Monday, 25 January 2010


What’s this? A movie review? The first in about a year. And I though I’d be doing more of these, but no, apparently I don’t like going to the cinema. I would promise to do more because I like doing them, but I doubt I will. Here’s hoping I guess. As always there will be spoilers, so go watch this film now then come back (or don’t, the plot is not why you watch the film, but if you do care about the plot then don’t read this until after watching it)

Anyway, the film I just watched was Avatar. James Cameron’s 3D, CGI extravaganza set on some alien planet somewhere which the evil human race has come along and tried to mine for hard-to-get-ium or something, the motives were pretty paper thin let’s be honest. Anyway some clever scientist has created technology to allow a human to go into the brain of one of the giant blue aliens specially bred for the purpose. Again the reason for this not exactly made clear. But that’s not really important to the film.

What is important is that it looks to goddamn pretty. The 3D works most of the time and the CGI as a whole is truly stunning. The whole thing was so wonderfully animated that I could not take my eyes off it. The creatures moved so naturally and the environment interacted with them so well. Combined with the 3D it made one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen. However, I was constantly reminded that I was looking at an animation, not real life. Little niggles in the 3D, little problems with the way the water looked or the way that everything was just a little too perfect. Even when the evil humans were killing lots of the aliens it was all too perfect. It lacked the little faults; the subtle imperfections that make things look real.

Avatar was essentially a show case of how far we’ve come in terms of technology and how pretty we can make our films look. However the technology will continue to improve and, while stylistically Avatar may still be beautiful, it will be surpassed and made to look ordinary compared with other films. A film simply cannot ride on the strength of technology because the technology will always get better. It is not enough for a film to be pretty and we should not settle for that. Good use of technology is not good art. That is not to say that stylistically Avatar is not good art. Cameron has shown as he always does that he makes very visually good movies. Avatar will continue to look good in spite of its outdated technology, not because of it.

However visual style is not the only thing that makes a good movie. A movie can look as good or bad as it likes, I honestly don’t care. I don’t pay good money to go to a cinema to look at a display of the latest in CGI; I go to be told a good story, with strong characters and beautiful writing. I did not get this with Avatar. I got a simple story, with interesting, but underdeveloped character and mediocre writing. The film gets away with it because it’s a well told story with a truly wonderful setting.

The story is pretty predictable and wafer thin; a very poorly disguised metaphor for imperialism which was largely predictable from the off. There was nothing complex or intriguing about the plot; it was straight forward and distinctly predictable. It set the evil humans with their technology and guns against the ‘Noble Savage’ aliens with their bows and arrows and connection to the earth. Predictably the aliens repulsed the evil men with the help of a man who had become one of them and seen the beauty of their simplistic ways. Obviously Cameron had devised this story in the midst of a serious bout of Imperialist Guilt.

The problem was that it was so straightforward. All but about half a dozen humans were unquestioningly gung-ho about killing aliens and the aliens themselves were unrealistically virtuous and wonderful. Such almost child-like simplicity becomes quickly tiresome. As did the glorification of the simple ways of the savage; the aliens ran around half naked, living among the trees and being at one with nature. This romantic view of the world is painfully simplistic, to the point that it was laughable. The reason why these savages were so much better was never really examined; the unsophisticated, unthinking way in which they lived was only contrasted with the worst of human progress, never the best. The film makes outlandish statements about human nature without ever examining them because it’s too busy showing off its beautiful CGI.

Similarly the characters were all underdeveloped. The lead was an ex-marine who had been crippled in the line of duty. Is he bitter about this? Does this make his dislike the military? Who knows? The film never explores the character so we have no reason to care about him. If Jake (his name) had died at some point I’m not sure anyone would have cared. If anything I might have been glad to be free of his inane narration and painful one-liners. Similarly the main Antagonists seem to have very little motivation for what they were doing. One is a big heavy military nut job who just wanted to kill everything that moved for no real reason. We could infer that it was because he hated the aliens because they gave him the scars that were all over his face, but this is more inference than anything the film actually told us. He was almost comically heartless and larger than life. I questioned whether he was any more human than the mech he was driving at the end. The other antagonist was a pen pushing corporate type who had about as much personality as he did screen time – so not very much. He was possible a more knockdown evil villain than the heavy – at least the heavy was entertaining on screen. There were also several Alien characters, but again the film spend too long showing off to really make us care when most of them died. They’d spent as much time on screen as the corporate scarecrow so the reactions of the other characters and the fact that they weren’t human were the only things telling us to be sad when they popped their clogs.

This not to say that the story was bad or the characters were all terrible. The story was very well told and, while simple, it was quite nice. The characters were not bad, they were just underdeveloped. I guess what frustrates me is that Avatar could have been a brilliant movie. With as bit of work the story could have been compelling and original and the characters could have been fascinating and human. The emotions the audience felt at key moments could have been more than spoon deep if only the film had stopped trying to overawe us. All this could have been achieved in the almost 3 hours that the film lasted, but too long was taken establishing that the film is really pretty for sufficient time to be given to what actually matters about a film.

Avatar is a showcase held up by a tolerable if a little predictable and simplistic story. The characters have potential but that is disregarded in favour of aesthetic appeal. It is worth seeing because it is extremely entertaining and so damn pretty. It’s not like the film is just a showcase of technology; it does have a story and, while not the greatest, it is decent. It certainly holds up the movie well enough for it to show off its impressive technology. I fear that movies will simply use 3D as a gimmick to make up for a nonexistent storyline. Avatar does not do that, but it is still not one of the classic films. You should watch it if you haven’t already and don’t be worried that I’ve given away some of the plot, that’s not why you’re there.

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