I’m sure you’ve all read the reviews, and probably gone to see it yourself, but here are a couple of quick thoughts about Avatar, which I just saw in (faux) IMAX 3D:
- Sorry, Cameron – I need more. While the effects in Avatar were indeed groundbreaking and beautiful, I’m way over my phase of awesome visual effects being able to overcome a shaky story or half-baked characters. In fact, I can tell you exactly when that phase ended – the minute I sat down to watch The Phantom Menace for the first time. That movie – and all the Star Wars prequels – were indeed visually stunning. But that just wasn’t enough. I needed more from George Lucas, and I needed more from your movie too.
- Yes, I said Phantom Menace. They say that Avatar took 12 years for James Cameron to create, as he waited for technology to catch up to his vision. Does that sound familiar? It should. Those of us who are old enough remember that the first series of Star Wars movies came out spaced three years apart (1977, 1980, 1983), then the original plan was for a five year break before the prequels started. That means that Episode I was supposed to have hit theatres in 1988. But of course, that five year break turned into a 16-year break, and Episode I didn’t actually appear until 1999. Why? Because Lucas was waiting for technology to catch up to his vision for the prequels. But in the end, in the case of both Lucas and Cameron, the technology became a distraction rather than an aid. The Phantom Menace was beautiful to look at – and had a ridiculous, convoluted plot, performances that were phoned in, and no soul at all. It’s obvious what took priority during the production of that movie, and what were secondary considerations. And so it is with Avatar. Avatar is beautiful to look at, – and has a tired, recycled plot, a grating, hamfisted political message, and completely one-dimensional characters. It’s obvious what took priority during the production of Avatar. And if that’s all you’re looking for, then Avatar delivers. But like I said, I need more.
- That said, Cameron is far better at creating dialog than Lucas (not that that’s saying a lot). The dialog in Avatar was only groan-inducing once or twice, and then only mildly so. It made the movie seem imperfect instead of unbearable – flawed instead of a failure.
- 3D is still a gimmick.
- Good performances all around also helped a lot. Sam Worthington is headed for big things. Sigourney Weaver was at the top of her form. This also did a lot to redeem Avatar.
- The main problem was not just the derivative nature, but also the heavy-handedness of the plot. For a movie that provides beautiful delights of light and color, the story was utterly black and white morally. I mean, it was Ayn Rand-level black and white morality. The Na’vi and the human good guys were totally good, and the human bad guys were totally evil, with no redeeming qualities at all. No Na’vi is ever seen doing anything dishonorable or morally questionable. No questions are asked about the human soldiers killed by the Na’vi – about whether they may have been not actually evil, but just men doing something they didn’t really like for a paycheck in hard times. Were they flawed but redeemable? Just trying to feed six kids back home? Doesn’t matter – you’re just supposed to cheer when they get blown to smithereens.
- White guilt. I couldn’t put this point any better than io9 did, so I’ll just link to them.
- Avatar to me really represents the anti-District 9. District 9 was low-budget, and all about story and characters. Avatar is high-budget, and all about the technical perfection and visual effects. But visual effects tend to to age well, and hanging your movie’s legacy on it may not be the most wise of approaches to filmmaking. In addition, for me, it really is all about the story and characters. I never minded the unimpressive visuals of classic sci-fi like Doctor Who, Babylon 5, or Legend of Galactic Heroes. The cutting edge in visual effects moves year to year, but a compelling story and characters you care about are eternal. So when thinking about the best sci-fi movie of 2009, count me as solidly in the District 9 camp. It’ll be the one you’ll still be watching 25 years from now – the one that will still be as compelling as it ever was.