The Dim-Post

December 27, 2009

Avatar

Filed under: movies — danylmc @ 9:26 am

Scattered thoughts.

  • It was pretty good; solid action sequences and the production design is very impressive. He spent around $300 million and it shows, although the script is awesomly banal. I don’t understand why you’d go to all the trouble of inventing a new language and 500 different species for the planet and not spend a couple extra days polishing up the screenplay.
  • That said, I hardly ever watch Hollywood movies, so if you’re comparing it to other blockbusters like 2012 or Transformers I imagine it’s a masterpiece of storytelling.
  • Some critics have accused it of being derivative of Aliens. I think that misses the point. It’s obviously a revisionist commentary on Aliens in which we’re booing the marines and cheering for the Alien. Casting Weaver as a scientist who studies and protects the Alien and mirroring the final fight scenes from the two films makes that pretty clear, although I’m not sure why Cameron felt he had to throw that in there along with all the Iraq/Vietnam/Native American/Environmentalism themes.
  • Cheering the alien/booing the marine makes this one of the most subversive Hollywood movies I’ve seen.
  • The big difference between Avatar and Cameron’s previous films is that there’s no strong central performance to find the characters through Cameron’s godawful writing and hold the film together.
  • The real technological breakthough – for me – was the performance capture technology. It can’t be long until they’re using it to shoot movies starring dead celebrities and historic figures.
  • I thought the 3D experience was interesting but not amazing (this was my first 3D movie). It doesn’t show us anything we can’t see or experience in 2D  and Cameron hasn’t figured out a way to compose his shots to take advantage of the new technology the way, say, Greg Toland and Orson Welles did with deep focus. It is pretty cool to see things floating in the air just in front of your face, but to me 3D still seems like a gimmick to get people to watch movies in the theatre instead of at home on DVD.
  • Speaking of which, watching a movie at Reading in Courtney Place is a pretty shitty experience. The tickets were almost $20 each; we had to queue for ages to get them because the cinema only had one person at the box office on one of the busiest days of the year. Then they made us queue for fifteen minutes to get into the theatre, then they showed us twenty minutes of ads. I guess I’ll pay all that money and endure all that shittiness a couple times a decade when a ‘cultural phenomenon’ like Avatar rolls around but in general I’ll keep watching movies in the comfort of my home for less than 1/10th of the price of going to the theatre.
  • I’m not sure Avatar will work that well on DVD (unless you have a massive plasma tv). I liked it but can’t see myself watching it again (I’ve seen Titanic a few times now, on a plane or on tv. It stands the test of time pretty well; I predict Avatar will look pretty clunky in five years. Pandora already looks a bit kitschy and dated).
  • I suspect the story seems clunky because Cameron turned in a 3.5+ hour movie and they had to trim a lot; I wouldn’t be that surprised to see a ~200 minute directors cut show up in a couple years.
  • Hollywood film-makers really need to get over their Joseph Campbell obsession.
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23 Comments »

  1. Good review notes. I think it will look OK on biggish (not necessarily massive) plasma/LCD screens – I am keen to rewatch it purely because there were some stunningly beautiful sequences and ideas. It was the first time I’ve seen a 3D film as well, and I was surprised at how quickly it became mundane. It was cool, but I don’t think it’s a piracy or DVD killer at all. It was far too long, though that was always going to be the case. I thought the N’avi were modelled (visually/adornment-wise) on the Masai. Our projector broke down halfway through (Hoyts Riccarton) – cue mild anarchy and epic shadow puppetry. We all got compo tickets, which must have cost them near on $6000.

    Comment by Tidge — December 27, 2009 @ 10:14 am

  2. I watched it in 2D and the visuals were awesome enough as they were.

    With such an overwhelming visual spectacle to take in, it was a relief to have a simple theme and plot as balance. Having said that, IMO the idea of **SPOILER** gaia as a single sentient organism, including the planet’s flora and fauna, isn’t one that has been explored well, if at all, in film. It’s been done in books (noteably in Anne McCaffrey’s various young adult novels) but Avatar is the first film in my memory to give a really good go at it.

    As for the CGI, I was rapt when I realised we could read the expressions on the aliens’ digital faces. Stunning work.

    And I for one like the reversal of the final fight scene – a great nod for the Aliens fans out there.

    Comment by Ataahua — December 27, 2009 @ 11:53 am

  3. Big blue Orcs. Or larger hobbits than last time. How Weta.
    Looked like one long detergent commercial.
    Why didn’t the masai whatsits breathe through their ribcages and have six appendages?
    And whats with the rodeo wrangling of the horse-chess piece animal when all had to do is be nice to it? Alien whispering…
    What a pile….
    300 million gets alot of flouro tho’

    Comment by ConorJoe — December 27, 2009 @ 12:11 pm

  4. I can’t imagine sitting through a 200 minute movie. Any movie.

    My upper limit on films is 90 minutes. I reckon that’s plently long enough to tell a story, and any more is self-indulgence.

    Low budget films like Braindead, Black Sheep, Blair Witch Project work for me – and as the ability to enforce copyright implodes, those will be the only films that get made…

    Comment by Rich — December 27, 2009 @ 12:47 pm

  5. “Cheering the alien/booing the marine makes this one of the most subversive Hollywood movies I’ve seen.”

    You should see Starship Troopers, in that case.

    Comment by Andrew Geddis — December 27, 2009 @ 6:19 pm

  6. Rich, do you also set an upper readworthiness limit of 200 pages on a novel?

    If so, you have my condolences. Even really long movies (like Apocalypse Now Redux and Birth of a Nation and Spartacus and such) take a fraction of the time it would take to read a fairly slim book. Unless you’re an extremely fast reader. Or you play your movies really slowly.

    L

    Comment by Lew — December 27, 2009 @ 6:31 pm

  7. One can read a novel at leisure, dipping in and out. That isn’t the case for a movie at a cinema, or if you watch it with friends.

    If a long novel (Tom Wolfe’s 742pp A Man In Full springs to mind) justifies its length, I’m more than happy to be entertained for a day or two.
    (There are novels that do not. Harry Potter, ever since JK Rowling disregarded her editor, is a good example).

    And yes, I speed read. Three big books to cross the Pacific. Not that I’ll be doing that for a while after the latest nutcase/overreaction episode.

    Comment by Rich — December 27, 2009 @ 6:38 pm

  8. Re Comment by Ataahua — December 27, 2009 @ 11:53 am

    Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. Translated into English from Czech.
    Excellent book, too bad about the movie. The whole planet Solaris is one sentient being.

    Comment by David in Chch — December 27, 2009 @ 8:49 pm

  9. The story seemed a bit allegorical to me. Romans and jews. The gods name Eiwa even sounds like Jehovah.

    Either that or I read way too much into it?

    PS Starship Troopers kicked ass! Great satire on the book and militarism in general.

    Comment by Rangi — December 28, 2009 @ 3:20 am

  10. You should see Starship Troopers

    Yeah, I love Starship Troopers. (My film geek friends keep telling me Showgirls is also a satirical masterpiece. I don’t see it.)

    The Heinlein novel ‘Starship Troopers’ is on a required reading list in the US Marine Corp.

    Comment by danylmc — December 28, 2009 @ 5:34 am

  11. David: Thanks for the tip. I’ll hunt out Lem’s Solaris at the library.

    Comment by Ataahua — December 28, 2009 @ 7:09 am

  12. Solaris by Stanislaw Lem. Translated into English from Czech.
    Excellent book, too bad about the movie.

    There are two remakes of Solaris, the recent one with George Clooney and the 70s Tarkovsky version, which is very slow, but REALLY good. I love ‘Solaris’ – the alien is, well, alien. I also rate ‘The Cyberiad’ by Lem.

    Comment by danylmc — December 28, 2009 @ 7:33 am

  13. Yes, Lem wrote some wonderful socially themed sci-fi in the 1950’s and 60’s. He was writing stories that were subtly aimed at the Russian occupiers and their puppets. I personally think The Cyberiad is better than Solaris, and both better than his other novel/collection of stories.

    I never saw the Tarkovsky version of Solaris. Wherever I was living at the time, it played only briefly before disappearing. And I avoided the Clooney Solaris quite consciously. :-)

    Comment by David in Chch — December 28, 2009 @ 9:34 am

  14. I suspect the story seems clunky because Cameron turned in a 3.5+ hour movie and they had to trim a lot;

    Nope. The story is clunky because Cameron just doesn’t give a shit about narrative and characterisation beyond the (barely) functional required to drag you from one skull-fuck of a action set piece to the next. While my expectations were pretty much non-existent, I wish he’d at least tried.

    And if someone says “it looks AMAZING” one more time, I’m going to give them a popcorn enema. When you’ve got several hundred million dollars to play with, SO IT BLOODY SHOULD unless everyone involved in the production is embezzling to feed their drug habits.

    Comment by Craig Ranapia — December 28, 2009 @ 1:32 pm

  15. “The real technological breakthough – for me – was the performance capture technology. It can’t be long until they’re using it to shoot movies starring dead celebrities and historic figures.”

    Kinda be cool to see Raiders of the Lost Ark remade starring Abraham Lincoln.

    Comment by llew — December 28, 2009 @ 9:44 pm

  16. I have no doubt that in around four years time JB HiFi and Noel Leeming will be wall to wall with 100 inch 3D televisions, which every man, woman, and monkey will fill their living room with. The films will be no better.

    On a slightly less sour note, I can think of a few films that I think would look phenomenal with another dimension. I think Danyl is right to put it down as another film-making technique like depth of field. Directors that make beautiful and well shot films will continue to do so. James Cameron, Peter Jackson and their ilk will continue to make films that are no better or worse than they have always made.

    Comment by George Darroch — December 30, 2009 @ 11:08 am

  17. Ah yes, Good old Craig Ranapia, proving time after time that self-important provincial sophisticates can be relied on to consistantly confuse cynicism with sophistication.

    First, my moan – I saw the movie at St. Lukes; A queue of 22 people was waiting to be served by the pathetic three staff manning the ten tills. Predictably, I waited in a queue for ten-twelve minutes. Surely the dickheads who run these theatres can work out that in the holidays families might like to go to the movies together? I am pleased though I made a point of seeing this movie in 3D, it’s exceptional seen this way. I thought that visually the planet Pandora was a triumphant piece of original imagination. Well, it was a BIT like a psy-trance gig in a forest after some excellent LSD but the planet was convincing enough to make me feel for three hours I was on another world, utterly different from ours.

    However, it is pretty clear that after it’s failure on Pandora the RDA corporation was eventually purchased by Weyland-Yutani. Not much new thinking there.

    I wouldn’t call the movie a subversive re-writing of Aliens. Firstly, The hyper-patriotism of American audiences means Cameron went to some trouble in this movie to reassure the watchers that the bad guys are not the saintly United States but bad, bad Xe/Blackwater. Secondly, He knows the plot formula from Aliens works. He couldn’t just remake Aliens, so he changed sides in a sure-fired and tested winning formula. Cameron played safe – probably a wise idea when you are spending 300 million dollars on an escapist fantasy. Thirdly, any movie premised on “White guy gets accepted into race of noble savages and becomes it’s most awesome member” cannot, by definition, be subversive since it plays directly to the central, reactionary assumption of white, Anglo racial & cultural superiority that dominates American culture.

    This movie, like all Hollywood movies, is about making money. To me, the best money making American movies have to have box office appeal on two levels. The mid-western morons have to be given a fairly simple to like fairy tale (even if the morons being mocked in the movie are them) and they have to have enough nods at real world perceptions of the USA not to offend the (mostly) coastal dwelling movie critics and more cosmopolitan audiences.

    Cameron has always made movies where the biggest star is a prop. The Alien was the real star of Aliens and the RMS Titanic was the real star of Titanic. And in Avatar, the real star of the movie is the planet Pandora. Criticising lack of plot or dialogue in a Cameron movie is a bit like criticising a fishes bike riding technique. The point is, IT’S RIDING A BIKE DUDE!!!

    To me, then, this movie was an utterly American parable. “The dancing with wolves/Aliens” theme is a constantly repeated American fable, as if the collective conscience of a people is afflicted by a nagging doubt, like a flicker out of the corner of the eye, that manifest Destiny was won at the cost of paradise lost after all, Joseph Campbell was an American. His ideas must have come from somewhere. Perhaps Hollywood has less of an obsession with Joseph Campbell than Joseph Campbell reflects a wider American obsession with the what they destroyed.

    Now, the person I REALLY dislike is the idiotic friend who will download some shitty version of Avatar and loudly tell all and sundry he has it on his hardrive and has already seen it, as if he has won some sort of cinematic bullrush. But I also really dislike it when people pronouce upon the comfort of their own home for watching movies; It reeks of smugness, laziness and poverty of imagination. I love the spell of the cinema, the way that it can take you to another planet for three hours – without the distractions of of the “comforts” of home. The picture theatre can hold you spellbound for three hours; The feckless I suppose like the comfort of having enough light to read a magazine in the boring bits or being able to shatter the illusion to pause the picture to make a cup of tea or collect the pizza when it arrives. Personally I love watching movies in cinemas.

    I don’t know about others, but at the session I attended there were four wheelchair bound people watching, much more than usual noe or maybe one. I would imagine spending three hours in the fantasy world of Avatar may have had a whole different dimension for them. I hope so.

    At the end of the day, a movie is about entertainment, and therefore it can only be judged by it’s audience reaction. For almost three hours I sat in a packed theatre collectively spellbound by the beautiful star of the movie, Pandora. And not many movies can manage that.

    Comment by Sanctuary — January 2, 2010 @ 8:49 pm

  18. Thanks for the review, especially the warning about the screenplay. Your reviews are usually excellent so I’ll take it on advisement.

    One more minor point though…. does this movie have like, err….. *acting* in it with *dialogue* and character development and stuff, or is it just something to hang a playstation game onto?

    Just enquiring…..

    Comment by Dave Mann — January 3, 2010 @ 9:42 am

  19. Thirdly, any movie premised on “White guy gets accepted into race of noble savages and becomes it’s most awesome member” cannot, by definition, be subversive since it plays directly to the central, reactionary assumption of white, Anglo racial & cultural superiority that dominates American culture.

    Win.

    The ‘aliens’ are played by non-white actors. The movie is called Avatar. The good white liberal becoming the other is the point rather than just a narrative mechanism.

    Comment by Pascal's bookie — January 3, 2010 @ 10:07 am

  20. Nice work sanctuary. a really good read.
    picture theaters can really suck however matey. the guy kicking the back of yr seat. the girl one row over with the texting. the…. oh the horror, can’t wait for access to these Brian Edwards winston peters gold card oldies afternoon screenings. and the cheap fare to and fro as well

    Comment by ConorJoe — January 3, 2010 @ 7:19 pm

  21. My guess is that the sequel will revolve around Parker Selfridge seeking to exploit the neural connection data processing thingy that exists under the trees. That would have been more interesting in the first place.

    The Lovely Bones – Peter Jackson spends a fortune on a new add for Weta, takes no risks, tries very very hard to pull on every heart string with resoundingly little effect. More evidence that special effects have no place to go. Very good suspense sequences padded with relentless maukishness.

    Comment by Neil — January 5, 2010 @ 10:15 am

  22. [...] However, to be fair almost no-one seems to agree with this negative view.  IMDB is currently giving it 8.7/10.  The Dim Post also reviews. [...]

    Pingback by TVHE » Karl du Fresne’s review of Avatar — January 6, 2010 @ 1:10 pm

  23. [...] but there seriously wasn’t a lot to engage one besides the visual spectacle. Danyl at the Dim Post found the movie subversive because marines were the bad guys. I simply thought it was just the [...]

    Pingback by Avatar | MacDoctor — January 13, 2010 @ 11:03 pm


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