Sunday, December 20, 2009


It's 5 in the morning, and after having to help a random stranger outside my apartment get his snow-stuck car out of the street, I find myself unable to sleep and rolling Avatar over in my head.

The more I think about it, the more disappointed I was.

This is not PHANTOM MENACE disappointment, no, but unsatisfied I still find myself.

After the movie, I left the theatre sullen and quiet. A friend asked me what the problem was, and after telling her how I just wasn't too happy with the movie, she said that perhaps I expected too much from the film. But did I? Let's look at the general stats for AVATAR. It's directed by James Cameron. James, while not the greatest screenwriter, has given us some of the best genre movies in the history of mouth breathing geeks. TERMINATOR, THE ABYSS, TERMINATOR 2, ALIENS, TRUE LIES. All of these movies feature an incredibly satisfying blend of storytelling, character, humor, terror. The Terminator movies were instantly iconic; single handedly launching Arnold's career, telling an incredible and at the time groundbreaking time travel story, and giving us some stellar work from Stan Winston.

ALIENS was broader and, on repeated viewings, possibly a bit campy. But the storytelling is incredibly focused and breathlessly paced. From the moment the xenomorphs attack the Marines, it's a non stop ride to the "Nuke it from Orbit, only way to be sure" finale. It features a large cast of characters, all who are given a chance to stand out, to have something to do, and for us to actually care about when they die.

THE ABYSS I'm not as familiar with, as I've only seen it once, and I was in my mid-teens, but it's generally considered Cameron's masterpiece. The characters' humanity is called into question by an outward alien force, as they, too, discover what makes life worth living, all while trapped at the bottom of a 2 mile deep underwater trench. It's claustrophobic, beautiful.

TITANIC, bloated as it was, still had a thrilling second half. Once the ship starts to sink, Cameron finds individual scenes that, brief as they are, imply character and evoke sympathy.

Which brings me to AVATAR. We've waited, what, 245 years for him to make this? He's been hyping it since I was a zygote. It cost him the GNP of Costa Rica to make it. The production design is impeccable. He actually made the "Uncanny Valley" more of an "Uncanny Smallish Field." The 3D is absolutely stunning. And I couldn't care at all.

Most every review I've read has people apologizing for the story. The story is fine. The story could actually be the framework for something, as my friend Gary Busey would say, "very very very very very very interesting." But alas, his characters are given absolutely nothing to do. There are no stakes made throughout the movie.

After the 20 min. mark of the film, once the character of Jake Sully is given his Avatar, absolutely nothing happens for a full hour. We are given a montage of Jake riding a horse, riding a LEAF, and WATCHING PEOPLE RIDE OTHER THINGS. All the while he narrates whatever is most painfully obvious on screen.

All of the world building that Cameron slaved over is completely lost to minutia. Why show us an hour of plants and crap? Why not show family dynamics? Why not show us what the Na'vi eat? Why not actually show us the love scene and how that works? As silly as it could possibly be, if taken seriously, it would've been pretty moving. Or how about, afterwards, when their 'bonding' is revealed to the camp, actually make it a major point of conflict? I'm pretty sure her going behind the back of her father and ruining an arranged 'marriage' would warrant more than 10 seconds of Na'vi hissing at each other. But instead, we're given an hour devoted to watching Jake bumble around and touch stuff.

We could've been, oh, I don't know, fleshing out Michelle Rodriguez's character. Did she even have a name? We could've been getting to know Natashararabama's parents. Instead, they're regulated to American Indian stereotypes. How about the Mother Tree, huh? Might've liked to spend ANY TIME AT ALL with it, or have seen the inside of it, since it was the most sacred home of the NA'VI people. Spoiler: When it's destroyed, we don't care because the movie has not vested our interest in it. Instead, we're told to care because the music gets sad and people cry. Or how about the time when (Spoiler) Jake abandons his life-partner pterydactl for the big scary one? The one time we see Jake do something on his own in a heroic fashion? Instead we get a cut away. Sometimes, a cut away is great. It builds tension. It can be a great choice. But there's no tension here. It's a foregone conclusion that Jake, being the hero, will get the frakking bird. Why not give us a cool scene? Instead, we get 20 minutes of unfocused clutter that stands in for a climax.

There is an often hilarious, extended video review of STAR WARS: THE PHANTOM MENACE online. Not only does it meticulously detail the train wreck that was Episode I, it also serves as a pretty good introduction to film criticism. I suggest you watch it here. Many of the problems of Phantom Menace can be transferred to AVATAR. It's in 10 minute chunks, so give it a shot.

I didn't hate the movie. As I said, I was absorbed by the 3D, and was entertained in the novelty of it. But this makes 2 of my favorite directors that have let me down this year. When a film that has the pedigree and history as this one, you are more than allowed to be dissatisfied. Know that, when you're drunk on the film's light up plants, it had the capability to be so much more.

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