Sunday, February 7, 2010

Being Disappointed By Giant Blue Men...

Why are films featuring giant blue men so dreadful? Admittedly, there's only two I can think of: the execrable film adaptation of Alan Moore's Watchmen (see here for further thoughts on this) and Avatar, James Cameron's 3D epic, which I watched last night. While the visual effects were very fine (and owed a lot to 70s illustrator Roger Dean) the story was so resoundingly awful that it depressed me inordinately. I mean, $280 million dollars was spent on this! Here are a few of the more immediate problems:

1) Our hero. Like Captain Kirk in the recent Star Trek movie, he is an impulsive, irresponsible idiot who never does what he's told. Teenagers across the globe may sigh and murmur, "oh, what a free-spirited rebel!", while older curmudgeons like me may point out that, outside of movies where they are protected from all harm by the script, which proclaims them to be The Hero, guys like that are a bloody nuisance, and in a war zone are an active threat to everybody around them. And they certainly don't prosper in the military, where the most important rule is "do what you're told!"
2) The aliens. Aren't they just a gigantic compendium of every single cliche that's ever been concocted around ethnic peoples, a kind of pick'n'mix of the most admirable features of American Indians, aborigines, and whoever else, while totally ignoring any negative aspects of their culture? And like a lot of "noble savage" movies (Dances With Wolves is a good example) the filmmakers seem intent on showing that they still need a white man to show them the way to rebel!
3) The music. What's with that stupid bloody new-age fake world-music drivel that played every time something spectacular involving the aliens was happening? I love music from all over the globe, but this aural pablum bears as little resemblance to decent world music as a cardboard cut-out does to a human being. It was about as predictable as:
4) The alien heroine. She's feisty! She's independent! She can't stand our feckless hero on first acquaintance! But as sure as night follows the sunset, she ends up loving him for his free-spirited charm! They fall out of love when he reveals that he betrayed her people to the military! He redeems himself in her eyes, and they're more in love than ever! I throw up!
5) The evil corporations. I love films produced by huge multinationals which tell us that corporate greed is evil, and we need to abandon our technological ways to get more in touch with nature. Especially a film that is made using cutting-edge computer techniques and equipment, and continually fetishises hardware and technology, in an industry that wastes huge amounts of energy, in a city that's a model of unsustainable growth (LA). Will the producers of this film adopt the communal, innocent ways of the aliens in Avatar? Will James Cameron leave his mansion for the jungles of Central America and a more simple life? What do you think?
6) The heavy-handed political subtext. Films like Avatar, which pretend to be, like, y'know, making a point, but are instead simplistic drivel, are worthless as political commentary. Some reviewer wrote of how it was an achievement to get middle American audiences cheering the defeat of the US military, but the aliens are so impossibly nice and admirable and wonderful in every possible way that there's no way such an audience will mistake them for any real-life situation. Or do the Afghani warlords remind you of the Nav'i (or whatever the blue creatures are called)? One could see it as a metaphor for the European settlers' treatment of the native Americans, except:
7) The ending. The aliens, armed with bows, arrows, and lashings of pluck, drive the technologically advanced humans off the planet? Exactly like the way the native Americans drove the settlers back to Europe and set up their own idealistic state! Which never produces dreck like Avatar! (Wait, have I got that right?)
8) The climactic battle. Another piece of evidence that Our Hero is a simpleton. Basic rules of combat state that, when attacking a more heavily armed and better-equipped enemy in a jungle setting, you don't charge them head-on a la Braveheart (unless you're the kind of general who enjoys killing his own troops for no reason). Instead, you use the cover to launch sudden guerilla attacks from the trees, and riddle the jungle with tripwires and spear-traps. A few kids with stones, sling-shots, and a good aim could break the advancing soldiers' helmets (humans can't breathe the air in the forest) without getting near them. One doesn't need to be a military historian to know this; it's the technique used by the VC in South East Asia, and even by the bloody Ewoks in Return of the Jedi! Without the deux ex machina (that he had no way of predicting), his strategy was pretty poor. (How about dropping thick wooden poles through the rotors of the helicopters, for one thing?)
9) The lazy writing. The aliens' giant home tree just happens to sit on a vast store of the mineral the humans are mining? One of the scientists helps our hero escape from the military stockade, yet nobody can figure out who it was? One of the aliens is psychic, but doesn't know what our hero is up to when he first comes in contact with them? The fact that some of these incredibly hostile aliens can understand English whenever it suits the plot? The fact that every twist in this film can be predicted from half a mile away? Sigourney Weaver reprising her role from Gorillas in the Mist (the tough scientist who cares)? The body-armour suits reprised from Aliens? The feisty ethnic woman who dies in a blaze of glory (reprised from Aliens)? Enough! Enough!
10) The length. Two and a half hours of this? The 3D visuals are amazing for the first 90 minutes, but then the novelty wears off, the better to concentrate on the bad writing.

As I said before, watching this film is so depressing because, in spite of the huge budget, nobody seems to have put even the tiniest bit of thought into the script. The characters are lifeless and formulaic, the plot is predictable, it's a lazy smorgasbord of new-age cliches about ethnic stereotypes, and it's far too long. And these flaws will be even more glaring when watched on a small TV with no 3D. Here's a cartoon from 1928 that's a lot more imaginative, considering the nature of animation at the time:

12 comments:

Sean Jeating said...

How can I thank Mr. Cameron for spending so much money, so that I could read such surgical a review?!

Koko's Earth Control does indeed tell more in 5:42 minutes than Cameron within 161.

A Doubtful Egg said...

Thank you, Sean, but I don't think I've said anything here that hasn't been expressed elsewhere! (That being said, there are a disturbingly large amount of people who seem oblivious to this movie's very glaring flaws...) And if you, or anyone else scientifically minded, is so inclined, check out this website (http://www.intuitor.com/moviephysics/), which includes a very informative analysis of the scientific plausibility (and military strategy), or lack thereof, in Avatar (scroll down the page to about halfway, and you'll find the review section)

Claudia said...

You know, when you get a bit older you don't dare say that "new shows" might not be as good as what you saw in the past. It ages you. Yet! I refused to see Avatar. I immediately had doubts when the younger generation started raving about it...I said I would wait for solid critics. I did well. The fact that it's on the Oscar's lists confirms my previous apprehensions. I didn't lose my sense of wonder. But, when you've already seen good performances, you become more demanding as the years go by.

Thank you for the links. And the animation which rejuvenates me. Even today, anybody, anywhere in the world, at any age, can enjoy this immensely.

A Doubtful Egg said...

I feel that modern mainstream cinema is so controlled by producers and accountants, and so much money is involved, that all sense of risk is siphoned out in favour of mass appeal, and this applies to most art films as well as the supposedly "lowbrow" entertainment stuff. I can't remember the last time I saw a film that actually excited or even surprised me. (Oh yes: David Lynch's Inland Empire; like or dislike it, it's certainly daring) The only reason I went to Avatar is because Dublin and its handful of more discerning cinemas are over 70 miles away, and there hasn't been a film in ages that I'd bother driving that distance to see. But the majority of people I've spoken to about Avatar have agreed with me! I'm glad you liked the animation; there's a few more on YouTube if you're so inclined.

Sean Jeating said...

Thanks for the offered link, D.E.. I enjoyed my first glimpses.
Of course, it's nice to detect an extra wearing a wristwatch in films like 'Ben Hur'. But that's another oddity.

Stan said...

Although I don't disagree with your criticisms — most of them anyway — I enjoyed Avatar quite a lot. I guess I talked myself into it for various reasons, though I had to leave my brain at the door and stop myself noticing the story's many, many glaring absurdities. It's a silly, clichéd, self-important and poorly written film, but its heart is in the right place and I found it, at times, spectacular, affecting, and thrilling.

A Doubtful Egg said...

It was certainly spectacular, and Cameron is enough of a craftsman to push all the right buttons when necessary, especially during the action sequences (I was reminded of Terminator 2 a lot, the last Cameron film I actually saw: during action sequences and special-effects setpieces, it was brilliant, but in the human-interest bits in between were painfully bad!). But I never found it affecting, because I never believed the characters or their world were ever in any danger, the plot being so predictable! By comparison, from a narrative point of view Raiders of the Lost Ark is equally silly and implausible, but tells its story with a charm and lightness of touch that makes those factors irrelevant. Cameron's thunderingly self-importance and ponderous epic could do with a heavy helping of those qualities...

Stan said...

It could, but then it wouldn't be a James Cameron film! I agree that it compares poorly with Raiders..., which is an undisputed classic. Much of Avatar's story was predictable, as you say, but that shouldn't automatically prevent it from having an emotional effect. For example, It's a Wonderful Life brings out the tears in most of its viewers even when they've seen it many times before.

By the way, if you're itching for some backstory, there may be an Avatar novel on the way...

A Doubtful Egg said...

But, and correct me if I'm wrong here, wasn't It's A Wonderful Life (which, oddly, I've never seen) original for its time? And not just a heap of tired old cliches cobbled together on the back of an envelope (which is what I imagine the first draft of Avatar looked like)? I'm sorry to disagree, but I'm just not convinced... (Wouldn't Avatar have been much more interesting if, for example, the unobtainium they were mining was the cure for a plague that was wiping out the Earth's population?
An Avatar novel? Well, to keep in spirit with the film, imagine me falling to my knees and yelling "noooooooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!"

Stan said...

Heh. I imagined that in super slow motion, with revolutionary new digitally enhanced 3-D Flails Of Despair™. I'm done playing devil's advocate now — I was just finickily disputing your suggestion that predictability precluded emotional involvement in a story. It's A Wonderful Life probably was very original for its time, and in many ways it remains so. I highly recommend it.

Claudia said...

A very interesting discussion. My son will see "Avatar" this week-end. I'm inviting him to read this post and comments. I'm waiting for his reaction, once he's seen the movie. I'm starting to be a bit curious...maybe enough to go to a cinema!

"It's a wonderful life" has been a highlight in my life. I don't watch it anymore. I like to keep the memory of my first emotions intact.

A Doubtful Egg said...

I'll see if I can pick up a copy of It's A Wonderful Life this weekend! Claudia, your son's comments are most welcome, whether he agrees with what I've written or not. Stan: along with your suggestions, my "noooooooo!!!!" has to be accompanied with a rapid zoom out to show the whole Earth, a la Captain Kirk's "Khaaaaaaannnnn!!!!".