal, tree-hugger message. I’m a pinko, liberal, anti-imperialist, etc. myself. I’m part of this movie’s natural audience. And yet I hated it.

Basic story: Alien world has mineral Earth badly wants and needs. Human beings set about strip mining the place. World’s inhabitants, ten-foot tall blue aliens with tails, are upset. Humans create their own ten-foot tall blue aliens with tails, telepathically controlled by humans and called avatars, to deal with the aliens. Our hero, one of those telepathic controllers, ends up preferring being an alien, switches sides, and leads a successful alien revolt.

Not wanting to wear the special glasses, we decided to skip the 3-D version and watch it in 2-D. I accepted that it wouldn’t be as visually interesting in 2-D, but I didn’t expect all of the characters to be two-dimensional. I don’t think the special glasses would have helped with that. I don’t mind good guys vs. bad guys, and I always prefer it when the good guys end up winning. But it helps when both good and bad guys are also real people, with believable motivations and human characteristics.

Speaking of which, the Simpsons are more human and believable than Avatar’s CGI aliens and their world. Hell, the actors in rubber suits and the papier-mâché rocks on the original Star Trek TV show (the only real Star Trek TV show!) were more believable than Avatar’s aliens and their world. For all the high tech and big bucks, the blue aliens and their lush world are a cartoon from beginning to end. I never believed any of it.

Details bothered me. For instance, the aliens we see the most of live in a giant tree. But their feet are flat and inflexible, with short toes, just like ours. The movie makers didn’t think about what the aliens’ feet should have looked like. They just copied human feet. Big budget for CGI, but small budget for thinking.

Don’t assume that I’m an elitist snob who normally prefers serious movies that delve into the human condition and were made in France. I avoid such movies like the plague. I insist on escape. Science fiction, fantasy, horror, comedy, and preferably a few good explosions and shootouts – that’s what draws me to the theater. I was looking forward to escaping into the alien world of Avatar. I tried hard for the movie’s full 18 hours but never succeeded.

The plot is clichéd and predictable from one scene to the next. The action scenes are devoid of tension. Not only are they cartoonish, they’re dull cartoonish. Think of the absurdity of the truck-freeway-jet-fighter segment in the last Die Hard movie, and replace Bruce Willis and the truck and the freeway and the jet fighter with cartoon blue aliens and flying lizards and humans in armed flying machines. Character deaths are predictable and devoid of emotion, and character escapes from peril violate both physics and physiology.

The relationships are passionless. We are expected to believe in them, but the actors, whether human or CGId into aliens, give us no reason to do so.

The alien society is an awkward mix of generic tribal American Indian and generic tribal African. This is symbolism of shameless nakedness. It punches us in the mouth and orders us to feel guilty for the sins of European and American expansion.

The aliens’ embarrassingly silly Earth-mother religion is glossed over with a pretense of science that is as unconvincing as the aliens themselves. They are deeply in tune with their world (take that, you urbanized, industrialized EuroAmericans!), but that doesn’t stop them from murdering peaceful herbivores for food, even though they’re surrounded by a bountiful forest with plentiful and delicious fruit. Okay, so they say mystical garbage to the herbivores before they finish them off. Big deal. The herbivore, gasping in agony from the arrow our hero has shot into him in one scene, might be wondering why the blue chap is now sticking a humongous knife into him. “In the name of the earth mother,” the herbivore might be thinking, “why aren’t you a vegetarian?”

In the end, the good guys win and the bad guys lose. But the bad guys are the empire, with its vast resources and advanced technology, especially ways of blowing things up real good, whereas the good guys are just primitive blue aliens. In real history, empires often lose such first skirmishes due to underestimating the primitives and the terrain and the logistics. Empires learn from these failures and return with overwhelming force. That’s why I’m writing this in a Western language, using Western technology, while living in what used to be land occupied by non-Westerners.

So in reality, the blue aliens would lose in the long run. If they were lucky, they’d end up on reservations. If not, they’d be eliminated. Either way, the end result would be the strip mining of the planet.

Or perhaps the aliens will accept the inevitable and make a deal with the mining company. They’ll grant mining concessions to the humans, and in return they’ll be given human weapons, which they will use to conquer and enslave the other clans of aliens whom we glimpse at the end of the movie. We’ve already seen that these simple, gentle, loving, living-in-harmony-with-nature aliens have a warrior caste and a warrior ethos. Hmm. Where did those guys come from?


Leonore Dvorkin said...

Fabulous, David! As you know, I agree with every word. - Leonore

David said...

Considering the astonishingly nasty responses my negative review of Atonement got, I'll be interested in seeing the comments on this one.

AlanR said...

> Empires learn from these failures and return
> with overwhelming force. That’s why I’m writing
> this in a Western language, using Western
> technology, while living in what used to be land
> occupied by non-Westerners.

Actually, it's more complicated than that.

South America and Latin America generally wasn't as settled by white Europeans -- the climate didn't cause them to flourish, except in southern South America, and in the hundreds of years between exposure to eastern hemisphere disease and the invention of antibiotics and vaccination, local populations more or less maintained themselves on the land. At some level or other.

White folks, though, do real well in temperate areas.

If you want a picture of the work of empires in areas with real equivalence, look at the history of the European powers along the Indian Ocean and East Pacific rim.

David said...

The DNA percentage varies between, say, the US and Peru. Nonetheless, the dominant languages and cultures in the Western Hemisphere are European, not native.

Mitch Wagner said...

Quoting from my favorite blog - mine: "In a year, the Earth-humans will be back, with bigger and better weapons, and they'll slaughter all the local N'avi and take the unobtanium by force. Over the course of the next few generations, the N'avi will be enslaved. They'll be introduced to alcohol, and many of them will become drunks. They'll be forced to give up their trees and made to live on the edges of human cities, in vast slums, where they'll work in factories and die young. Eventually, if they're lucky, a N'avi dictator will come along who forces them into adopting modern technology, after slaughtering a few million more of their own people, sending many more to live in work camps, and forcing the society to renounce their old religion and adopt atheism. Then the dictator will die and at that point the N'avi might start forming a more open society, attempting to reconstruct their past bucolic lifestyle from the few remaining bits and pieces. Or maybe they'll never adopt the more open society, maybe instead they'll just become a nation of pirates, terrorists, and drug dealers."

David said...

That's a real possibility, too.

I think I read that Cameron wants to do a trilogy. Maybe the return of the Earth forces will be the second movie.

AlanR said...

David said:
> The DNA percentage varies between, say, the US
> and Peru. Nonetheless, the dominant languages
> and cultures in the Western Hemisphere are
> European, not native.

Culture moves around in different ways than people do. Like, to the extent that Iceland (settled by the Norse as they were getting chased out of Ireland) is mostly populated with folks of Irish blood (they'd been marrying locals for generations, and were mostly local when they got run off).

TGirsch said...

Did you ever get around to seeing/reviewing Zombieland?

TGirsch said...

P.S. This was the best part of the review, as far as I'm concerned:

Don’t assume that I’m an elitist snob who normally prefers serious movies that delve into the human condition and were made in France. I avoid such movies like the plague. I insist on escape.

David said...

We seem to have similar escapist taste in movies.

I did see Zombieland. I didn't review it. Probably should have. It was fun, although I didn't think it came up to the level of Shaun of the Dead.

For the most part, we've been saving our scarce pennies by going to the cheap theaters, where movies show up after they've left the major chains. By then, there doesn't seem to be any point in reviewing them. We saw Avatar in a regular theater because we wanted an escape (which we wrongly assumed Av would provide) and because we wanted to see it on a bigger screen.

TGirsch said...

I don't think comparing Zombieland to Shaun of the Dead is really a fair comparison at all. They're two completely different kinds of movies. They have zombies in common, but that's about it. It'd be like comparing The Life of Brian to The 40-Year-Old Virgin, in that both are "comedies," but that's ALL they have in common. One's highbrow and the other is lowbrow.

TGirsch said...

And the secret cameo in Zombieland was fantastic.

David said...

So you really liked Zombieland, eh? :)

Emily Goodin said...

Oh, David, I'm so sad to read your review. I was really hoping to like the movie, if only a little, but I know I won't because these are exactly the sorts of things I also notice when watching a movie. But, I do still plan to see it in Real-D with my sons, just so they have have the experience of watching *something* in 3D. I'll have to occupy myself with observations such as, "Gee, that motion capture camera really did a good job of capturing Sigourney Weaver's eyebrow movement." I hope I can at *least* say that. :-)

David said...

Well, sqadzillions of people disagree with me, so there's a good chance that you will, too.

I'll be interested in your reaction.

TGirsch said...


I did genuinely enjoy Zombieland, as it was exactly what I needed at the time I saw it. If pushed, I'd actually agree that Shaun of the Dead is a better movie, but after I saw it (advance screening), everyone was asking me how it compared, and I'd tell them that it's not a fair comparison, because they really are nothing alike.

Also, if you don't like dry British humor, which a lot of people don't, then you're not going to care much for Shaun. I like it, and loved Shaun. They're just very, very different.

[*grabs LP* "No, not that one! That's a good one!" ]

TGirsch said...

This post suggests a blog meme / list: Movies you expected to love but hated, and movies you expected to hate but loved.

David said...

I could have done that back in the days when we went to a lot of movies. We went to different types of movies, too. My tastes have narrowed a lot. (Or I've become much more aggressive about asserting them.)

But blogs didn't exist then. Or the World Wide Web. Or PCs. We did have typewriters.

TGirsch said...

As long as they had a place for you to tie up your horse outside the cinema. :)

I don't go to many movies, either. If I see three in the theater in a year, that's a lot. (Last three? Zombieland, (500) Days of Summer, and Slumdog Millionaire -- Surprisingly, I liked them all. Whoops, I missed one: Disney's Earth, which was terrible, speaking of wanting/expecting to like something and hating it.)

David said...

I do watch a lot of movies on cable. No doubt I miss the full visual effect in some cases, but if it's a comedy that doesn't matter.

Very often, I decide that I'm glad I missed the movie in theater. E.g., 300, which I thought was really an embarrassment.

Sometimes it's the opposite - Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Walk Hard. Those were both a hoot. But watching them on our wide-screen TV in high definition was good enough.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen Avatar, yet, and the things you noticed are likely not things I'd have noticed. I will NOW, of course.

I'll be interested to know what you think of Sherlock Holmes, if you plan to see it, and whether it fits with your expectations. I was disappointed.

David said...

We're going to see Sherlock Holmes in about an hour.

In what way(s) did it disappoint you?

Anonymous said...

I can't judge the flick fairly because it was my first 3D experience (and I don't think they overused the effect). I spoke with three teenagers in advance, and they all agreed that it was visually satisfying. But their assessments of the story-telling ranged from "pretty bad" to "horrible." My eyes were pleased, and I laughed hardest when the Jar-head with the jar-lid threads casually continued attacking our hero while his shoulder burned. He didn't even glance at the flames.

Emily Goodin said...

I saw it today, in IMAX 3D. Oh, David and Leonore. I think you were victims of a crime, because it's a crime that this film was released in the 2D format. The story is flat, the characters are flat, and yes the feet are flat, but the 3D effect added enough "depth" (ha) so that I could enjoy the movie. It NEEDS to be viewed in 3D. (Well, it doesn't "need" to be viewed at all - as a movie it's a throwaway - but for me and my teenage boys it was worthwhile.)

David said...

So 2D exposes the flaws that 3D disguises? :)

TGirsch said...

That wouldn't surprise me, actually. It seems counter-intuitive to me, be there are a lot of shots that look great on the big screen yet somehow manage to look pretty cheesy on a regular TV -- I'd expect the larger format to hurt rather than help, but in many cases, it's not so. (I remember a lot of the CG shots in Titanic being this way, for example.)

Travis Erwin said...

My wife is dying to see Avatar but so far I've managed to fight her off.

David said...

Sometimes it's best to give in. Also, then she's obligated to with you to a movie where stuff gets blowed up real good.

Which happens in Avatar, too, but not in a way I found exciting.

Anonymous said...

When the big tree fell, surely the Lorax wept.

David said...

It was heartbreaking, I tell ya!

But on the other hand, once the tree had fallen, there was no reason not to go ahead and mine there.

Anonymous said...

David - (re: "In what way did it disappoint you?") -

I expected a story that was more clever, and a little less light and airy. I knew it would be humorous from the previews, but I'd hoped - considering the cast and having Sherlock Holmes to work with - it would have been more like The Thomas Crown Affair and less like Get Smart.

Anonymous said...

uh... their teeth aren't flat lines of molars like a cows.. so it'd be dumb if they were vegetarians with fangs like that. even though I didn't see them eating any meat.. but the only scene that shows any alien/beast shake down like you're describing was that warrior princess sayin 'sorry for having to kill you now' when the protagonist was being attacked by those things. it was defensive, not for food. and the 'herbivores' were attacking the protagonist (for food) that makes them carnivores. and the big tree has steps and chambers stuck into it. they don't need claws long monkey toes. obviously the aliens were on a similar evolutionary path as humans which, for the sake of storytelling, helps us relate to them better. Also, their culture should be believable enough being based closely to the native americans who also asked for forgiveness from beasts when they had to kill (and eat) so even if the aliens were carnivorous as well it's occured in reality i don't see why you think it's not believable.. anyway the movie was obviously about respect for all life even if blind idealism doesn't generate the same kind of over the top super ending... i think the message would have been just as strong if the protagonist ended up in jail back on earth i doubt he'd regret anything.. maybe would be disillusioned if the alien's planet ended up destroyed after his best efforts but seriously after the big tree went down i saw enough of reality and just wanted to see some disrespectful interlopers get their asses handed to them. i don't care that they're human, the antagonists were being depicted as inhuman as we come

Anonymous said...

Keep on posting such themes. I love to read articles like that. Just add more pics :)

Anonymous said...

I found your Avatar review to be overly cynical and nitpicky.

Looked at through your eyes, all the good Star Wars movies would suck too, and in many of the same ways.

Not saying you don't have well-thought out reasons for your observations, and you're obviously a smart guy, but I think you miss the point with movies like these.

If you watch them with a cynic's eye, you won't ever enjoy them. And you'll be right, in a way, but you'll also be missing something too.

Kinda reminds me of certain movie critics, like Richard Roeper, who are dismissive of entire films for arbitrary reasons, and thus, just can't get into them. Sigh. I mean, who really frikkin' CARES about the N'avi's feet? You and nobody, that's who.

Yeah, you say you're not that guy, but, from your review, well, yeah, you kinda are.


David said...

Star Wars did suck. Mightily.

My wife and I went to the first Star Wars movie looking just for fun escape, nothing else. It didn't deliver.

It's all a matter of the willing suspension of disbelief. The movie viewer goes in wanting to escape into the movie and is willing to accept a lot of things in order to enjoy the experience. But if the movie doesn't hold up its end of the bargain, by making the make-believe sufficiently believable, then the illusion breaks.

Cynicism and nit picking have nothing to do with it. Naturally, the point at which the illusion breaks varies from one viewer to another.