Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar - Huzzah for the Stone Age!

I saw Avatar, today, and when I say "I saw Avatar today," the reader should note that this entails spending upwards of $9 to sit in a movie theater for three to six hours -- honestly, I lost count -- to watch a story that has already been rendered in film several times.*

On the level of story, this is Dances With Wolves again; it is any of several Pocahontas-and-John-Smith films again; it is Braveheart again; it is Gladiator again; it is Gangs of New York again, and so on. I strongly question whether this story -- Subject arrives amid The Other to learn and subvert The Other (or vice-versa), Subject changes sides and fights alongside The Other (or vice-versa); after much heartache and many lessons learned, the "good guys" prevail. Which reminds me, I hereby issue a spoiler alert for Avatar.

People who watch films for the technical aspects of visual effects might be impressed with Avatar. As for me, I don't give two shits about whether this film breaks new ground in 3-D or whatever, but the giving of shits is, of course, a matter of individual discretion. I defer to others on whether this film is secretly awesome because of the fabulous new way the director combined computers and cameras or whatever.

I was right there with it for the first few hours (honestly, I lost count), but by the time we seemed to be headed into our third or fourth decisive battle sequence -- or, by another metric, my second pee break -- I was ready for the damn thing to find a way to wrap up. And, amazingly enough, it did, and by the most implausible way imaginable -- an army wielding bows, arrows, flying lizards, and Gaia-ish mystical woo defeated a greedy invasion force outfitted with nothing better than technologies enabling cross-species mind transfer, advanced genetic engineering, interstellar travel, armored attack helicopters, and gigantic bipedal robotic tanks mounted with steel knives and huge guns.

It turns out that wood arrows are unbeatable when combined with the fighting spirit of the righteously oppressed who really, really want their planet-wide tree network to suffer no downtime. (Which reminds me: this is a worldwide network of interlinked organisms that we're supposed to be weeping over, but that implies that the death of a small number of nodes shouldn't harm the whole. Networks worth protecting are capable of routing their way around silenced nodes -- networks are redundant, and if they're not, they're not really networks. But whatever. The movie was quite long enough without delving into networks.)

It looked cool even as it went nowhere I hadn't been sixty or seventy times. I can say the rendering of the alien creatures was less distractingly fake than in many films I could mention. A more or less similar visual effect seemed to be the aim of, say, Beowulf -- but there, the story was kinda-sorta worth following and tended to subtract focus from the middling quality of the computer-enhanced visuals.


* Qualification (12/22) - it's not as though re-telling a familiar tale automatically dooms a film. Some of the best films ever made are direct adaptations of existing works, while other superb films are continuations of myths, themes, typologies, and characters we have read or seen countless times before. There is nothing new under the sun, so it would be stupid to say that only movies that bring genuinely new material can be credited. The question is how inventively the source materials are re-used, and whether the work at hand reaches for a new twist, a deeper look, or a new application. On this level, Avatar fails for being so hackneyed and predictable. From the first frames, we know where it will go, and it never bothers to perturb those expectations. Even despite all this, the film could have succeeded had it told this exact same story in an exceptionally complete, beautiful, and compelling way, so that it would become the standard from which subsequent efforts might depart. Alas, no. It tells a familiar story, does not depart from that story, and does not execute it with any exceptional grace. (And no, using a new whiz-bang combination of cameras and computers is not what I mean.)

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