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Review: Avatar

January 27, 2010 Leave a comment

Warning:  Spoilers abound!

So now that Avatar is hurtling through box office history, it’s time that I went and wrote a review.

Little of what I have to say hasn’t been heard before: the visuals are outstanding, inventive, gorgeous, and entirely convincing.  There are fantastic creatures I never would have imagined on my own:  delicate tree seeds that are crosses between dandelion fuzz and jellyfish,  hammer-headed rhinos, horses with aardvark heads, and many others.  Many animals have six legs instead of four, for no real reason but to show that this place is an exotic Other World.  And the story is pure and utter cheese.

Steven D. Greydanus, a movie reviewer whose site ranks among my top ten (see, decentfilms.com), summarized the plot best: “Not only is it Star Wars and The Matrix, it’s also John Smith and Pocahontas, Dances With Wolves and Fahrenheit 9/11, Edgar Rice Burroughs and Rider Haggard, Hayao Miyazaki and Jack Kirby, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest and Battle for Terra, Jurassic Park and Aliens. It’s noble primitives and warmongering Westerners, imperialist and expansionist guilt and no blood for oil, Cortez and Custer and George W. Bush in one fell swoop. It’s environmental apocalypticism, Gaia and the Force, Vulcan mind-melding and fal tor pan mysticism and Disney’s Grandmother Willow. It’s space Marines and military oppressiveness, mystic/enlightened feminist consciousness and interspecies romance.”

Essentially, it’s every single Hollywood cliché and deeply held belief all put together into one amazing CGI package!

Thus, my enthusiam for the visuals was strongly tempered by disgust for the storyline.  It’s not that seeing innocent Na’vis’ sacred places being destroyed didn’t make me want to shed a tear, or that I wasn’t a bit happy that they were able to fight back.  It’s just that most of the way through the show I had to fight the urge to roll my eyes at the absurdly black-and-white thinking of Cameron’s Earth antagonists.  It didn’t help that Earth seemed to be only represented by white U.S. males, and that the mercenaries hired to “overthrow” the Na’vi were U.S. soldiers.  During the tensest battle scenes in the movie, it occurred to me that we were supposed to be rooting against the U.S. soldiers.  We were supposed to be thrilled each time one died.  This was sick.

I have taken the liberty of locating some of the following absurd Hollywood belief system clichés in Avatar:

Natives are pure and live in perfect harmony with nature.  They are kind and gorgeous and in terrific shape.  They have no technology and are presumably very into Going Green.  Animals are considered Brothers and Sisters and killing them is considered a very sad event, yet for some reason the Na’vi are not vegetarians.

White men are greedy warmongering pigs.  All white men in this movie aside from the Hero whose name I cannot remember (perhaps due to his subdued screen presence) and one other guy who’s kind of wimpy think of the Na’vi as dangerous murderous savages and are too pigheaded to think of them in any other light.  Will they consider working with the Na’vi, or trying to understand their culture, or negotiating with them in order to get the “unobtanium”?  No, a thousand times no!  They will consent to nothing but flinging themselves into full-fledged war with presumed killers! 

The perfect native religion is matriarchal and goddess-centered.  As men (especially white men from the U.S.) are overwhelmingly violent and pig-headed, the perfect pure religion must certainly be focused on female divinities and leaders. 

Any non-pigheaded white man who starts living with an indigenous population will want to stay with them forever.   Also see Dances with Wolves.  The hero, who has the virtue of open-mindedness that other white men do not, lives with the Na’vi as one of them, and is entranced by their way of life.  In this case it’s understandable, for the Na’vi live in a paradise and get to ride flying dragons.  ‘Nuff said.  The open-minded white man turns from his own kind forever in favor of the indigenous population, which would be quite a difficult task in my opinion when you’d assume the guy has family, friends, and a life back home on Earth, but in the movie it just takes a moment of decision.

White women are less pigheaded than white men.  The Sigourney Weaver character is a scientist with the Pandora invaders who wants to study their ways.  She, of course, is the only other white person who is open-minded.  Oh, but there is a female helicopter pilot who in the end rejects the evil violent ways of her pigheaded white peers.  Which can be attributed partly to the fact that she’s female.  Which was a dramatic plot twist that shocked nobody and appeased feminists (not that this movie needed to do anything more, really!).

In short, Visuals = Good, and Storyline = PC Mumbo-Jumbo.  Well worth seeing in theaters, but in my opinion does not deserve to topple Titanic.  Which apparently it just did recently, according to the world-wide box office.  In the domestic box office it’s just passed The Dark Knight, which just about breaks my heart, as TDK left an impression on me that Avatar never could (I only saw it five times in theaters).

My heart would be broken for good if not for the smug confidence of knowing that when adjusted for inflation Gone With The Wind is still the top earner, and will probably never be beat.  (Plus, who has made the adjustment for Avatar‘s extra money from 3D tickets?  That person I would like to talk to.)

When all is said and done, should the box office really matter?  (My soul says “It’s an important status thing and you know it!” but my reason is trying to drown in out.)  When regarding Avatar, I can’t see the characters becoming a part of pop culture in the way that, for instance, Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia have–or even Jack and Rose.  The Star Wars characters had a freshness to them–sure, they represented archetypes that have been in stories for generations, but they were also distinct and relatable.  Jack and Rose at least had strong chemistry and humanity.  Neytiri and What’s-His-Name?  Well, if I were in the same room with Neytiri I think she would scare me, and I’m not talking about her 12 feet of height or catlike aspects.  What’s-His-Name is too wooden for me to feel a strong connection to.  After all, I can’t even remember his name.

Perhaps I’ve become a little too jaded to appreciate this “film event.”  Or perhaps I’m still spoiled by my first breathless viewing of the Lord of the Rings trilogy (truly, sincerely, I have never viewed films the same way since).  In any case, I would only give Avatar a 3 stars out of 4, and I’m am starting to feel concern over this year’s Oscars…~

Review: 2012

November 28, 2009 1 comment

Warning:  spoilers aplenty!

It has been awhile since I’ve posted anything (drat my genetic inclination towards procrastination!) but I am pleased to announce my return to the silver computer screen with my first review: Director Emmerich’s gigantic cornball 2012!

This is, without a doubt, the best dumb disaster movie ever made.  It somewhat transcends the total inanity of Volcano and its special effects are far superior to such noteworthy achievements as Independance Day and Armageddon.   Until you’ve seen about 3/4 of Yellowstone blow up simultaneously, you can’t say you’ve seen a decent movie explosion (and my favorite thus far was the fantastic annihilation of the Gotham General Hospital in The Dark Knight.).

Talk about your special effects.   All sorts of familiar places are destroyed in perfect CGI: Las Vegas, Los Angeles, the statue of Christ in Rio, Sistine Chapel,  the Vatican (Emmerich is apparently laboring to get to his obvious point about opposition to organized religion), the White House.  In the case of the White House, it’s not enough for it to merely fall to pieces–oh no!  In typical 2012 fashion it must not only be crushed, but CRUSHED BY GIANT AIRCRAFT CARRIER BEING PUSHED THROUGH WASHINGTON D.C. BY A MONSTER FLOODWAVE!!  And Vegas is not merely broken up by an earthquake, but a MONSTER EARTHQUAKE THAT LEAVES CREVASSES THAT DWARF THE GRAND CANYON!!  And all rendered in spectacular CGI, where even the deepest cracks in the crust of the earth are lit with a beautifully colored glow.

The premise makes no logical or scientific sense–something about neutrinos interacting with the earth’s core in a way they never had before, causing the crust to become unstable (this inspires typical dialogue along the lines of: “That’s completely impossible!”  “I know.  But it’s happening.”), but hey, we need some sort of reason to systematically allow the destruction of the globe!  The plot offers almost no surprises beyond the death of someone I thought too unimportant to show dying.  And it’s riddled with fantastic movie clichés.   Let’s go through the list:

1.  Divorced dad at odds with ex and children.  Cusak is a hapless, little-known sci-fi writer who experiences tension with his beautiful but crabby ex-wife and her new boyfriend, a snivelling L.A. plastic surgeon.  Cusak’s young son is a complete and total brat, initially inspiring audiences to root for his death until the movie forgets this part of his characterization half-way through the film.  The little girl is cute and the only thing we know about her is she wets her bed.

2.  Cute dog who never, ever dies no matter how dire the circumstances surrounding it.  This so-ugly-you-laugh-when-you-see-it lap dog (with the tongue sticking out the side of the mouth) is so obviously a candidate to survive the destruction of 99% of mankind that the movie becomes a game of “how will little dog survive this time?”.   Even as the dippy blonde owner becomes trapped in a compartment rapidly filling with water, she has the presence of mind to throw the dog over a rising wall and voila!  dies while lap dog survives!  I can only wonder if Emmerich was aware of the “dog surviving disaster” element of movies, and deliberately decided to include it in 2012 for laughs.

3.  Main characters escape disaster upon disaster without a scratch.  No fireball is too big to singe the hair of this family, and no earthquake is violent enough to wreck their vehicle!

4. The Theory of Presidential Portrayals in Film.  This theory is that if a Democrat is president, film portrayals of the American president will be inclined to be positive, whereas if a sitting president is a Republican, portrayals of the president become increasingly negative.  See Independence Day, circa the Clinton era, in which the American president is not only a tough-talking Cool Guy but an action hero,  piloting a high-powered jet straight into the innards of the alien mother ship.  Then see the first Transformers, circa George W. Bush,  in which the president is reduced to a cameo appearance of red sock-clad feet and a Texas-twanged request for an assistant to “wrastle [him] up some Ding-Dongs.”  Now see 2012, circa Barrack Obama, in which the African-American president (which I think was a good choice, as it would have seemed awkward otherwise) heroically sacrifices his life in the place of others.

5.  Onscreen destruction of only famous landmarks.  You can’t, for instance, show the capital of Tajikistan in ruins, even though it is a part of our planet, because no one can picture the capital of Tajikistan unless he has been there.  The audience will only understand the full impact of the annihilation of the globe if they see the White House going under.

6.  Crazy outcast hippie guy who was right all along.  Self-explanatory.  And, might I add, that you can always tell the crazy outcast hippie guys by their hair, the loads of technological equipment they can somehow afford, their lava lamp or two, and at least one mention by them of Roswell.

There are more, but this post will get far too long otherwise.  How could you not love this movie?  I ask that sincerely. 

In spite of its dumb fun, there are a few things about it I didn’t particularly appreciate.  For one thing, while this doesn’t surprise me at all, the only religious landmarks shown being destroyed are Christian (or, more specifically, Catholic).  I’m sure the Hollywood special effects team took great joy in lovingly crafting every detail of the Vatican as it fell upon the shrieking, candle-holding crowd who were only seeking spiritual comfort.  I’m sure I saw a tiny red speck that was the Pope going down in his balcony.  No doubt the crew high-fived each other after finishing this bit of CGI wizardy, and Emmerich wiped away tears of appreciation upon beholding the final product.  That’ll show organized religion–which mostly means Christian churches–or heck with it just those superstitious Catholics–by gorry!

To be fair, Emmerich was equally interested in destroying the Kaaba, the most sacred place of all the Islamic holy places.  However, he was concerned about the possibility of a fatwa, and decided against it.  There are so many conclusions you could draw here that I will just leave it to your imagination.

People of eastern faiths, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, are given a pretty reasonable treatment.  They kneel piously and pray in the face of coming death, or else look upon advancing waves with eyes of calm.  Catholics, on the other hand, scatter screaming as the dome of St. Peter’s crushes them to smithereens.  Thanks, Hollywood.  Thanks a lot.

Not that I’m surprised by the above, mind you.  But it is grating.

2012 is a great popcorn experience and deserves to be seen on the biggest screen possible.  And it’s surprisingly easy to lose yourself in a movie that deals with troubles more pressing than, say, co-workers who leaves extra work for the evening shift.  Check it out, and for heaven’s sake don’t try to do any thinking while you’re in the theater.~