Monday, January 11th, 2010 Horrorthon Posts / Horrorthon Reviews

A whole bunch of stupefied guys who just saw Avatar

(2009) **


1) I didn’t like Avatar
I didn’t like Avatar. However I am not here to start a fight. I’m not indignant or resentful or marginalized or offended or anything like that. I just didn’t like it…I found it dull. My posting here is based on the idea that anyone else on Horrorthon would want to continue reading me on the topic of Avatar even after I’ve announced that I didn’t like it. This, obviously, is not a sure thing. If you’re already furious, maybe you should stop reading; if, on the other hand, you can deal with the fact that we disagree over this movie, the topic could remain interesting.

2) There was nothing wrong with my glasses
Yes, I had a flawless 3D IMAX experience. This is always the first guess when somebody has a lousy time at a 3D movie: maybe my lenses were scratched or I was sequestered to the far edge of the screen or something. But, no: we were pretty much in the ideal top-center seats, and the 3D effects weren’t remotely blurry or disorienting; it was instantly possible to resolve everything I saw. So you can’t blame my glasses.

3) There’s nothing wrong with the 3D in general
Cameron is extremely aggressive in his 3D directing (as has been discussed elsewhere); he is nearly always attacking all four edges of the screen with some protruding or constricting surface. He’s not concerned with how disorienting that can be (he likes how disorienting it is, obviously; he wants you forcibly “decoupled” from the IMAX frame and into a non-constricted viewing mode.) It’s very different from Zemeckis, who’s much more interested in negative depth and only occasionally protrudes out of the screen (and always always in the middle rather than the edges). It’s a very kinetic, busy technique, but there’s nothing wrong with it.

4) The story doesn’t make sense
Everything seems to be happening right now, unleashing overwhelming pressures on both sides, but I can’t figure out why. Sam Worthington is hardly the first to use the Avatar program; it’s been going on for years (apparently). And the Unobtanium is nothing new. But, suddenly, everything’s going to come to a big global confrontation. Why? I legitimately don’t get it. It’s like Michelle Rodriquez never noticed what her job was.

5) The Na’vi are silly
I just don’t care at all about the Na’vi because they are very silly, and their society has been worked out in the same kind of laborious “depth” as the Lion King world, which at least had loveable anthropomorphic heroes and villains. Are they “good”? Yeah, I guess. They’re “well done,” whatever that means. (I’ll tell you what it means: it means that if such creatures actually existed, according to all the arcane rules which Mr. Cameron made up on the back of a spiral notebook, then they would certainly look and sound as they do in this movie. Is this good? Is this an achievement that means anything to me? No, because I’m reasonably sure that I’ve found dwarves, elves, hobbits, Puppeteers (and other arcane silver-age sci-fi creatures) likeable and interesting because of the complexity and the depth of the stories they’re enmeshed in, and the Na’vi, by contrast, are just extremely silly.

6) So what are Sam and Sigourney and Michelle going to do?
This is a very big question for people who enjoyed Avatar but I could not get interested in it, not because I have some attitude about it but because I have the same issue that many critics had with the Dan Quayle/Murphy Brown imbroglio twenty years ago: You can ask about Murphy Brown’s baby, but since there is no baby, the answers are of limited interest. Similarly, you can wonder about how to solve the Na’vi’s problem (and they really do have a serious problem, up there with the whales’ problem in our world, or the Elves’ problem in Tolkien), but since the Na’vi are completely imaginary and their plight has been made up, I just can’t get interested in how to save them from their dire circumstances. Cameron seems to feel that a sufficiently complex and realistic portrayal of an intelligent alien race getting threatened with cultural extinction is all I need in order to be emotionally and intellectually committed, as if the complexity of his hypothetical situation is impressive in and of itself. It’s like watching Star Trek: Insurrection…it’s the same deep, deep, deep level of nerdliness. They actually want me to mull over what these people need to do, morally, according to a very detailed presentation of the ethical environment that has been invented by the writer for this purpose. How can they navigate these complex dilemmae? They’re trapped in a “problem story,” that’s all. There’s no way out except a series of big bangs.*

7) There’s nothing wrong with the vehicles, spacecraft, weapons, computers, machines
All that stuff is fine, and most of of it is superb. If I collected paintings or miniatures, I would be obsessed with the stuff in Avatar. All the twelve-foot-diameter wheels and weathered matal surfaces were great. All the vistas were great, too.

8) I wasn’t crazy about the wildlife
As much as I loved the technology, all the plants and etc. were a bit much and were very tiring and intrusive. The red creature that Sam Worthington rides at the end wore out its welcome particularly quickly. All those luminous globe-like plants, etc., were very pretty, but, again, what am I looking at? Is this Fantasia or is this supposed to be a real place? And wouldn’t a real place be more interesting?

9) Bad characters, bad dialogue
I tried to pin down the motivational and plot-related issues above, but I may have sounded more involved and interested than I actually was. The fact is, there was really never a single moment in the movie in which I was engaged in Sam Worthington’s story or his relationships with the Na’vi and the humans. It just wasn’t remotely interesting, because the special moment of me learning why anybody cares about the story of what happened to the Na’vi (which was supposed to occur at some point after the lights went down) just never happened. I can’t decide if Sigourney is supposed to be committed to the Na’vi culture or cynically willing to exploit them. Like all the main characters, she seems to have all the positions at once, with no sense of how those positions conflict or fill the basic situations of their lives with constant, totally contradictory obligations. It’s not really a situation the characters are involved in or dealing with: it’s a seminar they’re holding, while having agreed to attack each other at the same time.

10) Who cares?
That’s what Avatar comes down to. What’s the point of all this? Do I “appreciate” what “he” did? I guess, the way that I can appreciate the “highest point west of the Mississippi” or somebody who’s got to conduct all nine Beethoven symphonies or perform every Shakespeare speaking role, or catalog all of the Sherlock Holmes cases, or learn Elvish, or design imaginary cars. Yes, if this particular situation existed, these would be the issues, and these would be the machines, and these might ultimately be the big fights that would erupt. It’s a sci-fi sociology experiment, for extra credit. But with all the “relevance” of the Unobtanium and the purported “meaning” of the Na’vi sacrifices (or their elaborate, made-up rituals), I just couldn’t figure out why I was supposed to be, you know, interested. Like I said at the top, I don’t have a problem with this kind of sci-fi story. I just think the Na’vi are really silly.

UPDATE: The “Problem Story”
I want to elaborate on the movie’s “moral” pretensions because there’s a specific, very arch implication here that I do not like. Because of my desultory attitude, I am presumably “overlooking” the value that that Cameron’s story has in a present-day, real-world context. In other words, Avatar is striking at a real target beyond its arcana, and I “must” acknowledge the applicability of its story to today’s reality. The problem is that I don’t want to do that, because the correlation is very coarse and juvenile and the implied conclusions are simplistic. Is it difficult to think of examples of “exploited natives” through history? Of course not; it’s probably the most thuddingly obvious human imperialistic behavior since the invention of trade and shipping. Are there real ethical questions at play; degrees to which commercial interests can maintain a greater sensitivity to the cultures they’re exploiting? Of course, but I don’t think James Cameron has anything to say about it or can help us (through the force of his art) to wrestle with it, because he’ simplifying the principle to archetypal rudiments. He thinks that abstracting the crime makes it “unanswerable,” profound; he thinks we need his thought experiment to confront our reality. And science fiction has risen to this kind of challenge many times over the decades. But does anybody really think that this story about imaginary blue people is going to improve anyone’s thinking about oil fields, farming, pollutants in the Hudson river, or any kind of industrial or cultural exploitation? Is James Cameron here to clear that issue up for us? Because, you know, “The Lorax” was for kids. I’m not being snide on purpose; I’m trying to acknowledge that the “Avatar” twist on the strip-mining story (the “get your legs back” part of the game) is the one legitimately new idea in here; the one element that could turn the fable into something with a greater resonance or contemporary depth…but it doesn’t, because (unlike Spielberg or Ridley Scott or even George Lucas) Cameron doesn’t understand how stories guide us to contemplate ideas. Kipling sent Kurtz after ivory; Mexican gold, Asian spices, etc. etc. It’s an entire universe of storytelling dimensionality and meaning, but in this movie it’s just items on a bulletin board.