Monday, December 28, 2009

Whitty Whatch: Avatar, Patriotism and a Three-Star Negative Review

Avatar (2009 film)Image via Wikipedia
Yet another substandard review by Whitty (readable in its entirety here).

Whitty starts off his review of Avatar by being surprisingly honest, something a lot of critics have been trying to avoid. He rather bluntly points out that while the movie isn’t a steaming pile of crap, neither is it a groundbreaking work of cinematic history (apart from the budget, that is). Of course, that is all there really is to say about the film. But Whitty needs to fill more space in order to justify a whole-page review in the Friday Entertainment Section. So, needless to say, he starts spinning that classic Whitty magic.

One of Whitty's main complaints is that Avatar's anti-war theme makes some references that relate to our own country's eight-year Iraqi war. He appears upset that Cameron would dare make comparisons between Avatar's corporation-backed-military preemptively invading Pandora for mineral profits, and America's Halibuton & Blackwater-backed-military preemptively invading Iraq for oil profits. No, Whitty's right, there's hardly a real comparison there at all.

But just coming out and saying that he disagrees with the film’s political message won’t do. So instead he claims that the film “gets confused in its politics. He whines about the film’s Na’vi being portrayed in “the image of the Native American as a peaceful eco-warrior,” totally overlooking the fact that the U.S. government did indeed use its military might to practically wipe out the Native Americans for their land and mineral rights. More specifically, he fears that mixing the imagery of Native Americans with current military jargon like “Shock and Awe” and “Daisy Cutters” somehow makes America’s eight-year debacle in Iraq seem less legitimate.

So Whitty is a supporter of the Iraqi war. Fair enough. He is entitled to his political opinion. But instead of just saying so, he argues that the film is “poisoned” by Cameron’s “clumsy attempts” to modernize the classic tale of Corporate Greed vs. Indigenous Natives (Here’s a little hint for you Whitty: nations have been doing the same thing long before the stars and stripes. It isn’t always about us, you know.). It can’t be that he and Cameron disagree; it has to be that Whitty is right and Cameron is “confused” and na├»ve. He even goes as far as to insinuate that the film is nothing more than a terrorist recruitment brochure that should “have a huge opening weekend in Basra.”

Ironically, Whitty spends half of the review criticizing Avatar for being morally naive, and the other half for attempting to be morally relevant, simply because he doesn't agree with the political viewpoint of the director. He accuses the film’s anti-corporate/militaristic message of being “a misread mix of Rousseau and Chomsky,” making it readily apparent that he hasn’t read much of either.

Surprisingly, Whitty doesn’t make any glaring factual errors this round. The closest he gets is implying that Avatar’s plot is reminiscent of the Star Trek episode The Menagerie, a dubious and somewhat perplexing claim. I guess he felt that all sci-fi originates from Star Trek. He wouldn’t be the first to share that delusion. But he does use the sickening copout critic phrase Popcorn Movie, although he upgrades it to “Popcorn Epic” in Cameron’s honor. And I really fail to see what Cameron's multiple marriages have to do with his political views towards feminism. Then again, if you are determined to give a Three-Star bad review, I guess it helps to take pot-shots at the director's personal life instead of his film.

That’s right, you heard correctly. Whitty spends most of his lengthy review listing the numerous errors and flaws with the film, and then feels fit to award it Three out of Four stars anyway. So, in Whitty’s own words: the film Avatar contains “half-baked ideas,” “clumsy dialogue,” “adolescent philosophy,” and “sketchy characterization.” Sure sounds like a Three Star film to me.

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What I Learned From Avatar

  • Humans will always be driven to destroy all that is beautiful and natural.
  • Corporations are evil and untrustworthy.
  • No matter what evil deeds are perpetrated by corporations, the CEO will always escape any penalties.
  • God is the Internet, Heaven is one giant Server, and we are all Plug & Play data ports.
  • The best belief system is the kind that can be proven through scientific method.
  • 3D makes everything better.
  • The Tribe Leader’s young warrior son will always come off as a royal prick until you get a chance to bond with him in the third act.
  • It is okay to kill marines if they are private contractors and not on the government payroll.
  • A planet-wide rainforest ecosystem will contain only six or seven distinct animals.
  • Michelle Rodriguez is contractually obligated to die in everything she stars in.
  • When felling a tree measuring over a mile high, not one person is going to think of saying “Timber.”
  • Floating mountains can have waterfalls despite having no source for the water to come from.
  • Its okay to have a completely predictable storyline if it costs half a billion dollars and looks really cool.
  • Superstitious shamanistic races are more likely to deal with foreign interlopers who show up magically possessing bodies built to resemble their own.
  • The idealistic alien race is built like an impossibly thin ten-foot-tall runway model .
  • Destroying your girlfriend’s home and killing her father will break up your relationship, but if you show up later with a totally hot ride, she’ll take you back in a heartbeat.
  • Ten years of development, and the most creative name that James Cameron can think of for his film’s fictional rare mineral is Unobtainium.
  • Even worse, the movie poster tagline he could come up with was Believe It, Or Not.
  • People will pay to see anything in 3D.

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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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