going native

HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.  YOU ARE WARNED!

I finally went to see Avatar yesterday.  This is the latest extravanganza from James Cameron, who has my undying gratitude for killing off Leo DiCaprio in Titanic.   The hubbub around this movie has been unusually positive for a holiday blockbuster.   I expect movie critics to gush about this sort of thing (“zomg, Best Picture Ever!!!!11!1”  –Roger Ebert), but even people who don’t normally fall for hype were liking this one so I had high hopes.  Sigh.  I should know better.

This movie blew.   And not just because the aliens were 10 feet tall and, ummm, blue.   This movie sucked on every level.  The plot wasn’t interesting.  You’ve seen it before, in Dances with Wolves, in The New World, in any movie that shows us how peacefully native American peoples lived on the earth and with each other and how the coming of the outsiders screwed it up royally.  In short form (the movie itself is really really really long): Beautiful Pandora (which appears to be the coincidentally earth-like moon of a large gas giant) is composed of a material worth a great deal of money.  Evil MegaCorporation has set up shop there and is strip mining it with the aid of mercenaries (oops..I mean military contractors).  Unfortunately, the moon is not uninhabited; there are large tribes of indigenous peoples, living in a state of grace in their Eden, unaware of and uninterested in the valuable commodity beneath their feet and not too keen on giving up their homes so that humans can gouge it out of the ground.  Apparently blankets laden with smallpox are in short supply so Evil MegaCorporation has cooked up a strange scheme to create “avatars”–cloned Blue Alien bodies that will be neurally linked to human controllers.   Details on why this would work are sketchy, although humans cannot breathe the air on Pandora so having a body that does is convenient.  Our Hero, a paraplegic, arrives to take the place of his deceased twin brother as an avatar jockey (there is some mumbo jumbo about matching DNA).   Evil MegaCorporation is in a hurry to mine so Our Hero has just three short months to get the Blue Aliens to trust him enough to willingly move out of their sacred ancestral home so that the company can get at the rock underneath without having to commit genocide.  Cartoon Colonel, who really just wants to kill as many  Blue Aliens as possible,  promises him new human (“real”) legs if he provides usable intel on the aliens’ weak points.  Which he does.  But then it gets complicated.  His teacher is a Pretty Blue Alien Lady who happens to be the chief’s daughter.   They bond.  He becomes conflicted.  He becomes a warrior.  He is made part of the tribe.  Our Hero and Pretty Blue Alien Lady, ummm, “mate for life.”  Then the bulldozers come and everything goes to hell for awhile.  A couple dozen impressive explosions and all kinds of gratuitous carnage later, though, and everything is set to rights.   Evil is thwarted, the world is saved, and Our Hero and Pretty Blue Alien Lady live happily ever after in Paradise.

Now, it is not true that just because you have seen a story a million times it is necessarily trite.   In fact, a new interpretation of an enduring theme can be very powerful.  It is also not the case that a movie has to be deep and smart to be good.  A big dumb movie can be a rollicking good time.   This movie isn’t any of those things.  It is actually quite pedestrian, and although it wants very badly to be Important and Serious it also wants to be a feel-good eye-candy blockbuster.  So it dumbs down the themes (and there many interesting potentialities in the basics of the story), turns up the volume, and lights the fuse.  Every sentiment it expresses is cheap and easy.  Absolutely nothing comes as a surprise since the movie telegraphs all its moves well in advance.  The minute you see the giant orange bird thing that “only five people in all recorded history have ridden”, you know our hero will be riding one to victory.   You know who is going to die and who is going to survive.   When Pretty Blue Alien Lady tells Our Hero that everyone’s spirits are passed into the land and the sacred tree you know Our Hero is going to end up giving up his human body and staying on Pandora forever.  You know the Brave Blue Alien Warrior who initially hates and fears Our Hero will come to respect him as a brother and will die bravely fighting by his side.  Most obviously, you know Good will win and Evil will slink off with its tail between its legs and a big special effects budget will make it all seem very exciting and not at all a foregone conclusion.  The saddest thing about all this is that although the movie goes to great lengths to convince us that the Big  Blue Alien and Pandora way of life is true and good and inherently better it has to resort to our ways (fighting, killing, bombs, knives, guns, combat, more death, fire, etc) to save it.   I would have loved it if the Pretty Blue Alien Lady had performed her peoples’ prayer for the dying over Cartoon Colonel after she drilled him with two ginormous arrows but she didn’t.   Nope, the Pandorans threw themselves into the slaughter as happily as the Marines did.

Had the movie been better cast I’m not sure it would have made much of a difference.  The lead actor is OK, if kind of bland.   Sigourney Weaver, as the scientist who developed the avatar program,  is utterly wasted ( I was so hoping for her to go all Ripley on their asses with one of their mechas) and looks jarring and unreal in her elongated alien form.    The villains are punched right out of the Big Book of Bad Guys coloring book.  They are all run-of-the-mill, one-dimensional, ignorant, and cruel evildoers who get few opportunities for personal growth and none whatever for redemption.  The corporation’s representative is even named Selfridge (“selfish”, get it?) and it’s probably not a surprise that he bears a striking resemblance to the shameless corporate dude in Aliens.   Cartoon Colonel is viciously scarred, seems righteously happy about it, and can’t wait to rape and kill the planet that ripped him up.   He actually throws around the word “terrorist” to whip up sentiment against the aliens (who technically are not really the “aliens” in this situation.)  The Marines are all just “Marines” and as much as I hate myself for saying it…all the aliens look alike.   You know one is the chief because he has a lot of feathers and you know one is the high priestess because she’s the only female that looks old (plus compared to the rest of the Blue Aliens she wears a lot of clothes).  Otherwise, well, they are all 10 feet tall and blue and wear bits of leather and beads in strategic places and the men don’t look all that different from the women.  Everything they do is wise and good and with the exception of a handful of good apples every human is wicked and selfish.

But you say…we don’t care about tedious plots and uninteresting actors.  Tell us about the special effects!  Were they awesome?  Well, not so much actually.  I was expecting a lot more.  Pandora is lushly gorgeous but probably not any more so than the Amazon or any other vast rain forest-like stretch of earth.  Its loveliness is part and parcel with its strangeness and no expense is spared in driving home that strangeness.  Look! Is that a horse?  Well, it’s very much like a horse and it acts very much like a horse, but it has six legs so it is an exotic alien horse!  The “dogs”? Yep, six legs. The big rhino-dinosaur things?  I think they had six legs too.    We have a tendency to find the strange more compelling than our home scenery; even a county like England that is really pretty much like home seems novel and charming compared to our daily routine.    So there are lots of scenes of the hero wandering around marveling at the strange plants and learning the hard way about exotic animals.  It wouldn’t have had the same impact if they’d just filmed it in the Amazon.  Bioluminescence is way over-used but it does allow for some interesting uses of body paint.   All the animals look like they are made out of plastic.  And the 3D?  To be honest, I couldn’t see the point of it.  The movie never really seemed like anything more than something projected on a flat screen.  There was no particular depth to any of it; even the much vaunted flying scenes weren’t that jaw-dropping (or at all jaw-dropping, actually).  I never felt immersed in the world.   Occasionally the screen would shimmer outward in the way 3D movies sometimes do and there would be that brief sense of the movie world and the real world blending, a small breach in the boundary between real and make-believe, but it was usually in some throw-away scene.  Leaves tumbling through the air as the protagonists walked through the forests, small insects buzzing around, that sort of thing.  My favorite was the little air jellyfish-like seeds of the holy tree.  Now and then it would seem as if they were floating around in the front rows of the theater.  It was lovely.  But otherwise, yeah…the one thing the movie should be able to do and do well enough to blow you out of your seat it fails at.  As eye candy goes, it’s not all that.

I want to like science fiction movies.  I really do.  When they are good, they can be very, very good (Star Wars, Blade Runner, Alien, Buckaroo Banzai, even Terminator).  And when they are bad…well.   I just cannot understand the lack of creativity shown by smart people with a lot of money in one of the few genres where one can truly go nuts if you are smart and have a lot of money.   Back in the day, when the aliens had to be guys in rubber suits it made some kind of sense to have the aliens be either humanoid or off camera as much as possible.  But everything is CGI now and aliens can look like whatever you want them to.  Take a look at the diversity in our own world.  Beagles.  Giraffes.  Redwoods.  Whales.  Leaf-cutter ants.  Naked mole rats.  Slime molds.  Penguins.  Michael Moore.   If evolution working on one backwater planet can produce that range of life, is it even remotely possible that life on another world billions of miles away would look like it does here, just a little different?  Hardly likely.   Yet look at the Blue Aliens.  Other than being 10 feet tall, supernaturally thin, and blue, they are humans with a few cosmetic differences.  (All the “strangeness” is saved for the animals, who often have multiple sets of eyes and odd ways of breathing.)   They are upright bipeds.  They have two eyes (big, round, and yellow), a nose (kind of flattened but not outside the range of normal human variation), and a mouth, all arranged just like ours.  I bet if you counted their teeth they’d have 32.    Remarkably healthy teeth too for a people without access to modern dental care.   Their hair patterns are human.   All the naughty bits are apparently in the same place and work the same way (hard to say though…since they run around almost naked all the time they are essentially sexless so the movie can keep its PG-13 rating.)   They have vocal chords that can handle human languages.  They are short a finger on each hand, but their thumbs are opposable and their feet appear to be normal human feet (and incidentally the avatars have five fingers on each hand. Why?)  They have a tail but the most alien thing about them is their hair, which is more or less a giant USB cable that allows them to jack into everything else on the planet, including the animals and the trees, and transfer information both ways.  The whole planet is one giant computer or brain or pan-organism and apparently because of this everything is eternal and connected.

So it makes no sense at all that the hero of the movie, who is not even from around those parts and who has actually sold out the planet and its inhabitants, has to log on to a tree with his pony tail and tell the planet that bad things are happening to it.  What?  Was the planet sleeping through the bombing of the Home Tree?  Has it just not noticed the giant mine equipment that’s been carving chunks out it since well before the movie started?   And once all these things have been brought to its attention does it fling storms and lightening and wind and ice and snow at its enemies?  Does it heave up volcanoes or cause the oceans to rise and swamp the mine site?  No, it waits until the very last dramatic minute, ensuring maximum loss of life for its defenders, and then sends out birds and rhino-dinos.  Woot!    These exist solely to eliminate all combatants except for two and after a little macho mano a mano between Our Hero and Cartoon Colonel evil is finally vanquished.   There follows a few smug scenes of the Marines and corporate honchos being frog marched onto their transport vehicles by the victorious Big Blue Aliens.  Cut to scenes of the people chanting and singing while Our Hero downloads himself permanently into his avatar and that’s a wrap!  All that’s left is to cash the checks.

The big “reveal” of the movie is that all things are connected.  We are all part of the One.  To hurt any of us is to hurt all of us.   Group hugs are nice,  as are group dance sessions, and group singing.  If we band together arrows can beat gunships, evil will be vanquished, and harmony will return.  Well  maybe.  In the theater people clapped and cheered at the happy ending.  But you and I both know that back in the real world, Evil MegaCorporation goes back to its home planet, claims it was brutally attacked by vicious savage terrorists, greases a few of the right palms, and comes back with a true military assault force.   After all there is still a crapload of money in those rocks.

It’s not nice to fool mother nature.

Score: Fail.

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~ by gun street girl on January 10, 2010.

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