Thursday, December 31, 2009

Why Scorn Avatar?

Commenter Reuben asks a fair question:

Do you reserve particular contempt for the film out of its inverse popularity, or its inherent qualities? I mean, a LOT of bad films are being consistently farted out by Hollywood, and that without your comment (not that I'm expecting it).
Kinda. It's not so much the popularity that bugs me -- you're right that plenty of unwatchable, insultingly stupid garbage pulls in large audiences without the grace of my always-thoughtful commentary. It's the critical reception of Avatar that chaps my bee-hive and kicks my hide -- currently it's scoring 83% on Rotten Tomatoes, which is a travesty. I am confident in saying the same film with merely Hollywood-blockbuster-average visual effects would be scoring in the teens among critics.

I will go beyond that and assert that no film with a blemish as ham-handed as "unobtainium" would score above 60%. "Unobtainium"? Even the creative minds behind Congo and Rocky IV knew better than that.

So trace my scorning of Avatar to a failure of expectations management spiced with moral hazard. In turn:
  • Expectations Management: Jim Cameron is not incapable of making a decent film. Terminator was and remains a very watchable, even thought-provoking science fiction film, despite -- please note this -- its sometimes middling special effects. It took a terrible actor, Arnold Schwarzenneger, and put him in a role where his stiffness could actually work. Titanic, while far from flawless, managed to achieve what it seemingly set out to do, a thing at which many a film has failed, namely, give something to everyone in the audience. It's a romance and it's an action flick. It has suspense, layers of conflict, a pretty heroine, a dashing hero, a tear-jerking ending, even boobies and gunplay. Its special effects -- please note this -- serve the story rather than seeming like 100% of the reason anyone bothered to make the film.
  • Moral Hazard: Jim Cameron, and the many who cite him as inspiration, can be trusted to see Avatar's positive critical reception as a green light to make yet more films where the whizbang visual effects absorb 100% of the effort. Because there has been an Avatar, and because people who know better have pretended that it isn't terrible, we are guaranteed to receive dozens of knock-offs that similarly combine fabulous computers, awesome cameras, and scripts with things like "unobtainium" left in the final cut.
People say "it's hard to make a film" to excuse bad films because, hey, it's hard to make a film. I don't disagree: making a film is, in ways I'm sure I don't even recognize, a technical, financial, organizational, creative, and human relations challenge whose details would make me drop into a fetal position and soil myself.

On the other hand, this excuse has it somewhat backwards. A corollary is that a filmmaker gets only so many opportunities to make a film, so this should constitute a reason to step back and take the time to make it as well as possible: story, casting, effects, performances, directing, all of it.


Samuel John Klein Portlandiensis said...

Irritated by the constant buzz about Avatar, I started posting versions of what I saw as the most common sort of comment: Avatar is/has (insert non-sequitur superlative) on my Twitter stream (

No, it didn't go viral. Yeah, I know!

Some versions:

"Avatar has cured world hunger"

"Avatar is tougher than Chuck Norris"

"Avatar is much better than "Cats". I'm going to see it again and again."

Bpaul said...

"Avatar is much better than "Cats". I'm going to see it again and again."

serious guffaw from me, thanks for the laugh this morning


Reuben said...

My friend hypothesizes that the writers attached a sticky memo to the script indicating that unobtainium was a placeholder word for a some other, more awesome sounding element (einsteinium? ununquadium? kryptonite?) that had yet to be identified, but then the note was lost somewhere in the process and Cameron took it at face value.

Dale said...

Reuben, I have wondered the exact same thing -- a rough draft item that somehow never got fixed. The fact remains: it didn't get fixed.

SJKP, I like it! "Avatar made my baby stop crying!" "Avatar made me forget my family was swept away in the flood!" "Avatar is the way, the truth, and the light!" "Avatar is like a chocolate-covered three-hour orgasm!" "I'd trade ten years of my life for a chance to re-watch Avatar!"

And so on.