Monday, December 21, 2009

Avatar Review

Let’s start out simple:

Avatar is alright.

It is definitely not bad. It’s not great, of course, but it’s definitely not bad. It delivered exactly what I expected it to: Some very, very pretty visuals with some good action, more than a bit of corny dialogue and some ham-fisted story-telling, all of which was mired in what can only be described as one of the most worn-out of Tropes (The Noble Savage). That’s not to say that it’s not entertaining, mind you, it is, at times very much so, but what it is not, is innovative, or all that original. Well… besides the presentation, that is. That is amazing, frankly, so let me amend my initial statement:

Avatar is alright, but if you’re going to go… then you have to see it in 3-D IMAX only, because honestly, anything less is going to make the film much, much less than alright.

Yesterday after the movie, while shuffling along with the slow tide of the exiting crowd, I was trying to figure out what rating I’d assign the film, something on a scale of one to ten to accurately gauge my feelings, and maybe include a few movies to reference that I felt might best illustrate those feelings. It was a slippery question.

See, you have to understand, so let me be clear here: I did NOT hate the film.

It was fine, it was perfectly alright, it just wasn’t great… at all. Beautiful, yes, stunning, absolutely. Viewing the film in 3_D IMAX was, at times… intoxicating, it was so good. But the film itself was most definitely NOT great. Post showing, I felt ambivalent about it almost immediately. Right now, as I write this, the memories of it break apart in my mind like smoke and swirl away. I know I saw it, but I’m at a loss for even a few iconic moments to grab onto.

So, I’ve mulled it over in the time since then, and now finally, my rating: Avatar is a good strong seven and a half. A good, strong seven and a half. That’s my ranking, but it worries at me a little to assign that number. It feels both too generous and yet, too stingy at the same time.

The presentation was fantastic, eye-popping even. Totally worth the money and the time. It was light-hearted and fun, honestly, it was… I don’t hate it at all. I barely rolled my eyes in disgust while watching. No, it’s just... the story itself was—for the most part—hacky. It was a little over wrought, it was filled with clichés and a ton of extremely familiar Sci-fi designs, not to mention more than a few tired out old tropes, some of which were borderline offensive and should definitely be retired at this point, and foreshadowing was used with all the subtlety of a flashing neon sign smashed repeatedly into your face.

“Hey, what’s that thing?”
“Oh, that’s a flying dragon skull… you know, the thing that just attacked you…”
“Oh yeah, I remember. That was exciting.”
“It was.”
“Is it the same one?”
“The same one that attacked you?”
“No, we just left it… we just got here… that’s a skull… forget it. No, see, that’s the one my Grandfather rode.”
“Oh yeah, you know how most of us ride those little dragons?”
“Well, he rode one of the big ones.”
“I know. He used it to unite the clans during this big crisis… and then… we apparently killed it and ate it afterwards…I guess that’s why we have the skull… huh… I guess, you know… crisis averted, right? Everyone was probably hungry…”
“I bet.”
“I don’t know why I’m even telling you this, honestly, because it’s only happened like five times in our entire history of ever.”
“What? Riding a big dragon?”
“Wow, five times? That is rare.”
“It totally is. So, you’ll probably never see it happen.”
“Probably not. That’s a shame… Well, enough dilly-dallying, let’s get back to our current huge crisis…”
“I suppose.. too bad my gramps isn’t here now, huh?”
“Yeah, we could totally use him… or someone like him…”

You will never guess what happens in the third act, people, not in a million-billion years… never. Let me assure you, I totally did not see it coming.

Anyway, in case you don’t know, Avatar is the story of mighty whitey and recent cripple Jake Sully, a former marine and the only man capable of saving the noble, yet simple and helpless indigenous savages: The Cat People (Me-Yow!) from some Mean Suits, and their Army man dogs-of-war lackeys, all of whom want nothing more than strip-mines as far as the eye can see… because they’re evil! Turns out, Scully is like their savior and shit. He goes blue and thinks they’re the poo, mostly because the main girl cat only wears a thong. Also, you know what? All the Cat People’s lovely-dovey, planet-and-people-as-one-fiddle-faddle, their be-good-to-nature simpleton native lifestyle stuff? They totally know what they are talking about! Shocker, right? Despite all of our technology and science… it turns out, these simple-minded, mud-dwelling savages with their feathers and their chanting and their ooga-booga-ing… they’re the ones who actually see the truth about the world… and they see it truthfully… with magic and stuff… for reals. And that includes not wearing any pants or shirts (but don’t worry, ladies, you’ll have feather necklaces to cover your nipples… those Navi know double side tape, believe me), unless of course, you’re going into battle, then you wear these little crochet tops, which look fun. Also, animals are our friends and Corporations and the Military? Evil as shit.

I kid, I kid. (Not really.) It was alright. Really, it was. You know, I think if I had been 12, I would have been more blown away by it… No, no, the 12 year old me would have been only moderately impressed too. Maybe 8… if I had been 8, I would have been blown away. Maybe blown away is too strong a phrase. I would have been... somewhat more impressed. But not really, actually, I fully and proudly admit to hating Alien species and have said on more than one occasion: If life was Star War, I would totally join the Empire and subjugate the fuck out of all those freaky little bastards and their stupid single climate themed planets… starting with Naboo… but I digress. Long story short? I was entertained somewhat for the two hours and forty minutes of 3-D IMAX, but when I walked out, I was underwhelmed.

And I wasn’t the only one. Geeks and non-geeks all around me were all the same, up and down the line, to varying degrees. “Awesome looking, but familiar… and a little dull in the middle. “

I think that’s what bothered me the most, too. 15 years, give or take? With budget estimates that top out at $500 million dollars? And yet, Dances with Wolves meets Dune, The Last Samurai, Fern Gully, Halo, and Thundar the Barbarian (Ee-Yah-Ee!) is the best you could come up with? I read a great line in a review somewhere that said (basically): “James Cameron only cares that his characters are three dimensional visually.”

And that was patently obvious on screen.

So would I go a second time?

Maybe, in a few months, at the 3-D IMAX again, but otherwise, no. No, I would not. I don’t plan on seeing this film “normal” ever. Without it’s amazing presentation, the film will be forced to rely solely upon it’s narrative and that will only take whatever good feelings I have toward this movie at the moment and snap them.

The true litmus test of this film will be next week. World-wide, it opened to 232 million dollars… which is impressive, but what will week two look like? I’m betting a ghost town, folks, because I honestly don’t feel like there is much to return to here.

Earlier I talked about ratings, a good solid seven and a half, I said, but I was also trying to figure out what other movies share those same feelings… At one point, I thought: Maybe it’s like Deep Rising or Soldier, bad, but good, and yet watchable, but that’s not right. I’ve watched those films multiple times. I’ll even seek them out sometimes. No, I think Avatar is eventually just going to disappear into the stacks of the video store for me, never to be looked for or really watched again, whereas a somewhat bloated, but sincere failure like Watchmen, obviously made from the same type of passion and love, I will buy. Hurm… a true conundrum. It’s nowhere near as bad as Transformers, certainly, but is it in the same bracket? Nothing but spectacle? Lacking a reason to return? All show and no go? Maybe…

There’s a kind of hysterical fever that seems to grip Cameron’s latest films. People rail about their greatness, they slaver and froth about T2 and True Lies and Titanic… or at least they did… at the time. T2 still seems to hold up somewhat, but it is very obviously a pale shadow to the original or to Aliens, even to the Abyss. But the others? Cheese. Major cheese. How many of you can even sit through Titanic at this point? Huh? And it won a billion fucking Oscars at the time. It’s insane to look back on and think about now. Titanic swept the Oscars! Titanic! It’s like there was a trick pulled on us all and now we just don’t talk about it anymore. Is that how time will treat Avatar? I’m pretty sure it’s how I will. I may be alone though, Rotten Tomatoes is running at 83% positive…

Beautiful, silly in a fun way, and with some great action pieces, but hobbled by clunky dialogue, cliché characters, and designs familiar to the point of appearing as direct knock-offs, Avatar is worth the 3-D experience… but hurry, because once that opportunity fades away, so will this film’s luster.

No Avatard,


David said...

I don't particularly disagree with anything you wrote. I'd probably give it an 8.5, but I'm definitely seeing it again, because you're right, it's not going to be the same to watch it at home.

I probably like it more as a technical preview than a movie, but it got me the same way that Jurrasic Park did (speaking of a lousy movie hung on special effects)

I actually still look back at Cameron's back catalog very affectionately, even the big boat. But, I'm doing it a little differently. I'm comparing to the other big-ass special effects driven movies, which aren't always my favorite, but I sure like them.

Yes, Avatar is definitely very derivative of other films, but dear god, at least it's derivative and not just the repurposing of some other book, comic book or another movie. He made a beautiful pretty good movie that is actually original property. Look at the top grossing movies of the year, and count the original properties...(because, let's face it, Cameron is pop entertainment...he's not competing with Scorcese or Lynch, he's competing with Michael Bay and fucking Twilight)

I like me some pop, especially when it's doing crazy stuff I've never seen before. And if it can do it without Shia The Beef, all the better.

Jon said...

I don't think I can say I "love " Titanic, but I still love T2 and True Lies, despite some very, very bad moments ("Why do you cry?"). So, I don't fault Cameron, I still believe in him. He has triumphed (relatively) where Lucas failed horriblly.

Although, I can't get with the original property claim, yes, it's technically true, but it is too dependant on other sources for me to be able to appluad it's originality.

It was amazing to look at in 3-D, no doubt there.

David said...

I think Lucas well and truly fucked me over, because you're totally right. The story was cliched, and the technology won me over.

And, yep, I actually physically winced at two or three lines. But, yeah, it was just so much better than the anal assault that was Phantom Menace, it seemed like the second coming. heh.

I'll still see it again, because I kept finding myself saying, "none of that shit is real. even the normal looking leaves blowing in the wind...none of that is real. That's insane."

Shawn Enderlin said...

sorry i missed the big party. i was wiped out from the Viral Assault. of course, TODAY i'm good to go...

and by the way: "If life was Star Wars, I would totally join the Empire and subjugate the fuck out of all those freaky little bastards and their stupid single climate themed planets."


Shawn Enderlin said...

and another thing - i have to wonder: what exactly IS the point of making a movie that only looks decent in the theater?

Take Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. It has that GREAT 3D sequence at the end where they have the big fight in the Ministry of Magic. It's wicked cool in 3D, but the couple of times i've watched at home on my LCD I always think of everything I'm missing.

Now take Avatar, where the ENTIRE FILM is that way. What's the point of buying the movie if it's just a pale shadow of what you saw in the theater? Especially if the story ain't all that.

Jon said...

I think it's an attempt to revitalize the theatre-going crowd. If you can only see the good version at the theatre, people aren't going to wait for the DVD to see it.

Anonymous said...

I feel like we were sharing a brain when we were watching the movie. I, too, had the "How do I feel about this movie?" feeling coming out of the theater.

I want to write about Avatar for my blog, but I wanted to avoid a review. Since I will be posting a link to your site, thanks for doing the heavy lifting and saying everything I would want to say way better than I could.

Jon said...

Yay! Welcome back, Scott Brown.