Friday, January 08, 2010

Happy 2010!

It's good to be back. I got sick back in November with the swine flu, which worsened into pneumonia. That took quite a while to get better, and by the time it did, Christmas was close and I was still looking for a job, et cetera, et cetera.

Things have been a bit rough recently, but rather than simply whinge about it on here, I decided to start 2010 off right: with a rant directed a target that can't fight back. It lies below. Enjoy (hopefully)!

Avatar: Same old story, different graphics

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 feet 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 portrayed as being 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 sanctimonious sobriety, 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 narrative? 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. Avatar 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.