Saturday 8 May 2010

Avatar - or, James Cameron steals another three hours of my life

I don't like greatest lists, as regular readers will know. Similarly, I don't like X is the worst [blank] of all time. That said, if one were assembly a list of the worst films of all time, Titanic would certainly make my cut. I can remember few times where I have been so bored or where I have cared so little about the characters. At the time one comedian described it along the lines of "My heart will go on, and on, and on, and on.... a bit like the [expletive deleted] movie!". If I'd been in the cinema I might have walked out, as it was I was in my room at university, but since my flatmate was also watching it (and more shockingly enjoying it), there was no escape without being very rude.

That said, James Cameron has made some decent films which are often great fun: True Lies is a work of genius, in my view; both the Terminator films a full of enjoyable carnage; the first couple of Alien movies have a lot going for them. A big new sci-fi flick should therefore be right up his street, especially given he's pioneered new production techniques, etc. That seemed to be a reasonable view to take. Not to mention the fact it enjoyed tremendous success at the box office and had won awards (though, of course, both those statements could equally be made of Titanic).

This is, I'm sure I have read, but cannot find a reference as I write this, a film that Cameron first conceived while at school. Certainly this is the only charitable explanation for why the dialogue feels like it was written by a twelve year old. Particularly in the opening section, as ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on Pandora, it really is so cringe-worthily hackneyed and bad that it has to be heard to be believed. This is a film screaming out for a competent script-doctor, though one wonders if even the likes of Joss Whedon could save it. More than that, though, the dialogue is loaded with exposition, frustratingly so as, in scenes staged to catch the audience up, characters explain to each other things that they surely already know, and know that each other know. Then, to make it topical, there's a sentence in Sully's opening narration about the recession that's hit earth which appears to have been tacked on with all the subtlety of a blue catering plaster slap bang in the middle of somebody's forehead.
This poor dialogue is reinforced by a simplistic, predictable and moralistically patronising plot weighed down with a seemingly endless burden of cliches, many of them in the form of characters one would flatter by describing as one-dimensional. In case you haven't seen it the setting is broadly this: earth, unseen, has been laid waste to and mankind has come to Pandora to harvest much needed unobtainium [sic], laying waste to the beautiful planet and its natives, the Na'vi, in best strip-mining and screwing over the native Americans fashion. Sully is put into an avatar body, resembling a Na'vi, so he can learn their ways, such that they can be pushed out of their crucially situated homes.

It is hideously predictable. At this point I should probably say spoiler alert, but the fact of the matter is that I can't imagine anyone not seeing these twists coming. Sully falls in with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a Na'vi girl who transpires to be the chief's daughter. The chief then orders her to teach him their ways, despite the total lack of trust that exists and the fact they are surely aware the humans are destroying their planet. He doesn't order her to fall in love with Sully, but he might as well. Ditto when she tells him of the giant pterosaur which few except her ancestor could ride, you just know he'll be straddling it soon enough (and so he does at the crucial moment when he needs to win back their trust). Well, I say soon, but the film is so over-long that nothing comes soon, and what in other films would be a five minute training montage seems to go on for days. The flying itself has been clunkily prefigured by Sully's dreams. Just as unsurprisingly, he has a change of heart and helps them turn the tables on the humans.

It's difficult to actually rate any of the actors. Are the performances wooden because they're doing a bad job or rather because the characters are just badly drawn? Everyone is a walking cliche - every single one of the troops, save Michelle Rodriguez (whose presence is normally a surefire sign that a film should be avoided), are coldblooded jarheads who couldn't care less they are massacring intelligent beings. The Na'vi are all innocent and concerned only with being at one with nature and so on.

But I'm missing the point, aren't I? This isn't a film about nuanced plot, character and dialogue, this is a tour de force of unequalled, no expense spared, special effects and groundbreaking cinematic vistas. I should be sitting back, putting my mind firmly into neutral and letting my eyes feast. And if were that the case, that would be a valid argument - I like a good bit of mind in neutral entertainment as much as anyone. Unfortunately it isn't. Now, I wasn't watching in 3D or at the IMAX, but given I had paid the better part of £20 for my Blu-Ray disc, one can still expect some impressive visuals. There aren't any. The floating mountains are fairly pretty, so too the other shots of Cameron's world, but it isn't anything to write home about. Yes, there are plants and things that light up as they tread on them, but none of it feels even vaguely real; instead it all looks rather like a computer game, and not an especially impressive one at that. The world Cameron has created doesn't produce one fraction the wow response in me as does an episode of David Attenborough's Planet Earth, with it's own groundbreaking filming techniques. Even in the world of make believe, the opening minutes of Wall-e, as the robot attempts to clean planet earth alone, strike me as far more visually stunning.

The other problem is that there is more to great computer generated battle sequences than flashy animation. Take, for example, the key Severed Dreams episode of Babylon 5. True, this now looks rather dated, but it has more drama than anything in Avatar, such as the moment when on battleship rams another, or the inherent drama of impending civil war. Then there's the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, whose special effects don't look dated in the least and which has produced some of the most jaw-dropping sci-fi moments I've ever seen on film (e.g. the battle in the final episode and the episode where they jump the Galactica into the atmosphere on New Caprica and it drops like a stone). It's the more damning when one considers that the eighty or so episodes probably cost less than Avatar to make. The point is, to be great, the effect needs to be underpinned by story, by drama. Here it simply isn't.

The computer game analogy is particularly clear in the battle sequences, which are absurdly implausible. Okay, I know that twelve foot tall blue aliens mounted on pterosaurs beating heavily armoured attack helicopters with bows and arrows is inherently fairly implausible, but even if one accepts this premise it still doesn't feel right. There is Stephen Lang's virtually invulnerable drill sergeant type who seems immune to the toxic atmosphere he's warned his recruits about and who works his way through the final battle sequence in a manner that would stretch credibility if he were Superman. Then there's the fact that when home tree is attacked the bows and arrows are useless, yet suddenly in the final battle they are able to penetrate the armour.

Then there is the question of originality. I've heard it described as Dances with Smurfs, though not having seen Dances with Wolves I'm not well placed to comment (if there's any similarity I think I'd rather gnaw off my own arm that watch that too). My colleague Andrew Puglsey has compared it to Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. The giant exoskeletons some of the troops wear look awfully familiar from Aliens and the Matrix sequels. Speaking of sequels, it's left more than open for one. That said, at the end one niggling doubt does remain - given the value of the mineral and the primitive nature of the Na'vi's weapons, it would surely be pretty simply to get together a force of sufficient scale to wipe them out with ease. Something which, if you think about it, makes the victory they score seem at best shaky and at worst implausible.

In fairness to the film, there is the odd interesting moment, such as when Sully first arrives and emerges from hibernation - the ship he is on looks interesting, but we see it for only a few seconds. Similarly, one can't help wondering what has happened to earth, so it's a pity Cameron doesn't show us.

In summary, Cameron and Fox have already made a distressingly vast amount of money out of this trash. Please, I beg you, do not add further to it. It will only encourage them to make another.


Derek said...

Covers many of the reasons why I haven't put my hand in my pocket to go and see this. Despite it being the biggest box-office hit forever and ever, I am still to meet someone who actually saw it in the cinema!

If there was one good thing out of Dances With Wolves, it was Mary McDonnell. She wasn't anything special in the film, put helped us get BSG ;)

colin z robertson said...

The pedant in me (I'm sure you'll understand) feels compelled to point out that Alien was directed by Ridley Scott. James Cameron only came in on Aliens. While I do enjoy Aliens, I have to admit that it's by far the less subtle of the two.

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