Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Big Deal

I finally managed to get around to see James Cameron's Avatar. In 3d no less. Here's my take on all aspects of this film and the various buzzes around it, film itself first:

Positive points- the visuals and production values. Obviously this is the aspect everyone is raving about and that even the most vehement critics have to concede. While I don't necessarily think this stuff is a total game-changer for all films that follow it does set some kind of new standard. Cameron spent a ton of money, used a lot of new technology (the virtual set camera, etc), and was a complete asshole being so meticulous... but it shows. Every dollar is pretty much right up there on the screen. CG effects are the overwhelming norm now, but most of the time, after all these years of use, I STILL get drawn out of the watching experience by obvious CG effects. There are well-done characters or creatures here and there... we all thought Gollum was the nads at the time, and the Hellboy movies are mostly seamless. But Avatar may be the first film I've seen where, at no time, did the CG effects ever knock me out of the immersion or require some time for me to get used to before I got immersed. They are really REALLY well done. In fact, my only visual-based complaint was for a zero-g effect right at the beginning of the film. And that might've been caused by this being the 3d version.

The 3d experience was really good too. There were a lot of 'right there in the cinema with you' moments, but there didn't seem to be anything that pandered to that effect. It was just part of the scene.

I also thought everyone was well cast and did a reasonable job with their roles. I've read some criticism of the acting and the fact that Cameron isn't an actor's director. Maybe I'm just oblivious to bad acting (Shatner fan, moi) but I didn't cringe at the performances any more than I did at the CG. I am probably a lot more critical of CG. Years of sucking up an endless stream of cult, genre, and B-movies has probably inured me to bad acting.

The movie is even fairly family friendly. I was a little surprised at this. There is some cussin'. And a love scene that happens off-camera. But most of the violence, though intense, is not graphic. Some of the past Cameron films have been key to 'mainstreaming' graphic violence or violent characters. We think nothing of letting our kids watch Aliens or the Terminator movies (well I don't let mine watch 'em, but you know what I mean), and even sell toys of them. There was a certain level of shoot-that-dude-in-the-face that we DID NOT let the kids see before these films were released (Die Hard is probably a player too). Avatar does not contain any of that. And now that I've seen the film, I can surmise that the decision was made because a) the story and film don't require that level of violence (or profanity or sex), and b) when you spend that much money you need to make sure as many people can go see it as possible! All this consideration and the movie is still generating shitloads of controversy.

Negative points- its Dances with Wolves (or the Last Samurai) in the future. It isn't just that it is LIKE those movies, it is those movies... story-wise. There is no point in this movie you cannot see from a mile away if you have any movie-watching experience at all... and particularly if you reference The Last Samurai. Now this doesn't hurt how well the film tells that story, which is fine. I just found myself watching it without feeling any suspense. None. I was carried by wanting to see what the next wondrous thing was... not because I wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters. I already knew exactly what was going to happen.

Also the conflict in the film is generated by a villainous 'corporation' and its key representatives, 'a suit' representing the company's desire to please shareholders, and a 'marine colonel' representing the willingness (even eagerness) of the company to use any means to achieve its ends. All the humans in this film are employees of this company. Even the 'military' ones are not actually part of a literal army, they are hired by this corporation. Yet the only dissent from using military might comes from the scientist cadre. The film isn't set very far in the future, as shown by the dates on the videologs and most of the tech that is really close to our own (and Sigourney smokes, they haven't wiped that out yet!). So I have a hard time believing in this, our real day and age of information overload, conscientious objectors, inserted journalists, and corporate whistleblowers, that things will change all that much by the time Avatar becomes contemporary.

So how did the corporation in the film get such unanimous support for wiping out the natives? I realise there may have been a lot 'not shown' for simplicity's sake... but at least some nod to other viewpoints (apart from the hero and the scientists) would've been nice. NONE of the paramilitary or corporate drones are shown as having a shred of conscience... and drawn from a seemingly-American source as the humans in the film are... we are the most multiple-viewpont-everyone-must-have-a-say-disagree-with-each-other nation on the planet. Its like European or Middle Eastern countries who think all Americans agree with our foreign policy. The entire corporation in Avatar is staffed by Dick Cheney. The film mentions twice (almost as an afterthought) that humans have burnt out the Earth. So this has made them greedy and desperate for 'what Pandora has'. But all the film shows Pandora has is a means to making money. No constructive worth is given for the material mined by the corporation. That may be intentional, to show the pointlessness behind USA-style military aggression, but it also tars humanity in a way that is unrealistic, and really cynical. Without more background I just couldn't believe the majority of humanity (or even just America) would approve what went on with Pandora. In reality, you'd have so many people backing out of their contract to work there it isn't even funny. And a lot of those people would spread the word on how horrible the corporation was when they got back. The film ignores an awful lot of realities about how people (and the world) really are in order to further its narrative. If this was set a thousand years in the future, okay. But since the whole rest of the world is so diligently grounded in near-future possibilities this was a very noticeable negative... mostly after the film viewing, I'll grant you.

About the so-called blockbusters or popcorn flicks, I've seen it argued a hundred times: 'Of course the plot was simplistic. Of course it didn't make sense. Of course no man/vehicle/creature could do that. Its a POPCORN FLICK.'. Hey, I'm willing to let lots of stuff go by in the interest of entertaiment, but with all the time and effort put into getting the visuals just right it seems lazy to then have the good guys and bad guys be so black and white, and unsubtle. Jake seems to have no problem killing humans left and right once he's decided to go native. And that's supposed to be understandable because they are threatening his newfound way of life (though the film doesn't show him wrestling much with making the change)... and because the humans are all EVIL. Its that 'all evil' part that seems retarded and lazy.

The controversial stuff- this movie is getting a lot of flak from various groups, and a lot it is attributable no doubt to how high-profile the film is. I'll address some of the controversies, starting with the easiest:

People killing themselves because our Earth isn't as beautiful as Pandora. I've read that some online club or forum has several hundred to almost one thousand members actually putting some thought (some serious, some not) towards the idea of suicide, either in pessimism over our planet never being able to measure up to this new glory they've been shown OR with the hope of being reincarnated into a Pandora-like new place.

Wow. This is kind of like people throwing themselves off a cliff in the Middle Ages if they saw an Eclipse. What incredibly ignorant, uncreative jackasses.

I have an artistic inclination and I watched much of Avatar with real wonder at the planet's (let's face it, fictional) beauty. I consider much of my best quality time spent in escapist pursuits. But you have to be an absolute tit to let Avatar, much less any film affect a life decison in you (apart from perhaps inspiring your occupation). No film, tv show, book, or game should convince you what to believe, where to live, how to live, or whether you live at all. Pandora was beautiful, yeah... and it contained wonders you really can't see here, but you'd have to be an idiot to think that stuff can't be matched by beauty here on Earth. There are corners of the world, incredible constructions, tricks of light, and natural tracts on our planet that no film screen could ever contain. We don't have glow-in-the-dark jungles or floating islands. But Pandora doesn't have the Painted Desert, Angel Falls, the Redwood Forest, or the Great Wall of China. All of which really have to be seen to be believed.

And if you COULD be reincarnated, why would the great wheel put you in Pandora or some place like it? You could wind up a cockroach in the Bronx, especially for offing yourself on purpose. Idiot-holes.

Sigourney smokes. This is the one that kind of hits a nerve with me. I'm a casual cigar smoker, whose venues for lighting up are diminishing rapidly owing to the current anti-smoking hysteria in the USA. I'll post a separate blog entry at some point detailing my take on this, but suffice to say, parts of the anti-smoking movement jumped all over the fact that Sigourney Weaver sucks on a fag during the film. The anti-smokers are already pushing hard for the abolition of all smoking depictions on film or television, but they're really being strident owing to the prominent standing of Avatar.

They're cocks, and making much ado about nothing. I'm not sure I even noticed it when I viewed the film. But that's because I'm a cigar-chomping, lung-hating, cancer-causing bastard I guess. In reality, my antagonism towards the anti-smoking movement (and its restaurant/bar restrictions and tax increases) stems mostly from hating government meddling in personal lives not because I don't recognise danger in smoking.

The anti-military/anti-imperialist stance. Whether you consider the view of the film to be anti-military or anti-imperialist might depend on where you are on the political spectrum. Or it might depend on how much of a pundit-driven tool you are.

The film is definitely anti-imperialist, in that it speaks directly about the white aggression against Native Americans in the 19th century. Lots of people are also blathering on about how it speaks so baldly against current American 'nation-building' in the Middle East. I would agree with that... except that the argument made in the movie is retarded. About as retarded as the aforementioned tarring all humans as evil. The motivation for conquering Pandora is to get unobtainium, a valuable (for unexplained reasons) material. That's it. No idealogical differences. No real or imagined threat the Pandorans represent to human safety. None. The real corollary to our Middle East would be if going to Iraq and Afghanistan really was just about getting the oil. But that argument is simplistic, stupid, and pretty thoroughly debunked. Oil can be seen as a somewhat long range goal that regimes favorable to the USA can allow our indirect control of part of the mideast oilfields, but Avatar has no concern with longterm goals or being indirect. It is arguing, like some pot-smoking sociology professor from 2002, that the reasoning behind the War On Terror is to go after oil. And that the USA shouldn't do that.

Well now duh. I can't imagine that Cameron actually still believes that Iraq and Afghanistan were just about oil. So I'm left feeling like he used the film's greed for unobtainium to actually give at least a little distance from real-world Middle East aggression. Like he's saying 'yeah, yeah, the reason's different but it amounts to the same thing'. But to me, putting that little distance in there resulted in my viewing the film as 'about' a completely different sort of 'government' than ours. A business-government. It kinda stopped being about the America's federal government and its military. If I actually had to fish for a real-world counterpart that I was considering, it would probably be Blackwater.

So while I get that all these people are looking for something to bristle at from 'that liberal jerkface James Cameron', the preachiness kinda went past me. It didn't make me re-question just what humans (and the USA in particular) go to war for... because this felt more like Blackwater carrying out a vicious mandate required by their customer... and in this case their customer was Exxon or something rather than the Fed. The motivations were so crudely drawn and so unlike how we think and operate AS A PEOPLE, that I couldn't be arsed to be offended one way or the other. As to the directly referenced Indian Wars. They were before my time, and perpetrated by an America that is quite different from the one we live in now. I'm not saying we can't learn from history, but...

Uh, we don't have slaves now either, people.

Those pagan aliens. Representatives of the catholic church in Rome have seen fit to come out and praise the visuals but deplore the depiction of nature worship. Okay fine. I guess they think some weak-minded individuals will use this movie as a springboard into Wicca. Or move to a reservation and work on breaking down the resistance of Native American grandfathers to teaching the old ways.

There are so many dumb aspects to this I don't even know where to begin. I don't even have the energy. These guys don't realise that lambasting a movie just increases interest? That the only people to take their criticisms seriously are the people who wouldn't go to the film in the first place? Any balanced individual who goes to see the film can definitely spot the tree-hugging, moss-humping, nature-loving aspect to it. But interestingly, I didn't catch in any of the catholic fear-mongering that the Navi are actually MONOTHEISTIC. Which they are. They are in tune with nature, but the film also shows how they plug into it in a very real sense. They don't just believe a lot of spirit stuff because they can't explain things. They literally 'jack in' to their planet which is shown to be a huge biological network. And they still have one single god that they pray to. Some aspects of Navi spiritual thinking resemble Native American beliefs, but the Navi can't just be slotted in to some earthly analogue. They are alien. And imaginary. And that's the biggest reason for slagging off the religious criticism. They aren't real. There are no Navi to inspire kids today to try to jack into trees and rocks. Yeah sure, there may be a coupla dozen people who become witches after this movie. Maybe even leaving the catholic church to do so. But they were going to do that anyway, Avatar or not. Unless they are so weak-minded one film can sway them out of their religion. Then I'd think the church was better off without them anyway.

Overall I enjoyed the movie A LOT. Most of my negatives are the kind of thing you think of after the movie is over. It was probably the best realisation of an alien world EVAR. I hear it will be up for a lot of Oscars. It should probably sweep the various technical awards. If it wins (or even gets nominated) for story, screenplay, or any of that... I may kill myself.

And hope, of course, that I get reincarnated on Pandora.

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