There’s been a bit of talk, here and there, on this blog about Cameron’s digi-romance 3D thrillride, but I thought it deserved its own thread. First of all, I’ve seen quite a few films made with the latest 3D technology, but this surely is the finest yet. I don’t want to go into the story too much. It is, as Chris pointed out, Ferngully (I’m taking his word, as I have not seen it). But it is also Aliens (Ribisi doesn’t quite manage to outdo Paul Reiser, but he comes close). Bad corporate interests, good-intentioned scientists, an ambivalence about technology

Just a couple of related things to get us started. First, the obvious: its so-called beauty. David Denby raves that the film is the most beautiful he’s seen in years: “no one should ignore how lovely ‘Avatar’ looks, how luscious yet freewheeling, bounteous yet strange.” How can one ignore it? What is there to distract us? The story is stripped to the core, its narrative structure utterly pure, generically. Can one really so enthralled with the storytelling that one ignores the film’s beauty? Anyway, what strikes me as more odd than this statement is a claim later in Denby’s review that one should more or less ignore the irony that the film’s “anti-technology message is delivered by an example of advanced technology that cost nearly two hundred and fifty million dollars to produce.” Really? Relish instead the image, says Denby. But can’t one do that and address the story’s macro-politics in the context of the film’s methods of production? “What a show Cameron puts on!” Agreed. Now let’s talk about this show–its relation to America’s own history, America’s own foreign policy, the events of 9/11. Really, I’m surprised by Denby’s “beauty trumps ideology” line. Anyway, on with my thoughts:

After some distance (almost a day), the thrill of viewing this film is gone. But the experience is still vivid. The “show” I went to was very obviously oversold. I went with my wife and her niece, and we all had to sit in different places (even though we arrived more or less at a decent time). We paid two extra dollars each for the 3D experience (no one explains to us why, and I’m not sure there is an explanation to be had). I sat in the way back, the only row that had seats (the row is only three seats long, and it is in the corner). I sat on top of about 5 or 6 plastic boosters in order to raise myself high enough to be able to see over the row in front of me (I thank Cameron for being wise enough, or talentless enough, to put all the important visual information pretty high up in the frame). The boosters were too small for my ass and my legs kept cramping up. I was very aware, throughout this film, that I was at a show. But I was also very aware that the show was not much different than others, even though I had been told (we all have been told) that this film is unlike any other we’ve ever seen. Well, it is and it is not. There’s one brief moment where Sully, as avatar, is running through the woods with Neytiri. He is delighted by how the vegetation luminates upon touch (apparently Pandora is an LCD moon). He taps one plant, then another, each time with more glee. That’s pretty much the film’s take on its own technology. Neat-o!

Cameron has little or no concern for the image as such, and in this way the film is nothing new. How, exactly, does the human mind process data and gesturing and tactile interfacing? What does it mean to engage with and record the image this way? Sully is in one environment, his avatar is in another. Does Cameron have no interest in this at all? None. Here’s how you get from one environment to another: a tube! Yup, we travel through a slinky-like rainbow colored tube. No matter that this visual idea is used in just about every film that deals with virtual worlds or interfacing. What matters is that Cameron completely ignores the reality of the technology he uses–the reality of the image as such.

But I wonder if there is something of interest left on the cutting room floor (sorry to sound so archaic). This film surely needs to be four hours long. Probably was at the 4th or 5th cut. The film makes leaps and bounds of extraordinary narrative length in order to get down to its two hour and forty-five minute length. For example, what should have been the film’s most extraordinarily beautiful scene is left out (hey Denby, you can’t ignore that!). The (un)scene is when Sully tames the mighty Toruk. How can Cameron possibly leave this out? Is it because he more or less did the scene already when Sully tames his own Ikran? My niece has an explanation which may suffice. Sully didn’t need to tame it.

Cameron had something meaningful–I mean huge, the first film of its kind. Cameron could have put something in the film that gets right at what is the most cutting edge area of study in New Media: 3D technology and tactile interfacing. Cameron wants to tell a love story. Fine. But he could have addressed the idea of the human and the image directly. Sully’s video diary could have been the place to do this. But, as with all other interesting aspects of the film, this aspect is underexploited. Again, perhaps there’s about another hour or so of footage of Sully recording an image of himself as he talks about his engagement with the image. Maybe some of it is insightful. Most of it is probably hoaky. Perhaps it’s too much to ask Cameron to be so self-reflexive, but I don’t think so.

Cameron is a genius on one level. He knows exactly what we want, generically. There’s no chance in hell that a perfectly happy ending will not be delivered. And Cameron’s got a real gift for editing–the Home Tree destruction juxtaposed with Sully being playfully coerced by the other scientists to get in his healthy breakfast before “going in”–is near perfect. It’s repeated later when Neytiri is pinned under a dead something-or-other beast, and again when Sully is grasping for his oxygen mask.

I’m running out of steam (can you see my paragraphs are getting shorter and shorter?) Everyone must see this is its proper format (IMAX 3D). Seen in any other format will only expose the film for what it really is.

16 thoughts on “Avatar

  1. me, i like when shit blows up, and so i was not bothered too much by cameron not saying anything smart about the image and virtual realities. i don’t think he has it in him anyway–the political allegory is ham-fisted enough. and cronenberg got there first with existenz anyway.

    i do object to people complaining about the story while conceding that the special effects are path breaking. it’s like complaining about the special effects in a bergman movie. the context for cameron is people like michael bay, and he’s the orson welles of that genre.

    what i was bothered by (as an insane animal lover) was sully’s abandonment of the ikran he is bonded to for the turok. they should at least have cut to the poor creature weeping on a crag at the end of the film. maybe in the sequel it’ll get its revenge.

  2. Still, Titanic was a cheesy story but very well told! People went back to see that film over and over again, because they fell in love with the characters (not to mention the cathartic rush of emotions that film delivers). People will not go back to see Avatar because they love Jake and Neytiri; they will go because the special effects are amazing. The storytelling in The Terminator films as well as Aliens was far superior to what we have in Avatar. I didn’t need a great screenplay, but I did want something on par with his earlier work. Nevertheless, shit does indeed blow up good and often inches away from my face. I can get on board with that.

  3. Some of these professional reviewers are only a short step away from writing corporate PR. I don’t understand falling all over oneself regarding the film’s beauty and technological innovations; in terms of viewing it was no more impressive than a Ray Harryhausen film. In fact, less so perhaps. It’s simply more aggressive. Like George Lucas, Cameron seems to be a kind of idiot savant. He can count 10,000 fallen matchsticks in a second but he can’t tell you his name. At first I thought it might be remarkable to have such big-screen sympathy for revolution by indigenous people, but then I realized that this generic sympathy is nothing new; and since it’s all filtered through the actor at the center of the film–who leaves little impression–I don’t think it has much impact (like the recent three Lucas films, too, Cameran thinks so little of anything but the technology in Avatar that he casts an unconvincing actor at its center). At its core Avatar sticks to the Christian-lite “Chosen One” ideology, the same bland religiosity that also compromised anything of interest in The Matrix.

    Don’t get me wrong–I enjoyed the movie and added my extra two bucks for the 3D glasses (who chooses to see these movies in 2D?). But, even as a spectacle, it wears thin a bit when it gets to the airfight and the confrontation between the crusty Colonel (I would have cast Ernest Borgnine) and the Indians…er, Navi. And, my pet peeve, the soundtrack, as usual in these kinds of movies, is so bombastic that at times it overwhelms everything else. And, while we’re at it, James Cameron, weren’t the Aliens intelligent creatures just minding their own business on their planet? Sure, they weren’t blue and they didn’t have cute little blue butts like Neytiri, but don’t they deserve a break, too? Coraline is the best use of 3D I’ve seen recently, though I can’t discount that stunning scene from Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Pancakes. oooh, maple, strawberry or apricot?

  4. Borgnine? Hell, why not Ed Asner? It would have been one performance away from a hat trick. Yes, the soundtrack with its lilting refrains and chord progressions stolen wholesale from Horner’s score for Titanic . . . if ever Cameron needed to move in another direction, the score was certainly the place to start.

  5. I agree, Chris Jeff. Maybe not so much with your thoughts about Titanic, but I certainly agree that there’s much better storytelling in Aliens. Ripley is incapable of making people understand just what they’re up against. We understand, because we all saw Alien. What’s brilliant about the film is what Cameron does with the marines. So pumped up, so well-trained. But you simply can’t teach experience. All the preparation in the world cannot give you experience. This is serious tragic shit–going way back to Sophocles. You think you know everything? So, when the shit happens–that first big Alien attack–we get big narrative payoff. These marines are prepared but still fucked. Ripley is right. You can’t just go in guns a-blazing. Not only do we, the audience, get the drama, we get shit blowing up. John Carpenter’s The Thing comes to mind here, too. Great characters, great tension, great effects, and shit blowing up.

    Cameron tries to get a little of this in Avatar, and again with Weaver’s character. Grace pleads with Parker that there’s something bigger, better, more valuable, more important than Unobtainiun on Pandora. We know that, the other scientists know that, Sully knows that. Parker doesn’t give a shit, he pushes on, and the army he contracts it all out to gets its ass whooped. But it’s all pretty limp.

    Again, maybe there’s a better film here with additional footage. In fact, I’ll say that this is a cracking good film with another 45 minutes or so. And I’ll take leg cramps and a bruised ass for another 45 minutes, believe me.

  6. I’m with John, insofar as he complains about the lack of really intriguing imagery and the utter indifference to the resonant idea of the image which might have livened up the film’s plot, too. Super-duper new toys, but what the toys showed us–in terms of image and of plot–were the same old tedious crap. Imagine constructing the world’s most lifelike robots, with uncanny fluidity of motion, and then having them do nothing but play rock-’em-sock-’em games, knocking each other’s heads off. Denby’s wrong not just because of his strange attempt to enjoy the image as if separable from ideology; he’s wrong because these are not images to enjoy.

    And Michael gets it–I wanted more Harryhausen. Not to romanticize old can-do gumption, the idyllic past where special effects took grizzled old men with smoldering cigarettes 372 weeks to produce. No. But for chrissakes a little imagination? Like Michael, I think Coraline is the most startling and lovely 3D film thus far–so many rich surfaces and textures and depths to explore. Your eyes get lost. In Avatar, you give your eyes about 30 minutes and they adjust.

    What struck me about John’s comment the first time out was the idea of the “experience” of watching this film. That’s what all the reviewers are talking about. But I was with extended family, and they were raving about a new dining theater — part of some big chain’s attempt to collapse the night out into one neat package — and it bugged the shit out of me but damn was it interesting. It’s a traditional theater layout, but in front of each stadium row of seats is a long dimly-lit dining platform. Before the show, waitstaff come ’round, take orders. I had coffee. A small buzzer is set up every few feet on the platform, so you can call them back for top-ups, more food, through the movie. So periodically my 3d experience was enhanced, as the silhouette of a big head butted up into the flowing bluey lightshow floating inches in front of the screen. Now, clearly it sucks as a filmgoing experience — and sure you could say the hubbub of clattering silverware and people munching wings was a terrible degradation of the good old days, when all I heard was some fat schmoe finding every last popcorn kernel at the bottom of his crinkly paper bag while hoovering up each drop of the Dew in his big gulp. But where Denby (and even M. Dargis, god love her!) raved about Avatar as a film experience, even without my added complement of faux fine dining I think I would have found this be a “film experience,” a neat simulacrum of what films are–the idea of astonishing images that enrapture catching us all up behind the big gray-black lenses that look like my grandma’s old betablocking sunglasses. Avatar is like the most photographed barn in the country–you see it because it is something that people are keen to see. There’s nothing cinematic about it.

  7. Thin gruel indeed. I now see the connection. Your trip to the cinema sounds like a nightmare (three steps below dinner theatre, which, happily, I’ve managed to avoid all these many years.

  8. I think that John gave me credit for a comment by Jeff. I actually loathed Titanic; it now strikes me as much like Avatar, that is to say a special effects bonanza with a light topping of something claiming to be a “serious” social issue, in Titanic’s case: crude commentary on class differences. And love stories make me even more queasy than heavy seas and icebergs.

    I saw Avatar less than a week ago and nothing has stayed with me, for all its splendor at the time. As you have all noted, there is just nothing substantial behind the effects. In retrospect, as Michael says, it is embarrassing that even at the prestigious end of the movie reviewer spectrum there has been such a willingness to overlook fluff because of the technology.

    Whereas I can still watch and enjoy Alien/Aliens and Terminator/Terminator 2. Hell, I’d rather watch Alien3 again, with fine performances by Charles Dance and Charles Dutton, than Avatar.

  9. Sorry Chris.

    It’s interesting that mike mentions his deluxe-o-matic cinema experience, as there was, only a few days ago, a story on NPR about the shift to “upscale” theatres across the country. There was a mention of ArcLight in L.A., which Alicia and I used to frequent (her more than me) many years ago. But now it seems it’s catching on in a much more widespread fashion.

    The most recent dining/cinema experience I had was in Mexico City, where Alicia and I saw Ocean’s 13, which was just the right kind of film for this kind of venue. So I think if you can find the right film, the dinner/movie thing works well. A bit pricey, though. There’s nothing like it here in Charleston, though our beloved Terrace Theatre has an amazing beer selection.

  10. As soon as critical opinion not just shifts to hate the film but to despise and deride all who like it, I’ll reinvest. ‘Til then, it’s a flat bore…

  11. So, it’s personal? Pop culture theory only works for critically despised texts? Do critics even matter when it comes to popular texts? Isn’t it the overriding popularity (and in this day and age the way that popularity zips and zooms through the internets) that piques one’s theoretical curiosities? Reading your smart post on the Twilight novels immediately reminded me of Avatar. I’m really not a fan of the film (and there seems to be a large contingent of internet jibber-jabbers who are also haters . . . I smell a backlash), but I do think it warrants interest on a number of levels.

  12. Sure, go nuts.

    But I will put this in the same bin as American Idol and Survivor and a billion other pop culture items that don’t pluck my zither. So much trash, so little time–why waste any UNLESS I’m in some way caught up? I’m not. Could I be? Sure. But since you seem keen to find some interesting conversation, get ‘er done. (See that last bit? I made a sly reference to Larry the Cable Guy. See above re pop culture that doesn’t interest me.)

  13. A really fine piece on Avatar is in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. It’s not only one of the better things I’ve read on Cameron’s film, but one of the better pieces of film criticism I’ve read in a while. I confess I say this in part because Mendelsohn (who wrote the piece) argues along similar lines I argue (see above). His is the piece I wish I could have written.

    Check it out here.

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