Avatar: Better than Cats!

I celebrated getting through the past 5 weeks — one of the busiest times I’ve seen in many years — by seeing Avatar with my buddy Keith, who was here to give his own paper at the PAC conference. Herewith, my feelings about the film:

Avatar was, in a word, fascinating. I saw it in 3-D, and it was one of the most impressive movie-going experiences I’ve ever had. Most 3-D movies/shows are gimmicky, taking any occasion to throw something out toward the audience in order to startle them. Not so Avatar. Yes, I did flinch left once in a scene about 3/4 of the way through — I swear that piece of wood went right over my shoulder — but for the most part the 3-D didn’t feel forced or contrived. It was simply there, as much a part of the landscape as the blades of grass that would at times hover just out of my reach (not that I, um, tried to touch them or anything).

I would say that the cinetechnography (if I may coin a word) left me speechless, but it didn’t. At one point, near the start of the film, an image so staggered my brain that without thinking I muttered the only thing my primitive cerebrum could do to sum up the moment: “Holy $&#t.”

That said, I’m sad to report that not everything about the movie is great. The writing is generally quite putrid, with hardly a bit of it in any way original. Much of the plot is blatantly ripped off from other films, most obviously Dances with Wolves and Disney’s Pocahontas. Plus, the pace is off in stretches, there are gag-worthy info-dumps, and the name that Cameron comes up with for the Spice of Arrakis the otherwise unobtainable mineral present on only this one single place in the Known Universe is … wait for it … Unobtainium.

Seriously. I think I threw up a bit in my mouth just typing that. It was so bad it struck me as the sort of thing George Lucas would do.

Cameron is clearly trying to take ol’ George’s place as the director on the cutting edge of technology — and I daresay he’s succeeded there — but I think he might also be channeling George’s negative traits in odd ways. Here, for instance, is my artist’s rendition of some of Lucas’ “brain”-storming for his movie Return of the King Jedi:

I need an alien race for this third Star Wars film, but I don’t really have any original ideas. Hmmm … I like Wookies. That was a good idea. They’re tall. Need something like that. I know! I’ll make little Wookies. Totally different. Yeah, yeah, that’s good … and I’ll call them … shoot, stuck again. What would you call the opposite of a tall Wookie? Um … opposite of Wookie … Wait! Got it! I’ll just move that last letter to the front, sorta pig-Latin spell Wookie backwards! Cause they’re the opposite of a tall Wookie! An Ewok! Gawd, I’m brilliant! Yeah… little Wookies, like hobbits. Yeah. Hobbits. Only living in trees and a forest village, like Tolkien’s Elves. But what to name it … I know! I’ll call it Middle-earth! Hmmmm … wait, someone might catch on … Dang. Thought I was really on to something there. If only there was another name for Middle-earth!

At this point, I suspect Lucas stared at his office wall for a long, long while. Then he picked up his dictionary of the languages of Middle-earth — oh, you know he’s got one — and noted that in Quenya, a sort of Elvish Latin, the word for Middle-earth was Endor. Bing, bang, boom. Hobbit-high Wookies in Mirkwood, baby. Let the box office roll.

(Yes, I do think Lucas talks to himself using that many exclamation points.)

Cameron’s Avatar is thick with this kind of Georgian unoriginality (I mean associated with Mr. Lucas; no offense to those of the Peachy State). Just as a for instance, check out the name of the native people of Pandora (which is already the name of a real moon; way to reach there, Jimmy): the Na’vi. Am I the only one who sees, um, the word “native” there? Wow, Mr. Cameron. Subtle. Wookie, Ewok. Native, Na’vi. Oy.

Hell, he even pulls a Georgie in ripping himself off, since the few things not found among Costner’s Plains Indians are generally a recycled mash-up of Cameron’s other films:

Corporate sleazebag? Check. Anti-military depiction of marines as gun-happy jarheads? Check. Buff but seemingly heartless Latino marine who takes one for the team? Check. Walking mechs? Check. Slow build-up to a love-making scene in an odd spot immediately followed by hitting an iceberg a scene in which man and nature collide and send the movie into the Big Scenes of action in which the imperiled, newly sorta-married cute couple try to stave off the ruin of all? Check.

Plus, like the work of (Fan)boy George, Cameron’s Avatar was cheap. Not monetarily, obviously (either on the part of Cameron’s production or my shelling out $10 for the honor of seeing it), but in an authorial sense. Like Lucas, James Cameron unsubtly creates tension and drama in the cheapest ways. Just take a look at the Na’vi:

Meow.

Looks to me like Cameron and his design teams took the body type from Disney’s Pocahontas, gave her the too-big eyes of a cat dog (and of most other Disney hotties like Jasmine), added some Elvish or Vulcan ears (geeks love that), slapped on Angelina Jolie’s yummy lips, painted her blue so as to get away with leaving her essentially naked through the whole film, and called it a day. Other than being sorta Amazonian tall, she’s like the perfect sex object for the geeks of the world. Think they’ll buy the poster, the DVD, the action figure? Yes, I think they will indeed. It’s Cats without the crappy musical numbers, baby.

Or how about this: at some point Cameron noted (from a Story 101 class) that a protagonist should be “handicapped” in some way, in order to give him or her a character arc through the ensuing story. Perhaps the protag can’t let go of an obsession (see Dick, Moby). Perhaps the protag hates snakes (see Jones, Indiana). Perhaps the protag is too trusting (see Othello).

The point is that this need for a “handicap” gives the writer a lot of room for invention and originality. Cameron? He read that the protagonist should be handicapped and … well, he stopped reading right there. Chucked the dude into a wheelchair and called it a day. Who wouldn’t root for him now? You’d be downright mean and politically incorrect not to cheer for the deal on wheels.

Cheap, cheap, cheap.

Oh, and don’t get me started on some of the logic problems in the film. I’ll sum them up with a single shot from it:

Floating Mountains of Pandora.

It’s visual stunning, yes. Perhaps even staggering, especially in 3-D. Like I said, the movie is a truly amazing cinetechnographical experience.

But …

How do these mountains float in violation of all rules of Physics? The movie kinda sorta implies that the Unobtainium (man, that hurts to type) is involved, but if that’s so then there are gobs of this Easilyobtainium floating around the joint. End of plot.

And where oh where, if I may ask, is that water coming from? We see here not one but two waterfalls spilling off these floating rock islands. Not trickles, mind you, but massive falls spilling 1000s of cubic feet of water per second. Yet the mountain’s terrain isn’t formed to have a deep lake up top. There is no snow to melt. Though Pandora is intensely jungle-like in its vegetation, it never rains. And since the whole thing is floating it’s not as if this is groundwater welling up from a spring. So, um, what the heck, J.C.?

Oh, I could go on with other issues, but I don’t want to beat a dead 6-legged horse — say, how come the Na’vi are not, like all the other native things, 6-limbed? Oh, to hell with it… — and I don’t want to imply that I hated the film. Not at all. I really did enjoy it as an experience. Full of cats, it was better than Cats.

It’s just that, well, Cameron has once again proved how deficient Hollywood is in the finer points of both storytelling and science. And that fact, in turn, reminds me to point out to Cameron a final, simple fact:

I’m for hire, sir. I’d be happy to fix these problems in your next film.

6 Comments

  1. I loved The Core. It was simultaneously one of the very best and very worst movies I've ever seen. It's hard to accomplish that.Plus, I watched it with a whole row of geology grad students. Very happy memories. 😀

  2. Wow. He recycled shite, too, eh? Ridiculous. Scientists can be a lot of fun like that, Danielle. Watching Armageddon with an astrophysicist is something I won't forget.

  3. PS: The "unobtanium" concept is introduced far better in The Core. The character who named it delivered the line in an appropriately conscious-of-the-absurdity way; it totally worked.

  4. Believe it our not, this is not the first appearance of Unobtanium. Sadly, a movie called the Core also used the material to drill a whole to the center… you know what, its not important. That movie sucked. I just thought it was sad Avatar recycled something that lame. I mean the Wilhelm scream is one thing, but Unobtanium? Really?

Comments are closed