April 30, 2010

I resent films that are so shallow they rely entirely on their visual effects, and of course science fiction films are notorious for this. I've always felt that there's another way to do it: a lot of effort should be expended toward rendering the environment of the spaceship, or space travel, whatever the fantastic setting of your story should be–as convincingly as possible, but always in the background. That way the story and the characters emerge and they become more real.
- Ron Cobb, the conceptual artist behind Alien

I have finally seen Avatar ... nearly a year after the rest of the world. I did not see it in 3D: which allowed me to see the substance of it rather than be swept up in visual effects.

I nearly fell asleep during parts of it. I was not more tired than usual, maybe a little less than usual. The story simply did not engage me to the point that sleep would have been impossible.

Many reviewers mentioned a Message: some to celebrate it, others to reject it. I actually had difficulty seeing it. I saw good and evil defined in black-and-white terms, good being the integrated Navi and evil being the determination to break them by destroying everything they hold dear. Where it fell apart for me is that none of this ever reached mythic level, leaving me only with one-dimensional characters who were predictable, shallow, and boring. (The single exception -- almost -- was the near-Luciferian determination of the bad guy.) Whenever a Message is presented that way, it feels so awkward and forced that I often find myself much more intrigued by the opposite of what it is trying to say.

I did see emotion: extreme tragedy, extreme joy, extreme anger. There were no shadings. There were no mixed emotions. I could understand it, but the on-off switch was so extreme that it became unreal, an abstract thing to be watched rather than felt.

Eventually I finally found my attention engaged by, of all things, the battle tactics: not those of the Navi (which were effectively the same as ever), but those of the corporate side, forced into extremis. I did find it amusing that apparently the only way for Pandora to win was for it to learn to take sides: to take into itself the human ability to take sides and fight for a side.

(If this did not exist before -- and we are told it did not -- why do the Navi tribes understand and glorify the concept of warrior?)

The entire thing presented as a very simple plot which, really, was nothing but fighting and a simplistic overview of the reasons for fighting. It led, as such plots do, to the climactic battle. Apparently Avatar is based on a videogame? If so, I never heard of it before the film: yet the film so strongly follows a videogame outline that I found myself saying at times, "This feels like a videogame."

I saw almost no real sense of the world, neither Pandora nor the human side, and not Pandora's ecology and other world systems either. I saw many necessary biological niches, but nothing to fill them. Where Pandora is concerned, there is nothing shown that is not beautiful and even helpful to the Navi. The Navi are so clearly intended to master their world that all its creatures are allowed to retain their own individual will and personality only so long as they are not bound and dominated by one or another among the Navi.

The special effects were beautiful: but in 2D at least, I have seen many similar effects before. There were times when I had the distinct feeling that the effects were there at least in part to keep us from thinking about the story too much. In many places -- and this may have been more noticeable in 2D -- the shots had an unnecessarily deep field, clearly there specifically to provide a 3D "effect". I don't feel nearly as strongly about it as Ron Cobb, but then again I do not work in the field.

It makes a useful test to try to remember afterward (without looking it up) who actually acted in the film. Where the story and characters are memorable, the actors will be as well. Where the effects alone are memorable, only the director will be remembered. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were unknowns: but after Star Wars came out, everyone remembered them. In Avatar, everyone seems to remember James Cameron, and Cameron alone.

I do think that Avatar was worth seeing: once or twice. It will probably join the DVD collection as a 2D freebie add-on from someone else's 3D purchase.

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