Saturday, December 26, 2009

I Feel Bad For Hating Avatar

I feel bad for not liking Avatar. There’s a certain amount of irony here. Part of the reason I started this site was that I had gotten tired of watching big populist movies being dismissed without due consideration for the sin of being big and populist. And I now find myself in the uncomfortable position of dismissing the biggest most populist movie released since I started this blog. You can see the dilemma. I figured I’d kind of chicken out on writing about it. I mean I have already covered the movie in my BNAT column, its not like anyone is demanding my opinion on the matter. But wanting to be in on the discussion of film now means discussing Avatar. No matter what my problems with it are, I can’t deny that it truly is a watershed film.

And I want to be clear about something I don’t like James Cameron. I love him. I think Aliens is one of the finest pieces of action or scifi cinema ever produced (Its also one of the most misguided director cuts ever made but that’s another article). That movie's a machine and my admiration for it grows with each viewing. Then there’s The Terminator, which as someone whose worked on ultra low budget films before, absolutely blows my mind. Just how much Cameron got out of so little on that film astounds me. He made some rinky dink Corman like budget look like about a bajillion dollars. People don’t understand that Terminator is one of the greatest smoke and mirrors movies ever made. Cameron created that one out of pure editing, there’s hardly anything there.

Its no coicedence that Cameron is one of the great editor/directors. He’s one of the great cinematic innovators (Do you realize he only had six Alien suits on Aliens? Six! And two of them where just head pieces and black leotards). Maybe that’s the problem, when you’ve got 400 million there’s not a whole lot you need to innovate.

But you have to understand, I was excited about Avatar, really excited. I figured that if Cameron could legitimize 3D the way he legitimized CGI in Terminator 2, it could really be something special. Something spectacular. When the movie started I was straight up grinning. And the grin slowly died as I realized what I was watching was the most egregious misplacing of faith in a director I have committed since Lady In The Water.

The fact is the more I think about it the more I realize, that I’m not neutral about Avatar, I’m not muddled, I don’t think its pretty good, as I seem to suggest in my earlier review. No the more I think about it, the more I realize I fucking hate Avatar.

But lets take a step back, I’m going to talk about one of the primary building blocks of my cinematic philosophy. To some of you this might sound as soulless and disgusting as Gordon Gecko, but friends I’m here to tell you that Spectacle for lack of a better word is Good.

Spectacle is an integral part of the cinema. And anyone who says different doesn’t understand it. Its spectacle that gives film its greatest power, that to take you outside of your experience. To smack you upside the head and knock you tumbling out of your own headspace for awhile. Its no coincidence that Melies or DeMille was one of the first great filmmakers, no coincidence that Intolerance and Metropolis remain astounding works of art. My favorite filmmakers, Gilliam, Del Toro, Raimi, Hitchcock, De Palma, Coppola, The Coen’s, Herzog, Kubick, Burton, Bava, Carpenter, Powell, Leone, Ford, Peckinpah, Fuller, Huston, Lynch, Keaton, and of course Spielberg are all great masters of spectacle. All promise to show me things I’ve never seen before. And I believe them. To show me things I’ve never dreamed of, or to put it more accurately things I’ve always dreamed of and have never been able to draw with me into the waking world.

But a lot of people who profess to love the cinema don’t like spectacle. What’s more they distrust it. Because Spectacle like all grand gestures, leaves you open, can leave you feeling and looking very foolish. All you have to do is watch something like Australia to see how off the rails things can get, when you play with your heart on your sleeve and you're playing big and crazy. Spectacle gets people very nervous.

It doesn’t help that a lot of what passes for spectacle out of the Hollywood Studio system falls neatly within Sturgeon’s law. Most movies are Teflon. But I’ll take a film that really swings for the fences over some dreary bit of middlebrow miserablism any day.

And it has its moments it really does, where Avatar does just that, takes it to another level, plays it big and wonderful, and awe inspiring, but those moments are so few and far between in its gargantuan run time.

But dear sweet God Avatar did not work for me on the whole. And I’m tired of people telling me I was thinking about it too much. Yes that’s what you do when you don’t like something, you think about why. I’m tired of being told that it doesn’t matter that all Avatar is is a warmed over 400 million dollar version of Dances With Wolves because the story isn’t important and its all about sensation.

No God Damn it the story is important. Its not like Cameron is making Days Of Heaven. Its not like this is some daring non narrative tone poem. It’s a played out didactic fable, with all the pacing and complexity of a glacier, pieced together with warmed over bits of mythology borrowed from Fern Gully; and I never once bought into it. It reminds me of some of the pre Matrix 90’s Sci Fi movies. Feels like it should be playing on a triple bill with The Fifth Element and Phantom Menace (And yeah I know that some people will think that dropping the Ph-Bomb is like calling on Hitler. Invalidating any argument, but to my mind that's a movie just as groundbreaking and just as hollow), and yeah that’s not a compliment. Don’t tell me that just because it looks great it's OK that its empty.

A lot of people have been making the claim that its OK that the characters are all ciphers and the story is clumsy because Cameron was always a bad writer. BULLSHIT. Lets go back to Aliens for a second, the way it takes Cameron all of two minutes to introduce you to an entire squadron of Marines and fix them all firmly in your mind. He’s playing broad sure. Dealing with stock characters and archetypes, but by before the movie has even ramped up its first act you’ve got an entire cast (Not to mention a boatload of exposition) fixed firmly in your mind with a real narrative economy. Look how smoothly he explained the high concept of Terminator. None of this Bullshit about Unobtanium (And Jesus Cameron really?). This bloated clumsy film populated by mannequins has nothing in common with Cameron’s earlier work. I was fortunate enough not to see Terminator Salvation, so I missed that whole debacle, but I now believe every bad thing I’ve ever heard about Sam Worthington. He’s Paul Walker bad in this. He’s a blank void in the center of the film, sending off waves of indifference whenever Passion, Rage, Love, or whatever is his supposed emotion. When the only person that makes any impression on you is the villain you know you have problems. There weren't characters in this movie just people who've been in more interesting movies. It was like oh there's Ram Ghas! And then my eyes would glaze over.

Even the much fabled imagery let me down. Sure the floating mountains where beautiful, and the aerial and Zero G scenes where cool. The 3D looked good, though I’m going to go ahead and maintain that Disney Digital beats it hands down. But after awhile I started having this reverse Uncanny Valley thing happen where instead of the Computerized Characters looking real the Real Human Beings Just started looking fake. Its an achievement I respect but don’t like.

To be quite frank reading most of what’s been written on Avatar has frankly depressed me. A lot of people I admire have been raving about it. Which is fine. Lord knows I don’t demand everyone agrees with me. The problem is that they all seem to acknowledge these basic ground levels flaws that the piece has, and they don’t seem to care. (Not that the con has made a much better use of it, either dismissing it on vague charges of racism and imperialsm [natch] or deciding it unworthy of engagement both views annoy the piss out of me.)

I rewatched District 9 the other day (and for the record I have no idea how I forgot that one when I was making up my year end list, Mea Culpa). This is a movie just as didactic and occasionally obvious and clumsy as Avatar, and you know what? It burns with something to prove in away that keeps me pinned to my seat. For all the work that obviously went into it Avatar is sure a lazy movie.


robby431 said...

I totally agree. I'm glad there is someone that finally sees what I see.

I was talking to someone about it that said it was the best movie. She said: "yea, the story isn't great, but it just looks beautiful." How does that make it a great movie? Go look at a painting!

Bryce Wilson said...

Glad To Hear it Robby!

Neil Fulwood said...

Don't feel bad. 'Avatar' has been hyped out of proportion, particularly with regard to the visuals - people are saying ill-advised things along the lines of "this is like nothing you've ever seen before", and therein lies the problem. Everything in 'Avatar' has been seen before. I've seen the climatic smackdown with the antagonist in a powersuit twice in the last eighteen months - 'Iron Man' and 'District 9'. I've seen the entire plot before in 'Ferngully'. I've seen every scrap of the imagery before - albeit traditionally animated instead of CGI - in the films of Hayao Miyazaki.

Your last sentence nails it: for all its technical brilliance, 'Avatar' is a lazy and uninspired piece of filmmaking. It's a comedown from the guy who made 'The Terminator' and 'The Abyss'.

Bryce Wilson said...

Yeah. I mean I don't mind archetypes. I do mind lazy archetypes.

Ryan McNeil said...

While I personally loved it, you aren't alone in your dislike. Don't feel bad for not diggin' it - you're here to present an honest opinion, right?

Adrenaline said...

I don't understand why you spent half the time talking about spectacle being good and then complained that Avatar is only spectacle.

Bryce Wilson said...

Mostly because Avatar's spectacle just wasn't good enough.

I mentioned a few images I thought worked (The floating mountains where brilliant) because 400 million dollars will buy you something and said I found the rest uninspired an unable to support a whole movie.

Anonymous said...

Hey, don't feel bad. I am also a huge fan of Cameron's early movies, and I highly disliked Avatar. It was flat-out boring to me, for all the reasons you mentioned.