Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another Nerd Sounds Off About Avatar!

(This article contains some spoilers about Avatar. And, since you've already seen it, it doesn't matter.)

A week after everyone else on the planet, I finally managed to take some time off from writing games to see Avatar (original name: Jake Sully Versus the Hippies From Space). I saw it projected on a flat surface, as opposed to in 3-D, because I am very old.

I agree with the conventional wisdom: The movie is super pretty. The plot and writing are a bit dopey, and the characters are cardboard. But, ooh! Shiny! It's fun enough to be worth seeing.

But whenever anything is seen by that many people and worms its way into the culture, it's fun and worthwhile to get all nitpicky and start digging into it ...

1. This io9 article, about how movies like Avatar are big First Worlder White Guy Wish-Fulfillment Fantasies, it perfectly designed to make the Internets explode with rage. The article is also kind of on target.

Look. I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that surviving in a jungle wilderness, full of hostile creatures and food you have to hunt down yourself, is tricky. This is true whether you're in the Amazon or on Pandora. And I don't think I or anyone reading this could master the environment and learn everything you need to know AND learn the language AND master a whole new BODY in 30 days. Or 30 years. The life of a tribesman is hard, yo. Saying otherwise is clueless and condescending.

I, personally, would be too busy being eaten by a snake.

You can call me politically correct for saying this if you want. I will comfort myself with the fact that I am completely and obviously right.

But that's not to say that I think Avatar is all right-wing. Exactly the opposite ...

2. The Onion AV Club had an awesome article about how, no matter what you think of the plot or CGI, the movie Avatar pulls its weight by being so awesomely politically subversive.

Make no mistake. Those bloodthirsty marines (well, ex-marine corporate mercenaries, not that any of those exist in real life) and soulless corporate drones we're rooting against are there to represent us. They're out there shooting the natives and doing anything it takes to bring back the Whateverium, and the people back home couldn't give less of a crap. The movie gets us to cheer while they (we) are killed or kicked off in chains. It gets us to see ourselves as the bad guys. It's amazing what you can get away with when you're James Cameron.

I think the most fascinating thing about Avatar is the way it gets us to realize, in our bones, that the Na'vi will never, ever want to be us. They will never buy all that we're selling. I mean, they'd like some schools, and yeah, the medicine is nice, but we will never remake them in our own image. No price is high enough for them to let us have their Plotpointium.

It's a subtle point, and I doubt it will register much with many people. (Ooh! Shiny!) But it did make me think. I love our country, and our culture, and the Constitution and the principles we try to live by, even if we sometimes do our best to ignore them. And yes, it's OK for us to try to sell our ideas to other people. The whole story of human progress is the story of competing ideas.

But pick a country, say, Afghanistan. They have their own cultures and traditions and ideas, millenia old. And a lot of people there would rather die (or kill) than give up their idea set, no matter how tempting elements of ours might be. Avatar provides a nice reminder that some (probably most) people will never want to be us, no matter how much we offer in return. Of course, the movie really stacks the deck by making Pandora this hippie paradise with floating mountains and glowy flowers and crap like that, instead of an endless expanse of desert or rocky, inhospitable crags, but this actually kind of doesn't change anything. Living in a cruddy place doesn't make you any less attached to your fundamental worldview.

Not that the other cultures wouldn't like our goods and services, I'm sure. Medicine would be nice, thanks.

3. So the hot blue CGI boy and the hot blue CGI girl went and did it under the big, magical soul tree. OK, fine. But where were the other couples who went there to make out? Was that a privilege reserved for the chief's daughter? That's a pity, because that scene would have been a thousand times better for me if we were also hearing dozens of blue couples having rough, wild, noisy, awesome jungle sex in the background.

4. Actually, rooting against the marines did creep me out a little bit. I just finished watching the truly awesome Iraq war miniseries Generation Kill. I didn't always like the marines in that, but I sure was rooting for all of them to live.

5. I'm not sure what will happen in the years after the movie ends, but I strongly suspect that the words "orbital bombardment" will be involved.

6. Science fiction wanker note. If you want to see how similar storytelling ground was covered in a superior way over thirty years ago, track down a copy of The Word For World Is Forest by Ursula K LeGuin. Damn fine book.

There. More words written about Avatar. Obama saw it, so it must be worth the effort.


  1. Hilariously, bare minutes ago I posted a thing that was pretty much wall to wall nitpicking concerning Avatar, hitting pretty much the same notes.

    I saw it in IMAX 3D, though, because I clearly have too much money, and must get rid of it my spending it on $15 movie tickets.

  2. I also felt a little weird when the animals started rushing out to kill the marines, and the "glorious" music started... and you realize, "Oh, hey, we're supposed to like that the marines being ripped apart."

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  5. I was on the Marine's side. They seemed so under-equipped and outgunned by the planet and its creatures. Why didn't they have tanks, why were they on foot in that jungle, what the hell where they thinking not blasting the blue people with missiles? It's not that I think what the humans were doing was right. But the humans were the underdogs and I felt sorry for them.

    One of my friends made a good point that the movie's message to not exploit people and resources would have been made stronger if the humans ended up destroying the planet and/or all of its people in the end, ( you know a non-happy ending).

    (Why no edit button for these posts?)

  6. As a right-winger, my one-sentence review of the movie went something like 'machine gun combat on pterodactyls overcomes a whole lot of heavy-handed liberal PC BS'. But I don't know how anyone could call this 'subversive' because it's a pretty much mainstream liberal worldview being espoused. Corporations bad, military evil, natives good, all hail gaia! If they could have unionized the Na'vi and taught them to do abortions it would practically be the Democratic platform.

    But I will say this, it didn't get very preachy, and for that Cameron is to be commended.

  7. But they're not Marines, they're soldiers of fortune. It's much easier to root against mercenaries, unless they're named Roland.


    Good call on the LeGuin. There's a lot of mighty fine s/f which has never found its way to the big screen.


  8. Personally, I liked the movie. But I was left confused by the final battle. I completely understand the need for helicopters in that instance, but why were the ground troops marching? They didn't have a back-up bomb, and since the entire Pandora Mining Inc. air force was out on a bombing run wouldn't it have made sense to leave some troops at the home base? Making them march out with the choppers is just asking for trouble. It was a completely unnecessary risk to take, with little to no foreseeable benefit.

    Also, since Pandora is such a hostile planet, how did the Na'Vi manage to overtake the mining compound so easily? How come their base of operations wasn't heavily defended with turrets and soldiers? It's one thing for low-tech natives to wipe out an expeditionary force, but completely another for them to successfully storm what should be an adequately defended fortress.

    Oh well. Maybe a wizard did it.

  9. I also did not like the whole Native American stereotype thing that the blue people had going on. If I was a native I would have been extremely offended by that movie. I mean couldn't the director have come up with a more unique culture?

  10. I imagine they had the troops on the ground because just blowing up the god tree wouldn't have been enough - all of the Nav'i could have survived that, but with ground forces you show not only the ability to destroy their god but their people as well. And it worked fine - they killed every native with minimal casualties until the Deus (not ex machina) showed up.

    And they overtook the mining compound because all of the troops and planes had been butchered. Actually I wonder how they got back into space at the end, since their only shuttle was gone. Maybe they took one of the floaty mountains up to their spaceship.

  11. The military aspect definitely was lacking, although as long as you're criticizing the human military for not having tanks, how about the Na'vi for their incredibly brilliant and original strategic plan to rush their better armed, better equipped, and better trained opponents in a straight line, despite the fact that they were fighting in a jungle that they knew better then the humans? And just for the heck of it, let's just mention the fact that apparently weapons technology has advanced enough for us to have walkers that have quite interesting control systems (and heavily oversized boot knives) but apparently no one bothered continuing to develop small arms, since they're all virtually identical to modern day conventional weapons?

    @vhc\ : I would say he chose those particular cultural facets because they are somewhat recognizable, and most of the facets of the Na'vi culture are fairly common among several native cultures, not the Native Americans alone.

    If anything, what bugged me the most was the ending, since I tend towards what my friends refer to as the 'Into the Woods' (it's a musical) method of endings, which is that all a 'happy ending' means, say in the case of Avatar, is that it just doesn't show the next part where the humans come back in fifty years with a small armada and just pulverize the surface from orbit, then go back to strip mining it.

  12. Well, given that two sequels are planned "if its successful", I think you're going to get your wish on the next part. You may even get your dream ending in the next one, considering standard procedures on part 2 of a trilogy.

  13. Given the time line the lack of higher tech small arms isn't that amazing. There are guns that already have been in use for a century (M1911 .45 ring a bell?). The basic premise of guns hasn't changed that much in a lot longer than that.

    I think it funny that so many conservatives are disturbed by the movie. IT'S A MOVIE. Get over it. They are always telling the liberals to not be so thin skinned after all.

  14. I'm hereby disregarding everything you say in this post because:
    a) you saw it in 2D instead of how it was intended to be viewed, in 3D, which adds a whole new dimension (pun absolutely intended) to the film and makes it a totally engrossing experience. The use of 3D in the film is very subtle, skillful, and like nothing ever done before. That is a large part of what is revolutionary about the film and you completely missed it out.
    b) most of your nitpicks are to do with the story. The point of the film is clearly not the story, as it's full of holes (why, if they have the technology to project consciousness, are they still using regular weapons and not taking over the natives minds and forcing them to do their bidding? etc.). The story is adequate, and I found it to be thoroughly enjoyable, but it is not by any means revolutionary, and nor was it meant to be.

    On a side note, I love Ursula K Le Guin's Earthsea books so I might read The Word For World Is Forest. Personally I was heavilly reminded of Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke when I watched Avatar (watch it if you haven't already, it's a wonderful film). Also the bit about the trees being concious and collectively forming a brain seemed to be taken directly out of Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead.

  15. It's totally politically subversive, which I'm all excited for, but it does it in a dumb way while glorifying violence and religion. I don't understand why some Christians are upset about the pantheism in this movie, this is one of the most pro religious movies I have ever seen. Notice how the "bad guys" are given no religion whatsoever besides greed, while the pacifist scientists are always completely powerless. To make it more subversive there's a monologue how soldiers fighting for freedom back home are doing the right thing so we can later forgive Cameron for making soldiers look like complete trash and so we don't associate them with ourselves TOO TOO much. In the end I'm supposed to not like the corporate marines simply because they are not as well developed as characters? It seems to me everyone on that planet is pretty despicable in their desire to kill the other simply to get what they want. To me this movie ends up being accidentally (intentionally?) right-wing in its subversion because it turns liberalism into a cartoon, literally, while science and diplomacy are shown to be inadequate against the might of religion and violence. Then again that may not be a political message afterall, but simply an unfortunate human truth.

  16. Will not watch it! Didn't watch District9, didn't watch 2012 and never will! I'm fed up of those 2k-generation movies! Maybe I'm getting old but I hate all those CG-fluff crap with a super-naive story and shallow, stereotype characters. There are still so many pre-1990 movies to watch and every single one is better than what is created today in Hollywood! I feel my mind get's poisoned with some cheap crap whenever I watch any of those modern movies that are full of moralizing discourse! Must be a trend among big Hollywood directors!

  17. Sascha, you haven't really seen many pre-1990 movies have you?

  18. Sascha: You should probably watch a film BEFORE you criticise it! District 9's characters were anything but stereotypical (except maybe the bad guy), it really did have quite a unique plot. And as I've already said, yes the characters in Avatar are archetypes, but the one thing you will get from it that you won't get from any other film is its really stunning visuals and superb use of 3D. If you watch films for the story and characters alone then perhaps you should avoid Avatar, but if you can appreciate James Cameron's technical achievement combined with a well-crafted world and setting then it's a must-see.

  19. "There are still so many pre-1990 movies to watch and every single one is better than what is created today in Hollywood..."

    Hmmmm... Off the top of my head, let's see now (sticking to mostly sci-fi/fantasy)...

    Message From Space
    Laser Blast
    Alien Contamination
    The Shape of Things to Come (1979)
    Starcrash: the Adventures of Stella Starr
    Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (one of the last 3D sci-fi films that was hyped up a bit - nowhere near as much as Avatar, of course. That whole early 80's attempt to revive 3D was pretty darn awful)*
    Hercules (1983)
    Hercules II: (1984)
    Space Rangers
    Humanoids From the Deep
    I Come In Peace (OK, it was released in 1990, but you get the point)
    The Deadly Spawn
    Killer Klowns From Outer Space
    Piranha II: The Spawning (Hey Kids! it Jim Cameron, which means we've come full circle! Thanks for playing!)

    and so forth and so on...

    OK, OK... *I'll admit to liking Spacehunter for pure camp value and the wickedly cool casting choices, though - guilty pleasure all the way. R.O.T.O.R. is SO spectacularly horrendous that it's worth tracking down...

  20. My bad, I guess, for just going to watch a movie and enjoying it for a few hours.

  21. @Nemos: As someone who watched it in 3D, I don't agree with you.
    Firstly, it was Pixar who did "subtle, immersive" 3D first in UP. Didn't work then, doesn't work in Avatar.
    Within less than 20 minutes of Avatar's THREE HOUR running time, I'd acclimatised to the 3D, and only noticed it from then on when it was the usual in your face "pits and pointing" that every 3D film does. So for the most part, it'd be just as good in 3D as in 2D.
    It's brilliantly immersive because of the sense of scale from incredible CGI animation and Cameron's great feel for world building, not the gimmicky 3D. (Also, surround sound helps).
    In fact, as there's 30% colour loss in 3D, 2D viewers could argue that you're paying more for a *worse* experience. Imagine the vibrancy of those landscapes in full colour.

    And then there's the fact that some places don't have 3D, and most don't have IMAX. Like your living room where you'll watch the DVD. So the film has to stand up on its other merits as well if it wants to "change the landscape of cinema" as Cameron claims Avatar does.

    Also, "most of your nitpicks are to do with the story"? Well, there's also the clumsy dialogue; "Not while Ah'm breathin'?" REALLY?
    So once you remove the stuff that only exists if you have a local massive-screen cinema with 3D tech, it's just a fairly average blockbuster with the old "White Man masters Native Culture better than actual natives" plot. That would be improved by being edited down to 2 hours.

    Nothing *wrong* with that, I wasn't bored (which for a 3 hour film is quite an achievement), and it does look spectacular. But still I think it's a triumph of marketing over movie-making. As any comic book fan will tell you, if you want to make something a top seller, make it "a world-changing event".

  22. I was barely half aware of the marketing behind it before I watched it.
    But fair enough if you didn't think the 3D was good. I don't particularly like Pixar films so I missed Up. Unlike other 3D films I have watched I didn't find the 3D to be gimmicky in Avatar.
    Also it's only a matter of time before 3D comes to home television. But you're right that it should stand up on its own merits, and personally I think it achieves that.

  23. This movie did show us that we all don't want to destroy beautiful nature world (Same as Princess Mononoke), but the story is way too simplified (good crushed evil). At least in Princess Mononoke they are going to build a better Iron town, while this movie at the end hinted violence is the good solution and a possible "orbital bombardment".

    After all, if the greedy corps just want the mineral, why send in troops? Just wipe the planet.

    The story will be much more interesting if, earth will die unless we get some of that Plotpointium, but mine Plotpointium means the old tree has to die....

  24. @Nemo: It's not that the 3D wasn't *good*. It's just that it's not worth more money than the 2D. And the whole point is if it's done right, it's near unnoticeable.
    And 3D TVs are going to be an expensive gimmick. Who wants to put on glasses in order to watch TV? Not to mention the fact that it causes motion sickness in a significant number of people, which is a bit more of a problem for a family purchase.

  25. io9 killed whatever interest I had in seeing this.

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