Archive for September, 2010

Avatar—A Movie is Only as Good as its Villain

September 10, 2010

Okay, I know I’m late to this party, and have really cut into my geek cred by seeing this for the first time at home—no IMAX, no 3D.  In some ways, that’s probably a good thing for my review, as I can a little more easily get past the pretty pictures and actually speak to the story.

Before I do, one thing on the visual choices of two contemporary filmmakers—James Cameron and JJ Abrams.  Avatar is visually stunning, even on the small(er) screen, but its clarity and detail actually make it feel unreal to a viewer used to seeing imperfections on film.  Maybe in a generation, this will be irrelevant, as people will become so used to seeing digital film that the distortions and graininess you get on film will be that which looks unreal, but I don’t think that’s the case now.

Creating imperfections are part of movie magic

Indeed, JJ Abrams realized that with the new Star Trek movie, and purposefully decided to shoot on film, and, as I’ve learned, used spotlights to create visual “flares” all over the place, making the film look highly imperfect, and far more real.  Indeed, for the digital effects, they worked hard to replicate those effects with virtual “flaring” and then putting their digital camera on a spring so it could shake in a similar way to Abram’s signature “shaky-cam” technique. 

To put it in Cameron vs. Cameron terms, both Avatar and Aliens contained mythical creatures and realistic marines on a distant planet.  Yet Aliens felt in every way more like a more realistic movie.  While I enjoyed watching Pandora’s world, I was absolutely sucked-into planet LV-246.  Given the amazing state of today’s digital technology, in many ways it’s now the director’s responsibility to make his world seem more imperfect in order to make it feel more real.  I think Cameron and his FX wizards still have some work to do in this regard.

No better at symphathic + psychotic

Going back a moment to Star Trek 2009, you may remember my saying that I do not think it is in any way a perfect movie.  Indeed, Abrams admitted as much, and at the heart of it, he noted that he slighted his own villain, Nero.  In order to really identify with the hero, you must have an enemy equally as engaging.  And to keep a villain from becoming two-dimensional, to my mind you really need one of two things.  Either the villain must have complicated motivations, making you sympathize (and, at best, emphatize) with why they are doing what they doing, or they must be totally psychotic—so divorced from our way of thinking that they create a perverse atmosphere both repugnant and engaging at the same time. 

It is here, to me, that Avatar really falls flat.  First, Cameron absolutely dispenses with any complicated or interesting motivation.  We get vague mentions of the “dying world” that is Earth, and some even more veiled references to the fact that we have destroyed nature.  But that is not even explored in the least.  Worse yet, the horribly-coined “Unobtainium” – the mineral so prized by humans under the Pandora soil, is not even explained.  Why do we want it?  What does it do? 

Indeed, back in 2007, there was a very, very similar CG film called The Battle for Terra where humans came to colonize another planet with rich life but a toxic atmosphere.  At least in that we had the motivation, as what came to Terra was the remainder of the entire human race.  Could Unobtainium be the key mineral that could infuse life back in a dying Earth atmosphere?  Just that explanation would make us identify with the antagonists far more.  But Avatar gives us nothing but profit-obsession and even paints the marines there as simply “guns for hire.”  Cameron actually worked to have us not feel or identify for any character except the ones he labled “hero.”  That is just terrible story-telling.

Reiser's Carter was perfect yuppie scum

Then he presents us with our villains—two cookie cutter baddies with absolutely no substance.  On the “evil corporation” side, we have Parker Selfridge, played smarmily by Giovanni Ribisi.  On this front, I think Cameron should be ashamed of himself, because he created such a wonderful version of this kind of character with Paul Reiser’s character in Aliens.  Reiser’s good-guy façade that revealed a complete lack of ethics—going as far as trapping a little girl with a trio of nasty face-huggers, made his demise very satisfying.  First you liked him, so then when you realize the depths of his amoral bastardry, you really, really hated him.  None of that complexity and fun is here with Ribisi’s cardboard cutout of a selfish corporate executive.

On the military side, Cameron’s intent to quickly paint every marine with a twirling black moustache was capped off with Colonel Miles Quartich, played by Stephen Lang.  The hardened, war-loving marine is a well-worn tactic.  It works well in a film like Platoon where the soldier that allows his Id to roam free is challenged by a group of counterparts.  Or the relative complexity of the marine troop in Cameron’s Aliens with a group you get to know and really see them as people is another great device.  It’s funny that in an age of war, where we as a nation have been forced to see our solders in a far more realistic light in terms of what motivates them, and what they do, Cameron chose to fall back on tired stereotypes of solder as war-monger.  Quartich’s lack of realistic motivation, lack of complexity, and complete lack of change in this film made him positively a snoozer of an antagonist.

One of the great ways to tell a story that preaches the kind of moral tale about respect for nature and other cultures that Avatar is trying to tell is to have at least one villain be redeemed.  Cameron had real potential to make Quartich that character.  I could have seen a kind of civil war between the Marines following Quartich, who as he’s forced to deal with the Navi more deeply and come to respect as fellow warriors, that ideals, not money, are really what is worth fighting for.  Those who remain loyal to the corporation could then have gone against a rag-tag group of Marines allying themselves with the Navi.  That transformation would have been 100 times more powerful than anything else we saw in this film, and still provided the same level of action—more even.

Science and faith could have come together to make a fascinating point about how we treat each other, but it ended up as a throwaway

There were also myriad opportunities to speak to the issue of non-violence in this film that went wasted.  The fact that the planet was not just metaphorically or spiritually interlinked, but actually, scientifically interlinked gave a host of chances to speak to the “if you hurt one, you hurt all” message.  That would have been a powerful complement that would have reinforced Cameron’s heavy-handed “respect nature” message.

There was a good amount to like in Avatar, but, in the end, the visuals seemed more like a shiny object to distract you from a very thinly told tale rather than a complement to it.  In all, a strange fusion of Dances with Wolves and Aliens, but borrowing only the formulas, rather than the souls of either.