Thursday, March 4, 2010


The Academy Awards are approaching fast and I've been sitting on this for way too long. When I saw AVATAR a few months back, I was disappointed and a bit confused, especially considering the way it has been talked up in respectable critics' circles. When the film started smashing box-office records left and right, I became perplexed, but I let it go because I could see its appeal to a mass audience. But when it won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, I got very angry. Sure, it's the highest grossing film of all time, but box-office receipts are not a barometer for quality. How could this film, which wasn't very good at all, win Best Picture? It hasn't been the best year for films and some of the fellow nominations are duds, but I still see no justification for it. I won't even start on my bewilderment at James Cameron winning Best Director. Even after the Globes, I was still holding out hope that the Oscars would be more sensible, but as March 7th looms I'm becoming more and more certain that AVATAR will indeed win the most prestigious award in Film. The only other contender was THE HURT LOCKER, but a scandal involving one of its producers and possible vote coercion has seriously lessened its chances. When looking at the inevitability, I ask myself again - "Why?" and "How?. The answer is that there is a multi-layered myth surrounding the film that continuously propels it toward further critical and financial success. Being that it is a myth, I aim to disprove it.

Myth 1: AVATAR is the most immersive film experience ever, which is film's ultimate purpose, thus making AVATAR the best use of the medium ever.

I would argue that AVATAR is incredibly shallow and non-engaging. Yes, AVATAR uses new technology to create some vast landscapes that surrounds you through improved 3D, but an immersive environment should allow you to interact with it in some way. AVATAR allows for no participation, by which I don't mean physical interactions, but mental. Film, in its initial form was entirely visual, but it also had to convey non-visual elements upon the viewer. Visually, AVATAR does very little besides show, it tells virtually nothing. Everything is superficial with the intention of dazzling the average viewer. For a film that is supposed to be this great observable masterpiece, AVATAR relies heavily on words to get the story across. Exposition is almost always a negative element to filmmaking and AVATAR has it in spades. Almost every conversation is meant to tell the viewer exactly what is going on in the film and what is going to happen on Pandora, starting with Ribisi's lame speech to Weaver about "Why they are there", which she undoubtedly already knows.

Information and visuals that might provide a fuller, richer experience with the film are nowhere to be seen or heard. Virtually zero character development is achieved over the 2 and a half hour runtime. There is no great presence or weight to anyone, or even the massive, created world. It could all evaporate into thin air with a simple keystroke. There is no call-and-response to the film. It doesn't give you anything to figure out for yourself or form your own opinion on, or ever have to wonder about. Simply, the film does not require you to think and how can a film be called immersive if you don't have to contribute anything to your understanding of it. AVATAR is something that happens to you, not with you. The film didn't make me feel anything. Questions of good or bad are non-existent; every character and situation is either black or white. According to Cameron himself, there is supposed to be some allusion to interracial relationships through the main characters' relationship, but that doesn't make sense to me as I would describe it more as inter-species. There's also a lot to be said about its supposed "Green" or "Back to Nature" message, especially considering the advances in technology used by the film's hero (Avatars) and also the technology needed to create the film itself. If anything, AVATAR is just exploiting a popular environmental trend like numerous other environmentally destructive industries.

Myth #2: AVATAR is the Star Wars of our time.

I've seen a lot of comparisons between AVATAR and STAR WARS IV: A NEW HOPE. They are both sci-fi phenomenons that made a lot of money. I'd say that's where the comparisons end. STAR WARS has some flaws, I'm not going to claim that it is perfect, but it's certainly a much more weighty film than the fluff that AVATAR provides. STAR WARS is steeped in so much mythology, Joseph Campbell philosophy and true human dilemmas. A lot of thought and research was put into its story as well as its (then) cutting-edge technology. I think it would be hard to argue that James Cameron put just as much thought into AVATAR's story as its visual effects. What is the backbone of his movie's narrative? The Na'Vi are supposed to resemble some real tribal cultures, but it bites off more than it can chew and the result is a shallow mish-mash. There is the incredibly superficial environmental theme that I mentioned above, but there are also a bunch of other, similarly themed films that AVATAR seems to draw from - DANCES WITH WOLVES, POCAHONTAS, and even FERN GULLY.

AVATAR also lacks the iconic characters that STAR WARS has. Jake Sully is not Luke Skywalker. Though some fans of the film really love that character, he just doesn't have the presence or the likability as Luke. When AVATAR is talked about in the media, I hardly ever hear mention of the characters; the technology is the star of the film. STAR WARS is nothing without its characters, AVATAR probably wouldn't be much different. The black and white nature of the film's moral message is also different from STAR WARS, which, from a distance is also a simple tale of good vs. bad, but actually presents several shades of gray, most notably with the complex story of Darth Vader. Also, if I had to predict about the comparable legacies of the films in the decades to come, I'd say that AVATAR will be a lot less fondly remembered. There is so much that people love about STAR WARS that will never be forgotten, even though special effects have long surpassed it. A time will come when bigger and much better films are made than AVATAR (possibly by Cameron himself), at which time the film will have to fall back on its non-visual elements, which are poorly executed, and people will have to acknowledge that the film wasn't all that good to begin with.

Myth #3: AVATAR is a "game-changer", meaning it will change the way films are made.

Another similarity with the original STAR WARS is AVATAR's status as a game-changer. STAR WARS was the biggest film ever at the time of its release. Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic was able to dazzle audiences, who thought they were seeing the future of filmmaking. In a sense, they were, but only a very small portion of filmmaking. Every movie that has come out since has not been made like STAR WARS for two, simple reasons: 1. It wouldn't be appropriate for all genres and 2. It wouldn't be economically feasible. Even in the wake of AVATAR, there will still be smaller films because film-goers can't abide on sci-fi alone and even most bigger films won't be able to follow its model because they just can't afford a half-billion dollar budget. Also, even if such enormous films were to become prevalent, they wouldn't be special anymore and they all wouldn't gross billions of dollars. Without the potential for significant gains, production companies aren't going to fork over the necessary funds to produce AVATAR-esque films. AVATAR has encouraged a few films to convert to 3D, but that trend was well on its way before the release of AVATAR. But even 3D will never completely take over filmmaking for the simple fact that it doesn't really create better films.

I'd also argue that people aren't going to want to see ALL of their sci-fi/fantasy/comic-book heroes as computer-generated images. I didn't feel as though I could connect with Jake Sully and the Na'Vi because they weren't real. Even though they were created by the best CG in existence, that still doesn't make them look more tangible than the best practical effects. I went to see DAYBREAKERS (a fairly awful movie) a couple weeks after AVATAR and I found myself thinking, "these vampire-monsters look more real than anything in AVATAR". I don't think CG will ever be able to cross over into the plain of true existence. In an entirely animated film, I might not have a problem with it, but since footage of real human beings is juxtaposed with the faux-world of Pandora, it creates a nagging discrepancy.

I'm not a hater. I wanted this film to be good. I like James Cameron films. I would consider seeing a sequel because there is always potential in something Cameron directs. I just didn't like this film, for the reasons above and for many others. I think part of my intense dislike for AVATAR stems from my disappointment. I don't love the technology and my eyes roll when people say it is the wave of the future, but it might have been cool to see it utilized with a truly awesome film.

When looking at the box-office numbers, I can throw up my hands and say "I just don't get it", but when it comes to potential Oscar statues, I have to get angry. AVATAR has rode a stream of undue hype into a position where it might be named "Best Picture". I think this would be a huge mistake and one that would be looked back upon with shame.

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