Thursday, August 19, 2010

A Day Late and A Dollar Short

I see you, indeed...

So, the wife and I finally got around to seeing Avatar last night. I know, I know. Look, I know, okay? It's just that neither of us can stand going to theaters anymore, unless it's this one. Anyway, so we sit through the whole thing, which is admittedly gorgeous, and afterward as we had our typical post-movie debrief we both came to the same conclusion: "Well, it sure looked pretty." Which, honestly, isn't enough.

Since Dances With Wolves Avatar came out, much has been written, both positive and negative, about the socio-political messages contained therein. A lot of these arguments actually have merit, but that's not what I'm here to talk about. What I am here to talk about is something that really bothered me about half-way through. Now, in the interest of not making this yet another shit Jason hates post, let me start with things I did like. I thought Cameron's vision was beautifully realized. I was fascinated by some of the very compelling ideas brought up through the actual physical link between the Lakota Na'vi and their planet. Hell, I was fascinated with Pandora in general, and spent the majority of the movie wanting to know more about it. I also loved all the human technology, especially the exos used by the security forces and all the clear, flat monitors and the touch interfaces. I liked seeing Wes Studi getting work too, even if it was only voice work. While that stuff is important, and I'm not claiming otherwise Gentle Readers, my biggest complaint with Avatar was, aside from the incredibly simplistic, predictable and heavy handed plot, the characters.

At about the half-way point I realized that I didn't give a shit about anyone in this movie. Well, aside from Vasquez Cachon the pilot and Sigourney Weaver's Dian Foss...I mean...Dr. Augustine character because, hey, it's Sigourney Weaver. Seriously, these were the most one dimensional characters I'd seen since Phantom Menace. Jake Sully was, in the words of Annalee Newitz, the white guy who becomes the most awesome member of a non-white race, Neytiri was the stalwart warrior-woman and daughter of the chief who falls in love with the foreigner (much to the chagrin of her family!), Whatsisname, the Na'vi warrior, was the jealous and suspicious jilted lover, the head of the security forces was a faceless warmonger, the company man was essentially Paul Reiser's character from Aliens, and on and on and on. Come on, Cameron. Apparently he spent all his money on computers and actor salaries and couldn't afford a really real screenwriter. The script and character design felt like it was done by Cameron's nineteen year old nephew who's taken a couple English classes in college and is pretty good at this screenwriting thing. When your movie becomes more about the background than the characters, you've left the path.

That's probably what he was going for, though. Avatar's story felt like a thinly veiled excuse for Cameron to tell us all about these "crazy-cool blue aliens who live on a dangerous feral world! And there's dragons! And flying mountains! It's awesome!" The characters didn't matter at all. They could have been anyone, from anywhere, and were essentially frankensteins cribbed from countless literary and cinematic sources. Hell, you could have put pokemons in there and it wouldn't have mattered. I don't blame this on the actors, either. Well, not all of it. There was some pretty stiff acting in there, but sometimes you're only as good as the tools you're given. What disappoints me the most about the character thing I guess is that I know Cameron can do good characters. Aliens is full of secondary and tertiary characters with personality quirks and traits that make them human. In Aliens you care about Vasquez and Drake, because they care about one another. You care about the Marines because they're people, not pastiches of tired old tropes that were clapped out fifty years ago.

It worked, though. Cameron made a ton of money on Avatar. Critics slobbered all over it for months. There's talk of sequels of course. It's not like the movie was a failure as a movie, but as a story-telling device it was an abysmal flop. I mean, seriously. I kept getting distracted wondering about the planetary bio-neural network and how the Na'vi evolved and what kind of ecological niches all those alpha predators inhabit and how the exos worked and all this other stuff that is, ultimately, not important to the story. Characters should drive a story, not setting, and this is something that modern writers, filmmakers, audiences, and fans have forgotten.

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

While I don't disagree in particular with anything you've said... it seems to me that in game design, we have an opposite challenge. Since we cannot know what characters will be the stars of the adventure or campaign, all we can do is craft setting.

Maybe James Cameron should design RPGs... because in such a case the above desciption, "crazy-cool blue aliens who live on a dangerous feral world! And there's dragons! And flying mountains! It's awesome!"... would be more than enough.

- Braden

A.L. said...

I agree with everything you've said. I enjoyed Avatar as a wonderful experience in world design. The story was so flat it wouldn't stop a rolling coin. The characters too. The world though was great. The technology was awesome. Everything else? Meh...

seaofstarsrpg said...

Agreed.

And you can read my (bitter?) review and commentary about Avatar if you wish.

morrisonmp said...

Let me add one more to the sea of voices proclaiming, "Eh."

I actually was a lot angrier than just Eh when I saw the film, primarily because I'm sick of painfully mediocre films being canonized just because they had some nifty technology... but yeah, "eh."

mrjolliff said...

Heh, ironically Laura and I just got this delivered and watched it over the past 3 days...

My 1st reaction was, Yay! Michelle Rodriguez gets to play Michelle Rodriguez in another film...(she's the pilot) She's played the same person in about a dozen films now, from Resident Evil, to Fast and Furious...hey she's the female Vin Diesel! But anyway, despite that, or perhaps because of that, she gave a decent performance. Heck, she's always the bad ass, so she's bound to have it down by now.

Was I the only one who thought of Pern and that Ann Mccaffery would be pissed?

Over all I was less than amazed. It could have been a good film, but wooden acting, and failure to explore obvious plot points led to a lame and predictable ending. OK film, but not great. 2.5 stars out of 5.

Shawn said...

Agree completely. Thadd and I felt pretty much exactly the same, and were incredibly glad we didn't bother seeing this until it hit the $1.50 theater. "Pretty" is great and all, but only for about 30 minutes (the point at which it became obvious that no, the plot wasn't going to get original). I spent the remaining two hours being more and more annoyed as I realized Cameron stole pretty much every single thing in the damn movie from somewhere else.

I have no clue why anyone raved about this movie, though I get railed on for saying that in most circles ("It was so pretty, and so romantic!" Ugh.). I am glad Thadd and I aren't the only two who were less than enchanted.