Friday, January 08, 2010

“Avatar”: Same Old Story, Different Graphics

Gates of Vienna reader Gryffilion returns with another movie review. Fjordman has reviewed “Avatar” previously in this space, but a fresh viewpoint on the same flick is always welcome. I’m grateful to both reviewers for helping me decide which movies to miss.


Avatar: Same old story, different graphics
by Gryffilion


There is a scene in the movie Avatar where the main character — or at least the ten-foot blue body the main character spiritually possesses — falls off an aircraft and plummets into the jungle several hundred below. He manages to hit just the right combination of flora on the way down, breaking his fall and allowing him to land feather-light on the ground. The movie pulls off a similar trick, bouncing us gently from implausibility to smug sanctimony, until we land heavily upon the unpleasant truth that the movie is a waste of thirteen dollars and one hundred sixty-two minutes.

I’m not even going to bother going into the plot and characterization (or lack thereof) here, because if you’ve seen a movie made about Indians, rainforests, or nature in the past twenty years, you already know the interpersonal dynamics and dramatic storyline. The white men are bad. The natives are good and pure. The white men want to despoil the land. One of their number (in this case, a laconic James Sully) sides with the natives and helps them defeat the other, evil, white men. (As an aside, am I the only one who finds it patronizing that the natives always need help from the most stereotypically patriarchal white man? It seems oddly self-defeating in nature.)

However, the white men — the Resources Development Administration mining company and their hired gunsel associates — are played as ludicrously bad. It’s painful to see Giovanni Ribisi, a talented actor, playing an over-the-top jerk of a businessman whose job is to mine “unobtainium.” Really. Unobtainium. It’s unclear to me whether the name is perhaps the only joke in the movie — Avatar having some fun at its own expense? Doubtful — or is just another sign of the movie’s grim seriousness, that such a ridiculous name could be uttered with a straight face.
- - - - - - - - -
My purist ideals as a chemist aside, the movie is terrible. The mercenaries are two-dimensional cardboard cutouts that the natives, the pure and good-hearted shamanistic Na’vi, hack and slash and knock down with ease. There is no point in discussing characterization because there is none. None of the main characters have any real motivation for doing what they do. The humans have no need to engage the Na’vi on the ground, and yet they do so. I’m assuming this is some kind of a nod to Vietnam, what with the hooting natives charging through the jungle, but what is the allegory behind soldiers in mechanized suits getting run over by herds of charging alien rhinoceri? “Eywa [the earth-goddess of the planet] has heard you,” screams Sully’s love interest as the soldiers fall victim to angry fauna, even after telling him hours previously that the goddess took no sides. Internal consistency is necessary for a coherent storyline? Don’t tell that to James Cameron.

And the Colonel. Don’t get me started on the Colonel, the leader of the mercenaries (the “First Strawmen Regiment,” I dubbed them mentally). I understand that these soldiers are mercenaries, and one can get away with depiction of soldiers as somewhat, well, un-soldierly in such a situation. However, mercenaries don’t charge needlessly into battle. Mercenaries want to get paid and survive whatever hellhole in which they’ve been hired to fight. They don’t go up against an enemy with superior numbers in an environment that has been established as being dangerous and unfamiliar. Nothing about this movie rings true, which makes it a fundamentally empty and, indeed, aggravating experience.

Someone said to me, as I was debating the aforementioned issues with a friend, “Shut up and enjoy the special effects.” That seems to be the basic message in the movie: lie back and think of the CGI. Sadly, most people seem to be able to do this. Why is this sad? Because good graphics cannot save bad writing. This is a mud cake that has been decorated with really beautiful icing. It is terrible, awful writing covered in a surfeit of amazing and well-crafted computer-generated fuzz and glitter. Nothing about that combination should strike anyone as palatable, and it is a sign of how much our tastes have become diluted that we hoot and gibber and clap at the pretty, pretty, lights.

If you’re thinking about seeing Avatar, I recommend renting Fern Gully or Dances With Wolves, or maybe both, instead. Neither of them are good movies. In fact, both are mediocre at best. However, they have original characters and original storylines, and both of those are things that Avatar is sadly lacking.

27 comments:

Papa Whiskey said...

Really. Unobtainium. It’s unclear to me whether the name is perhaps the only joke in the movie — Avatar having some fun at its own expense?

American baby boomers will recognize this as a steal from the old "Rocky and Bullwinkel" cartoon show, which featured an anti-gravity substance called "upsydaisium." Notice how the sample they had floats?

I’m assuming this is some kind of a nod to Vietnam ...

... of which this movie is chock-a-block. Even the final scene in which the humans are herded off the planet is a direct lift from the Viet Minh's marching of their French prisoners out of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, as witness this photo.

The entire movie is basically a New Left wet dream ... sort of like last year's presidential campaign.

Viking said...

and yet curiously I've heard few rumblings about the use of animals in war and the ethical problem of animal cruelty. Maybe I've been looking in the wrong places, but it's likely that the "native peoples" are considered free from the moral judgments that are applied to the evil invaders.
It's easy to be "in tune with nature" - a common element in the Noble Savage myth - when nature can be plugged into and even brought into service in times of war.
On our planet Mother Nature is an unforgiving beast.

Professor Hale said...

It's just Pocohontas with better animation. Really, Same characters and everything.

Unobtanium was needed because people would be able to do the basic math to determine that any other element in the universe would never be worth the expense of mining on a foreign planet and bringing back to Earth.

Futher, at the cost they sited ($2 Mil per Kilo), there couldn't possibly be enough customers on Earth who could afford to buy enough to pay the ROI of the first mission.

Nilk said...

I was supposed to go and see this yesterday evening at La Premiere with a friend. I booked online, paid online, and was actually looking forward to my $ being completely wasted.

However.... my friend got sick (we suspect some dodgy paella for lunch) and so she couldn't make it.

I ended up changing the booking to monday after work now.

I'm still not expecting to enjoy it much, even with the comfy seats, the waiters and the 3D.

We'll see.

In any case, I loathe Fern Gully with a passion. It is sanctimonious, less than average drivel.

Except for Tim Curry, who chews up everything, even in a cartoon!

govfan said...

If you haven't read this review then do so. It is a must read, especially if you are thinking of seeing this garbage movie.

The Suicide Fantasy

Excerpt (spoiler alert):

During the big battle scene, as dinosaurs were chowing down on soldiers, the middle-aged couple seated next to me were grinning happily… delighted by the defeat and destruction of their own miserable species. The dialogue in Avatar makes it clear that humanity’s future depended on the success of the Pandora mission. “We sent the aliens back to their dying world,” intones the hero, narrating scenes of the defeated humans as they’re perp-walked off the planet, just the way environmentalist radicals have dreamed of handling the executives of Exxon-Mobil. Earlier, the hero tells Pandora’s nature spirit about the evil of his fellow man: “They killed their mother, and they’ll kill you.” Good thing for the universe we’re doomed!

nimbus said...

It's basically "Dances with Wolves" in outer space. Western Civilization = Pure Evil.

But the special effects were great!

Homophobic Horse said...

I have a very different interpretation of Avatar.

It's not a race opera.

Instead I consider it a kind of pseudo spiritual work. There has been in Western culture in certain sections a yearning for the discovery of alien life because it disproves the existence of god and suggests that there is a whole universe we could explore as a substitute for god. Transformative (as opposed to horrifying) encounters with aliens has been a mainstay of Hollywood films since E.T. It has occupied an important place in the work of James Cameron in films such as The Abyss, where Bruce Willis battles off a pressure sick and hate addled Navy SEAL (who believes they are under Soviet Russian attack) to diffuse a nuclear bomb to save the Alien water kingdom. If Avatar is anything, it's a reprisal of the same themes explored in the 80s and in the that respect it is not a race opera. To me those films are about a futile and misplaced rebellion against the spiritual shallowness and pointlessness of the modern world. A rebellion that takes us all into the embrace of the weird, the ignorant, the bizarre, the thoroughly demonic. Because E.T., Navi's and water creatures are all clearly demons when you think about it.

Chechar said...

@ “if you’ve seen a movie made about Indians, rainforests, or nature in the past twenty years, you already know the interpersonal dynamics and dramatic storyline. The white men are bad. The natives are good and pure.”

What most infuriates me is that this is exactly the perfect reverse of historical truth. In Mesoamerica and in the Inca Empire for example the European Spaniards were the good guys and the Indians the bad guys. See for example this section of a Wikipedia discussion on Aztec child torture in which I was involved a couple of years ago. It deals with the subject-matter of my last chapter of my Quetzalcóatl series published here in GoV. One of my friends who supported my in that Wikipedia discussion wrote there: “it doesn’t take too much intelligence to know that tearing the nails off children to make them cry [what the pre-Hispanic Mexicans did] is utter abuse of barbaric proportions. How can anyone possibly question this?”

Yes: this is what the Amerindians did: torturing and sacrificing children (and adults). But to the postmodern mind, it is we, the white people (Iberian white in my case) the ones who are as evil as portrayed in Avatar.

In real history, thanks to the Spanish conquest the Indians stopped to kill their children throughout most of the continent.

Armance said...

I saw Avatar two days ago and I was appalled. I was used to all sorts of Hollywood PC junk, but this time I had the feeling that I witnessed the two minutes of hate from 1984. It looked like all the anti-white, anti-Western, anti-American, anti-civilization, anti-reason commonplaces were gathered together and intensified to the point of ideological dementia. What a pity to see such remarkable technical achievements wasted on a rabid piece of cheap propaganda. I think that if Ceausescu had still lived in my country, he would have forced us to see Avatar day and night. I wouldn't be surprised if at some point this movie will be used in mosques or in North Korea as a tool against "the great Satan".
I don't know what's next. Maybe an open invitation to the genocide of all people with light skin. I guess it will be made in the next Hollywood blockbuster.

laller said...

I'm not gonna get into this race-discussion, as I feel it's misplaced. Like Homophobic Horse, I think it's more a critique of our developed societies.
I do feel like I need to correct a few things, though: "the pure and good-hearted shamanistic Na’vi" don't "hack and slash and knock down with ease" the "two-dimensional cardboard cutout" mercenaries. The Na'vi were losing the battle, remember?
As for "no need to engage the Na’vi on the ground", how would you know? Why do we(our soldiers) engage the Taliban on the ground? Is there a "need" for that?
There is no inconsistency in the storyline with regards to "Eywa's" sudden involvement. The planet/Eywa is a living computer, which all the fauna can interact with. It absorbed the memories of the researcher(Sigourney Weaver), and Sully asked it to have a look at them. Given that the planet/Eywa is likely to have no experience with aggressive and destructive lifeforms like humans, it's never had a reason to intervene before, but now it does. I don't see the inconsitency in the storyline that Gryffilion does.
The mercenaries may "want to get paid and survive whatever hellhole in which they’ve been hired to fight", but you're assuming they have a choice. Even mercenaries will "go up against an enemy with superior numbers in an environment that has been established as being dangerous and unfamiliar", if the alternative is they risk being annihilated? Remember, the only reason they lost was that the planet/Eywa intervened.
I disagree that the writing is awful. The story's been done before, and it's been done better, but it's not awful. I guess I'd call it tolerable. But this is ofcourse a matter of taste, so there's not really any point in discussing it.

Regards

Armance said...

Yes: this is what the Amerindians did: torturing and sacrificing children (and adults).

I saw a documentary about the Maya culture on the National Geographic channel a few weeks ago. Surprisingly honest, an archeologist admitted at some point that the Maya were so stupid that sometimes they polluted their own water sources with corpses, because the numerous victims of human sacrifices were often thrown into rivers and lakes. Yet we are intoxicated with the imaginary unmatched wisdom of the Amerindians, who were supposedly able to predict the end of the world, the two world wars and global warming (the same as the fairy tale of Muslim scientific achievements).
Why are the leftists always fascinated by the most savage and ignorant people on earth - Amerindians, Muslims, etc.? It's a rhetorical question.

Chechar said...

@ “Why are the leftists always fascinated by the most savage and ignorant people on earthAmerindians, Muslims, etc.? ” —Armance

I don’t think it’s a rhetorical question but a very logical one.

My working hypothesis is that, like Teresa, all leftists (yes: all of them) were abused as children and that, like Teresa, they don’t speak out about their traumas. They transfer their unconscious hate toward parental symbols instead: the West, the US, the white people, etc.,­ —just like James Cameron’s Two Minutes Hate.

The current group fantasy from vast sectors of western people is to share this pathological, transferred hate. In Orwell’s novel we see that the rage that the people actually felt toward the oppressive State was displaced on to more permitted objects, even though Emanuel Goldstein was not the real source of Oceania’s problems.

It’s the same with our society. My Teresa essay linked above is too long. Non-fastidious readers may want to skip my analysis down to the section “Teresa ends up in the Fruit Cake Hospital!” and see my point.

By the way, in her island of Gran Canaria, Teresa invited me to the museum Cueva Pintada, which shows ancient Neolithic pieces of the pre-Hispanic Canary people. These guys killed many female babies by smashing their heads with a rock. But like the Avatar scandal, the museum’s film painted the Spanish conquerors as the bad guys and idealized the natives. After the film I discussed female infanticide with the museum’s guy who give us the tour. Teresa was very upset. She has embraced cultural relativism to the point that she hates any value judgment against non-western cultures. I was extremely upset too and uploaded a video “Idiotas españoles” (Spanish idiots) exposing the open self-hatred of the museum authorities.

But self-hatred among Teresa, the scholars of primitive tribes and their museums and academia, and Avatar, are two sides of the same coin. Takuan Seiyo shows the big picture of what is happening in the book that he’s publishing in The Brussels Journal (for some excerpts click here).

Marlin said...

I saw this movie as two things. A statement against Iraq (and by extension, Vietnam, and really all the foreign interventionism of late). Two: a statement against Western culture.

It is amusing to me how many left-wing folks I've known just love this movie, but thought that Apocolypto was over the top, overstated, and crazy, as well as racist.

I suppose you could say it was. But if you must condemn Apocalypto in that manner, you also must condemn Avatar as all of the same things.

Marlin said...

I saw this movie as two things. A statement against Iraq (and by extension, Vietnam, and really all the foreign interventionism of late). Two: a statement against Western culture.

It is amusing to me how many left-wing folks I've known just love this movie, but thought that Apocolypto was over the top, overstated, and crazy, as well as racist.

I suppose you could say it was. But if you must condemn Apocalypto in that manner, you also must condemn Avatar as all of the same things.

Chechar said...

@ “It is amusing to me how many left-wing folks I've known just love this movie, but thought that Apocalypto was over the top, overstated, and crazy, as well as racist. I suppose you could say it was....” --Marlin

It wasn’t. Have you read my latest chapter in this blogsite? Believe it or not: There’s more wisdom in Gibson’s film than in today’s American and Mexican academia on the subject of pre-Hispanic cultures.

Armance said...

Apocalypto and the trilogy Lord of the Rings were the only decent movies with great public success of the last decade. The first because it depicted the Amerindians in a realist and mostly historically accurate way, the second because it presented the Western man in a positive, even beautiful light. Actually the subjects of those movies are so intrinsically anti-establishment that I was amazed they could appear in such hostile environment (well, Mel Gibson is a special case: he's already so vilified that he has nothing to lose). Equally, the fact that these films were so successful proves that people are not completely brainwashed and masochistic: they can still appreciate a nice un-propagandastic movie where the Westerners are not demonized. Unfortunately, in the film industry movies of this kind are so rare that you can consider them accidents.

Viking said...

I wonder if LOTR's classic status insulated it from similar criticisms?

Chechar said...

Armance,

The people that run Hollywood are vicious. But it was not always so. Before I was born Hollywood’s avatars were conservatives. I have in mind Franz Kapra and the director of Gone With the Wind. But today’s industry is run by Body-Snatched Pods (this is a 1956 film metaphor explained in my link above on Takuan Seiyo). Don’t miss this excellent ForaTV interview of Andrew Breitbart.

Viking,

Yes: LOTR is great. It has shown Aryan beauty (my religion) as no other film.

4th and last post in this thread.

Armance said...

I wonder if LOTR's classic status insulated it from similar criticisms?

Yes, maybe this is the explanation why it (almost miraculously) avoided the downright accusations of "racism", for an all-white cast. Still hard to fight with with the classics.

The attempt to avoid being called a racist has some humorous results lately. In the movie "Thor", directed by Kenneth Branagh, which is planned to be released this year, Heimdall, the guardian of Asgard, "the whitest skinned of gods", will be played by a Black actor (I still consider them hopelessly racists. I mean, how did Beyonce missed to play Freyja? And they are homophobes: a transgender for the role of Frigg would have been perfect. How did they miss that?):

http://www.heatvisionblog.com/2009/11/idris-elba-joins-marvel-studios-thor-natalie-portman-kenneth-branagh.html

Armance said...

The people that run Hollywood are vicious. But it was not always so. Before I was born Hollywood’s avatars were conservatives.

I know. Some time ago I saw Chaplin's "The Vagabond", 1916. (Chaplin was not a conservative, on the contrary, but it was a time when people were not terrified by PCism.) Anyway, in the movie, Charlot's love interest is a girl kidnapped and exploited as a slave by a gang of violent Gypsies. It would be impossible to present such a plot nowadays. In all the movies of today, from "Chocolat" with Johnny Depp to Kusturica's films, Gypsies are the embodiment of the good and the charm, oppressed by racists.

(Actually the Gypsies DO steal children, particularly to use them as beggars. Do you remember the revolt in Naples about one year ago, when the Italians tried to set ablaze some improvised barracks occupied by Gypsy immigrants from Eastern Europe? The reason was that the Gypsies tried to steal an Italian infant. Naturally, the locals were furious.)

4Symbols said...

Avatar - may actually be an anti neoliberal film.

Gryffilion said...
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Gryffilion said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gryffilion said...

A lot of the justification for this movie seems to stem from the idea that as long as the CGI is "groundbreaking," then the plot is unimportant. It is hard for me to fully express the vehemence of my hatred for this idea. A good plot does NOT distract one from CGI. People argue that we're too dumb and distracted as a culture to want a good plot AND good graphics--but we won't know until we try, and almost no one tries. LoTR is an exception because they had to keep the storyline intact, or risk ire from a massive preexisting fanbase.

The quote attributed to Bill Watterson (most likely apocryphal) says that "good writing can save bad art more than good art can save bad writing." There is no striving in Avatar to anything other than beautiful graphics, and this damns it as a movie. Avatar fails as a film; it fails to live up to the standards of its genre.

To put it another way: would you praise a meal that looked wonderful on the plate but tasted terrible?

Gryffilion said...

@laller:

I do feel like I need to correct a few things, though: "the pure and good-hearted shamanistic Na’vi" don't "hack and slash and knock down with ease" the "two-dimensional cardboard cutout" mercenaries. The Na'vi were losing the battle, remember?
I was speaking metaphorically. Mercenaries are not zealots. If anything, they are anti-zealots. Mercenaries do not stand on top of armored ships firing guns without any form of protection over or around them. It would have been one thing if the human settlers on Pandora were religious crusaders, but guns for hire do NOT behave that way.

As for "no need to engage the Na’vi on the ground", how would you know? Why do we(our soldiers) engage the Taliban on the ground? Is there a "need" for that?
I'm not even going to TOUCH that. This is about the movie. Nothing else.

There is no inconsistency in the storyline with regards to "Eywa's" sudden involvement. The planet/Eywa is a living computer, which all the fauna can interact with. It absorbed the memories of the researcher(Sigourney Weaver), and Sully asked it to have a look at them. Given that the planet/Eywa is likely to have no experience with aggressive and destructive lifeforms like humans, it's never had a reason to intervene before, but now it does. I don't see the inconsitency in the storyline that Gryffilion does.
This really has the feel of an ad-hocracy to me. Ewya isn't a real being and exists as a secular environmentaldeus ex natura. Arguing about what Ewya is or isn't will eventually lead into the kind of discussions Star Wars fans have about the Force, and that seems rather pointless. My assertion still stands: setting up your "god" as one that doesn't take sides, and then having it mount an assault against the humans, is inconsistent.

I disagree that the writing is awful. The story's been done before, and it's been done better, but it's not awful. I guess I'd call it tolerable. But this is ofcourse a matter of taste, so there's not really any point in discussing it.
Even fans of the movie have agreed that James Cameron writes (and directs movies with) some of the most awful writing ever to disgrace the silver screen. You are right; there is no point in discussing it, any more than there would be a point in arguing with someone who believes the sky is orange.

Gryffilion said...

Update: I refute the emotional and mental health of the majority of Avatar fans thus.

govfan said...

Also, I saw in a TV news report that some people have been getting dizzy spells for up to a week after seeing the movie. The doctor in the report explained that the eye input to the body
interprets the realistic 3D motion scenes as real motion. But the ear canal message to the body is that the body is at rest. The result - occasional dizzy spells for a week or so as the two inputs to the body conflict.