Monday, January 11, 2010

"Avatar": Some Thoughts

Well, I went. Took the lads and a friend while Nat and the Mau-Mau went swimming for a while. It had to happen, I suppose.

James Cameron's Avatar is at once an amazing accomplishment, and a depressing disappointment.

Technologically and visually, it's stunning. Nobody's ever achieved anything like this on film before. The realisation of the complex living world of Pandora is fabulous. For the filmgoer, even with those clunky glasses perched on your nose, the immersion is near-total. I laid out my money, I bought my popcorn, I gave up two hours and forty minutes of my life, and honestly, I really don't mind. The sheer spectacle, the gorgeous imagery, the vocabulary-challenging technical mastery of the work is just off the scale.

But I won't be going back to see it again. Natalie will go in a few weeks, and she'll go along with the friend who came today. He reckons he can sit through it again. I know I can't.

Yeah, I know. I've got a freaky memory. Natalie's currently watching ST:TNG episodes that I saw just once, some twenty years ago, damned late at night on dodgy televisions in various share-houses -- and I can still remember too much of the plotlines and the action and the dialogue to enjoy seeing them again.

But so what? I watch the director's cut of Blade Runner once a year at least. Same with The Princess Bride, and Casablanca. The original Star Wars, with my kids: yep. Raiders of the Lost Ark: check. I just bought Sauna on DVD, and I'm looking forward to seeing it again as soon as I can find somebody prepared to sit through it with me. And I watched Memento for the third time just a month ago.

So you see, I can sit through repeat showings of certain films, television, etc. Just... not when I'm watching poorly written B-grade stuff.

I'm sorry, by the way. Anybody out there who just loved the Avatar story: more power to you. I don't begrudge you your enjoyment, nor wish to curtail it. But me? Well, I've got a few things working against my ability to enjoy the film.

First is that I'm a writer, and the various plot turning points of Avatar were... umm... not subtle, shall we say. It was a by-the-numbers story with a very ordinary script. I saw it maybe six hours ago, and I can't actually remember a single quotable line. You know the kind of thing I mean - the clever or quirky bits of dialogue that linger in the memory long after the film. "Game over, man!" "I'll be back." "Nuke 'em from orbit: it's the only way to be sure." (Notice I stuck solely to James Cameron films there? I'm playing this game as fairly as I can.) For anyone with a real involvement in the craft of writing, the Avatar script is frankly horrible.

Second, I'm a science fiction fan of long standing. Been reading the stuff maybe thirty-five years now. And I have read a great deal in that time. Everything from Jules Verne through "Doc" Smith, through the Asimov/Heinlein/Clarke era on to the New Wave and beyond. I read SF for the same reasons I always have: it allows writers room to be imaginative, and creative, and thought-provoking in a way that most genres do not seem to match.

And... uhh... sorry. Avatar was not imaginative. It was creative, but only in a visual sense. And the only thoughts it provoked were those of disappointment and irritation. This is not a smart movie. This a big, shiny, woo-look-at-me crashy boomy sort of movie full of egregious stereotypes in place of characters, full of half-assed preaching instead of genuinely thought-provoking concepts, full of cheapjack, bullshit plot devices instead of ideas.

Third: I'm widely read outside SF too. I've got a decent grounding in basic physics, chemistry, biology, evolutionary theory, and a bunch of other scientific fields. Not claiming expertise, no. Far from it. Just what I'd call "scientific literacy", you know? But even that much is enough to make me wince, time and again, at the slap-dash throwaway shit they tossed into that movie in place of science. I don't want to put in any spoilers, but I'd like to say first that "unobtainium" sucks the way even Disney's Black Hole didn't manage. And "flux vortexes" are the single worst piece of throwaway tech-talk crap since the Doctor first used his sonic screwdriver to reverse the polarity of the neutron flow.

This isn't a review. If it was, I would quietly, bitterly, and skilfully eviscerate the storytelling and the scripting of this film in such a way that you would never, ever see the movie without remembering, precisely and involuntarily, why it is a piece of dreck - and you would then curse me, quite reasonably. But as I said, this isn't a review. This is thought, and opinion, and I don't intend to go through the long, painstaking effort of justifying and reasoning out what it is I have to say.

There are just two reasons for this: first, because if you're the kind of person who's going to groove on the Avatar storyline, then you're unlikely to be reading this anyhow, and in any case, nothing I say is going to change your mind. But if you have a love of good storytelling, or good science fiction, or good scripting, you're going to hate that side of Avatar no matter what I say.

And the second reason is simple: the film is beautiful. No matter that it's dumb as a bag of badly broken coprolites. It is gorgeous, and technically unparalleled, and worth taking the time to see it on the big, shiny screen.

Just... don't ask more than that, and you'll have a great time.


  1. Dead on Flinty. I enjoyed the spectacle as well but the story left me flat.

    The best thing was the post-movie dashing of the HLDWs hopes as I wrote about at the Rhino's desk.


  2. Good thing I haven't expected much out of story out of a movie for a good few years.

    Mind you, the Pixar films are pretty entertaining.

  3. There is a bit of a stalemate at Lantanaland at the moment, I want to see Sherlock Holmes and The Wife wants to see Avatar. I want to see Avatar too, but not until i've seen a few other films that grab me more.

    Speaking of grabbing, wondering if you'd read stirlings Emberverse series? Dying to have a chat with someone who's read them.

  4. Beeso: Holmes is by far the better film in every sense except the purely visual. But you absolutely need to see Avatar on the big, fat, 3-D surroundsound screen, because catching it on DVD will be a little like catching a cold.

    I don't know the Emberverse. But I shall now make a point of finding out more, and reading it.

  5. Birmo put me onto the first one and took care of the next five. Being an alternate history/present/time i thought it'd be up your alley. Be warned though once i read Dies the Fire i couldn't stop.

  6. What I dont understand is here is the single most expensive movie ever made , millions spent on effects but nothing spent on the script?

    Its not bad but could be so much better.
    Same thing happens again and again with Sci Fi movies , who can forget "Midi-chlorians" and star wars.

    Maybe they should pay people like you to review the scripts before hand for a measley 100K :-)

  7. Bah. Blue. Plah.

    That's what the preview says to me.

  8. "I'm bloo dah boo dee dah boo dai dah boo DEE dah boo DAI"

  9. Mate, it blew me away. The creation of the world and scenery was simply fucking awesome. From a cinematic perspective...gob fkn smacking.

    But its a see once job I agree. It kinda pissed me off to be honest..Cowboys and Indians, in this case, CAVALRY and Indians, Soldier goes Native and ra ra ra. THAT shitted me to tears, I honestly expected more.

    But well worth seeing, thats for sure.

  10. Yeah well you've probably seen my critique and as usual you're a lot more eloquent. But I agree.

    BTW you missed out "Nice night for a walk"

  11. I don't think theres anything that can't be done with a sonic screwdriver is there?
    Off topic, came across my first Red Priest story while on holiday the other day. Very much enjoyed, and now am looking for the rest.

  12. Oh yeah? Well, I'm NOT a writer, and I LOVED it.

    Some of it, anyway. The 3D really annoyed me when anything non-CGI was depicted. I didn't mind the pedestrian story. Even old stories (and this admittedly was bits and pieces a lots of really old stories) are worth telling if told well enough, and I feel this was told well enough for all normal purposes.

    I have a similar freaky memory for visual media. But I can suspend my disbelief sufficiently to see things many times for the sheer pleasure of watching cool stuff, e.g., ST: TNG "A Matter of Honor" and "Skin of Evil" episodes (yes, I know them by name).

    But I digress. My original point, now lost, is that Avatar isn't really being seen for what it is, but for what it represents.

  13. I had a real problem sitting through it. I posted as much on FB. The story and themes were hyperbolic and stale. The military guy was WAY over the top, Rambo guy. The special effects good. I liked UP a lot better in regards to the story and the visuals.

    Blindside with Sandra Bullock was good for a storyline and true to boot.

    Watched Legends of the Fall the other night again on TV. Great film that yanks on one's heart and fabulously acted.

    But there you go. To each their own. We are like minded, Dirk.