Avatar

I didn’t love it. It’s very, very pretty, and I wasn’t bored, but the story and characters never engaged me the way, say, Titanic‘s did. Instead I stayed in author-head pretty much the whole time, observing the storytelling decisions Cameron made and thinking about what I might have done differently. For me this still qualifies as entertainment and I do feel I got my money’s worth, but I am disappointed that I didn’t experience the emotional highs and lows I was clearly intended to.

Lisa did love it. Despite some technical problems (see below), she really enjoyed the spectacle, and while she admits she was having so much fun looking around that the story didn’t really matter, she did connect emotionally with at least some of the characters, particularly Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Also: Blue kitties! And dragons! Together!

Thoughts about the visuals

First things first: if this 3D business is really going to catch on, they either need to improve the glasses or get rid of them altogether. Lisa and I both already wear glasses, and while my nose is big enough to balance two pairs of specs at the same time, hers isn’t. She spent the first fifteen minutes of the show trying to get the 3D specs to stay on by themselves, and the remaining two and a half hours holding them up with her hand. It does say a lot that she really enjoyed herself despite this inconvenience, but it’s not the sort of nuisance she’d want to put up with regularly.

The combination of 3D and CGI is impressive, and Cameron’s use of it is even more impressive. At the theater we went to, there was a preview for another 3D/CGI movie, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, that was very much in the poke-you-in-the-eye school of 3D film making. That three-minute preview gave me vertigo and the beginnings of a headache. Then Avatar started, and the vertigo and headache went away. Same technology, very different effect: it was beautiful but it was also subtle, and it went out of its way not to poke you in the eye (I noticed a number of scenes where characters were swinging their weapons around and the camera cut away specifically to avoid having something sharp pointed directly at the audience).

As to whether it’s “revolutionary,” while I could see this 3D/CGI combo becoming a standard feature of a certain kind of SF/fantasy/action blockbuster, I don’t think it has nearly as much to offer to a film like Julie & Julia. And even in those genre offerings where it’s appropriate, I think a lot of directors may end up deploying it in nausea-inducing ways.

Thoughts about the story

The most common comparison I’m hearing is to Dances with Wolves. While there are points of similarity—most obviously the white protagonists who go native—the two films are really very different. Dances is a fairly realistic, and depressing, period piece. It ends with the surviving Lakota Sioux on the run, destined for slaughter or the reservation, and Costner’s enlightened white man a fugitive deserter and murderer (he does get the girl, but that won’t be much consolation once the feds catch up to him). Avatar is a feel-good fairy tale about pure-hearted natives beating back the technologically superior invaders. Think Independence Day or War of the Worlds with Earth people cast as the aliens.

This article at io9 calls Avatar a “white guilt fantasy,” but I didn’t sense any guilt. I don’t think Cameron is apologizing for (or denying) history, I think he’s using a pseudo-historical first-contact scenario for his own (happy) ends. Along the way I think he’s trying to be subversive, in the tame Hollywood sense of that term (“Genocide is bad” isn’t a daring moral statement, but “It’s OK to kill American soldiers to stop them from acting like assholes” actually kind of is, these days), but mostly I think he’s just trying to tell a cool adventure story.

As for Jake Sully going native, while I suppose you can read that as a racist statement about indigenous people needing a white guy to lead them to victory, I think Jake’s real function is to serve as an avatar for Cameron’s ideal audience—himself. Talk about a hero’s journey: exchange your old broken-down body for a stylish new blue one, woo Catwoman, learn to fly, give a St. Crispin’s Day speech, defend the Garden of Eden, have Catwoman save your ass in the last reel, live happily ever after. Boo-yah!

None of which I really have a problem with in principle, it’s just that the actual execution was too cliched and predictable (and frankly, too dumbed-down) for my taste.

An example of something I would have done differently: there’s a point where Jake realizes he’s not going to be able to talk the Na’vi into giving up their land without a fight, and he says “We don’t have anything they want.” This is one of those statements, like Star Trek’s “We don’t use money,” that’s meant to make a people sound noble and unmaterialistic but really, if you think about it, doesn’t make any freaking sense. The Na’vi may be blue kitties but they’re also a humanoid species, and in human society there’s always someone who’s not satisfied with the status quo, someone who wants more or different stuff, or higher status, or something. Instead of sending Jake to the Na’vi with vague instructions to “find a carrot that will move these people,” I might have tried giving him a more specific mission to locate a second-rank noble—a passed-over son or daughter of the chief, say—who could be subverted into siding with the Earth people. That would add something at least resembling moral complexity to the story, and also create some doubt as to the outcome. As it is, we know from the start that the Na’vi are never, ever going to agree to abandon Eden, so there’s no dramatic tension. Jake’s mission is just marking time until the guys with the guns get tired of waiting.

And even that would have been OK, if the love story had been more compelling. That fell flat for me too, though. I understood what Jake saw in Neytiri (he’s straight, she’s Catwoman), but I didn’t really get what she saw in him (if it’s the fact that he’s a magnet for dandelion seeds, then I’m sorry, that’s just too New Age woo-woo for me).

So, kind of a let-down, but worth seeing for the spectacle, plus Lisa and I have been having a good time discussing our different reactions to it. We may even go see it again in 2D, so she can just watch the film without wrestling with eyegear. But Sherlock Holmes is up next.