Dances with Smurfs

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I finally saw Avatar this week. I went mainly to see what it would be like to see a feature-length film in 3-D. I didn’t have particularly high hopes for the film having heard a basic summary of the plot.

Sadly, even my low expectations were too high. Sure the film has some impressive graphics and the 3-D effects are OK.  But overall, I am astounded that the film has been nominated for the Best Picture and Best Director Oscars. And I’m surprised that it has received generally positive reviews. With the Oscar ceremony next week, I want to make the case against Avatar.  Why I think it was a pretty bad movie and why it shouldn’t win Best Picture or Best Director.

My first criticism of the movie is it treats the audience as though it collectively has half a brain. Nothing is subtle about the movie. The worst examples of this are the names that Cameron has chosen for things in his sci-fi world. The movie is set in the year 2154 on the planet Pandora. Humans are mining for a mineral cryptically called unobtanium.

Add to a lack of subtly, one-dimensional characters who don’t change much during the course of the movie. The good guys are the humanoid native Pandorans, the Na’vi. They are wholesome, sensitive and highly attuned to their environment. The chief antagonist is Colonel Miles Quaritch. Quaritch is old school military. He shouts a lot. He likes blowing things up. He doesn’t care about the Na’vi or the environment.

Even Jack Sully, the chief protagonist, is fairly one-dimensional. He is an avatar pilot. Avatars are Na’vi human hybrid bodies designed to facilitate relations with the Na’vi. Mainly their job is to convince the Na’vi to move away from areas the humans want to mine. Sully is initially instructed to gather intelligence to find a way to get the Na’vi to co-operate. Over time he essentially becomes one of the Na’vi and ends up fighting with them against the humans. (If this all sounds very Dances with Wolves, it is. Sully is in a wheelchair in real life but linked up to his avatar body he is able to run, hunt and have sex with the Na’vi tribal leaders’ daughter, Neytiri.)

Despite making the rather monumentous decision to fight against his own people on the side of a ten-foot blue skinned species, Cameron never shows Sully undergoing any internal struggle. He never really seems particularly interested in the human activity on Pandora. Why does he switch sides? It happens after he sleeps with Neytiri – perhaps Na’vi sex is just better?

I think what I found most frustrating about the movie is despite having a fairly pedestrian plot, it runs for 2 hours and 42 minutes. I’m baffled as to why the film was nominated for the Best Film Editing Oscar. As far as I could tell the movie wasn’t edited. Large parts of the it simply need to be cut. The sequence where Sully learns to become one of the Na’vi felt like it lasted for at least an hour. Cameron really needs to take some advice about movie making from Trey Parker and Matt Stone:

If the movie was shorter, I probably wouldn’t have spent large parts of it wondering why so much of Cameron’s sci-fi world made so little sense. In 144 years humans developed the technology to travel six years across the galaxy, put themselves in a state of hibernation for the journey, and develop biological avatar bodies. So why did mining technology appear to go backwards, such that strip mining was the order of the day? Also, why did avatars even need pilots? If you can design and grow biological organisms like avatars, why design them so that you need humans to “drive them” at all times? Why were the Na’vi’s bows and arrows powerless against the human ships in one scene and then deadly in the next?

Finally, Avatar suffers from an increasingly common sense of pessimism about the future and technological advance. One of the central themes of the movie is that life would be better if only humans were more like the Na’vi, living in trees and marvelling at falling dandelions. This just seems false. As this article points out, abundance is great. Presumably the Na’vi spend most of their days hunting for food and eking out their meagre existence. They certainly spend a lot of it avoiding the many predators that inhabit their world.

If Cameron is really committed to returning to a simpler time, when humans lived in trees, he is welcome to leave his home and do just that. I think a documentary of that would be excellent.

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11 Responses to “Dances with Smurfs”

  1. Colin Hunter Says:

    This is pretty standard criticism to level at the movie. I’m not a massive fan, but I have actually watched now all ten nominees for best picture and I have to say, avatar is not really worse than most of them. What was the last great movie that won best picture? They are few and far between, I think you are expecting too much. For me, sure Avatar is rather shallow, but I think over analysing and criticising it for something it is not misses the point. Avatar is a reasonably mindless epic, that is impressive visually, a little preachy, but it is a feat of film making regardless. I’m not a big fan of it and wouldn’t care to watch a lot more, but I think there is something in the shere production of it, that is impressive and frankly. I don’t think it is deep or particularly moving, but I think it achieves what it sets out to do, whether that is particularly high brow or not. Judging it for something it for what it is not, misses the point.

  2. Colin Hunter Says:

    Oh and unobtanium I believe is a reference to that terrible move the Core (where they make the ship out of unobtanium), that too may be an earlier reference to something, but the core was on TV a month ago and it caught my attention.

  3. Colin Hunter Says:

    By the way the film has excellent film editing, that is because the term film editing doesn’t mean what I think you think it does, it isn’t the same as book editing, but for films.

  4. stephenwhittington Says:

    I am unsure of the implication of judging art based on the artist’s intention. Is one implication that Steps and S-Club-7 were great bands?

  5. Colin Hunter Says:

    I think intent is important, especially with popular media. We can all agree S Club 7 is not earth shattering music for anyone posting on this site, but as a musician myself by profession, I would hesitate to simply discard them inherently, after all S Club backing band is absolutely superb, I’m sure you probably have equally inane musical tastes most people do, myself included. I’d agree though intent isn’t everything, but it is important, the ability of a director/producer/whatever to carry out that intent convincingly is not an easy feat and is served of recognition at times.

    As I said I’m not fan of Avatar, but it was enjoyable enough, frankly Up was probably the best of nominees (although Hurt Locker and a Serious man were good as well). I’m not convinced for example Avatar is worse than Precious, which is predictable and in some ways kind of one dimensional and that tries to be a serious film. Not every film needs to be a deep social commentary that moves the depths of the soul, so to speak, just as not all music needs to be either. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t expect more from culture or we should put up with crap, but lets face it, avatar was what we all expected right?

  6. Eric Crampton Says:

    You’ve seen this one, right?
    http://www.blancscreencinema.com/redlettermedia/avatar.html

  7. Colin Hunter Says:

    Nice Eric, very funny.

  8. Jesse Says:

    Jono, I have a couple of questions.

    Does avatar technology permit the making of human avatar models instead of Navi? (i.e., why is Sully wheelchair-bound when he could walk around in an avatar, kind of like in that recent – and awful – Bruce Willis movie?)

    Do the humans and Navi make up at the end or do the Navi simply win the skirmish against Colonel Quaritch?

    Is there some reason that Colonel Quaritch can’t simply switch off Sully’s connection with the avatar when he discovers that Sully has gone rogue? (I’m guessing that Sully pilots the avatar from a human base or ship)

  9. Colin Hunter Says:

    Jesse if you are interested in answers to those questions,

    1. They have the technology to fix his spine, the problem is he can’t afford it, the Navi thing is extremely expensive too and so I’m guessing cost is the issue.

    2. Navi simply win, leaving the door open or sequels I guess. I’m thinking the next movie will end badly for the Navi, followed by a third that sees ewoks save the day…

    3. They get around this by having Sully moved to some distant and remote location with the connection.

  10. Jonathan Says:

    Colin I absolutely agree that “not every film needs to be a deep social commentary that moves the depths of the soul”. I am a big fan of mindless escapism but I didn’t even think Avatar was that. Other than a few parts of the movie that were so bad they felt like a parody, which I thought were unintentionally quite amusing, I found the movie equal parts boring and annoying because of how preachy it is. I don’t think it is a great piece of film making for these reasons, mindless epics don’t have to treat the audience like they are stupid. They are also much better when they don’t try to be something they’re not by incorporating preachy themes with the current cause of the moment.

    Re editing. Fair cop. I was being slightly facetious and that probably failed.

    Eric, yes it’s excellent.

  11. Colin Hunter Says:

    Fair enough Jonathan, if you don’t like the movie, you don’t like the movie, no argument from me there. I think for me the interesting thing about the movie and going to watch it and why I think it is a better movie than I expected, was that it was reasonably enjoyable to watch and frankly this surprised me. It may have purely been a visual thing combined with most of the acting not being too awful (I’m not saying great, but adequate).

    I look at avatar like this, it is probably similar to Terminator. Terminator I think is pretty good film, sure its characters are shallow, sure it is a little preachy about how crap our nuclear future is going to be, but the fact is I watched it and found it alright. Perhaps Terminator has the whole horror movie, but not thing going for it, sure, but Avatar is from a visual point of view a superbly crafted film. Both have one dimensional character and villains. I’d probably rather watch terminator as it is shorter and has nostalgia going for it, plus it is better I think than all the other ones.

    Anyway Jonathan, if you watched and didn’t like it, it does fail on some level, I think we can definitely agree on that. Frankly I’m not really a fan of mindless escapism believe it or not, so it is odd I’m in the position defending mindless escapism, go figure.

    Oh and I did understand your comment was facetious, it is just a pretty standard criticism of many modern movies nominated for editing and well I get tired of it.

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