WARNING: THIS ARTICLE CONTAINS A LIBERAL USE OF SPOILERS FOR MOVIES YOU’VE PROBABLY ALREADY SEEN.
For being such a self-proclaimed pop culture geek, I tend to miss out on a lot of the most widespread phenomenons when they first hit. I still haven’t watched past the second episode of “Lost”. I’ve played, in total, maybe two hours of any of the “Halo” games. I never actually heard a Lady Gaga song until Molly Lewis covered Poker Face.
So it’s not that surprising that before this Monday, I hadn’t gotten around to seeing “Avatar”. In this case, there are two specific reasons I’ve held off so long:
1. I’m just a bit broke, and
2. Unlike certain close friends and frequent collaborators I’ve roomed with for two non-consecutive semesters and one summer in LA, I’m not exactly passionately in love with James Cameron, for reasons I will get into shortly.
But now I’m in Orlando, right across the street from the movie theater that my old friend Rich manages, and he offered me free IMAX 3D tickets. And who am I to say no to an offer like that? So, I finally managed to see “Avatar”.
Before we get into this, I should explain that I haven’t actually been impressed by special effects since…well, probably since I saw “Toy Story” in the movie theater at age 8. Since that moment, I take it for granted that it is possible to get anything on screen. Now, I definitely appreciate the hard work that goes into the effects, but an effect on its own doesn’t get a reaction out of me. The image it creates or its role in the story might be phenomenal, but the mere fact that a computer graphic looks photorealistic doesn’t affect me any more than, say, a photorealistic painting–I appreciate how much effort it took, but it’s not like I’m surprised that it’s possible.
Because of that, while the technological innovations may wow many viewers, my view on “Avatar” lives and dies with the story, the characters, and maaaaaaaybe the action. Using this criteria, I can sum up my review of the film (and, indeed, much of Cameron’s work) in one word: “Calculated”.
Okay, by now, you’ve all seen the movie and read all the reviews from both the lovers and the haters. You already know how much work went into making the animated/motion capture segments as if they were shooting live action. You already know about how every plot point is lifted from another movie like “Dances With Wolves” or “Pocahontas” or the few parts in “Eragon” that weren’t already lifted from yet ANOTHER movie. You know the discrepancy about the film being anti-military while somehow honoring “the warrior”. You’ve already read the essays about how this is a typical White Guilt movie, and White Guilt movies of this nature are inherently racist against everybody by making white people evil, indigenous people simple, and white people better than indigenous people at “their ways” once they learn them.
So I’m not going to talk about any of that. Too much, anyway.
Instead, I’ll compare the movie to Cameron’s previous flick, “Titanic”, a film which I think could easily have been edited into four or five different enjoyable-yet-imperfect movies with one solid focus each, instead of the still-fairly-enjoyable-yet-way-overrated-overly-long-and-kinda-muddled movie that ended up making billions of dollars and sweeping the awards.
Many Hollywood blockbusters feel like the result of a Mad Lib based on the Blake Snyder Beat Sheet, plugging in character names, crippling-yet-sexy flaws, MacGuffins, and settings for action sequences. On the other hand, “Titanic” and “Avatar” feel more like the results of equations carefully balanced and calculated to get not so much a product, but a desired audience reaction.
Let’s begin with a look at the stories of both films. They’re certainly…full. Overloaded, almost. “Titanic” could have focused on Bill Paxton and his excavation crew, or on the people on the sinking ship having to deal with their own inevitable demise, or even on Jack and Rose’s Immediately-Formed Shallow Infatuation Supported By One Or Two Common Interests. “Avatar” was a little more focused, but even it could have been about a soldier coming to grips with the fact that he was fighting for the wrong side, or a man falling in love with someone he’s always thought of as a savage, or the conflicting ideals of the Na’vi use for the land (spiritual) with the earthling use for the land (strictly commercial), or Pandora’s interconnectivity between science and spirituality, or, hell, even a guy having to deal with the fact that his only worthwhile role in life is to carry on his late brother’s work. Any one of these individual threads or themes, fleshed out, could have been much more fascinating than the general mishmash and fleeting hinting at ideas the final movies turned out to be. (Now, my own screenplays tend to be overstuffed with subplots and ideas, so criticizing this trait is a tad hypocritical, but what do you expect from a review on the internet? Honestly, I don’t have a problem with multiple subplots and themes, especially in ensemble pieces, but Cameron often seems to be more focused on quantity than quality.)
Of course, you can’t have multiple subplots without multiple characters. Every character in both “Titanic” and “Avatar” is carefully designed to ensure that the audience either loves them or hates them. There is no room for ambiguity or dimension; characters are GOOD GUYS or BAD GUYS. “Titanic” had GOOD GUYS such as Victor Garber (who insisted on more lifeboats, but was overruled), Captain Theoden (who was reluctant to go faster, but was overruled), and The Unsinkable Kathy Bates (who was filled with “homespun wisdom” and scoffed in the face of snobbery). The film’s BAD GUYS included that guy who owns the ship (who insisted on going faster, safety be damned), and, of course, your friend Billy Zane (who not only was cold and controlling to his fiancee, but who even had the AUDACITY to not appreciate Picasso) and his butler of the Delta Knights (who helped frame poor Leo and generally acted snooty). With every action, every line of dialogue, these characters tell us EXACTLY how we are supposed to feel about them, instead of letting us form judgments and opinions on our own. As a result, we are told to feel sad when Victor Garber goes down with the ship, angry when Billy Zane survives (but relieved that he doesn’t find Rose), and so on.
“Avatar”‘s GOOD GUYS include Sigourney Weaver, That Pilot Who Kept Reminding Me Of Janeane Garofalo For Some Reason, and All Of The Na’vi Except That One Who Is Kind Of A Jerk (Until He Eventually Comes Around And All Is Well). BAD GUYS, obviously, include Colonel Strawman and Chad From “That Thing You Do”. Everything each character says and does tells the audience to either root for or against this character. We are told to be sad when Sigourney Weaver dies, but happy when Colonel Strawman dies. The characters have very little dimension beyond the surface attempts to make the audience like or dislike them.
While I just can’t bring myself to care much about characters who are so obviously written this way, I must admit that I do think it is part of the reason Cameron’s films are so successful. Because the movies very explicitly tell you how to feel, and so you can get an emotion without actually having to think about it.
Okay, that sounded meaner than I wanted. I don’t mean to imply that getting wrapped up in the emotions of “Avatar” and “Titanic” is a sign of inferior intellect; I confess there are several moments in both films where I was quite moved. But you have to admit that, in both films, there’s no need for us to make our own judgment calls, and for people who go to the movies for pure escapism, it can be nice to just sit back passively and be told how to react.
But many people don’t like being told what to think, and these people are part of the small-but-hyperactive backlash against these movies. While both “Titanic” and “Avatar” are most definitely overrated by many people, they are also much more hated than they deserve to be by others. The funny thing is, if the movies weren’t quite so popular, I don’t think the hatred from the anti-fans would be nearly as strong. I think more people would be content to say “Eh, wasn’t my thing” and move on. But when the hype surrounding the films are so strong and so omnipresent, it’s very easy for mild distaste to be pushed into seething rage.
In my humble opinion, both “Avatar” and “Titanic” would have been far better movies had the characters been given more depth and dimension, and had the stories been cut down to one central focus. However, ironically enough, I think the movies might have been less successful financially had that been the case. Cameron is not a very good screenwriter (that’s right, I said it), but he most assuredly knows how to blend the right elements to get the optimum reaction from the maximum percentage of the audience. “Titanic”‘s multiple themes ensured that it could be marketed toward history geeks, special effect geeks, patrons of chick flicks, and more. “Avatar”‘s clear-cut character roles ensured that people who allow themselves get swept up in the narrative will certainly have their heartstrings tugged at the right spots. Narrowing the focus and adding dimension to the characters probably would have made these movies stronger, but at the risk of damaging that delicate balance Cameron always seems to strike. He knows just what elements to bring together to ensure that the majority of people like the movie, certain people love the movie, and a vocal minority hate the movie (but by that point Cameron doesn’t care because they already bought their tickets).
Some people are calling “Avatar” this generation’s “Star Wars”. While I understand the comparison, I don’t think it will necessarily last the same way “Star Wars” did, because while that film’s characters may not be the most complex in the world, they still resonate strongly with the movie’s fans. Kids want to be Luke, Han, or Leia when they grow up. They fight over who gets to play as Darth Vader. While maybe some kids might want to play as Na’vi in general, I can’t imagine a lot of kids wanting to be Jake Sully, or arguing over who gets to play as Sigourney Weaver’s character. “Star Wars” wowed audiences with the effects and the emotional ride, but its staying power is entirely due to the people the story is about. Once the thrill of “Avatar”‘s effects and emotional manipulation (for lack of a softer term) wear off, it’s unlikely to be able to rely on its characters for relevance the same way.
All that said, I enjoyed the film well enough. Overrated? Most assuredly. Visually cool? Sure. I liked the landscapes, and the detail in the facial animation (even if it was mostly motion capture), although I felt the creature effects in “District 9” looked better. (Incidentally, “District 9” is a film I enjoyed more than “Avatar”, and I felt most of the characters were much stronger, but I’ll be the first to admit it had a similarly flat and cliche military antagonist.) The film didn’t need to be as long as it was, and it probably didn’t need to be twelve years in the making, but I found enough to like, even if I could clearly see Cameron pulling the strings, trying to make me feel the way he wanted me to.
I don’t mean to bash Cameron. I’m actually in awe of his ability to tap into the widest possible audience the way he does. I, personally, would just prefer his work more if a solid story about interesting characters was a higher priority than reaching as many separate demographics as possible. I think if he teamed up with a better screenwriter, his next film could be truly amazing. Maybe not as widely liked, but more strongly loved by its fans.
But, then, he’s the guy who constantly grosses millions, and I’m just some dude with four or five half-finished screenplays currently open on my laptop screen, so what do I know?