Posted tagged ‘Sigourney Weaver’

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.

Advertisements

Avatar – Review

December 19, 2009

Remember, I generally hate movies.

After watching Avatar, I’ve come to hate the form even more – it’s that bad.  This film is so invested in its own originality and grandeur that its complete lack of originality and grandeur become the only epic elements of what is supposed to be an epic film.

To begin with, the script is just awful.  If the worst lines that George Lucas ever wrote were to mate with the worst lines that Michael Bay ever wrote, the Avatar script would be their love-child.  It’s not quite Catwoman bad, but when that’s the best thing you can say for the writing then something’s seriously wrong.

The premise of the film is that humanity has discovered a planet rich in a valuable substance called “unobtainium.”  No, you didn’t read that wrong.  It’s called “unobtainium.”  The only trouble is that the natives, who are apparently one third cat, one third American Indian caricature, and one third giant Smurf, don’t want to let the humans mine for “unobtainium” (seriously, that really is its name – you can’t make this stuff up… unless you’re James Cameron) because doing so would ruin their sacred lands, especially their giant tree/home/temple.  Hoping (sort of) to get the natives to move to the next tree over through diplomacy rather than military force, the corporation sends a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake, into their midst in the form of an Avatar – a kind of biological machine that Jake operates through psychic remote-control – that looks like one of the natives.  Jake, though, quickly realizes that he’s on the wrong side of the conflict and eventually wants to protect the noble savages from the imperialistic company that hired him.

As you might have guessed by now, the film itself is nothing more than an avatar of sorts for the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of European settlers (although the film ocassionally mixes its metaphors with thinly-veiled references to Africa and Iraq).  And this is where the film starts to fall apart.  As a critique of imperialism the movie is incredibly simplistic, heavy-handed, and insulting to both its audience and its subject matter.

Cameron roots his depiction of the natives in just about every condescending, racist 18th century stereotype of the “noble savage” that he can find.  They are extremely devoted to their tribes, but suspicious of outsiders.  They have elaborate and physically dangerous rituals to mark the passage of young males into adulthood.  And, of course they’re deeply attuned to nature.  Literally.  The natives can actually plug their pony-tails into native species to form a kind of mind-meld.  No, I’m not kidding.  Rather than allowing any sort of cultural complexity in the native civilization, Cameron simply sets them up as a group of wise but simple primitives and, in doing so, demonstrates just how primitive the movie’s racial politics are.

Perhaps wanting to be fair, Cameron grounds his depictions of humans in equally simplistic sets of stereotypes.  The colony basically consists of three distinct groups.  First, there are the corporation’s representatives who worship the bottom line with as much devotion as the natives show for the trees.  Then there are the military types who only pause in their incessant blood-lust long enough to question each others’ manhood (except, of course, for the lone military woman, who realizes the error of her ways and joins the natives).  And, finally, there are the glorious scientists whose beneficent desire for knowledge eventually causes them to join the natives’ cause.  So, corporation/military = the bad guys, scientists/natives = the good guys.  It really is that simple.  Though Jake initially attempts to inhabit all three of these of groups, he eventually joins the scientists and commits himself to rescuing the natives.  Oh, and he mates with Pocahontas (or whatever the Chieftain’s daughter’s name happens to be).

The film’s investment in stereotype is, needless to say, a huge problem, and undermines any pseudo-progressive statements that the film might be trying to make.  But they also undermine the nuts and bolts of the film itself.  The film is, after all, supposed to be a sprawling three-hour-long “epic” full of originality and imagination.  But the stereotypes at its core are anything but original and imaginative so the film ends up feeling mired in a sense of tedious familiarity.

For instance, at one point Pocahontas (or whatever her name is) teaches Jake the ways of her people.  We’ve all seen this story before – he starts out clumsy, eventually learns to swing through the forest with ease, proves himself by mounting a wild beast, then makes out with Poca-what’s-her-name.  That’s it.  Sure, the “horses” have six legs and nostrils in their necks, the trees glow, and the native girl is blue, but ultimately this entire sequence could have been covered in a two-minute montage of familiar tropes.  Instead Cameron turns it into an hour-long repetition of old ideas hiding beneath new CGI techniques.

And so the movie goes.  Over and over again the film uses cutting-edge technology to rehash tired narratives and to put new skins on all-too-familiar stock characters.  The battle sequences are loud and full of giant explosions, but ultimately follow traditional patterns (bad guys attack, good guys retaliate and seem to be doing well, bad guys re-retaliate and all seems lost, some unexpected aid arrives and turns the tide culminating in a one-on-one showdown between the hero and antagonist).  Cameron could have told this entire story in about an hour (heck, I’ve basically told it in less than a thousand words).  Instead, he spreads it out over three of the most tedious hours that I’ve ever had to spend in a theater.

Sure, in the meantime, there are some impressive visuals.  Things glow, and whiz across the screen, and explode and stuff.  There are lots of colors and there’s lots of noise, too.  Sigourney Weaver’s performance is good, and most of the others are passable.  But none of this adds up to “epic.”  In fact, after a three hour movie and a large bottle of water the only epic experience I had at the theater involved a long trip to the bathroom when the movie was finally over.  And the time I spent in front of that urinal was far more satisfying than anything I saw on screen.