Monday, December 28, 2009

Not The 'Last Airbender' One, But The Other One

I saw Avatar yesterday afternoon, and while visually it was absolutely breathtaking, and I appreciate the film's (albeit preachy and simplistic) message, unfortunately there was nothing original about the characters or plot: I guarantee that you have seen every character in this film before, and a child could have written the outline of the story.

The two modestly novel ideas that film possessed did not justify the film's three hour runtime. The clownish 'villains' uttered painfully cliche dialog, and the central treasure of the alien world was called "unobtainium." WTF? My fiancee quipped that it was probably a placeholder name that was never replaced, and that as movies are akin to software development projects, one could label that absurdity "going live with a known defect."

One other comment: my experience of the film was also hindered by the 3D glasses, which were extremely heavy and bulky and pressed my eyeglasses down upon the bridge of my nose until I had a headache. I think that was unnecessary.

I can't beat down this movie too much, though. It was a spectacle of entertainment. And as I mentioned earlier, visually, it is a never-ending feast. When I was a boy I used to gaze wistfully at Roger Dean's fantasy art for hours, immersing myself in his fantastic worlds. Apparently James Cameron, and the art designers for the film, had a passion for his groundbreaking art as well - this movie is his art realized in a motion picture. Sitting in the theater with my friends as the credits rolled, I wondered out loud whether Dean had worked on the film. He did not, but I just looked at Roger Dean's personal website, and it appears that I'm not the only one who spotted the rather striking similarities between the film and his work. Not sure what to say about that.

Anyway...

9 comments:

J G-W said...

Sigourney Weaver's character was a cross between Gorillas in the Mist and Alien. But I disagree with your assessment of the main character. I thought he was very interesting -- and definitely not a run-of-the-mill action hero.

I agree that the plot was so predictable, you felt like you already knew the story.

But I felt like it was extremely well executed. I'm very much of the "there's nothing new under the sun" school. I get tired, sometimes, of directors trying too hard to be original. I think it's perfectly OK to take an archtypal story line and just do it extremely well. And I think that's what James Cameron did... We loved the movie, unobtainium and all!

Knight of Nothing said...

The main character was Lt. Dunbar from Dances with Wolves crossed with the Charlie Sheen character from Platoon. The whole story might have been dubbed "Dances with Aliens."

I don't disagree with the idea that it's OK to take an archetypal story and do it well. Heck, that's all anyone can do these days. Unfortunately, I feel that in this case the only thing that was done well was the visuals.

I think James Cameron has made some great films: Aliens, Terminator, T2, even Abyss. Each of these are stock genre films that nevertheless portray colorful characters with a spark of life and originality. I guess I was hoping for more memorable (and likable) characters.

J G-W said...

Wow, really? You didn't like the characters in Avatar? I LOVED them! For me, the way I strongly identified with almost all of the characters in the story is what made the movie so compelling to me that I've already seen it twice, and may go see it a third time while it's still in the theaters.

I even identified somewhat with the asshole-in-chief of the film, Colonel Miles Quaritch.

But I especially loved the main character Jake Sully. Or maybe I loved the journey that he takes, from naiveté mixed with a certain amount of arrogance, to profound respect and love for an alien culture and people. His faults as a character make him all the more endearing as he makes that journey... I could watch the movie again and again, just for that.

I also loved the supporting characters, especially the Grace Augustine character played by Sigourney Weaver. Actually, heck, put Sigourney Weaver in any movie and I'll go back to see it again and again just for her. I LOVED her in this movie...

I guess it just goes to show that two different people can see the same movie and see completely different things in it...

J G-W said...

BTW... Speaking of Dances with Wolves, I hated that movie and thought it was terrible. That movie was the first of many awful Kevin Costner films that made me realize, I just don't like Kevin Costner. Field of Dreams made me cry when I first saw it in theaters, but I haven't cared for a single Kevin Costner film since then.

I actually did think of Dances with Wolves when I saw this one, and remember consciously thinking that James Cameron did that basic storyline so much better in Avatar...

J G-W said...

I have one final, stream-of-consciousness thought, tripped by the Kevin Costner association...

No Way Out. Oh my gosh. Possibly the worst film of all time.

Knight of Nothing said...

I'll never go to bat for Kevin Costner, because he's made and been in so many terrible movies, but I think Dances with Wolves was a great movie; so much more satisfying than Avatar for me. I had no idea you held such a low opinion of it. Interesting...

J G-W said...

Interesting... You actually liked Dances. That blows one of my theories about why you disliked Avatar.

One of the things I disliked about Dances with Wolves was the trope of the white guy going in and saving the Indians.

Avatar was different... More archetypal. Have you read The Golden Bough? A classic mythic trope is notion of the alien hero... The whole Superman genre falls within that trope. I saw Avatar drawing more on that mythology than on Dances with Wolves. (Thus, for instance, the fact that Jake Sully is "chosen" by the goddess Eywa...)

In fact, part of the enjoyment factor for me in Avatar was grooving on the abundant mythological/theological symbolism in the film, just one example of which I blogged on here.

I guess I loved Battlestar Galactica right up to the end for the same reasons, while you and Sean stopped loving it sometime after the second season...

Knight of Nothing said...

Lt. Dunbar didn't "save" the Indians, he succeeded only in helping to forestall the inevitable, and he did this by rendering actual aid to the tribe in the form of weapons. And significantly, it was Chief Ten Bears who ultimately led his tribe out of danger, not Dunbar.

Contrast that to Sully: the white man who really does do it all. Sully's victory is complete; it was he who rallied all the tribes of Pandora, though he brought no actual aid. He tamed the "untame-able" dragon, and he unlocked the power of the whole planet, while the simple natives basically sat by in awe, reduced to the role of superstitious, primitive warriors in need of an foreign/alien leader.

Most distressingly, though, I felt that Sully's change of heart lacked the authenticity and gravity of a mythical hero's transformation. Unlike you, I didn't find his transformation very convincing or profound. He wasn't against bulldozing the Hometree, just against doing it while the Pandorans were there.

Maybe if the distress of Earth had been made more apparent, or the characters of the colonel or the corporate manager had been less repugnant, his transformation would have resonated more with me. In light of this last point, one might also compare Avatar unfavorably with Princess Mononoke.

J G-W said...

I have to admit, I only saw Dances with Wolves once, and it was a long time ago (when it was in the theater), so my memory of the details of the story are a bit hazy. All I remember was coming away with the feeling that the movie was all about Costner, and not enough about the Lakota people, and that's what left enough of an unfavorable impression in my mouth that I never went back for seconds.

As for Jake Sully's transformation...

There's a key moment in the film when Col. Quaritch tries to reel him back in, and announces to him that he's finalized arrangements for Sully to get his "real legs" back. They'll give him the desire of his heart -- the ability to walk normally again and have a fully functioning human body.

So Sully can choose between living a normal, fully functioning healthy life as a human, or he can choose to complete the ritual that will make him a full member of the Omaticaya tribe. He chooses the Omaticaya way.

Ultimately, that becomes an irrevocable choice. He will either die as a human traitor or live as an Omaticaya hero, but there's no going back to a nice, safe, familiar human life on Earth. At the end of the movie, he not only abandons the human way of life, but he abandons his human body in favor of a Navi body. I'm not sure how much more "real" or complete a transformation could have been portrayed in the film.

Other human characters make similar choices... And end up dying for the Navi people (like Grace Augustine and Trudy -- the pilot who helps Jake and the others).

I hear your criticism about the movie portraying a white guy coming in and saving the planet Pandora, when the natives couldn't seem to save themselves. But the movie actually portrays the native people of Navi doing a lot to save themselves, and whatever power Jake Sully has to save the Navi people comes from Navi spirituality and the Navi way...

Again, there is a key moment in the film when Jake is first brought to Hometree, and Etukayan is trying to decide whether to kill him. Ultimately they decide not to because the priestess Moat sees that his "heart" is good. Implicitly, the message is that it is not our outward appearance that determines who we are (not our race!) but our heart, our choices. If you choose to live or die for a people and a way of life, you have earned your right to be considered a part of that people.

Furthermore, another implicit message in the movie is not that the Navi needed white people to save them, but that the humans needed the Navi way in order to save themselves... Whites in the movie are portrayed as "aliens from a dead planet," a people who are spiritually dead, who have literally murdered their home world, and are trying to do the same thing to other planets... This isn't a film that glorifies whiteness or that implies that Native peoples or cultures need whites or anything whites have to offer.

In fact, isn't a key line from the movie the moment when Jake Sully says, "There's nothing that we have that they want"?

That's what I took from the movie anyway...

BTW... Speaking again of Dances with Wolves... Wes Studi, the actor who does the voice of the Omaticaya chief Etukayan was also in Dances as a Pawnee warrior... He's kind of typecast playing Indian badasses.