Avatar: First impressions


— 1:55 PM on December 16, 2009

Last night, I went to see the Avatar premiere. James Cameron's massively hyped CG epic came out in Europe a couple of days ahead of the U.S. for some reason, so I now have a chance to spoil the movie for most of you guys. Sweet! I even selected a theater that was showing the film in full stereoscopic 3D glory, so I pretty much got the full experience.

Well, except for one detail: the thing was dubbed in French. Yes, all movies are dubbed over here, especially big blockbusters. The dubbing admittedly sounds pretty seamless—all of the right post-processing effects are applied—but any English speaker will find himself cringing in certain parts, like when the infamous "Ladies and gentlemen, you're not in Kansas anymore" line from the trailer turns into "Mesdames et messieurs, vous n'êtes plus au Kan-sas." Bleh.

First and foremost, though, I went to see Avatar to figure out if the hoopla surrounding the visuals and 3D cinematography was justified. This movie has been hyped for many things, but one of them is definitely the newfangled stereo HD cameras James Cameron put together. According to this Wired piece (entitled "James Cameron's New 3-D Epic Could Change Film Forever"), we can credit Cameron for almost single-handedly persuading theater owners to invest in stereoscopic 3D projection. The filmmaker even let other directors, including Spy Kids 3-D's Robert Rodriguez, shoot with his camera system in order to spur demand.

Avatar also took something like 14 years to develop. Cameron reportedly wanted to create a completely believable computer-generated world and characters, and he had to wait until the technology allowed him to pursue his vision without compromise. None of that 1990s fakey-looking CG here, no sir. What a visionary!

Now, let me pause briefly to say that, before the first teaser trailer came out earlier this year, I didn't know the first thing about Avatar. Heck, I hadn't even heard of it. I thought the trailer looked sort of neat, but I couldn't really understand why everyone was so incredibly excited. I had to read the aforementioned Wired story to join in the excitement.

The visuals
So, last night, I eagerly sat in my theater seat and waited for the show to begin. My impressions of the graphics were two-fold: one, the CG rainforest of Pandora looks completely believable and absolutely incredible. Unless I started thinking too hard about why trees were so big or why a mountain floating in thin air had a waterfall coming out of it (where's the water coming from, huh?), I just bought it lock, stock, and barrel. Sometimes, I genuinely wondered whether I was looking at a live-action set or a CG one. I guess that's the point.

Two, the 3D cinematography added nothing to the experience. In a way, it almost detracted from the visuals. I'll admit we were among the last people to walk in, and as a result, we had to sit pretty close to the screen. I therefore didn't get the absolute best 3D experience. Separately from that, however, the 3D glasses just made Pandora look dimmer and less vibrant. I think dimness is already a problem with standard theater projections to begin with, at least compared to a good LCD display, so the goggles only made things worse. Just poor contrast and saturation all around.

The 3D effects worked very well, mind you. They made Pandora look exceedingly realistic at times, causing no headaches or nausea in the process. I pretty much forgot about the 3D half an hour into the movie, though, and I was only reminded when something flashed in the foreground... or when the goggles induced double vision, probably because I was wearing them over my regular prescription glasses.

For the life of me, though, I can't understand the appeal of 3D cinema like this. I've never looked at a photograph or a painting and thought, "Yeah, this looks okay, but it would be so much better if I got an artificial sense of depth by looking at it through thick-framed sunglasses." Why should a movie be any different? The goggles, the dimness, and the occasional double vision gave Cameron's beautifully rendered alien rainforest the same aftertaste as a gimmicky theme park short. I don't know anyone who's ever had trouble immersing themselves in a 2D movie; I don't see how adding depth and taking away some of the image quality is supposed to help.

On a separate note, this may be one of the last movies I go see in a conventional theater. Every single time I've been in the past few years, I've come out disappointed by the image quality. It's usually too dim, too blurry, and too flickery. I think we've gotten to the point where watching a movie at home gives you a better experience, which is pretty unfortunate. In a way, I can't help but feel like stereoscopic 3D is a last-ditch effort by the movie industry to make theaters deliver added value. As far as I'm concerned, the semi-awkward 3D is only one more reason to wait for the Blu-ray or DVD.

The movie
This section will include some spoilers, so if you want to experience Avatar with a mind as fresh as the morning snow, stop reading now.

As impressed as I was with Avatar's CG graphics, the script just seemed like an unimaginative blend of Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and The Smurfs. Cameron succeeded in creating exquisitely detailed and masterfully animated aliens capable of displaying believable emotion, only to make them spout banal, simplistic lines. The Na'vi may have their own indigenous language spoken throughout the film, but it plays no important part, since all the important Na'vi characters speak English (or French, in my case) from the outset. And the Na'vi have the exact same vocal range as humans despite being 10 feet tall and from an alien moon, so they end up speaking only with a slight accent. Neat, huh?

The story can be summed up as follows... actually, the trailer pretty much explains it all: Soulless Corporation has a mining colony on Pandora, an alien world that orbits a blue version of Jupiter. Jake Sully (John Smith), a former marine who's paralyzed from the waist down and apparently has no friends, is tasked with assimilating himself among the Na'vi (who are also blue), gaining their trust, and convincing them to relocate so the Soulless Corporation can mine a really precious mineral from under the giant tree they all live in. Jake remotely pilots a genetically engineered Na'vi-human hybrid to do this. He soon meets a female Na'vi warrior named Naytiri (Smurfette/Pocahontas), who shows him what it means to be in touch with nature on Pandora. None of the Na'vi except Smurfette seem to like him, but he takes the Na'vi's side anyway, betraying and slaughtering his former comrades so the Na'vi can stay in their tree.

Almost all of the characters in this epic are strictly one-dimensional. Soulless Corporation has no clear motive—the film glosses over the fact that the mineral under the Na'vi Hometree is worth "20 million a kilo," but there's no explanation of why it's in such high demand or what it does—and the main antagonist (Gargamel) calls the Na'vi "savages" and considers them sub-human scum. I guess circa-19th-century colonial imperialism is back in full force in the 2150s. The Na'vi, meanwhile, are completely good: they even mourn the creatures they kill for sustenance, although their tribe also includes a number of warriors. Not sure how that fits together, exactly.

Toward the end, Gargamel delivers a cartoon villain speech to the remaining faithful mercenaries, saying the Na'vi are about to attack. To survive, the mercs must "fight terror with terror" and "attack pre-emptively," he says. Perhaps Cameron was attempting to draw some sort of parallel here, but if he did, it was far too subtle for me to pick up. By the way, Gargamel's pre-emptive strike involves blowing up the Na'vi's monoetheistic goddess tree to crush their spirit for "generations and generations." Did we mention he was evil?

At one point in the movie, you learn that the forests of Pandora are actually a giant neural network, sort of like a moon-sized brain. So, destroying them is really bad. But the entire movie has been demonizing Soulless Corporation non-stop at that point, so this discovery only serves to justify a brief deus ex machina moment: when the final battle between the Na'vi and the colonists seems lost, the creatures of Pandora suddenly turn against the invaders. Also, one of the fierce carnivorous beasts lets Smurfette ride it to fight the evil colonists.

Cameron seems to have gone for a similar "Remember, kids, recycle!" message as in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within and Wall-e. Here, that message is only cemented by repeated references to Earth having become a "dead world," because the humans have no respect for nature. I guess humans eventually ended up putting Al Gore in the same landfill as postcolonialism. (They weren't recycled, clearly.)

Speaking of nature, much of the hype associated with Avatar also revolves around the incredibly detailed world of Pandora, which has its own distinct flora and fauna. According to Wired, Cameron even hired a scientist to "write detailed scientific descriptions of dozens of plants he had created." Here, too, I came away partly underwhelmed. The flora is certainly beautiful, but the fauna seems to suffer from either an overabundance of imagination or a dearth of it. For example, Pandora has little helicopter creatures that just spin around awkwardly and aimlessly like dogs strapped to ceiling fans—how that trait helps them survive and reproduce, I have no idea. On the other side of the spectrum, the horse-like creatures the Na'vi ride are basically horses with anteater heads. Heck, the Na'vi themselves are basically giant humans with catlike features and tails (a furry's wet dream). They have belly buttons, human dentition, and human-like feet, even though they spend much of their time climbing trees. I don't want to nitpick too much, because the excess of human attributes obviously makes them easier to relate to. But a little more imagination wouldn't have hurt.

As a whole, the experience just seems unfortunately shallow. All the beauty is on the surface, with very little depth or nuance in the story, characters, or message. Greedy corporations and colonialism are bad. Indigenous people in touch with nature are good. Cameron reproduced none of the shades of gray seen in films like Dances with Wolves, where, for instance, John J. Dunbar has trouble reconciling his fondness for the Lakota with their slaughter of white trappers who killed bison for their skins.

Walking out of the theater, I started talking with my fiancee about the main female Na'vi character. Suddenly, I realized I had already forgotten her name. My fiancee had, too. When was the last time you saw a movie and forgot the name of the second-most-important character five minutes after the credits started rolling? Kids will love Avatar, I'm sure, because the simplicity and black-and-white characters have a very kid-friendly quality to them. And you'll probably like it, too, if you can look past the formulaic plot and dreadful scriptwriting to immerse yourself in the visuals. Watching Avatar is like going out for burger and fries at a five-star restaurant: great taste, great presentation, still-poor nutritional value.

Update 12/23: I went to see the movie a second time and wrote a follow-up post to elaborate a little bit.

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