Review: Avatar (in 3D!)

By | December 21, 2009

Note: I write lots of stuff that gets posted elsewhere, because I am often stymied by my need to be Very On Topic on this blog. Starting today, I’m taking a to-hell-with-that approach, and will be sharing more of my other writing here, most of which really is pretty topical (at least on the social justice politics/pop culture criticism tip) but may not be explicitly fat-related. If you hate this, I am sure you will tell me. Thanks, friends.

Friday night, my husband and I went to see Avatar in 3D. My husband thinks it was one of the best movies he’s ever ever seen in the history of ever. I think it’s probably a movie worth seeing in a theater, to draw your own conclusions. My own assessment, in numbered-list format, is below the jump. It may be spoilery — as much as my read of a story you’ve heard a hundred different versions of already CAN be spoilery — but at least you were warned.

I hereby present my Avatar-related issues, in no particular order. Except the first one.

1. The length. The length of this movie is a problem. These days I pretty inevitably leave movie theaters saying, of almost every movie: “That wasn’t bad, but they could have trimmed fifteen minutes off and it would have been better.” I like my stories tight; I like the films I see to be precisely edited, with everything there for a particular reason, and nothing included just because, eh, well, we shot it, we may as well leave it in. Or because the bit-part in this scene is the cousin of the producer. Or because the studio wants a summer blockbuster that’s at least 120 minutes long because of whatever weird focus-group reason. So me, complaining about a film’s length, is hardly a new phenomenon, though typically my fantasy edits are less than thirty minutes in total.

In this case, I left Avatar saying: my god, that movie could have easily lost an HOUR of filler and been improved by the subtraction. Possibly as much as ninety minutes. I started checking my watch about an hour and fifteen minutes into this thing. That’s right: an hour and fifteen minutes along, and I thought surely we must be nearing the end of this two-hours-and-forty-minutes-long movie. You can imagine my aghast expression when I realized how much I still had to go.

2. The story. Yes, it was predictable, but that alone wouldn’t necessarily have been enough to ruin it for me, as there are many standard story tropes told and retold that still manage to entertain. The problem was that it was also boring. The effects were impressive and the visuals were striking, but I like a little content with my form. Here’s the whole plot: advanced-civilization-dwelling outsider is reluctantly accepted by an exoticized “simple” culture to find his own people are totally evil and thus fights alongside his newfound pets community against his own species to overthrow the bad guys and save the (alien) world. That’s it. Everything else is incidental, and chances are if you’ve imagined any subplots off the top of your head, they’re there: the hero’s romantical connection with the alien princess; the showdown with the vicious military jerk who just digs killing stuff; mean corporate suit only interested in profit; a few noble deaths of disposable-but-endearing supporting characters.

Oh, and of course, the magical substance that the soliders and corporate (relocate blue aliens + mine planet + ??? = profit) sleaze are after, the reason for the conflict? Is called “unobtanium”. I shit you not. Why they didn’t call it MacGuffanium is beyond me.

3. The characters. The aliens (i.e. “natives”) are terrible, painful caricatures of pretty much every aboriginal people, to the point of being completely unrelateable as individuals, even if they weren’t also nine feet tall and blue and made from computers. The human actors were marginally more, well, human (the ones played by Main Guy, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, and Dorky Guy, anyway) but we didn’t get to see much of them in that form. I get that this movie thinks it’s saying colonialism sucks – but when it says it using so many stereotypes and with the inevitable white guy hero as the dumb savages’ goddess-picked savior, well, it lacks the oomph it might otherwise impart. I went in prepared to find the whole “noble savages” angle annoying and/or frustrating, but mostly it was hilarious. The stereotyping practically crossed over into satire, particularly during the big blue YAY TREES rally toward the end.

Also, didn’t get enough blue wang from Watchmen? Avatar gives you barely-concealed blue boobs. I’m not so much against nudity in a general sense, but this was seriously distracting. I don’t even want to know how much dialogue I missed while trying to figure out whether the main blue heroine was wearing a bra top or a big necklace or wow, I can totally see like 80% of her boob there, and is that a nipple?

4. The actors. This one isn’t all bad. Sigourney Weaver is awesome in everything. Michelle Rodriguez is so hot. Crazy, crazy, crazy hot. On-fire hot. Even just looking slightly bored? Hot. Michelle Rodriquez could make anything appealing, even a run-of-the-mill midair battle sequence that could have been cribbed directly from Battlestar Galactica’s cutting-room floor. My only complaint here is that this movie was not about Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriquez systematically wiping the rest of the humans off the face of this distant planet, preferably whilst exchanging witty buddy-comedy dialogue (like Sigourney could be all “I’m too old for this shit” and it would be charming).

My other minor issue was with Main Guy, whose name I forget no matter how many times I read it. Main Guy is our cocky wheelchair-riding former-marine hero, who fumbles into this Highly Sciencey Mission because his twin brother was supposed to do it, but inconveniently got himself killed, and since growing an avatar costs a lot of money they figured they’d toss Main Guy into his dead brother’s avatar because, being twins, their nervous systems should match up okay. Never mind that Main Guy, as he likes reminding us, is not Sciencey but Soldiery. As it happens, (surprised faces on) it turns out it’s precisely His Warrior SpiritTM that enables him to be accepted in Bluetown. But anyway, this is not a gripe with the character so much as it is with his speaking voice, which went something like this:

American american american american !!AUSTRALIAN!! american american.

What was amusing about it was it seemed entirely an individual-word problem. Often when actors slip out of accents, they shift subtly between sounds over the course of sentences and conversations. With Main Guy here, it’s just a random word here and there. “Did,” which sounds particularly different between American English (with a short i sound) and Australian English (more like an ei sound), was a common offender that leapt out. It honestly left me wondering why this dude had to be American in the first place. Given that reference is made to an Earth where “nothing is green”, we’re looking at a dystopian profit-driven distant future, yes? Why would we assume that all the security forces working on this distant planet come from the US? I think it’s actually MORE likely they’d come from a variety of places, especially considering the film is pretty clear on the fact that these offworld soldiers are glorified mercenaries. So why not let Main Guy just be Australian and talk with his own damn voice?

(I kind of expect James Cameron has an intensely idiotic explanation for this, like, “Oh, but Australia was destroyed during The Great Superintelligent-Kangaroo Uprising of 2365, at which point we razed the continent from orbit and now use it as the planet’s main landfill.” And then he’d think, hell, I bet I could get somebody to give me $300 million to make a movie about THAT, too! And then he’d do it, because James Cameron is kind of a dick.)

To sum up:

Was it pretty to look at? Absolutely. The 3D effects were crazy, and not badly used, and positively restrained with the cheap OOH-WOW tricks, like glowy space bugs that seem to buzz around outside of the screen, or sparkling embers drifting down out of the night sky after a fire. And the planet feels surprisingly real and near, with a few dumb exceptions (silly lumbering hammerhead-rhino monsters; the Magic Untouchable Flying Killer Dragon that our hero forces into submission with minimal effort; the heavy-handedness of the whole “SEE, THEY’RE CONNECTED WITH NATURE! LET ME BEAT YOU OVER THE HEAD WITH ADDITIONAL PLOT CONTRAIVANCES TO MAKE SURE YOU GET IT” theme). But the recycled story and the so-bad-they-almost-cease-to-be-offensive (think of a little kid’s drawing of an American Indian with arrows sticking out of his head) Noble Savages and the heavy-handed BE GREEN! message made it difficult for me to get truly lost in Cameron’s vision for more than fifteen to twenty minutes at a stretch before some terrible bit of dialogue or totally predictable plot twist snapped me back to reality.

At which point, I’d check my watch again. As a filmmaker, Cameron’s world-building skills are without equal. I only wish his storytelling was half as good.

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