Even a cursory review of this blog reveals that where John hews closer to arthouse (typical John post: “I would have liked this movie more if it moved a little more slowly, had less plot, and really just focused on the main character’s thoughts as he walked the fourteen steps from the hallway to his art studio.”), I’m maybe something closer to adolescent heartland (typical Jared post: “I would have liked this Fellini film better if it had explosions.  With fireballs.  And robots.”)

So I’m calling you out, John.  What on earth did you see in Avatar?  Obviously, like everyone else in the world, I’ll preface my thoughts by acknowledging the sheer beauty of the visuals.  The 3-D worked stunningly well.  There is a scene early on (in an aircraft, I believe), showing some instrumental panels that would be at the top of my list to convince people 3-D doesn’t have to be a fad or kitschy, just because of how the 3-D added to the vividness of the quiet scene.

But here’s the thing.  James Cameron aspires to not only have incredible images, but to tell a story well.  Which is a (maybe the) big difference between Cameron and, say, Michael Bay.  Cameron takes breaks from the action for attempts at theme and story.  Bay takes breaks from the action for…well, I suppose the concept of Michael Bay taking breaks from action is more of a hypothetical.

My evidence for Cameron’s intentions in Avatar would be all the (relatively) non-effects-laden scenes in the film, where ostensibly some sort of narrative is taking place.  Except nothing gets developed at all.  All of the characters are stock characters at best (Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi, Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana), ciphers at worst (hulking Vince McMahon lookalike (apologies, Stephen Lang), guy from Dodgeball, Michelle Rodriguez).  Which isn’t a knock on the actors (I wouldn’t necessarily cry at a Saldana nom) as much as what happens when Cameron tries to cram story into his visuals, because I think that learning Rodiguez’s backstory, or seeing some of pressures Ribisi’s character is facing could both be really interesting, for example.  Instead, their stories are glossed over or assumed.

We’ve all seen and heard the jokes comparing Avatar to the Pocahontas story.  Frankly, I don’t see the relevance.  A compelling story is a compelling story.  I’m reminded of the old saw about how Shakespeare appropriated plots for many of plays.  The problem here, then, isn’t that the film uses an unoriginal framework, but rather that it never takes the next step by filling in that framework with anything meaningful.

Cameron’s ambition may be his undoing.  He’s created an extraordinary vision of the future, but tries to show too much in too short a time frame.  Maybe the story would have best been told as a miniseries, each episode focusing on a different character.  I dunno, perhaps this is a reason I don’t generally like fantasy.  For example, I’d rather not use my imagination to think about the other Na’vi tribes that happen to show up at the end, but would be happier with a subplot  (or at least a scene) concerning tribal relations.  Or something more than a montage (sorry, Brian) showing Worthington’s assimilation into the Na’vi culture.  Even the concept of avatars itself, a worthy addition to the sci fi philosophical discourse on the connection between mind and body (just off the top of my head, other examples being: Dollhouse, The Matrix, Total Recall, the Star Trek holodeck, Ender’s Game, Frankenstein) isn’t really explored.

I understand liking Avatar.  I understand how a little of the most awesome visual effects put on film could go a long way.  But I fail to see how they can completely cover for the times where the film is, well, pedestrian.

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