Thursday, 17 November 2011

How I Stopped Being Afraid and Learned to Hate Avatar.

James Cameron was to me what George Lucas, pre Star Wars’ revival frenzy, was to the boys of my generation. His mind-blowing, groundbreaking technologies were an exciting part of what made his films sweeping spectacles and great fun to watch. I admired his film-making ways as much as I enjoyed watching his films and used to eagerly await to be wowed by his latest one. Often described as part scientist part artist, James and later his brother Davie, who builds cameras, Cameron's technological inventions always fascinated me much more than Lucas’ ever did. 

I had a bad feeling about Avatar from the first moment I heard that this is going to be its title. I didn’t, and still don’t, like this name. Imagine if The Social Network was called The Facebook… While The Social Network, in and out of the film's context, is open to a wider range of meanings, which frees the film from facebook,  Avatar, arguably, is a misleading title, and regrettably not in a clever and interesting way. I for example, knowing nothing about the film other than its title as I sometimes do with films, expected a Total Recall kind of film, which I think was a fair assumption considering Cameron’s history with Schwarzy and technology. I wish it was that kind of film instead of what Avatar turned out to be. Alas my pleas have fallen on deaf ears, James can be a stubborn man, and he was determined to stick with the name.

After the incident with the film’s title, things were beginning to sour between James and I, but I still wanted to believe our relationship could be saved. I remembered Titanic, the two Terminators and Aliens and suppressed the memory of the crisis we had after I watched The Abyss, I wanted things to go back to how they used to be; and so I went to see Avatar full of hope and good intentions.

For glasses wearer such as little old me, there is nothing like 3D for the obliteration of the illusion and my alienation from the film. I can’t wait until Hollywood gets over this trend. Since my relationship with Cameron on the line, I invested more than I normally would when it comes to 3D, and went to see it in the IMAX cinema. I must take a moment to mention the IMAX 3D glasses, which turned out to be the heaven of 3D glasses for glasses wearer. Big enough to cover my own glasses without gaps on the side, for the first time I was able to experience 3D without blurry reality penetrating my field of vision throughout the film. You may think this a bit of an over excitement over such a discovery, but those of you who wear glasses and either can’t or won’t wear contact lenses, I think will understand. Moreover, I am sorry to say that the 3D glasses revelation was the most exciting thing to have happened to me in that first viewing of Avatar

Look how big they are!
As I am writing these words now, nearly two years later, I still can’t believe it, but while I was watching Avatar for the first time, I dosed off. A strange experience in 3D. Not only is this a rarity for me in general film watching, and I have soldiered through some hardcore hard to watch films in my film watching life, but more so, this never happened, and never should have happened, to me in a James Cameron film. How could it? I blamed myself. It was a late screening and I was over excited about the glasses and that must have taken all my energy. To add to my guilt and sense of shame, everyone loved it, when I say everyone I mean people whose opinions mattered. I immediately came to the inevitable conclusion: I watched it all wrong. I vowed to watch it again, and be better at it!

For the second viewing of Avatar I went during the day, after a good night sleep and the novelty of IMAX 3D glasses out of the way. There was no way I would even think of dosing off this time, I was sure of it. A few 3 dimensional Nav’i later and I was once again struggling to keep my eyes open. I made it to the end of the film awake, but exhausted from all the effort that went into staying that way. There was no escaping the truth: James Cameron has pulled a Lucas on me. 

The banality of the script, its political hypocrisy, its lack of self awareness, self irony. its pompousness and lack of any kind of humour would all have been forgiven if it was in any way, visually or other, an interesting film. As it were, Avatar turned out to be a glorified National Geographic film. There are many reasons why I don’t like National Geographic type of films, which is a whole other kind of Pandora’s box, but regardless to my personal taste, to be teased with a James Cameron film and end up with this… well… that’s too upsetting; and for someone who is as passionate about cinematic visuallity (yes, I intend to coin this term) as I am, Avatar was damn right insulting.

Unlike most people I know, I didn’t find the Pandora interesting or appealing in any way, especially not visually. I was more impressed by the parts of the film that were shot in the spaceship. It could be because I am an indoor type of person, but I think it's more likely because while in the spaceship the camera was dynamic and fluid, the use of 3D was more innovative and clever and the framing and play with perspective beautiful. In Pandora the camera, together with the story, have left the building, and the visual, and I suppose the emotional, impacts were left at the hands of the virtual scenery that was the amazing creative achievement of the film. 

Visually stunning in the spaceship.
Since the interest of the film has shifted from the story to the location, which doesn’t have to be a bad thing, particularly when the story is as dull and chewed as that of Avatar, I would have preferred a different location to Pandora. To start with, like Raj from The Big Bang Theory, I find the Nav’i’s relationship with their mythical animals a bit suspicious. Moreover, if I was lucky enough to travel in space in a search for other planets and civilizations, or alternatively could invent a virtual planet with virtual life forms, it is unlikely that I would have chosen planet which represents the concept of native culture as it is portrayed by white guilt. A certain time lords’ planet, for example, would be a direction I would be heading towards.

Focusing on Pandora did help distract from the leading actors trying new kind of acting; none. Sam Worthington’s lack of any acting talent or charisma and Zoe Saldana’s over the top romanticism and so called depth, cancelled each other out, and all that was left were the villains and Sigourney Weaver, who was also the only one who supplied the one moment of Aliens related humour, in the film. It was hard for me to believe just how seriously Avatar took itself, considering how much banality and how many clichés have been piled upon it.

After salvaging the very fragile glimmer of story that got lost in the disco forests of Pandora, it was hard for me not to put my hand to my forehead and shake my head in despair. One could point out all other films that told a version of the Pocahontas story; the only one I saw was Terrence Malick’s The New World, and none of which really attracted me, but I rather direct my frustration at the bigger picture. How can such and aggressive film that takes so much pleasure in the display of violence, preaches pacifism and why? This probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if it wasn’t joined by the trendy and tedious fascination of the white western world with the latest non white religion, philosophy and way of life. When it’s not the Far East, the Asian Indians or the African tribes, it is Native Americans. I will try and keep my political rage at this so called enlightened perception of the culture the white men used to oppress, kill and destroy, to a minimum, but I feel the need to express just how repulsive I find this glorification of the non western non white cultures.

The Nav’I are so perfect and magical, they are one with the universe and clearly not only have they figured out the meaning of life, but it is a wonderful one and it is the right one. They don’t need books, television, alcohol, drugs or rock n’ roll, they don’t have sex they only make love and everything is romantic and wonderful. They clearly don’t need clothes because their blue skin and artistic body paintings is all they need to keep warm, they haven’t got any money problems, emotional pain or moral dilemmas no wonder I got bored. The Nav’I and their perfect ways are so flat they probably wouldn't even hold my interest as a painting. Isn’t it great that the Cameron brothers had a western education and white money to to create the illusion, based on their own white guilt perception, of the most perfect, better than humans, yet most boring species in the universe? At least the evil people with the guns brought some excitement into the film and saved me from the having to stare at more shiny black lit flowers, trees and birds.

There was however, one very curious aspect to Avatar that prevents it from being a complete disaster and even, against my better judgement and the title of this post, makes me hate it slightly less. Avatar, in a way, is a victory for the spectacle and the pure cinema. Not only has it brought “the people” physically back in to cinemas, but I believe it made a point that would make 57 (or more) film academics punch the air. In the case of Avatar, the story is not only not everything, but is altogether unimportant. Even if you disagree with me and think that the story of Avatar is the greatest story ever told, unlike Titanic, which I will write about in my next post, it is not the story that brought the people to the cinemas, it was Pandora. That. to me is a remarkable and an incredibly interesting achievement, and despite my disappointment and deep aversion towards Avatar and the idea of its sequels, I still can’t turn my back on James Cameron.    


  1. Hullo!

    Yes, I quite agree with you on all points, especially the white man's guilt / Orientalism thing. Plinkett lampooned that quite well in his review when he gets a phone call from the Department of Cultural Guilt:

    I'm impressed that you managed to find something good about Avatar, and I actually agree with you on that point. I don't think that visuality can replace story completely (even Koyaanisqatsi had a kind of story), and while I don't think the visuals of Avatar were emotionally compelling at all (and the Na'Vi's movements were really quite wooden), I concede that it was a plus point for the movie, if only relatively.

    Aside from all the usual gripes, what pisses me off about Avatar is how it brought out a lot of idiocy in a lot of people:
    - People giving it 10 star reviews while acknowledging that the story was stupid.
    - The excessive multiple viewing thing (last seen in Titanic).
    - Respectable film magazines and other review media calling the film "a game-changer", even before it was released and had a chance to change the game. 2001: A Space Odyssey was a game-changing film, and we can say that in retrospect. You can't say it before the film comes out.
    - People who got depression because Pandora is not a real place.

    Oh well. Bring on more Peter Jackson movies...

  2. Greetings, and welcome to Notorious. Thank you very much for reading.

    I agree that Avatar's visuallity is a disappointing one, and I wish it was a different kind of film that had made that point, alas it was Avatar and its mediocre visuallity, nevertheless the fact remains that it is that and not the story that brought people out to the cinema. Shame.

    I also agree that the story shouldn't be ignored. However there has been a trend in the last decade or so to chose story over looks, and that pisses me of. A film should have an interesting, compelling and exciting look as well as a good story. I hate that so many films rely so much on a so called great story and think it's ok to tell it with poor visuallity.

    People who were depressed that Pandora isn't a real place should seriously get a life and professional help!

    And lastly Peter Jackson for the win! Totally! I have a whole post in me about the excellent and slightly overlooked, methinks, District 9.

  3. Errr... Aya, you know it's me right? Simon...

  4. Of course I know it's you! I don't know anyone that signs their name SCCO. Since it was your first comment I wanted to greet and welcome you :)