07 March 2010


So there are obviously lots and lots of places to read about Avatar online.*  I wrote up most of this when Special Lady Friend and I saw it back in January, but never got around to finishing it.  I'm posting what I've got since the Oscars are tonight.  I love posting movie reviews that are way out of date, but the Academy Awards are sort of a cut-off.

(* Here are just a few of the reviews and commentary I thought was good: Jeff Holland at Threat Quality Press; Fenzel at Overthinking It; Peter Suderman at The American Scene (twice), and George Dvorsky at Sentient Development.  I previously posted a video review by Braak of Threat Quality and Garrison Dean of io9 and made some preliminary comments about Avatar in that post.)

Special Lady Friend and I saw Avatar a couple of nights ago [SB7: now many, many nights ago], and neither of us were impressed.

Story-wise, it was derivative. You can read comparisons to Pocahontas and Dances with Wolves and Dune and a half dozen other stories elsewhere. They're all true.

Even putting that aside, the storytelling was ham-fisted and predicatble. You know from the moment the gung-ho security chief with the interesting scars is shadow boxing with his killer robot that it's going to come down to not just a fight between the protagonist and him, but that it's going to come down to a fist-fight between the protagonist and him. The entire 30 minute long climactic battle is just a prelude to get us to the killer robot suit vs blue kung-fu beastmaster mano-a-mano fight scene.

You know as soon as our hapless hero is rescued in the jungle by the pretty girl who turns out to be the chief's daughter that the two of them are going to end up getting all smoochy, and the more she protests about having to spend time with him at the beginning, the more obvious it gets.

I thought the most ham-fisted moment was when they were loading the bomb into the cargo ship, and the camera does a crash zoom onto the crate of mining explosive, and it said "explosives" in big bold letters on the side.  It might as well have been delivered in an Acme crate to Wiley E Coyote.

You also pretty much know that story-telling is mediocre when the writer falls back on having the character narrate the story to a diary.  There was so much telling where we needed showing. How many scenes were there of pre-op briefings or orientation lectures?  Four?  Those are another crutch I can't stand.

I could go on, but let's move on to the world. I'm typically willing to indulge people in world building, so I had high hopes for this one. I was bored by Pandora. I felt like I'd seen it before. It was Endor plus the Valley of the Wind, except that everything glowed. The network of plants and communication with ancestors was done better by Card as the "phylotic web" and the zoology of Lusitania in his Speaker for the Dead series. I've seen the floating mountains before too.  Hell, they did that in both the Transformers and the Star Wars: Ewoks cartoons from the 80's.  I appreciate that genre fiction is a stew: you take some things out, you put some things in.  So it's okay if I've seen a lot of Pandora world before.  But what did Cameron put back in the stew pot?  The fact that the horse-aliens have six legs?  Wow.

I'm all for pulp adventure sci fi stories, but Jack McDevitt does much better with giving me pulp stories with exciting, believable and alien worlds. Oh, the horses have six legs, and the bird-lizards have four eyes and everything is blueish and glowy. I'm so impressed with the novelty.  (Okay, I actually like the raptors having four eyes, since it gives them wide field of view and depth perception from binocular vision. That was clever, and it was actually motivated as if the world was real.  And the computer interfaces were pretty cool, but as someone who takes HCI seriously, why would you actually want clear displays in most of those situations.  Sure, it makes sense if you're the pilot of a helicopter, but if you're a lab tech you don't want to be able to see someone walking around the office through the data you're interpreting.  That would suck.)

I've heard this story before; I've seen this world before.  The story wasn't told particularly well, so was the world at least presented well?  Sort of.

The visuals were pretty darn good.  I'll give WETA credit for seamlessly joining the live actors and the CGI.  That was some good work.  I'm generally a sucker for pretty visual effects, but it didn't salvage this movie for me.  For starters, it's not excuse for a bad story.  Pixar regularly manages to get both stunning visuals and good story.  Secondly, good visual effects are not enough to make a movie a Best Picture contender.  You need to whole package.

I think the 3D also detracted from the visuals for me.  Cameron integrated the 3D into the film better than most of the other efforts I've seen.  It didn't look gimmicky, but I still didn't like it.

As I understand it the point of 3D is to make the movie more immersive, to make you feel like you're "in" the movie.  If that's the case then you really shouldn't couple 3D with the camera artifacts like limited depth of field and lens flares.  Am I watching this thing through a camera, or am I in the scene?  Which is it?  And Cameron make a conscious decision to include those things in the movie.  With as much CGI as he used you need to program those effects in to your rendering engine.  That's a weird choice to make.

I think another problem with the CGI is that there's a disconnect between space of theater and field of view.  The 3D effects only work in a pyramid-shaped volume with the vertex at your point of view and the base coincident with the screen.  But your mind knows you're in a rectangular space the size of the theatre.  So there's this dead zone between the walls of the room and the head-to-screen pyramid that is outside the bounds of the 3D effects.  This drawback of 3D isn't really Cameron's fault though some of his choices accentuated it. (You can really see it when there shrapnel flying or the little seed-pod octopus thingies floating around in the air.) I'm not sure how to get around this limitation other than showing the movie in a room that would be dark enough to loose track of the walls, which AFAIK is illegal.

Avatar is about an even-money bet to win the Best Picture, last I checked, and that makes me sad.  It's an okay movie that raked in cash. That's all. I don't actually have much respect for the Academy anyway, but I would lose what's left if this or Cameron take home statues.

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