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January 9, 2010

Filed under: movies»commentary»scifi

Wool and Water

'I can't believe that!' said Alice.

'Can't you?' the Queen said in a pitying tone. 'Try again: draw a long breath, and shut your eyes.'

Alice laughed. 'There's no use trying,' she said `one can't believe impossible things.'

'I daresay you haven't had much practice,' said the Queen. 'When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.'"

--Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

Everything you've heard about Avatar is true. As a visual experience, it's lush and seamless. At the same time, the dialog is ludicrous, the plot is flimsy, and the message is sledgehammer blunt. It shamelessly fetishizes native cultures while perpetuating the lame White Man Saves Brown Blue People From Themselves plot. And for a director known for his strong female leads (Sarah Connor, Ripley, Lindsey Brigman), it largely relegates its women to background or supporting roles only. And long--oh, is it long. They could have chopped it in half, easily, and while it would have still been awful, they would at least significantly lower the audience's risk of deep vein thrombosis.

But these have all been discussed by countless people elsewhere (here's a good take). What struck me about Avatar, while watching a particularly leaden chunk of monologue, was the realization: not only did someone write this, they then paid someone else to deliver the lines, then threw further cash at a crew of animators to painstakingly render it--in 3D, no less. That's Avatar in a nutshell: vast, unfathomable amounts of money deployed in the service of incredible mediocrity.

The general viewpoint, by those who enjoyed the movie anyway, seems to be that these elaborate visuals compensate for the flaws in the writing, editing, and direction. Disagreeing with this makes me feel like something of a Grinch, since words like "wonder" tend to get thrown around when discussing its landscapes and weird alien horses, and I do hate being accused of a lack of wonder. We're supposed to applaud the extensive craft that went into Cameron's project, according to this view.

But from my perspective, we're a bit like the White Queen these days, in a state of constant suspended disbelief. We're surrounded by amazing images. During my lifetime, I've seen the state of the art go from the NES to the PS3, from stop-motion to Up. A few years ago they made Fred Astaire dance with a vaccuum cleaner in a commercial, an act which at the time was an arresting (if necromantic) idea, and is now pretty much unremarkable. My phone can superimpose directions to the nearest Waffle House on the view in front of me, for heaven's sakes. I see six impossible things before breakfast. Games or movies or whatever, it ought to take a bit more than a well-rendered forest scene to impress us, or pull us in emotionally.

So instead of applauding, I think about the stories that could have been told with this kind of technology if it were given to more playful or inventive directors--Jean-Pierre Jeunet, Chris Nolan, or Guillermo del Toro, for example. It's hard not to feel a profound sense of waste, because these are directors that have accomplished what Cameron is supposed to have done: show us something that we've never seen before. Even the Wachowskis (and there's something I thought I'd never say again): think about what a mind-blowing experience The Matrix was the first time you saw it. Now there was a movie that used novel, elaborate special effects to actively mess with your sense of reality, as well as to tell a story that--if not completely original--at least aspired to more than surface depth.

But then, maybe that's the problem. Set out to tell an interesting story that requires some new effects, and you get The Matrix or Dark City. Aim to blow people's minds solely through the power of your budget, and you get The Matrix Reloaded--or Avatar.

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