Posted tagged ‘Joseph Campbell’

Why Avatar Is an Over-Rated Pile of Dung

January 22, 2010

As I said in my last postAvatar has earned the dubious distinction of becoming a part of my “Over-Rated Pile of Dung” series even before it has left theaters for the first time.  This represents a concession: Avatar will go down as a classic.  Just writing that made me pull out half my hair (I’m saving the other half for when Avatar wins the Academy Award for Best Picture).  So, I’m preemptively going to explain why it doesn’t deserve to be a classic and should, instead, be permanently stricken from pop-culture.

Since I reviewed Avatar so recently, I don’t want to just repeat the critiques that I outlined there, so I’m going to take a slightly different approach.  I’m going to humor all of the idiots out there (Steven Spielberg among them) who have favorably compared Avatar to Star Wars.  So, let’s look at the similarities that the two films share – I’ll start with the praise:

1.  Ground breaking special effects – This is the one place that I will say Avatar shines, although even then it’s largely over-rated.  I will admit that the technology that allowed James Cameron to capture the performances of living actors and then transpose those performances onto CGI characters was original and impressive (whether or not any of those performances were worth capturing is another question).

What so many fans of Avatar seem to forget, though, is that James Cameron didn’t invent CGI or 3-D film-making.  Sure, he might have pushed the limits of what CGI had done before, but so has just about every major CGI movie of the past decade or so.  And 3D movies have been around for decades.  In both of these regards Avatar just seems like an incremental step rather than a paradigm shift.  The special effects in Star Wars changed the way movies were made.  The special effects in Avatar will do nothing of the sort.

2.  Original Aesthetics – It’s easy to forget since we’ve seen so many copies of it in the past thirty years, but Star Wars‘ “used universe” look was completely original back in 1977.  We hadn’t seen anything like it.

The colorful jungles of Avatar?  Nothing new.  The Jungle Book, Pocahontas, the Star Wars prequels, heck, last summer’s Up all used some variation of bright saturated colors in natural surroundings to try to give a simultaneously familiar and exotic look.  The overall color palate was eye-catching, sure, but so is the color pallet of Lady Gaga’s wardrobe, that doesn’t mean I want to stare at it for three hours.

3.  Imagination – Wookies, TIE-Fighters, Lightsabers, R2-D2, Jawas – Star Wars was full of iconic characters, vehicles, and creatures.  Sure, George Lucas has been grasping at straws ever since but, for a brief period in the late 70s and early 80s, his mind seemed to be bursting with completely original ideas that are still instantly recognizable as belonging to the Star Wars universe all these years later.

Avatar does nothing but recycle old ideas.  Sure, the creatures that the Navi ride have six legs and nostrils in their necks, but at their core they’re still just horses.  The flying creatures are just pterodactyles with an extra set of wings.  The giant land creatures that run crashing through the jungle are just overgrown bulls with hammer-head shark noses.  And if 18th century caricatures of Native Americans ever somehow mated with Smurfs, and someone pumped the resulting love-children full of growth hormone, the Navi just might be the result.  Cameron’s imagination is so used up that he even recycles the mechanical suit that Ripley uses to fight the alien in Cameron’s own Aliens.  That’s right, he’s had twenty five years to come up with something new but, apparently, was too busy giving Celine Dion an excuse to make overly-sentimental soundtracks to actually have an original idea.

4.  Politics – Okay, most of us don’t think of Star Wars as a political movie, but it did contain some simple political messages.  It’s a celebration of the power of the individual and the inner self over a mechanized society aiming for homogeneity (meaning that, thirty years later, we could still learn something from Star Wars).  Sure, as a message it’s pretty simple.  But that’s what makes it effective and enduring – Lucas realized that the archetypal, pulp entertainment aesthetic of his movie wasn’t conducive to complicated political interventions.  To try to force it would just be laughable.

Which is exactly what Avatar‘s politics are: utterly and completely laughable.  Big corporations are bad!  Oh no!  Everyone in the military (except the token woman) is evil!  Oh my!  Nature is good!  Hooray!  Science will save us!  Yippee!  Colonization is dastardly!  Oh dear!  When Cameron incorporated lines straight out of Dubya’s mouth I just cringed.  I’m sure there are plenty of pseudo-liberals who just gobbled that stuff up (most people in Hollywood, for instance), but its lack of sophistication and complexity ultimately fails to make any kind of meaningful political statement.

And, really, how could it?  The problems that we’re facing as a society are complex, detailed, and specific.  The simple black/white, good/evil dichotomies of Avatar just aren’t up to the task of engaging the current political moment any more than Star Wars was equipped to take on The Vietnam War or Watergate.  Lucas new this, and steered clear.  Cameron didn’t, and ended up insulting liberals and conservatives alike, not to mention Native Americans, who Cameron apparently still thinks are nothing more than nature loving noble-savages.

Of course, the similarities between Star Wars and Avatar go beyond the praise that people lavish upon them.  They also extend to some of the common critiques of the films.  Here are some examples:

1.  Predictability – It doesn’t take long for most audiences to figure out the basic narrative trajectory of both films.  Lucas, though, gets away with it because the predictability was part of the point.  He was consciously drawing on archetypal narratives following his discovery of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces.  Then, he combined that with his love of matinee serials like Flash Gordon.  The story was supposed to be predictable.  What kept Star Wars fresh and exciting was all of the imagination that I’ve already mentioned.  We’ve seen the hero’s journey before, but we’ve never seen that hero accompanied by a Wookie and a beeping three-legged trash can of a robot.

Star Wars also benefited from Lucas’ sense of pacing.  He knew that his narrative arc was familiar, so he kept things moving.  There’s some kind of action almost every ten minutes, but the action never lingers – the heroes get out of one scrape and then land in a new one.  Furthermore, he didn’t overstay his welcome – Star Wars clocks in at a very reasonable 120 minutes.

Avatar is almost three hours.  Cameron doesn’t keep things moving.  He lingers.  And lingers.  And lingers.  It isn’t just that we know how the whole story is going to end, we know how individual scenes are going to end, sometimes twenty to thirty minutes before they finally, mercifully come to a close.

But the reason that we know how they’ll end has nothing to do with an homage to classic pulp narratives or to Cameron’s understanding of archetypal figures.  We know how they’ll end because James Fenimore Cooper wrote this story two hundred years ago.  Then Kevin Costner made a movie out of it in 1990.  Then Disney turned it into a cartoon in 1995 (and got a lot of criticism for their portrayal of Native Americans, I might add).  This recurring noble-savage/Pocahontas story isn’t grounded in archetypes that have been around as long as the act of storytelling, it’s grounded in racism that’s been around since the establishment of our country.  As such, this isn’t a narrative that needs to be retold any more than it’s a narrative that takes three hours to tell.

2.  Bad Dialog – Maybe this is why Cameron chose to quote Dubyah – the woodenness of the former President’s speeches fits seamlessly with the woodenness of Cameron’s script.  On this point, though, I will admit that Star Wars isn’t any better.  The dialog in Star Wars is often quite bad.  So congrats to Avatar, it finally matched Star Wars in something.

3.  Bad Acting – Again, congrats to Avatar, it is the equal of Star Wars on this point as well.  That being said, Harrison Ford brings a natural charisma to his role and Alec Guiness was superb as always.  The closest thing Avatar can boast is Sigourney Weaver, who gives it an honest effort but doesn’t have enough screen time (and when she does, she usually has to fight through a CGI Smurf suit) to carry what is otherwise a horrible collection of acting talent.  Carrie Fisher could blame it on drugs – I’m waiting to find out what the cast of Avatar will use as an excuse.

So that about does it.  Avatar resembles Star Wars in only the worst ways.  Ironically, Star Wars was a low-budget film, costing roughly 10 million dollars, whereas Avatar had a bloated (and wasted) 280 million dollar price tag.  While Lucas made film history through ingenuity and creativity, Cameron made the most technologically advanced film ever by simply buying the most advanced technology.  Apparently he also bought a few Golden Globes and, probably, some Academy Awards to boot.  None of this, though, will change the fact that Avatar is an Over-Rated Pile of Dung.