Monday, January 04, 2010

Some Thoughts on Avatar

Mostly spoilers below, so be warned.

Saw it in non-IMAX 3D over vacation and was struck by several things. First, the movie Cameron has released differs in small, but ultimately substantial, ways from the scriptment many people read over the last few years. Ultimately, the scriptment is better--much better--in some important ways. And since I suspect that Cameron got to make exactly the movie he wanted, I wonder why he made different choices in the end. It's one thing never get a story quite right. It's another to have had the story basically honed, and then to change your mind.

Examples? The biggest is the character of Pandora itself. In the scriptment, Pandora plays roughly the same role that New York City plays in Law & Order--it's basically the chief protagonist. Cameron establishes Pandora as such an entity by (1) Beginning the story on Earth, so we can see what the "real world" looks like and (2) Spending a goodly amount of time on the human base in Pandora, showing us how the humans must cope with this new and strange land. In the film, we begin with Jake Sully coming out of cryo-sleep and spend only a small bit of time on the main base before Cameron gets the lead characters out of Dodge. The end result is that we get more time on Pandora, but I would argue that we get less of a sense of its alien-ness. Finally, the scriptment creates a little a mystery, with some odd occurrances (random animal attacks; animals working together) which pay off with the revelation that Pandora itself is a semi-conscious, networked entity. In the movie, all of that is dispensed with; the idea of a living Pandora is dealt with mostly through exposition.

The second thing that struck me is that many of the substantive criticisms leveled against the film are perfectly valid. Galley Friend Mike Russell has a long and very thoughtful critique over at AICN and I can't say that I disagree with much, if any of it. To hit on just a few of the film's problems:

* The villains--both the blood-thirsty colonel and the Company's on-site executive--are terribly under-written. They're stock bad guys. Cameron is so lazy about telling us how weasely the Company boss is that he's introduced by showing him putting golf-balls in the command center. It's astonishing that a movie as inventive and artful as Avatar would resort to something so cliched and off-the-shelf. Likewise, the Colonel is an uninteresting adversary. He's neither intelligent, nor cunning, nor particularly competent. His motivations are unclear. What's worse, he's so out of control that it's not obvious why a big, important corporation would trust the security of their most expensive and lucrative operation to him. And it's not like Cameron doesn't know how to create complicated, interesting villains (see Aliens).

* Another big issue of motivations: Why do the humans need Unobtanium so badly? Why is it worth the expense? Why would anyone be willing to go to Pandora? (These questions are all answered quite well in the scriptment, by the way.)

* There's something a little on-the-nose about how simplistically thug-ish the (para?) military types are. And Cameron hits the nose over and over. "Shock and awe." "Let's get some." "Hoo-ah." Nearly every line ever uttered in cinema by an out-of-control war-dog is used. And it's all unnecessary. We all understand what Cameron is trying to say without any of that help. I promise.

* How noble are these savages? The most noblest savages, ever. They're all wise and brave and fair-minded. Even their hot-headed warriors aren't all that mean to Jake Sully. Mind you, even the ewoks had a suspicious, over-protective, vaguely villainous shaman type. Not the Navi.

* At one point, the evil Colonel is using a Mech-Warrior suit. And he pulls from the Mech-Warrior's waistband a giant Bowie knife. Really.

All of that said, I was kind of blown away by Avatar. It's nowhere near a perfect movie. But it's certainly a great, and probably important, movie. I'd argue that it's worthy of admiration, even if you deem it a failure.

When people say that Avatar is "immersive," you may not quite understand what they mean. It isn't just the CGI used to create Pandora, which blends computers and live-action about as well as we're likely to see--CGI milestones come and go--it's that he combines this with 3-D that's so different from anything you've ever seen before that this he's essentially creating a new format for in-theater movies.

I think Avatar's box office bears this out. It opened very big (though only half so big as the Transformers sequel. But then look at these dailies: In its second week of release it showed increases on five of the seven days. On its third Saturday of release, it made a little bit more money than it did on its first Saturday. It's at $352M domestically and we yet we have very little idea of what its final take will be. The only other movie I've ever seen with an early performance pattern like this is this one. As a point of reference, by this point in its release, Titanic had earned $157M, just 25 percent of its total domestic take. I doubt Avatar is headed toward $1.4B domestically. (Though you never know.) The Box Office Guru sees a relatively easy path to $547M. All I know for sure is that I'll be heading out to a theater to see it again.

And by the way, if Avatar doesn't win Best Picture, I'll be shocked. I've seen maybe five movies this year, so this isn't a comment on the quality of other films. I like Jason Reitman very much and I'm sure that Up In the Air is a fantastic movie. But the Oscars are industry awards and if the industry as a whole really is worried about its future in the digital age--piracy, big-screen HD TVs, video on-demand, movies on iPod and all the rest--then they'd be suicidal not to do everything in their power to promote a product which showcases the unique power of film on a giant screen and points the way to the future for other filmmakers.


William T. Sherman said...

I was surprised at how much of the Avatar plot was lifted from Alan Dean Foster's wonderful 1975 sci-fi novel "Midworld". James Cameron has been known to "borrow" from others (see the settlement made to Harlan Ellison after the first Terminator was released), so I can't believe the studio lawyers missed it, especially since the film's been in development for fifteen years.

Maybe they've already paid Foster and his publisher to keep them quiet.

Ralphie said...

The simplicity, or really simple-ness, of the story makes me angry the more I think about it. Like with that giant red pteradactyl - once the chick (kitten?) said that only a handful of folks had ever ridden it, you knew JakeSully would be on one in the last reel. And when it happened, it wasn't even entertaining! And how about this: Why does the Avatar program even exist, at the point the movie starts? The Na'vi won't have anything to do with them, and they still need armed protection (i.e., they're not protected from predators, etc.). All it seems to do is allow them to roam around mask-free.

jjv said...

This movie is like King Kong. It is the special effects that make the movie not the dialogoue or the acting. But even after 75 years that movies holds up.