Wednesday, December 30, 2009

AVATAR: a zom-bot labs review

Just as I was the last person in the world to have a blog, I'm probably the last person to review James Cameron's avatar online. Going into this, let me stress that I went into Avatar with an open mind, no prejudices, other than being a little annoyed by the hype and claims around the tech and how the movie would be like nothing we'd ever seen. I was hoping the backlash would be proven wrong, and I did want to get swept up in a bit of fantasy. However, try as I might, I've never been one of those people who can just turn off my brain and enjoy the ride. As an artist and storyteller of sorts, I am always noticing the small details, and unfortunately the flaws of things. Not because I want to tear down another artist's work, but because I wonder what I would have done with the same material or capabilities. Even with my favorite movies, I love them warts and all. So before I get into the small details of the movie, I will break down the entire experience into percentages for you.

positive-70% of Avatar was a good time at the movies. It will no doubt be enough to satisfy much of the audience, but not nit-pickers like me.
negative-10% the story felt like it needed further explanation or development. No idea how much story was left on the digital cutting room floor, I can only grade what I saw in the theater, and I felt like things were missing. Sci-Fi is supposed to have you leave the theater asking questions, not coming up with excuses to have it make sense.
negative-10% the characters were stock Cameron stereotypes and had little to no development, or what they did have was so drastic it felt forced or convenient. It felt like the cast of ALIENS was performing in a school play on ecology, only a much needed Hudson-esque banter was missing.
negative-10% of the ideas or creations were quite implausible, ridiculous, or simply lazy or too convenient.

-and while 10% may not seem like much, they added up and felt much larger in bringing down my overall score of the movie, kind of like how the humidity can change the feel of a hot day versus the real temperature, or how a small sore in your mouth can feel gigantic, or a papercut can hurt worse than a slap in the face.

1) The 3D experience: Luckily the glasses are big enough to go over prescription glasses. Luckily it's dark and everyone is looking forward so no one sees how dumb I look. Thinking back, I feel like the 3D trailer for Alice in Wonderland was more impressive than the depth in AVATAR, and not just because Wonderland was kicking and flinging objects into the audience shamelessly. After some time, I started getting a bad headache, and I'm not sure if it was the 3D or the fact that we had been rear ended on the way to the theater by people leaving WAL-MART in a hurry on Christmas Eve and maybe I had pulled a neck muscle.
Overall, I honestly think that the 3D in Coraline was better done than AVATAR. Granted, I didn't see either in IMAX.

2) The Computer Graphics: I was surprised how much the faces of the Na'vi did not bother me and how much their bodies did. Something was still too stiff, or was missing. Things still felt way too clean, and colorful just for the sake of being more eyepopping. I will hand it to them though, I believe they may have come the closest to getting across the uncanny valley as far as the eyes and expressions of the Na'vi. Then again, Gollum gave us the same feeling years ago in Lord of the rings.

3) The story: depending on which blog you read, Cameron was 'inspired' by any number of classic sci-fi stories, myths, movies and even history. Yes, it was all served with a huge scoop of liberal white guilt.  For someone who hangs out with and befriends the military in real life while researching a movie, James Cameron sure made them look bad in this flick. I wonder what they think of the result?
The premise is so timeless it is totally dry and stale. Which is unfortunate because it is a very important lesson on the invasion and displacement of native cultures because of the greed of a 'higher culture'...but so far, the retelling of such a story has not made the world change its ways and I feel AVATAR did nothing more to help it...and it totally could have if the symbolism and characters were not so heavy handed.

4) the world of Pandora. It was pretty. It was fairly deep. It lit up at night for some reason, except for when the plot needed Jake's Avatar to be using a torch in the darkness. Then it was almost completely dark. So I don't know if the animals still relied on night vision, but those are gripes for another section below. Overall, it was pretty much a rainforest with some large scale sea life growing in it. Oh, and some areas totally looked like a YES album cover.

The Flaws- Scientific and artistic:

- The Idea that the Na'vi had warriors at all doesn't fit in with their philosophy. Were they a peaceful race or not? Did they ever fight the other tribes (not shown until the end)?
- The Na'vi were the only bipeds on the planet. They were also seemingly the only things with two eyes and a mammalian nose. The other creatures had smaller secondary eyes and breathed through their chest nostrils directly into their lungs (assuming). They were also the only creatures shown with hair. Cameron and his defenders will say that 'well, this is another planet we are talking about here- anything is possible'....but that's an easy excuse. Biology doesn't work that way. For a creature so supposedly tied into thier planet, they stuck out like sore thumbs.
- Na'vi scrambled with the letters E.T. added spells 'Native'..... clever, or lazy?
- Pandora was a planetoid, right...a moon? And our protagonists and their little town were the only Na'vi on it? oh, no wait, at the end we see there is a tribe that lives on the beach and one in the plains. Okay, that's still not a whole planet. And this tree and the Unobtanium under it were the only place on the entire moon to get the stuff? maybe so, but the treatment of the tribe as representing the entire planet was pretty lazy. Avatar is not alone in that though, many sci-fi flicks use this narrow approach.
- The arrows bounce off the war vessels in the beginning but penetrate by the end. how convenient.
- Jake's AVATAR is never eaten or molested by anything in the wild jungle every time he gets 'logged out' and leaves it there in the middle of nowhere. Only once do we see a consequence when he awakens to the harvesters destroying the jungle around him. Why were they doing that btw? they were not there to log, but extract ore from directly under a tree. they said so themselves.
- How does the Avatar body go on leaving a breathing without the 'soul' or 'brain' or whatever in it? And how did the transfer process go from being a close one in the lab at the beginning, to becoming a remote, long-distance sort of thing. If it is electromagnetic waves, they should not have worked near that 'soul tree', because as we heard many times, it fucked up all kinds of communication, radar, etc.
- Who braided Jake's Avatar's hair in the cloning vat? and what happens if the hair- that conceals the biological usb cable- isn't braided over it? that was such a silly idea. it would have been much better for them to simply connect via some palm organ than plugging their ponytails into the antennae of the animals. So without the braid, they just have raw, dangling nerves exposed on the back of their head? why not show this at some point.
-We can cross-clone humans with a creature that we have already established as totally different than us...and the assumption is that they can clone or at least replace Jake's own crippled legs..but he can't afford it on his own. So this opens up the question- do the rich clone themselves younger bodies and transfer their brains into them like in the avatar program? why not? seems like it would be an easy and obvious thing to do with that technology. Seriously, we are talking about complete mind transfer and functionality and this is all humans are doing with it? sneaking into an 'indian tribe' to steal some gold?
- The Na'vi seemed to be aware that Jake Sully and Sigourney's characters where not true Na'vi, after all Sigourney ran a school at some point (cut out of the final flick maybe), referring to them as sky people and dream walkers or whatever...then seemed totally surprised when they found out they were not Na'vi, then seemingly knew what was going on and wasn't shocked or surprised-even recognized jake's body- at the end. I'm as confused as you are.
- who were the other Avatar playing basketball and why did they never play into the plan?
- when the Colonel is killed at the end, his mech suit falls over like a human. Yet the suit only mimics the arm and maybe the leg or hip movement of the rider. since his body is held in place by the suit, when he died, the suit should have simply went limp, upright, like he was. It could not fall over dramatically unless he had the room to inside, which he did not. It actually would have been more poignant if it had just powered down into a slouched standing position.

oh god, i had a lot more, but i'm actually tired of complaining about it.

overall, it was a unique experience. was it a world and game-changer, no. No more than terminators 1 and 2 were, Aliens, the Abyss or any other Cameron movie. I think he needs to stretch his mind a little more with characters and story next time. Next time may be different. AVATAR felt like a multi-million dollar test run for something else.


  1. Nice review and you brought up some
    questions I hadn't thought of.

    I didn't have a problem with the Na'vi
    having such a warrior lifestyle within
    their philosophy since they were
    constantly surrounded by animals ready
    to eat them. They needed that fighting
    mentality to survive among the beasts
    on Pandora even if they never fought
    each other.

    I did have a problem with the movie
    never addressing how or why the
    Avatars were never self aware. It's
    like the ultimate slave that does
    whatever you want without ever
    talking back. It just goes to sleep
    when you're done with it so you can
    totally control it again later.

    Imagine if you fell in love with someone
    and later discovered their body was being
    controlled remotely by a little green
    alien. The first thing I would think is,
    "Did this alien kill this person so they
    could control the body?" and then I would
    wonder if the person was still alive in
    the body and just being suppressed by the
    alien's technology. I would instantly
    become suspicious of the alien instead of
    continuing any warm emotions toward it.

    I didn't think about how the electro-
    magnetic disturbances of the floating
    lands should have interfered with the
    technology that linked Jake with his
    Avatar. Great observation on that

    I saw Avatar in an IMAX theater and
    I didn't feel the extra ticket cost
    was worth the the larger screen and
    its sound system. The theaters with
    stadium seating do a fine job with
    movies where I'm at.

  2. I forgot that Neytiri had seen Grace's
    (Sigorney Weaver) human body die as the
    Na'vi tried to download her mind/soul
    from her human body ovet to the Avatar
    body. So disregard my comment about
    Neytiri not knowing about Jake's human
    body. I totally forgot about that part
    of the movie where Grace died. D'oh!