Monday, December 28, 2009

Avatar Review: Is "Not Bad" Good Enough?

Is “Not Bad” good enough?

That’s really the question when it comes to assessing the quality of Avatar, James Cameron’s first film in over a decade. His first major theatrical release since Titanic, it has been obvious for a long time that Cameron and the studios had every intention of making Avatar as much of a blockbuster epic as its Oscar-winning Leonardo DiCaprio-starring predecessor.

After two successful weekends in the theater, it is now safe to say that it isn’t the bomb some might have feared or hoped for. This was actually evident before the first box office receipts were in, when the short-lived review embargo (usually the first clue that the film is a potential flop) was broken by film critics eager to share their mutual surprise that the film wasn’t this decade’s Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate. Since then there has been a virtual love-fest between the media and the studios, and a $75+ million opening weekend despite a blizzard-hampered East Coast has dispelled any fears that the audiences wouldn’t bite. The mutual consensus: It isn’t bad.

But, again; does Not Bad = Good?

Avatar’s notoriously gargantuan $400+ Million budget actually delivers on its overall promise of over-the-top 3D and special effects. Over half of the film is dominated by advanced CGI-rendered characters, animals and Day-Glo jungle environments. And yes, they are quite amazing. Seen in 3D or 2D, you can see where all the money went. But when it comes to justifying the amount spent, the lines of reason and good taste begin to blur.

The main chorus being sung by the film’s promoters and apologist film critics (speaking of blurred boundaries) is that these are the most realistic CGI rendered characters you will ever see. To paraphrase one of many identical review/interview/commercial spots, the realism invoked by these realistic animated characters is so overwhelming that you will actually come to believe that they are real beings.

This, of course, is a load of crap.

As impressive as these computer generated characters are, there is no point during the film that any rational adult will find themselves wondering how they managed to make the Navi look so real, because they don’t look real; they look like what they are, extremely impressive computer-generated characters. Now, children in the audience might feel differently, but kids aren’t an especially discerning audience. Decades ago, millions of underage film-goers were more than willing to believe that a bunch of midgets in fur suits running around the screen in Return of the Jedi were actually a race of heavily-merchandised half-pint Wookies.

Its called the Suspension of Disbelief, an integral part of the movie-going experience that is not necessarily increased exponentially with the amount of money spent on the effects budget.

As much as the propaganda-heavy news reports and film critic reviews would like you to believe that special effects are what make characters endearing, the truth of the matter is that screenplay and actor performance easily trump that list. In the case of Avatar, the performances are only as good as the special effects and script allows them to be. Considering the weak story presented behind the 3D CGI spectacle, this leaves them all at about half-mast.

The lack of a decent script is almost understandable; when you are completely focused on delivering groundbreaking visuals worthy of a half-billion price tag, you’re going to want to keep your script as lean and simple as possible. And simple it is. Anyone who has ever seen Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai or Enemy Mine already knows this story (aka Plot #17) inside and out: Main Character battles Good Group on behalf of Evil Group, but eventually indentifies with Good Group and helps them defeat Evil Group. Roll credits.

But again, apologists are eager to claim that the amazingly expensive special effects more than justify the extremely light and simplistic screenplay. After all, the nearly half-billion-dollar special effects made the Navi almost seem like a real race, right? My rebuttal to this nonsense is last year’s surprise sci-fi hit District 9.

In District 9, we have yet another film featuring humans interacting with a computer-generated alien species. Instead of the tall, wasp-waisted Navi (yet another Hollywood attempt at increasing eating disorders in young girls) frolicking in a jungle paradise, District 9’s aliens are giant grubby-looking insectoids, affectionately dubbed "Prawns" by their South African benefactors. Both films feature themes regarding the treatment of foreign races and cultures utilizing metaphoric alien races, but District 9 takes the time to explore the relation and exploitation with more attention paid to the complex nature of such situations, with a storyline and character development that doesn’t feel like a black-and-white storybook parable. It garnered rave reviews, also including the realism and believability of its alien creatures, and went on to earn nearly quadruple its
budget during its American theatrical release.

District 9 might not have been a pillar of originality either, arguably being a remake of Alien Nation. But it still treads on far more philosophical and socially relevant ground than sour-milk-drinking populated pun-titled predecessor. Also, while not achieving the extreme ratio of CGI to real world screen time, District 9 managed to achieve the same level of critical and financial success as Avatar, and with a vastly superior screenplay. Its budget: A measly $30 million, less than a tenth of Avatar’s price tag.

So, does Not Bad mean Good? Not really. It doesn’t necessarily mean Bad either, and considering the money it is bringing in, that’s all that matters. Weighing the amazing visuals against the uninspiring script, the only fair assessment is that the film is just your typical Hollywood mega-budget blockbuster; big on spectacle but lacking in substance, no more or less deserving of its box office totals than Transformers 2 or 2012.

But let’s stop making excuses for the obscene amount of money thrown at what is nothing more than another unforgettable weekend blockbuster extravaganza. As much as the Hollywood elite might feel the need to engage in these annual meg-budget pissing contests, special-effect stroke-fests are no substitute for quality filmmaking. And contrary to popular belief, there is a difference.

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Jean said...

Loved the writeup...Though I quite did not like the film at all. All it seemed was concentrated on getting the visual up.

Anonymous said...

The film was pure genius and you need to be creative yourself instead of trying to find wrong about other peoples work.

S.Smith said...

Not Bad doesn't equal good in any industry, but the more money pumped in, the more biz execs want money out...even if Not Bad means sucks.

For me, big-budget and not-bad equals wait for it on Hulu or Netflix.

Anonymous said...

Well your having fun and being catty and I enjoyed it but your also a bit off the mark. AVITAR is an "epic". Now if you show me one that does have a lot of social relevance and great script etc then you haven't been watching the same films I have. It's a little like criticizing a horror film for being violent, it's part of the genre. Cameron does not wright great scripts - or I should say great dialog. He does make movies people want to see. Does that make it art? Probably not. But it sure beats PUBLIC ENEMY'S, or that horrible piece of trash 300.
On a technical level, the animation of humanoid form was the breakthrough. JURASSIC PARK did that for "creatures" but "people like" creatures always looked really bad. AVITAR managed to make humanoid creatures good enough to allow the "suspension of disbelief". And he did it up close and personal. TITANIC has a CG person in a very long shot from a very high angle and anybody who looks is instantly aware it's a fake.

S.K. said...

"But let’s stop making excuses for the obscene amount of money thrown at what is nothing more than another unforgettable weekend blockbuster extravaganza. As much as the Hollywood elite might feel the need to engage in these annual meg-budget pissing contests, special-effect stroke-fests are no substitute for quality filmmaking. And contrary to popular belief, there is a difference."

So if I read this correctly it's not AVITAR you don't like it's any big budget film. I can agree with the Hollywood spends too much argument but that's also a lot of paying work for a lot of people. It's not like it all went up some exec's nose or ,god forbid, was invested with Bernie Made-off. There are a lot of "obscene" amounts spent in this world. At least in Hollywood a big hunk is going to paying people a living. Big budget does not = great filmmaking, but neither does no-budget. There are VERY VERY FEW great filmmakers, some have big budgets some don't.

J.F. Guida said...

The movie isn't bad but it's just not great. For $400 million it should be groundbreaking on something other than the budget. If you stripped out the 3D and the BIG budget more people will see that.

In time i think more people will become aware of this. It's kinda like realizing all these years later that Pulp Fiction should have won Best Picture over Forest Gump as Forest Gump with it's over the top special effects looks dated and corny. Not a bad film mind you, just not the better film.

rtpoe said...

A few things off the top of my head.

First, if you are going to comment on the essay, it would really help your argument if you used proper grammar AND SPELLED THE NAME OF THE MOVIE CORRECTLY.

Secondly, while a lot of the "haters" complain about the story being a ripoff of Dances With Wolves/Pocahontas/The Last Samurai/etc., there's nothing anywhere that says you cannot rework an old story. It helps if you can bring something new to it, or present it in an interesting way. That Cameron failed to do the former doesn't mean he didn't succeed at the latter.

My major disappointment with the movie is that Cameron could have easily added another layer of complexity to the story, without having to add more than a couple of lines of dialog. Shouldn't Grace have come to the realization after all her months of work on Pandora that the planet's ecology is artificial, and the biosphere is essentially a giant computer? It took me less than the running time of the movie to do so. Suppose she had at least guessed this, and presented it to the Corporate Honcho in terms of "How much do you think the patents that we can get from studying it will be worth? And what about the anti-gravity in the flying mountains?" She brings Corporate Honcho around to her side, at least to the point where he urges a slower approach to the Na'vi. The Colonel disagrees (he is a bit insane with his revenge motive), and goes off on his own to wipe out the village. That clash of personalities would have made it far more interesting. And it's not like Cameron didn't have the time to come up with it.

J.F. Guida said...

Scott and I mention in our podcast that we would have loved to see Colonel Quaritch switch sides fighting corporate and his own men. We loved his character so much.