Roni Sees Avatar

After seeing Avatar

Note: Possible spoilers/plot elements.

While watching Avatar, I was transported to a world outside the movie theater…  A world of writing blog entries, trying to meet people in Lyon, teaching English, planning trips… A world of what might’ve been if I didn’t have to watch this colorful ball of crap.

I really, really hated the movie.

I have two types of recommendations (or dissuasions).  One involves me saying that something blanketly sucks.  The other has caveats.  My take on Avatar involves the latter.

Caveat: If you enjoy another world that is created with a fully visualized reality, go out and see the movie.  But, to do so, you will need to be content with zero characters of depth, a story as hackneyed and formulaic as they come, with completely invalid allegories and an entirely unmemorable score.

I have said it before: I am not a nature person.  It takes a lot for me to be impressed, in general, but certainly by nature. The Iguazu Falls are cool.  I haven’t cared about an island or a beach in quite some time.  I love rainbows.  Sunsets, I can take or leave.  So for me to be drawn into a movie that is riding the coattails of its visuals, I needed something else.  Try as I might, I could not find it.

Humor: I chuckled once, early on.

Character investment: By the end, I was cheering for who were supposed to be the bad guys. (Spoiler alert: the humans)

Allegories:  The whole point is that the humans are trying to get a valuable mineral, the brilliantly named ‘unobtanium’.  It seems to be a metaphor for Iraqi oil, which doesn’t work, as Iraq wasn’t a war for oil.  Proof?  An almost total lack of protection of oil fields.

They’ve set up a world where the locals really have nothing to gain from the humans intervening, which is a scenario that makes absolutely no sense in the real world.  The movie criticizes the concept that the humans have been setting up schools and have tried to find ways to offer things to the natives.  In the real world, whether you agree or disagree with the concept of nation building, impoverished nations generally can use some assistance from the outside world.

3D: I didn’t feel much more immersed because of it.  There were times when I noticed it (because I was trying to see if it added), but otherwise, I feel like I would have been more engrossed had the movie been 2D and actually good.  There were a couple times where it added something for me, such as showing the depth of the ship in the beginning and the floating jellyfish-like seeds of the Sacred Tree.

I will expound more, as necessary, counteracting anyone’s points of what was good about this movie, other than the visuals (which I will respect if you enjoy).  I also will agree that potentially seeing it on IMAX would have made it grander, but that wasn’t an option for me, as it isn’t very easily accessible in Europe.  I still do not think it would have changed much, as the film was otherwise antithetical to every reason I go to the movies.

Sure, I go to be transported to another world or to see my own world in a different way, but I need plot and characters to get me there.


25 Responses to Roni Sees Avatar

  1. What language did you see it in? We haven’t seen it yet, but want to, but can’t find it in the original language here in Magdeburg.

  2. Jeremy says:

    I could nit-pick some of your criticisms*, but I won’t because, I basically agree with your critique (script was weak – visuals were stunning). I do however disagree with your conclusion.

    In the end, the key point is that this is the most fully realized new world created in a movie in my life time. It did what it was trying to do better than any movie I’ve ever seen (better than LOTR, better than the Matrix, etc etc). The presentation was in a word: spectacular, and in my book, it was more that more than makes up for plot holes, mediocre acting and a runtime that was at least 30 minutes too long.

    * – ok, one nitpick, the allegory was simple and straightforward but hardly “invalid”.

  3. Jewels says:

    I really think bringing up nation building in regards to Avatar kind of misses some key details. Such as the fact that the Na’vi weren’t some poor backwards culture suffering from a lack of civil engineering or centralized government. At no point was it inferred that what the humans brought to this planet was needed in any way by the indigenous population. The schools taught them English and portrayed humans as willing to work together. When that didn’t yield the results the company wanted, they were shut down. Why compare them to an impoverished nation? No one in the film was dying from preventable diseases or using sexism/racism/control of wealth or natural resources to stratify the population.

    And it was all presented in 3-D, which is the hot new technology in the entertainment industry. I found that any conversation I had about this movie ended up mentioning Star Wars. Cool visuals that raised the bar for generations to come, with a really lame story and bad writing.

    In the end, I saw the movie as much more a commentary on the Columbus-style conquering of new cultures than the Bush-style war in the Middle East.

  4. Jeremy says:

    Agree with Jewel, both re: Star Wars and re: Columbus/Bush.

  5. roniweiss says:

    @Brendan: I live in a fairly big city (Lyon), so they had it in original version.

    @Jeremy: Take away the visuals and what do you have? To me, that makes it potentially an art piece, but not cinema.

    @Jewels: If it was about Columbus, it’s even less topical. That being said, the problem was they tried to make it about way too many things and didn’t succeed at making good points about any of them. It was quite clear that it was at least partially about Iraq, as they used many of the terms used for that war.

  6. devonvsmith says:

    PS: full script is now available for (free) download so you can rip it to shreds in immaculate detail:

  7. roniweiss says:

    Have you seen it, Devon?

  8. roniweiss says:

    Oh my God, that is awful.

    Thanks for passing it along.

  9. Jordan says:

    Haha, I was also cheering the humans.

    Apparently the 3D technology typically used in European theaters (XpanD) isn’t that good. I used to play computer games in 3D using the same active shutter glasses and it was ok but fatiguing after a while.

    RealD is supposed to be the best of the bunch with IMAX in second place (the IMAX 3D loses effectiveness if you look off axis). Even with RealD I found the motion flicker distracting. Also it was pretty clear that effects like changing depth of field and fades don’t transfer well from 2D.

    “Shock and Awe” “Daisycutters” “Pre-emptive strike” “Hearts and minds” “fight terror” … hell I was half expecting the Iraqi, er, Na’vi insurgents to fly back to Earth and shoot George Bush in the face. Narnia: Prince Caspian was your critique of Columbus style conquering with the invaders literally wearing Conquistador outfits speaking with Spanish-accents. Avatar had marines led by a cigar chomping badass. That’s a pretty common American military trope.

    As for the comparison to Star Wars, there’s something to its enduring popularity that Avatar lacks. Star Wars pulled off the new-age spirituality angle more effectively, told a more compelling story (particularly with the middle and end movies of the trilogies), employed one of the finest soundtracks in the service of the motifs; all that on top of its groundbreaking visuals.

  10. roniweiss says:

    I’m still not convinced that the visuals were truly groundbreaking.

    I was more into LotR visually. (And that was not a series that I saw as perfect.)

  11. Jeremy says:

    I’m not sure I see the art/cinema distinction. Either way, Avatar was *fun* and I had a great three hours watching the movie.

    I love LOTR and they had some incredible cinematography in that movie (I had a blog post somewhere about my 5 favorite shots in the series), but the effects in Avatar were absolutely in another league – there really is no comparison.

    The characterizations in Star Wars were a lot stronger than Avatar (and I think that is a large part of it’s enduring popularity), but I don’t think that the plot or dialogue was any better than Avatar. The primary strength of both movies was the world building, and both did extraordinary jobs in that department.

  12. roniweiss says:

    My definition of cinema would be using moving pictures to tell a story. The visuals led the story, in this case, as opposed to having a story which is brought to life by the images.

    I did not have fun. It’s beginning to occur to me that I’m not a fantasy movie person, either. The idea that there were horse-like creatures with modifications to make them alien didn’t draw me in.

    Forget years from now, after the next Oscars, Avatar will be forgotten as anything other than a high-grossing movie that made 3D even more popular.

  13. roniweiss says:

    Potentially the movie was a technical breakthrough, but that, to me, is inconsequential. If they used special cameras and the like, that doesn’t come into play.

    I will respect those that are into the visuals, but I do not agree with the idea that there is anything else behind the movie.

    After a long conversation with Joe Geni, I’ve come to the conclusion that the only way you can defend plot or theme in the movie is if you agree with the political messages therein and extrapolate the poorly done messages into your own views on the world.

    And another “for the record”: I’ve never been a fan of movies that only have been described as ‘fun’, such as the Ocean’s 11 series, for one. I rarely have had ‘fun’ at the movies. I’d have to wrack my brain to come up with an example.

  14. Jeremy says:

    I’d say that is a pretty narrow definition of “cinema” there are lots of great movies where plot is secondary to more visceral factors. The feel for most movies is driven largely by visuals and saying that is unimportant seems odd to me. The set-up to Avatar (the first hour or so) was, imho, capital-G Great. It was world building on an epic scale, and, more than that, it was story telling. They were telling the story of these people discovering a new world. Personally, I think that part of the movie was masterful and a much more unique accomplishment than run-of-the-mill well-scripted well-acted slightly-boring oscar-bait “cinema”.

    And you’re claiming that you don’t like fun movies? Come on Roni … You’ve never smiled and said, “oh damn” when watching a Bond movie? Sure the Ocean’s movies sucked (and as a result weren’t all that much fun), but what about the Bourne movies, or Iron Man, or the recent Batman or Star Trek, or uhm, any comedy ever. More “challenging” movies are great (and I watch plenty), but sometimes just going to the movies and getting swept away and not having to worry toooo much about plot and theme and allegory and yaddayaddayadda is good too.

    For the record, I am overstating my case to some extent here, the plot in Avatar was bad enough to be distracting (especially in the last hour), and I can understand it ruining the movie for some people, but saying that the movie is horrible and the positives don’t count because they don’t meet some abstract (and I would argue, narrow) definition of cinema is kind of silly.

  15. roniweiss says:

    I just wasn’t drawn in at all and I went in with an open mind. Trust me, there’s nothing for me to gain from being bored for 3 hours. I went every which way mentally to try to find *something* to keep myself from nodding off.

    I like some action movies, sure, but I think there’s a difference between that and what is typically described as ‘fun’. I got bored during the action sequences in Avatar. Casino Royale, for one, was riveting. Not 3D, but I felt like I was there.

    I’m not trying to bait people. It’s rare that a movie bothers me so much, but I really feel like the whole point of Avatar was to try to do something cool visually (which, as I’ve said, I really didn’t find so cool), with no respect for any basic elements of good storytelling.

    And Bond has *humor*, too. Casino Royale has some of the funniest lines I’ve seen in a movie.

    And Star Trek? You kidding me? I cried at the *opening sequence*. That’s filmmaking. That’s cinema. That’s making a world.

    I don’t have anything against James Cameron, overall. In fact, I love Titanic. Stock characters done well.

  16. Jordan says:

    From a technical point of view, the visuals were groundbreaking. I believe this was the first film where all CGI was rendered in native 4K (in 3D to boot) and arguably the first to cross the Uncanny Valley. Revolutionary? No. A milestone? Yes.

    Going into the movie, I already knew that the narrative was stock and adjusted my expectations accordingly. I should have revised them downward.

    Personally, Pandora was a disappointment visually since the natural environment was drawn using an unnaturally saturated palette with too-heavy accents on bioluminescent eye candy. And as Roni pointed out, the alien life just didn’t quite work.

    LOTR, The Matrix and even older movies like Aliens, Terminator, Star Wars, Dune (which is your oil allegory movie done right) etc., had better fleshed out worlds because they did not strain credulity. All the best effects mean nothing if the world fails to engage your imagination. And engaging your imagination is part story, part visuals.

    Maybe I’m spoiled. If I were younger, maybe I would have been captivated by the film and gone home – as I have with so many other films – thinking and dreaming about what I’d just seen. Avatar did not do that for me, though to be fair, that’s how I am with more and more films.

  17. Jeremy says:

    Yeah, I guess the bottom line is that it takes different things to capture different people’s imaginations. Avatar, despite it’s weaknesses, worked for me, but like I’ve said, I completely understand that it had weaknesses and wasn’t for everyone.

  18. roniweiss says:

    In the end, this is my take:

    If you were able to be drawn in and immersed by Avatar’s visuals, I envy you in an entirely non-sarcastic way. After all, I am the guy that said he was “sick of sunsets”.

    But I don’t think the movie offers anything other than that, except for people that are grasping for an ideology that they are already pre-disposed to and will embrace, no matter how poorly it is presented.

  19. Beth says:

    Why would you cheer for the “bad guys” (humans) as they are forcefully trying to push out natives from their home, just for a buck?

  20. roniweiss says:

    It’s the same as when you watch a horror flick and you are rooting for the killer, because they’ve either set up the characters extremely poorly or for you to be deliberately against them.

  21. […] that the quote meant that if you focus on love, career will come about, I inevitably brought up Avatar, saying that you can’t claim that something successfully makes a point, just because you want […]

  22. - says:

    wow there are a lot of dumb people

  23. roniweiss says:

    Is this spam or actually referencing something?

  24. […] else’s reviews, etc. I didn’t like Inception. Mind you, I didn’t hate it, a la Avatar, but I am disappointed in everyone that created the buzz that made me feel like I had to see it. I […]

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