Avatar (no spoilers)

Michael Dorosh

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I cracked on Scott Tortorice a bit in the Invictus thread for being "right wing" and I don't normally have this reaction to films. I think it is great that movies can be used to highlight current social issues. Or past ones - the plight of the Tuskegee airmen, for example. The Holocaust. I don't even mind "heavy-handed" emotional overtones - i.e. the American flag in Saving Private Ryan used to bookend the movie. I'm a sucker for that stuff.

But Avatar is so ridiculously and obviously overblown, I was really embarrassed to be sitting in the theatre, and puzzled at the high reviews. But I shouldn't have been, since they came from what I perceive to be left-leaning writers.

I should note that in the last two days, I sat through Valkyrie three complete times - once on its own, and once for each commentary track; I've now experienced both commentaries at least twice. Valkyrie and Avatar are polar opposites; one is a historical thriller based on fact, the other a fictional fantasy piece. One is almost entirely CGI, the other had limited use of effects shots (every aircraft, for example, was real - a rarity in World War II movies today).

What struck me from the commentary track was that there was only one brief scene in which there was an obvious "villain-moment" in Valkyrie. Hitler wasn't the villain of the piece, either. The writers (who were incredibly knowledgeable and brilliant, which came through in their commentary) noted that there was no overt way to make Hitler look like a villain to anyone that didn't know that fact already. His speeches were almost always about prosperity and peace. He committed no overt acts. He never killed anyone personally. He didn't sign any orders, or visit death camps, or lead execution squads. And so in Valkyrie, you have a quality of which apparently Mr. Cameron is not possessed - subtlety. The only "mustachio-twirling" moment, as the writers called it, was when one of the signal sergeants in Berlin tells his officer he needs to make a choice who to support -Stauffenberg of the Wolf's Lair. He makes his choice to cut off communications from Stauffenberg - and the sergeant smiles. That's it. That's the moment of villainy.

Avatar, of course, has scenery chewing galore, or would have if not for the excellent actors. Stephen Lang is one of my favourites since seeing him in the Civil War movies, and he is certainly no over-actor. But the writing does him no great service, ditto Giovanni Ribisi, another familiar face from SPR.

My biggest beef with all these movies - and I may be channeling Scott here - is that Hollywood almost always dumps on religion because they don't understand it, up until the point it can serve a story in some hokey way. If some half-naked "savages" can be made into sympathetic characters, then religion suddenly becomes real, usually has some scientific grounds made to 'legitimize' it (in this one, it is electromagnetic impulses connecting the trees), and the people using technology are suddenly the stupid ones - who naturally have no religion of their own. I guess the Catholics, Jews and Muslims are stupid because they can't find a "scientific" basis for their religious beliefs. Like faith alone for its own sake is not good enough. According to Cameron, you have to be able to talk to the trees and cute animals, or else religion just doesn't cut it.

But I also don't understand the movies in which we're supposed to root for cultures who reject modernization; the message was so heavy handed it just made me angry more than anything. Connect the dots - technology bad, technology ruin Earth, therefore we need to root for blue people who prefer to live in trees and sleep in hammocks. Personally, I like living in a house and having a computer, and watching TV, and a spring mattress, and a gas-fired furnace, and a car with internal combustion engine to take me interesting places, and going to the movies and watching far-fetched stuff that people like Cameron dream up. At least the 3D sequences were cool - at least, the indoor stuff; the outdoor sequences still don't seem right.

There might have been a good story in here somewhere if Cameron hadn't decided to beat us over the head with an environmental story, with bad guys with razor thin motivations, no ambiguity whatsoever. Ebert compared the movie to Star Wars and George Lucas; his comparison was to the impact the film will have; I think the real comparison is in how childish their writing is. All they need is for Stephen Lang to wear a black hood and a cape in the inevitable money-grabbing sequel.

Far more interesting themes would have been the notion that Stephen Lang was there to actually help the natives, not blindly murder and steal from them, or perhaps the notion that religion and faith are real and legitimate and meaningful without being able to 'prove' the existence of God through scientific means. Sometimes sworn enemies even believe in the same gods - talk about moral ambiguity. I can't buy into a notion that people who make multi-million dollar technology are always of necessity amoral idiots while people sleeping on rocks and eating raw hand-killed food are somehow geniuses with absolutely perfect moral centres. I guess that's why they call it fantasy. By the end, I was cheering for the guys in the helicopters, not because I approved of what they were doing, but because I wanted it to be over with that much more quickly.
 
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Scott Tortorice

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I have been consistently amused by people (from critics to people on the street) who describe Cameron's Avatar as a 'fantasy' rather than a science fiction movie. This, of course, is accurate as Avatar has far less in common with sci-fi themes than it does with a fantasy motif. I find this ironic since Avatar is supposed be Cameron's first effort to "save sci-fi."

Hence the reason why Avatar will never be more than a rental to me.

Good review, Mike. I especially enjoyed the spot-on take on religious themes and Hollywood.
 

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I saw Avatar last night and it was absolutely amazing. If you listen or read anything bad about Avatar movie, they all are wrong. Besides the visual effects being the best I have ever seen till now. With the realism and a compelling plot, I got hooked immediately. If you haven't seen it, you should watch it some day.
 

Dr Zaius

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I have a lot to say about Avatar, but don't have the time to say it right now. I will say Michael isn't far off in his analysis.
 
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I have a lot to say about Avatar, but don't have the time to say it right now. I will say Michael isn't far off in his analysis.
I would go farther than Mr. Dorosh. Even the so-called "strength" of the movie, the SFX, disappoint. The best CGI in the world can't save shitty art direction. It's like saying, "I have the best ever velvet Elvis painting." Many years after this abortion of a film has been forgotten, people will still be studying H.R. Giger.

Avatar is the Titanic of big-budget sci-fi films, and I mean this in the worst way possible.
 

Michael Dorosh

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I just don't get the appeal of putting buzzing insects in the jungle in 3-D. Talk about annoying! I can't wait for smellovision and the first director who thinks filming a movie about a concentration camp using that wonderful new technology is a great idea.
 

Scott Tortorice

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I would go farther than Mr. Dorosh. Even the so-called "strength" of the movie, the SFX, disappoint. The best CGI in the world can't save shitty art direction. It's like saying, "I have the best ever velvet Elvis painting."
We have a winner for the best summation of Avatar! :laugh:
 

Michael Dorosh

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Rethinking my comparison of Avatar and Valkyrie, you know what the problem may be?

I just watched DOWNFALL again this weekend, and watched the "making of" featurette again. You couldn't make a movie in which Hitler is portrayed as human in 1946, or even 1966. The events were too close.

This may be Cameron's problem, too.

Essentially, he's doing what they used to do on Star Trek - take current events and disguise them with 'science-fiction'. Roddenberry did it with a hopeful message, though. And possibly a smidge more subtlety. Even when Roddenberry left the scene, a movie like Star Trek VI could still use "sci-fi" to comment on contemporary issues with somethink like more authority than Cameron.

My point here is that maybe it is "too soon" to be commenting on global warming/ecological disasters/Iraq etc. by way of thinly disguised allegory. Not everyone is convinced that humans are really dragging our planet down to ruin, for one thing, and the jury is far from out regarding the handling of the war on terror - the last attack over Christmas is an interesting new development. We probably won't really know what it means for a decade or so. If we can't yet put the "real" events into perspective yet, it's probably a bit too soon to be letting someone like Cameron step in and tell us what we "should" be thinking about them via fiction.

I mean - that's Michael Moore's job.
 

Scott Tortorice

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National Reviews's humorous review of Avatar:

Avatar

Later, Neytiri watches approvingly as Jake goes through the ritual that accompanies killing for food. “I see you, brother,” Jake says as he delivers the final blow, “and I thank you. Your spirit will depart, and your body stay here to become part of the People.”

Sorry to put you through that, but there’s really no way to describe just how inane this dialogue is....
Conclusion:

Avatar is a perplexing mix of glorious method and crummy material, and it left me wondering why, in the hands of one artist, a familiar tale can move us even more profoundly because of those earlier links, and we call it a “classic” — while in the hands of another artist it seems derivative and stale.
The standard review at this point: 'lousy story, but you've got to see those amazing FX!' I wonder if movie critics realize that every time they drink deeply from the FX cup, they are moving closer to their own doom? When movies become a strictly visual experience (i.e., no plot worth mentioning), will we even need critics at that point?
 
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The standard review at this point: 'lousy story, but you've got to see those amazing FX!' I wonder if movie critics realize that every time they drink deeply from the FX cup, they are moving closer to their own doom? When movies become a strictly visual experience (i.e., no plot worth mentioning), will we even need critics at that point?

At this point, I see it as a measure of minimal competency. That is, no one watches a comptent (if fairly undistinguished) director or DP like Jack Hill or Andrew McLaglen and says, "what a fabulous zoom!" It's a given.

Praising SFX is like praising the marketing department, at this point. As I said, the best SFX in the world can't save crappy art direction. Ironically, most of the big SFX blockbusters of the CGI era would have benefitted tremendously from competent art direction.
 

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I'd give it a 6 out of 10. And that's just for the visuals. The story, writing, acting, and directing sucked.
 
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