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.