Saturday, December 26, 2009

An Overabundance of Cliches: ItP's Review of Avatar, Part I

I went to see Avatar last night, on a whim. I saw it in 3D, which was...good. Very good. The movie was made to be seen in 3D, and it showed. But more on that later. For the record, I will be spoiling in this miniseries, aware of that.

I knew little about Avatar's plot when I went to see it, but I had heard it was unimaginative, derivative, and cliche. Unfortunately, all of those descriptors are correct regarding the plot, and not just the plot: characterization, themes, and message all are things I've seen before. Perhaps I should have entitled this entry "So Many Cliches--So Little Time". Either way, there was nothing content-wise I hadn't seen before.

Briefly: apparently this film is quite like Disney's Atlantis: The Lost Empire. I haven't seen Atlantis, but I'm told that the similarities are striking--a life-force to which all of the natives are connected, a protagonist who struggles with priorities and ends up going native, etc.

First, the plot: much has been said about how derivative it is, so I won't begin on that. I must point out, however, the repeated deus ex machina, which did enforce the characterization but also got a little bit old. For instance, the shuttle being hit at the exact moment necessary and in the exact fashion required to keep the mining explosive from sliding off the ramp; the amazing way the shuttle listed off away from the sacred tree-area; the super-awesome return of Sully at the EXACT moment that the blue chick was about to be knifed by the scarred guy; and, most blatantly, the divine intervention of Eywa, sending out the hammerhead rhinos and the pterodactyls to kick the crap out of the Evil White Men. The last is such an obvious and literal deus ex machina that Cameron must have known--he must have realized just how blatant the device is, and he must have decided to cut his losses and go with the deus ex machina.

Characterization was better, but still not top-notch. Here's the problem: the characters were good--well-rounded and interesting--but they were stereotypes. Jake Sully is what I call a "chocolate" Marine: his outside is hard and solid, and then there's a soft, gooey center that's so, so sweet. Jake's choices could be the blueprint for the cliche (there's that word again) "going native". He's a tough-guy who realizes that he's been on the wrong side all this time, etc. For another like him, watch Soldier with Kurt Russell--same sort of premise.

Grace Augustine--good performance from Sigourney Weaver, by the way--is scarcely more original. She falls into another stereotype, one she's played all her life: the smart scientist who can also kick a little butt and just happens to be female. The emphasis in her character this time is on her formidable intellect, and also her scientific morality. Again, she's well-developed and interesting; but we've seen her before. To see another like Augustine, check out any National Geographic film about Africa or South America; there's sure to be an Augustine-like character somewhere in there.

The Scarred Dude--who imdb tells me is named Miles Quaritch--is another stereotyped specimen. Stephen Lang, in another one of his amazing performances (the man can't be stopped), plays the Angry/Bloodthirsty Drill Sergeant Type Who Ends Up With Too Much Power But It's Too Late. He brings as much as he can to the role, but once again, he's just so stereotypical it's almost funny. Another incidence of Miles Quaritch's character is Jacob Keyes, in Halo: Combat Evolved, only Keyes is good and Quaritch is bad.

(Tolja I'd be a spoiler.)

So we've been over plot and characterization. All that remains is themes/message, and I will try very hard to be objective here. Because, frankly, the film's themes and message really made me uncomfortable; I found myself "rooting for" the side I thought maybe I shouldn't be "rooting for". Anyway: the main theme of the film is the conflict between natural and artificial, with natural being Good and artificial being Bad--which is, like almost everything else content-related in Avatar, a major cliche. Everything else thematically revolves around this and branches out from it: the idea of divine providence v. human planning, skepticism v. belief, morality and responsibility, etc. And Cameron has no doubts about the message he's trying to send to his viewers: appreciation for nature, simplicity, and traditionalism are good and desirable, while utilitarianism, skepticism, and the bottom dollar are bad things. While this is true, Cameron commits the fallacy of sweeping generalization (here I go, losing my objectivity); basically, his film argues that since some humans are obsessed with materialistic aims, all humans are obsessed with materialistic aims. Avatar's message is not so much "humans, stop being base" as "humans, stop being human". Sully's final redemption is not making humanity human again; it's escapist--he stops being human in order to be saved.

So that's what I didn't like about the film. Plot- and character-wise, Avatar turns up no new ground. Thematically, it's a poorly-constructed hippie acid trip. As regards moral--well, if James Cameron believes what he says in Avatar, he's one depressed guy, because while the technology to produce this film may exist, the avatar technology is still a long way off.

Later today I'll post another entry, detailing what I liked about the film. Believe it or not, there's a lot that I liked. I'll also include in that entry my rating of the film, and whether or not I recommend it.

Long live cliffhangers!

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