Saturday, January 02, 2010

Movie Review: Avatar

I hadn't actually heard a whole lot about the film Avatar prior to seeing it today, and as of this writing I have not even read any "professional" reviews. All I knew as I headed into the theatre was that I was going to see something involving "blue aliens" and humans who "download" into alien bodies and end up "going native", so to speak.

Anyway, though, now I've seen the film I figure I might as well comment on it a bit. Anyone who has not seen this film or who cares about being spoiled might not want to read further, as this review will contain spoilers.



The Good

So, to start, here's a list of some things I liked about Avatar:

1. It is definitely a very pretty film. Unfortunately I did not get to see the IMAX or 3D versions (those were both sold out) but even on a regular 2D movie screen I found myself quite thoroughly dazzled by the visuals.

The jungle, forest, and mountain landscapes of the alien planet Pandora look like the stuff I wish my dreams were made of, particularly the night-time jungle scenes where everything is all glowy. Whee!

2. Even though the film takes place in a projected year 2154, the lead character (Jake Sully, marine-turned-researcher played by Australian actor Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair. The point is made at the outset of the film that while it is possible to repair spinal injuries like his, Sully can't afford to have this done.

This is somewhat unusual (at least from what I've seen in sf) -- that is, to have it actually acknowledged that no, just "having the technology" does not imply everyone can or will use that technology to do a particular thing. I bet there are a lot of people right now who anticipate there won't be any actual wheelchair users in 2154 "because of that stuff they're going to do with stem cells", and I bet they're very very wrong.

(There's also an aspect of the film's treatment of disability that irks me, but since this isn't the complaint section I won't get into that here.)

3. There is a plausible rationale given for why Pandora's native people can speak English -- that is, the film doesn't open with a "first contact" between Earthlings and Na'vi, but rather with a situation-in-progress.

It is explained that at some point along the way there was indeed actual work undertaken to teach the natives English, and some human characters have clearly also spent some time studying the Na'vi tongue.

Which might all seem fairly trivial but it was a nice change from the "universal translator" trope (or worse, that really careless thing where everyone just speaks English straight off with no attempt at explaining how or why).

4. They actually refer in the film to the requisite "Valuable Alien Mineral Needed For Human Military Endeavors But Alas Is Concentrated Beneath The Natives' Village" as "unobtanium". Hee.

5. Pandora's native humanoids, the Na'vi, had some nifty and very expressive tails. Since adopting my three cats I've certainly seen a lot of tail-borne language around the house, and hence I found it kind of neat to see one of the Na'vi characters who was obviously really pissed off doing the "rapid swishy tail" thing.

(I have secretly -- well, I guess not so secretly now -- always wanted a tail. And cat ears. So it tends to make me squee a bit to see humanoids in sf/fantasy running around with tails!)

6. The Pandorian "universal nature link-up" thingies were really cool -- basically it was like every native plant, animal, and humanoid had a little tendrily USB port sticking out of them, which permitted very direct communication between all sorts of disparate life forms. I figure this was probably meant to be some kind of over-wrought metaphor for "all life is connected", or something, but the execution was still incredibly neat-looking.

(Also, it reminded me strongly of parts of Sid Meier's Alpha Centauri, which I played with relentless obsession circa 2001. Mind worms FTW!)

7. The whole "consciousness download" thing was handled better than I've seen it handled by many of those who make a habit of speculating about this sort of thing on the Internet.

For one thing, bodies are (mostly) not just hand-waved out of significance. You don't, as a rule in this film, have people wantonly "shedding their meatflesh" and existing as data-ghosts in a giant metal mainframe. Rather, for the majority of the movie, the viability and agency of the avatars depend completely on there being humans in actual bodies "driving" them.

Of course things do get a little weird when some characters ended up attempting (with variable success) to permanently "install" their frames of reference into their avatars, coincidently with the deactivation (i.e., death) of their original, human bodies.

This is rationalized, in the context of the story, as being possible due to the fact that the avatars themselves were "grown" for particular individuals with a particular genome and nervous system, and the fact that the whole planet of Pandora is basically "networked" in such a way that memories and consciousness and such are already somewhat "distributed". Which isn't the worst rationale for that sort of thing I've seen in sf, and despite the plot-necessary bit of handwaving it does include, at least stays grounded in the physical somewhere.

The Eyeroll-Inducing Bits

...and here's a list of things that I was a bit less than enthusiastic about:

1. The plot was not only not exactly original, but like...gah, did anyone even bother trying in this department? I mean, I know some themes are invariably going to be repeated throughout film and literature, and sometimes it's a lot of fun to see different "takes" on a particular archetypical storyline, but it doesn't seem like Avatar's writers put much thought into the overall storyline.

Half the time I felt like I was watching some weird amalgamation of Captain Planet and the Planeteers, Disney's Pocahontas, and FernGully: The Last Rainforest.

Which wouldn't necessarily be a complaint, but I guess I just think Avatar had the potential to be a lot more compelling and "deep" than it turned out.

2. Despite surprising me in some areas with its deviation from common sf trope-traps (see the above list of positives for a few examples), Avatar definitely has its share of "oh geez well I guess we just weren't thinking about that" cliches with regard to the depiction of the resident humanoid natives of Planet Pandora.

E.g., you never got any sense that there were, you know, different cultures or countries or languages amongst the Pandorians. No, everyone was blue, hunted with bows and arrows, spoke a particular language, and lived in the woods.* Sure, there might well have been more diversity on Pandora in terms of its humanoid population, but there was absolutely no suggestion of this made anywhere I could see.

And yes, I understand science fiction stories can't always be about a whole planet, but especially since mainstream sf started actually acknowledging the existence of non-white, non-male, and even the occasional disabled character, it now stands out a lot to me when I see a lot of very diverse humans running around but folks from all other planets are represented as being highly homogenous.

(And yes, I also realize that maybe potentially some planet could evolve a worldwide monoculture, but this portrayal is just...way more common than it needs to be, which leads me to figure writers are just being lazy most of the time when I see it.)

* EDIT: commenter fubarofusco points out that:

In the scene where Sully and the Omaticaya go out to rally the Na'vi to war, we do see Na'vi who live in different environments. One is on the seashore, one on the plains, one in higher mountains. They also appear to have different face-paint designs and weapons, and it's suggested that they have different relations with the animals.

The plains people are referred to as (IIRC) "horse-tribes of the plains" which suggests that they are nomadic riders rather than living in a permanent settlement like the Omaticaya. The mountain people appear to be even more symbiotic with the ikran.

In any event, these other Na'vi groups don't live in the woods.


(So I stand corrected on the matter of whether all Na'vi live in the woods, and I most certainly welcome this sort of "nitpicking" from any commenter who finds themself compelled to offer it...accuracy is good!)

3. Another "alien homogeneity" issue: while there was some variation in Na'vi facial appearance and body structure, there certainly wasn't much. I did not see any Pandorian humanoids who looked very old, or fat, for instance, and disabilities were conspicuously absent.

(And again, yes, I realize when you're making up a fictional species you have the leeway to "write in" a high level of homogenity and justify it, or to create forms of heterogeneity that aren't particularly "human" in nature -- but I didn't really see much of the latter here at all, which again leads me to suspect somewhat lazy writing.)

This also figures somewhat into the disability-related thing that particularly bugged me about Avatar...yes, yes, I realize it probably wasn't intentional, but just...the whole idea of a disabled character becoming nondisabled as a result of "proving his virtue" is kind of tired, not to mention obnoxious if you actually happen to be a disabled person in the real world.

Avatar's Sully actually had two routes via which his paraplegia could have been remediated: that is, Evil Military Boss-Human promises to arrange for the treatment if Sully completes his original mission to enable the humans to get at the unobtanium deposits, and somehow he is able to walk in his alien-avatar body which he ends up permanently installed in by the film's conclusion.

(Which, you know, doesn't stop me from enjoying the movie or anything overall, it's just another eyeroll-inducer in the sense that so. many.times. I seem to encounter ideas in real life to the effect of "disability is either a punishment OR something that is somehow tied into your character, and if you manage to become strong enough in character your disability will go away". Which just...isn't reality, and which can have negative impact on people when mistaken for reality.

Not that I actually think people are going to run out and see this film and expect all disabled people to Rise Up And Walk (or hear or whatnot) so long as they're Really Really Good, I just think this stuff is worth pointing out on occasion, and furthermore, as a blogger I figure it's my job to "over-analyze" things! :P)

4. They NEVER explained how people went to the bathroom when they were situated in the "links" (the pod-like beds that comprise the interface between a human "driver" and an engineered alien-body "avatar").

This is just one of those "little things that bug me", but it's a peeve I've had for a very long time and one which sf seems particularly rampant with. I mean, they SHOWED both the humans (during "breaks" from avatar activity) eating, and they showed Sully's avatar eating some sort of purple squishy pomegranate-looking thing at one point as well -- but the whole matter of what happened at the other end was dismissed without even so much as a cursory hand-wave.

And while I certainly have no desire to watch close-up shots of actors taking a crap, good grief, you'd think they could at least have an implied dash to the men's room or something now and then when Sully "woke up" in his human body. I mean I know bathroom stuff is gross and all, but it's sort of an inevitable consequence of metabolism, and it has always struck me as bizarre how weird people get over it and how often it's glossed over. What is this, some sort of leftover of the Victorian era?

5. There was definitely a bit of "noble savage archetype" stuff going on. Again, this is stuff that to me smacks of laziness in the creativity department, as well as a lack of appreciation for the complexity of issues like inter-culture communication in merely human settings.

While (yep, another disclaimer) I do realize that the film was primarily intended as a fun, special-effects-laden sci-fi flick, I also got this unnerving sense of the Na'vi suffering from "Tauren Syndrome" (the Tauren being a race of anthropomorphic bovines in the online roleplaying game "World of Warcraft", whose culture seems entirely comprised of highly Disneyfied "Native American" stereotypes, i.e., the NPCs actually stand around saying things like "How".).

I mean, yeah, they seem like neat people and all, but they just aren't portrayed as being properly complex. I just get this impression in my brain that the denizens of Tauren-Syndromey cultures are always sort of waiting for the tourists to leave so they can do something that does not entail elegantly leaping through the trees or establishing bioelectrical bonds with the local reptillian ponies.

(One of my favorite examples of a film that, in my opinion, actually fairly decently portrays the aliens is Enemy Mine, which just...I don't know, somehow managed to give the aliens their own presence, in such a way that they seemed very convincingly themselves, though that could of course just be a matter of personal taste).




So, in summary I would have to say that while it did have its problems and eyeroll-inducing moments, Avatar was definitely at the very least an entertaining film, and moreover it did spark a few interesting lines of thought in my head while I was watching that were quite enjoyable to follow.

E.g., I got to thinking about the whole concept of "avatars", and the way you can have an idea (or intention to do something) that starts with one person in one context, and then ends up being enacted by a whole chain of others.

(Specifically, I found myself considering how for this particular movie, you first had a person come up with the idea of the character Sully, who in turn passed that intention along to the actor who played him. Then the actor had to project his notion of the character into the role, and then that character had to enact his will through an alien avatar, and then on top of that, while in the avatar body, there was this whole weird thing about communicating his will to the aforementioned reptilian ponies (along with some fairly kick-ass flying pterodactylish creatures). And I don't really know if there ended up being much of a point to that brain-tangent, but it was at least fun to meander down, and if a movie can do that to me, I have to give it at least some points on the "whee, fun!" scale.)

Also, again, it was a very very visually appealing film. In Anne's Book of Preferred Aesthetics you can't really go wrong with giant chunks of mountainous rock floating in a gorgeous planet's atmosphere, nor with midnight jaunts through multicolored luminescent jungles, nor with vaguely plausible-appearing mecha-robo-exoskeleton things (which, while used for evil in the film, were still nonetheless really nifty to look at). Or tails on humanoids.

While I don't know if I'd pay to see this entire film again in IMAX, I would definitely love to see the zooming-through-the-atmosphere scenes in that or some similar format at some point, because I am sure it would definitely lead to that supercool "illusion of movement" thing.

As for whether I would recommend it to others: that depends, really. If you like pretty sf adventure flicks and aren't overly picky about plot or characterization (or can suspend pickiness for the sake of gawking at the pretty) then I would say go for it. If, however, you are after something really deep and complex and can't abide lazy writing or "indigenous culture" stereotypes, then you might want to skip it.

As it is, I am glad I saw Avatar, and I had fun watching it, but I also was left feeling like the writers could have tried a heck of a lot harder in some areas. Even if the target audience was children or teenagers, there's still no excuse for putting all your budget into special effects and little into getting some of the cultural stuff to a more appropriate level of complexity.

17 comments:

Mark Plus said...

Even though the film takes place in a projected year 2154, the lead character (Jake Sully, marine-turned-researcher played by Australian actor Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic who uses a wheelchair. The point is made at the outset of the film that while it is possible to repair spinal injuries like his, Sully can't afford to have this done.

Yeah, wouldn't that suck: Future World's health insurance refuses coverage because it considers human biology a pre-existing condition.

fubarobfusco said...

E.g., you never got any sense that there were, you know, different cultures or countries or languages amongst the Pandorians. No, everyone was blue, hunted with bows and arrows, spoke a particular language, and lived in the woods.

Nitpick: In the scene where Sully and the Omaticaya go out to rally the Na'vi to war, we do see Na'vi who live in different environments. One is on the seashore, one on the plains, one in higher mountains. They also appear to have different face-paint designs and weapons, and it's suggested that they have different relations with the animals.

The plains people are referred to as (IIRC) "horse-tribes of the plains" which suggests that they are nomadic riders rather than living in a permanent settlement like the Omaticaya. The mountain people appear to be even more symbiotic with the ikran.

In any event, these other Na'vi groups don't live in the woods.

shiva said...

Heh. I saw this on Christmas Eve, and am still working on my review of it. I thought a lot of things about it were very problematic, but still felt compelled to defend it on reading many particularly harsh critiques, even though i also found myself agreeing with them... anyway, i'll save my analysis for my own blog, because it's going to be pretty long...

It's interesting what you say about wanting to see it in 3D, because i saw it in 3D (RealD in a mainstream multiplex, not Imax), and kind of felt it actually distracted me from concentrating on the visuals as well as i would like to - i found myself wishing i was seeing it in "normal" format. That could be my particular visual processing issues, though, and/or that it was the first film i've seen in 3D in a cinema. It was visually incredible, though...

AnneC said...

Mark Plus wrote:

Yeah, wouldn't that suck: Future World's health insurance refuses coverage because it considers human biology a pre-existing condition.

Future World's health insurance? Heh, it actually seems to me like that's exactly how things are now!

But in any case, I still give Avatar points for not making the "in the future, there will be no such thing as [paraplegia] because medicine will have Found The Answer!" assumption that seems so common in sf/futurist speculation. Even if "the answer" to remediating some forms of spinal injury comes into being, it strikes me as exceedingly unlikely that EVERYONE will be able or even willing to access those treatments, as it's unlikely as well they'd be free or without risks.

AnneC said...

fubarofusco: Hey thanks for the correction! I think I might have actually been using the restroom during the scene you're referring to, so I appreciate your pointing it out. I've revised my post to reflect the information you offered and in general nit-picking is most assuredly encouraged here. =]

AnneC said...

shiva: Yeah, as my post should indicate I found all kinds of problems in Avatar as well, though I also enjoyed watching it due to the pretty scenery and thought it had some nifty concepts even though the plot itself was very cliche'-ed.

E.g., I really liked those filament things the people had growing out of their hair and how they could connect to trees and dragons and ponies and such. And from a thematic standpoint I also liked the part about how there's a lot more to things than might appear on first glance when you're coming from one set of cultural biases.

But, as noted in my post, the disability stuff was somewhat eyeroll-inducing. I mean yes, they get a point for acknowledging that yes, disability will likely still exist in The Future (alongside spaceships and cryo-stasis tanks and such), but then they had to go and do that whole "Virtuous Disabled Hero Proves His Virtue and Gets To Walk Again!" thing. Which I know they didn't MEAN anything "bad" by, but still, that kind of thing just gets old.

And another thing that kind of made me WTF a bit was just the way Earth-Hero sort of swooped in, joined the natives, and ended up becoming Super-Native and a leader amongst them, etc. I don't have the language at hand to critique that but *something* seems a bit weird about it.

AnneC said...

Also, shiva: re. the 2D vs. 3D thing, the reason I thought this movie in particular would be cool in 3D was because I have always REALLY liked that thing where you can look at stuff on a screen and have it feel like you are actually moving or flying.

(This also works with real-life objects, too -- as a kid I remember going to a shopping centre that had a big carousel and just standing there STARING at the carousel and mentally changing my frame of reference so it sort of felt like I was spinning, and thinking all the while, though I knew it was an illusion, that it was rather like getting a "free ride"!)

The other thing is that the local theatre here just installed an IMAX screen, which I think would be REALLY neat combined with the 3D. I looove IMAX-style screens, it's like being immersed in the scenery (same reason I've always loved planetariums). Don't know what that says, if anything, about my visual processing but I do know I really LIKE 3D and highly immersive forms of cinema. I think those scenes in Avatar where they were flying near those big floating sky-mountains would be *awesome* on an IMAX screen.

shiva said...

And another thing that kind of made me WTF a bit was just the way Earth-Hero sort of swooped in, joined the natives, and ended up becoming Super-Native and a leader amongst them, etc. I don't have the language at hand to critique that but *something* seems a bit weird about it.

This is what TV Tropes calls Mighty Whitey. (Obligatory warning: TV Tropes will suck up your life. Do not go there unless you either have *very* strong (like, Green Lantern level) willpower or are willing to spend the rest of the night there.) The article by Annalee Newitz linked at the top expresses it re Avatar better than i ever could. (Note that i'm not quite as critical of Avatar as Newitz, but will be addressing that critique in my review.)

Kerry said...

It's nice to see good, thoughtful criticism of Avatar's cultural shortcomings. My main problem with the film was, as some other commenters mentioned, Jake Sully was a bit of a 'Mighty Whitey', essentially becoming a 'better' Na'vi than the Na'vi themselves. That felt a bit condescending towards them, at least in my opinion.

My feelings about the film as a whole were pretty mixed, actually: although the cinematography was utterly stunning and there was obviously some care and thought put into the characters, the plot and the culture!fail definitely left something to be desired.

Stephanie Lynn Keil said...

I saw this movie (not 3-D or any of the special ones) at a local theater because they only charge $3 per ticket (for new movies, too = an awesome deal).

The movie itself was actually pretty boring and predictable. But the special effects were spectacular and if it wasn't for that I wouldn't have been able to watch it.

jimf said...

> And while I certainly have no
> desire to watch close-up shots
> of actors taking a crap, good grief,
> you'd think they could at least
> have an implied dash to the men's
> room or something now and then when
> Sully "woke up" in his human body. I
> mean I know bathroom stuff is gross
> and all, but it's sort of an inevitable
> consequence of metabolism, and it has
> always struck me as bizarre how weird
> people get over it and how often it's
> glossed over. What is this, some sort
> of leftover of the Victorian era?

That's one of the things that makes me smile about Tolkien's _The Lord of the Rings_. Absolutely **nobody** ever has to go to the bathroom. Not hiking through the Shire, not trekking through the wilderness with Strider, not in Rivendell, nor Moria, and certainly not in Lothlorien. Not even in Mordor (there's plenty of munching on lembas there, but not the other thing).

Tolkien did, by the way, make up words for all those things in Elvish. But it would've been interesting to hear about the Elves' sanitary accommodations, too. ;->

jimf said...

Athena Andreadis, by the way, has published a scathing review of _Avatar_ at:
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/athena-andreadis-phd/camerons-iavatari-jar-jar_b_402576.html

I haven't seen the movie, myself, but after that -- well, I passed on _2012_ because of the bad reviews; I may do the same for this one.

AnneC said...

Shiva: Oh yeah I'm quite familiar with the black hole of timesuck (but in a good way, provided one doesn't have any pending appointments!) that is TV Tropes. (I think I have a link to it in my sidebar, even). One of my internet-friends (Margaret S., who does a really neat webcomic, incidentally) told me about it a while back. I like how it manages to be very funny and also very keen at identifying patterns in film and literature, etc. But I hadn't come across the "Mighty Whitey" entry yet so thanks for the linkage.

AnneC said...

Kerry: Yeah, your assessment sounds similar (albeit shorter) to mine...lots of pretty, but plenty of fail regardless.

AnneC said...

Stephanie: Whoah, $3 is really cheap for a movie! I wish we had something like that around here...I very rarely go to the movies at all (maybe twice a year or so) but even the matinee (afternoon) showings are upwards of $8 which boggles me.

And, yeah, like I wrote in my entry I think the plot had a lot to be desired. I was very easily able to guess what was going to happen next, and nothing was very deep about it...I mean there were parts where I could imagine greater complexity but the movie never bothered actually going there, which kind of annoyed me. But it was very pretty.

AnneC said...

jimf: Heh, I think Tolkien practically was a denizen of the Victorian era, or at least close enough to it for me to figure he gets a pass on the bathroom stuff. Moreover in LoTR it was at least conceivable that the characters just did their business in the woods given the amount of time they spent there.

In Avatar, though, it just struck me as really notable how the human "pilots" were sealed into these weird little gel-like beds and clearly had to eat when they came out of these, but could stay in them for what seemed like many many hours with absolutely no need to take care of any other bodily functions. Maybe I'm picking nits here, or maybe my recent experience with household plumbing has brought my focus down toward the drain (so to speak), but I just figured I'd mention that as it stood out to me.

Oh and I did read Ms. Andreadis's review...she's definitely in a good position to comment given her sf/biologists' background and I found myself thinking "oh hmm yeah, good point" upon perusing her writeup. Thanks for linking to that, I normally don't read Huffington Post at all (it has a high "fluff factor" in some aspects I have difficulty getting past) but I guess occasionally they do publish something worth a look.

Athena Andreadis said...

In my Avatar review I commented on Cameron's lazy, contemptuous, manipulative use of the Chosen White Guy Becomes Baddest Injun of Them All trope (no reviewer worth their salt could avoid it -- it stuck out a light year), but the most incisive critique of this came from Aaron Bady.

I wrote a larger-context follow up to my Avatar review: Lab Rat Cinema: Monetizing the Reptile Brain.