P. H. Cordner

The Avatar Debate, or why people defend the quality of a shit sandwich by pointing out what a nice wrapper it came in.

In Nonsense on January 15, 2010 at 10:59

Many thanks to Shauvon McGill at DenyConformity.com, who served as the inspiration for this post. I only hope he’ll be a good sport about this. You can read his take on Avatar here.

Avatar has been called (mostly by press releases, ad campaigns, and the bloggers that parrot them) a ‘groundbreaking … transcendental film experience.” It is none of these things. It is in fact, a very long amusement park attraction. When judged by the standards of a typical IMAX movie that played at Navy Pier in the 90’s, it beats the pants of off those. As a film it is a resounding thud on the ground it is proclaiming to break.

I saw Avatar in 3D in IMAX. This is the way J.C. Intended you to view it. The 3D experience was certainly miles ahead of any other 3D movie I have seen. This, I would argue, is the first film that uses 3D in a non-gimmicky, ‘look at this thing flying at you’ way, and this is the film’s strongest point. The first 10 minutes of the film when you are first getting acquainted with this strange feeling is quite cool. The world of Pandora is quite well imagined, colorful, beautiful. I wasn’t bored with this film until after the 9/11 holocaust at the Bigtree, almost entirely thanks to the visuals. The 3D CGI used in this film is an immersive visual language the likes of which we haven’t seen before. Unfortunately, what is being conveyed with this language is not a good film by any stretch of the imagination.

Lincoln Michel of The Millions wrote a review which articulates the numerous plot and character failings of Avatar. Here’s a ctrl-c ctrl-v of the bits I thought most salient:

“I could not help wondering where the James Cameron of the first two Terminators had gone, the man who could meld effects with imaginative storytelling and characters you could care about. Is there anything in Avatar that feels as fresh as the T2 liquid nitrogen scene? Any characters as kickass as Sarah Connor? Any one-liners that could hold up to “Hast la vista, baby”? For all of Avatar’s visual wonder, the film feels dreadfully lazy.”

“I don’t think anyone expects a popcorn blockbuster geared towards younger audiences to have the wit of a David Mamet script or the imaginative directing of a Fellini film. But when you are announcing yourself as the future of filmmaking, you should be able to stand tall against the great blockbusters of the past or at the very least of the present. Compared to the well-conceived, engaging and imaginative action and kids films of even the past two years (The Dark Knight, Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, District 9, Iron Man, etc.) Avatar feels like a colossal underachievement in filmmaking as much as a colossal success in visual effects. When those visual effects become commonplace, what are we left with?”

A fair number of Avatar’s devotees have taken to the task of defending against these claims, and while I will not tell you that you are wrong for thinking differently than I (a claim I cannot make of many ‘Avatar-defense’ blog posts) , I believe them to be misguided, in that they have been seduced by the potential of this new, exciting 3D filmmaking process, so much so that they ignored Avatar’s merits as a film.

Shauvon McGill’s post, for example, spends 2000 words defending Avatar while using only 400 of those talking about the film itself, and not the amount of effort it took, how much money it cost, etc. But all of this imaginative hard work, and petabytes of visual data might as well not exist if it’s not in the service of a competent film. Plenty of movies that totally blow cost a lot of money, took a lot of work, were kicking around in the head of a director, etc. All that stuff doesn’t matter, the movie still blows. McGill tells us:

Discrediting a film because its plot is cliche (sic) is like discrediting Picasso for using paint brushes. There are only so many ways you can tell a story. That’s just the truth.”

This isn’t the truth. Discrediting Picasso for using paintbrushes would be like dismissing Stanley Kubrick for using a camera. Discrediting a film for a clichéd plot is much more akin to discrediting Thomas Kinkade for painting trite bullshit like pastoral barn scenes. Let’s pretend, for example, the Dances With Wolves/The Last Samurai/Pocahontas “White Guy Defends Noble Savages” plot doesn’t suck and isn’t patronizing and has the potential to be told well. Even if that were true, Avatar did not tell it well. McGill tells us that Avatar‘s Sam Worthington character explores duality and internal conflict and moral choice. To cater to the broadest possible audience, to make the most money, to get the most return on the insane investment, Avatar does not deliver to us an ambiguous moral landscape in which to ponder the duality of man. The moral landscape of Avatar is not complex at all. Anyone who ponders ethical questions for even one second will come to the same conclusion Sam Worthington does in Avatar. The direction of the movie makes the choice not a choice at all, and therefore, a rather poor discussion of duality and moral choice. The Na’vi are so obviously good, they have a tangible version of a Gaia/Mother Earth, and the corporate villains are obviously horrible, greedy, baby-killers. JC does all the thinking for us, and tells us the choice with his direction. This is what the vast majority of suburban megaplex customers prefer. The American cinema landscape is so averse to subtext that we get this spoon-fed anti-corporate message that resonates pretty sourly with the fact that this movie itself is a product of corporate greed and the bulldozing of smaller, much more competent film directors that just so happen can’t cough up 300 million bucks on bespoke 3D cameras.

McGill would tell me that this analysis of the plot is missing the point. Missing the point of gushing over the effects, perhaps. Both Michel and McGill tell us that we didn’t go to Avatar expecting high art. McGill and Michel also both invoke the Terminator films. McGill asks us if we “hate on Terminator because the Terminator’s character wasn’t developed that well?” Of course we don’t because the Terminator’s character was developed well! Sarah Connor and John Connor and the Terminator had interactions which were memorable, relationships we felt for. John Connor’s father void being filled by a robot, come on, these are cool relationships! Terminator was not high art, but it was good filmmaking. Avatar is neither.

The final paragraph of McGill’s analysis tells us that whether or not Avatar was good is irrelevant, and that the new 3D cinema that Avatar is ushering us to makes this film akin to Beethoven’s 9th and Michaelangelo’s David. He then goes on to put Avatar in the ‘create’ side of a ‘make money/create’ dichotomy. I find Shauvon McGill to be one of the smartest people I know and a good friend, but these ideas are rather absurd to me. While I too eagerly anticipate when a film director who isn’t aiming to put the most fat suburban asses into the seats as possible to create a complex, worthy film with this technology, I also fear that movies will become even more inaccessible for aspiring directors to make movies independent of the mainstream Hollywood mentality. It remains to be seen whether or not Avatar will be the beginning of a wonderful, immersive 3D film landscape or the end of the artfully directed Hollywood film as we know it.

  1. “Here’s a ctrl-c ctrl-v of the bits I thought most salient” – coolest sentence.

    Is this a blog about the movie Avatar, or a critique of a blog about the movie Avatar?

    Either way (and bear [rawr] in mind that I have not seen this movie yet) I side with you – special effects mean naught to me if the movie itself is hum-drum. I think of a saying I heard about music – “If you can’t play the song as a simple melody using only one hand [on a piano], then it isn’t really a song – it has no main melody, no trackable tune, and what you’re playing is purely imbellishment.” So, if the movie can’t hold up without it’s fancy schmancy glitz, it’s not really a movie. It’s a poopstain.

  2. Well, it’s kind of both. Avatar has had so much digital ink dedicated to it already, with vociferous obstinacy on both sides, that I felt my best contribution to the whole debate was to sort out the firestorm, and in the process devote some ink to criticisms of the film I felt haven’t been clearly fleshed out on the internet yet. I don’t agree completely with the Michel review, but it does present ideas I’m more sympathetic to.

  3. Thank goodness there are still people with brain on this planet! That review hits the nail on the head. But something is really worrying me about the phenomenon of the Avatar hype: That even critics fall for it and that the WGA (Writer’s Guild of America) nomindated Avatar in the category ‘Best Original Script’ (which doesn’t mean it’s original, but only that it’s not an adaptation). Also the Golden Globe was given to Avatar (we know their members are bribed, yes). It really shows how corrupt the whole movie business is – or the system in general. It’s virtually pure hypocrisy that exactly Avatar is such a cash machine when at the same time it naively preaches against greed. Not to mention that Avatar is as artificial and technophile as it can get while it pretends to worship nature.

  4. What would we do without people with brain? Probably not be watching “technophilic” movies.

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