My Thoughts on Avatar

I’m sure I can’t be the only one who thought “Wow, how the hell did they get James Cameron to direct the film version of Avatar: The Last Airbender?” when they first heard that Cameron was working on a movie called Avatar.

Knowing very little about Avatar: The Last Airbender other than that a film adaptation was in the works and knowing absolutely nothing of Cameron’s long time coming Avatar project, it wasn’t too unreasonable an assumption, especially since the logo used for James Cameron’s Avatar happens to look a lot like the title font used in the logo of the totally unrelated Avatar: The Last Airbender cartoon series.

I actually didn’t realize that Avatar had nothing to do with Avatar: The Last Airbender until E3 2009, where James Cameron got on stage at Electronic Arts’ media briefing and talked about the Avatar video game adaptation, and then talked for about ten minutes about how awesome the movie was going to be, but shared nothing other than the basic concept of what an avatar body in the movie was.

The presentation (or lack thereof) made me interested, but left me feeling that Cameron was being cocky and full of himself, going on and on about how awesome this movie (and game based on the movie) would be without actually showing anything.

After E3, I really didn’t care enough about Avatar to find out any more about it online or follow its development. In the month or so prior to it’s release I’d catch wind of various tidbits about the film, or quotes from Cameron’s interviews, which really didn’t do a whole lot to impress me.

For example, I remember hearing one quote from Cameron to the effect that he conceived Avatar to be the movie he always wanted to see when he was fourteen years old. So is Avatar a kids flick then? Well Cameron sure isn’t fourteen years old anymore, hasn’t he matured at all since then?

I personally can say with absolute confidence that if I had a chance to write the novel I would have written at age fourteen it would have been absolute tripe, and though I was still interested enough in the underlying concept of avatars to see the movie, I was concerned that it could end up being childish, which mind you is a very different thing from being a kids flick.

Worse yet on my perception of the movie, my mother shared with me that the mineral the human settlers were mining for on Pandora was called “unobtanium”. My first thought was that calling a hard to obtain mineral “unobtanium” would be something that would strike me as clever and witty when I was fourteen and still weaning myself from writing Pokemon and Gundam fanfiction.

Among my circles of friends both on and off the internet, expectations of Avatar were generally low, with some going as far as to declare that it had no redeeming qualities whatsoever and refused outright to even see it or consider the possibility that it wouldn’t totally suck.

My own apprehension combined with an atmosphere of criticism and skepticism from my friends left me expecting not to enjoy Avatar, but still, soon after its release, on a night I had nothing better to do, I went to the theatre to see it, since I was still interested and would at least be in on all the references and jokes about the movie that were sure to follow, whether or not it was any good.

As I’ve said on my Livejournal and in message board discussions, I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Avatar. On a scale in which a great movie is exemplified by The Third Man, and an example of bad movie being North, I would personally rate Avatar as being a good movie, light-years away from great, but nowhere near sucking.

Things I liked included the fact that Pandora’s atmosphere wasn’t actually directly poisonous to the human settlers, it simply just didn’t have enough oxygen for humans to breathe safely, so they needed to wear breath masks when outdoors.

Not many movies I’ve seen actually depict anything like this. In my experience most movies either require humans to wear a full space suit while exploring other planets, or simply depict the atmosphere as being completely Earth-like and the explorers need no special equipment whatsoever.

I found the visuals to be extraordinarily well done and served their purpose wonderfully. I didn’t feel like I was watching a “cartoon” or some half assed video game cut-scene someone made because they were too lazy to use traditional practical effects.

Despite the story being predictable and perhaps overly derivative, it entertained me, and I did enjoy it, though it did have problems of its own that I’ll go into later on. Some might call me juvenile or uncultured for having enjoyed Avatar, but, hey, this is just my own opinion.

Despite having enjoyed what I saw, I was aware even as I was watching Avatar that it definitely had tons of problems.

My first issue is, with all the crazy words invented for this movie, “queue”, “tsaheylu”,  and the list goes on and on, could they really not come up with a better name than “unobtanium” for the mineral the settlers are after?

Tongue-in-cheek is one thing, but unobtanium is just stupid and pathetic. If they wanted to be clever and meaningful with the name of this mineral, couldn’t they have derived a word or phrase for “hard to obtain” from say Greek or Latin or some other language, as to sound intelligent and educated rather than gimmicky and childish?

And for as much as the word “unobtanium” has become the laughing stock of Avatar, it’s only uttered twice throughout the course of the entire movie. In fact the first time unobtanium is mentioned by name, it’s in this oddly placed scene where Parker Selfridge takes Dr. Grace Augustine into his office and starts explaining to her what unobtanium is and why they are on Pandora mining for it.

Why would Parker find the need to suddenly start explaining to Grace what unobtanium is and that it’s extraordinarily valuable? Haven’t they both been working on this planet (or moon rather) for years together?

This scene was totally unnecessary and an example of bad, clunky plot exposition. If this scene wasn’t in the movie, would viewers have been unable to understand why RDA was mining on Pandora and why they wanted to drive the Na’vi out of Hometree? Doubtful. I personally think this scene was shoved into the script at the last second as an excuse to have the word “unobtanium” appear prominently in the script aside the one other instance later in the film where it’s mentioned in passing as to almost be overlooked entirely.

Now, on to unobtanium itself? What is it used for? What does it do? As far as the movie is concerned all it’s good for is selling at high prices, but despite adding a clunky scene to tell us that it’s called unobtanium and is ultra expensive, they don’t bother telling is why it’s so valuable in the first place.

Likely Cameron has mentioned in some interview what unobtanium is used for, or perhaps it was explained in the video game or some other Avatar related materials or literature, but that’s not the sort of thing that viewers should have to go beyond the movie to find out, it’s the primary motivation for the conflict between the humans and the Na’vi and it isn’t even throughly explained.
Parker could have just said “This is unobtanium, this is what we’re here for, it’s worth a trillion dollars an ounce and it cures all known forms of cancer with a 100% success rate.” and that would have done it for me, but no.

In fact, why not have unobtanium cure cancer? It would have been a great plot point, since it would have given the human settlers and their motivations more depth and ambiguity, and therefore more internal conflict on their actions and allegiances. It would have given Quaritch’s statement to Jake that he has “betrayed his own race” a lot more weight and meaning.

RDA can still be profit motivated antagonists, but wouldn’t it have given the story more dimension and the conflicts more believable and genuine if unobtanium really could save millions of human lives back on Earth?

Speaking of antagonists, Parker and Quartich’s over the top racism against the Na’vi, was a serious detriment to this film’s level of intelligence. I understand that RDA’s exploitation of Pandora was in many ways intended to parallel European imperialism which was justified and motivated by racist attitudes, but to have both Parker and Quartich make personal insults against the Na’vi’s culture and physical appearance at every opportunity doesn’t make for an intelligent comment on racism or prejudice, it’s barely a step above mustache curling puppy kicking cartoon villainy.

It doesn't take an in your face elitist bigot character to make a commentary on racism. Most racism doesn't involve violent hate crimes or bald guys saluting Hitler, it’s something subtle and barely noticeable like a cashier forgetting to ask a non-white customer for their store discount card when they had done so first thing for the several preceding white customers.

 has a hard time with subtlety, and for dealing with prejudice in a work of fiction, a drop of subtlety goes a lot further than a bucket full of over the top racism akin to an ABC After School Special.

Disney’s The Princess and the Frog did a great job of this. A story set in in 1920’s New Orleans and featuring a black protagonist would have to deal with prejudice in one way or another, and in fact it serves as an obstacle to the protagonist throughout the story, yet the story is not about racism nor does it use racism as a cheap gimmick to shepherd viewers into sympathizing with the protagonists or force feed a pro-tolerance message. Even the film adaptation of The Golden Compass dealt with racism better than Avatar.

Perhaps Avatar might not have suffered so much from this if they had better divided the roles of the villainy between Parker and Quartich. Parker is made to represent the cruel, heartless side of capitalism and entrepreneurship which will literally run over anyone and anything and anything to turn a profit, and Quartich seems to be the embodiment of imperialism and militarism and apparently cares nothing for the interests of RDA itself, but seeks only conquest and destruction for its own sake.

If they had made Quartich the overt bigot while Parker just cared about the money to be made, the message might not have seemed so forced and disingenuous, and would have better justified having two villains rather than just one.

Speaking of Quartich, yes it’s true that he’s essentially a stock character and an almost cartoon caricature of Colonel Kilgore from Apocalypse Now, and while I understand that some take issue with that, I personally felt that that sort of character was exactly what this story needed and it worked really well.

Quartich may be a hackneyed type of character one would expect in a story where the military are the antagonists, but the obvious isn’t always necessarily bad, and I enjoyed Stephen Lang’s performance in this role and found him to be one of my favorite parts of the movie.

I found the acting to be good across the board. The only problems I had with the performances (they were several) were a direct result of the script, which was clunky in parts and from time to time mildly cringe-worthy.

I had heard the phrase “the legendary floating mountains of Pandora” often enough in Avatar promotional material that I was familiar with it before I went to see the movie, but never did I actually expect to hear it uttered in the film itself. It’s so damn cheesy it’s unbelievable, I felt like I was actually still being advertised at even after I’ve brought my ticket and am sitting in the theatre watching the movie.

I shouldn’t have to be told by characters in the movie that the floating mountains of Pandora are “legendary”, or even that they are any floating mountains to begin with. It’s not like there’s buildup or suspense throughout the movie as to how amazing these mountains are. In one scene, a character says something to Jake like “Have you ever heard of the legendary floating mountains of Pandora?” and then a second later they’re in a helicopter flying in between said floating mountains.

Shouldn’t I just be able to see the floating mountains and think to myself “Wow! Floating mountains! That’s amazing!” rather than having to be told in explicit terms by the characters that the mountains are amazing mere seconds before I’m going to see them myself?

It’s as though Cameron was so proud of himself for deciding to include floating mountains in Avatar that he wanted to pat himself on the back and make sure we know how unbelievably fucking awesome these mountains are. It’s as bad as the NES version of Ghostbusters where after beating the game, the ending actually says “You have completed a great game.”, shouldn’t that be for the audience to judge?

Why would Quartich, to the Marines in the security briefing, say that the wild beasts of Pandora will kill them and eat their eyes for Jujubes. Why Jujubes of all things? How random is that? Does the Farley&Sathers candy company still exist in the year 2154? Couldn’t they have just said jelly beans or gumdrops or anything other than Jujubes?

The scene where Sigourney Weaver’s character Dr. Grace Augustine is introduced and complains about having to work with the unqualified Jake Sully was the low point of the entire film for me.

Dr. Augustine’s dialog here verges on being outright corny, and along with the almost stereotypical futuristic laboratory setting, this was a scene I felt even when watching it for the first time could have been plucked out of any sci-fi movie, complete with some swear words being shoved in to make the kiddies feel like they were watching a “grown up” film, though fortunately the rest of the script was smoother and served its purpose well enough.

Avatar’s story is indeed derivative, and though it has original elements, it is in itself not at all original, though I don’t find that alone to be cause to hate this movie. I won’t be apologetic as some have and parrot that old saying about “nothing is original in Hollywood these days”, but I will say that even though Avatar is derivative, the way stories are told and passed on both in ancient times and today is derivative in nature, and most myths, legends, and fairy tales both past and present are derived, inspired by, or sometimes outright ripped from earlier works and are riddled with tropes, memes, and stock elements.

Avatar is far from an original story, but to me it told its story well enough, and despite being predictable and derivative I found that James Cameron did a very good (though far from perfect) job of telling an old story in a new way, and for the time I sat watching it I was entertained enough to justify the cost of admission, so I really can’t complain about it.

If this was the story Cameron wanted to tell, then how can anyone say that it should have been “more original” short of just saying that the movie just flat out should not have been made at all?
The main problem I had with Avatar’s story is the idea that humans as a species are basically cast as antagonists and are redeemed through sacrificing themselves fighting for the Na’vi or by permanently becoming Na’vi themselves and abandoning their human lives and bodies entirely.

The message that “humans are evil” is probably the very last thing society needs to be exposed to right now, and quite predictably it has already resulted in a highly visible and extremely pathetic element within the online Avatar fan community in which fanatics express that they are disgusted with themselves for being human and have to deal with “depression” over the fact that they can’t go to Pandora and become Na’vi themselves, or even describe themselves as Na’vi trapped in human bodies.

It’s not every day that poorly conceived plot points in a science fiction movie are so bad that they make viewers clinically depressed over the fact that they are human.

Probably the most discussed aspect of Avatar is its extensive use of CGI techniques, many of which are making their screen debut with Avatar and others which were created specifically with this film in mind.

The public is still new to the idea of a film in which essentially everything on the screen is a computer generated image, yet the film itself is not an “animated film” in the sense of a Pixar film. I saw some feedback prior to Avatar’s release dismissing it as a cartoon, and in some of the low res screen-caps floating around the web, the Na’vi and Pandora resemble screenshots from a Final Fantasy title, yet when I saw the film for myself I didn’t get the feeling that I was watching a “cartoon” or an “animated” movie, nor did the mere knowledge that the visual effects were created with computers and exist in the real world only as binary code rather than physical models and sets spoil my ability to believe in the world I was seeing on screen.

Some have criticized Avatar harshly based on its employment of CGI alone, accusing the movie of having been made by computers rather than “real talent”, or insisting that Avatar could have been effectively executed using traditional effects and techniques, and I disagree with both of those assertions.

I can understand how it’s easy to assume that doing something using a computer by default requires less skill or work than doing it using some sort of physical media, and in certain ways it may ring true, but it’s not as though the creators of Avatar simply pressed a button on their MacPro workstation and sipped their Starbucks while the computer created and animated Pandora and the Na’vi from scratch.

A tremendous amount of hard work and talent went in to Avatar’s visuals to get them to the caliber of what was seen in the finished product, and even though some don’t like or connect to the style and direction of this particular film, I genuinely can’t understand how someone could find Avatar’s visuals to be bad or lacking in quality, or accuse the creators of being lazy for not using traditional techniques and effects.

What do I think of Avatar’s visuals in relation to the future of film making?

Well, to do that, I’m going to go slightly off topic and talk about one of my favorite shows from when I was a kid, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.

The Thomas TV series as it’s known today originated from a series of children's books known as The Railway Series which was written by Reverend Wilbert Awdry and his son Christopher Awdry between 1945 and 2007.

When The Railway Series was adapted for children's television in 1984 by Britt Alcroft and David Mitton, they adopted a live action animation style using purpose built model trains and set layouts, with the human characters represented by wooden figures. The unique animation set Thomas apart from other cartoons and became the show’s hallmark, but the use of physical models and sets presented numerous challenges and limitations that negatively impacted the quality of the series.

Express passenger trains that were depicted as being fifteen coaches long in the illustrations of The Railway Series had to be limited to three or four due to the space restrictions of the studio set. Sets had to constantly be constructed, demolished, and then rebuilt for filming, therefore locations and track layouts which should have remained consistent changed dramatically from season to season, and sometimes even between episodes. Other times the same sets had to be recycled for stories intended to take place many miles and decades apart from each other.

Some stories from The Railway Series had to be re-imagined or even scrapped entirely when adapted for the screen due to complications that prevented elements from the stories from easily being replicated using models.

To further complicate things, the many railroads featured in The Railway Series stories are built to varying scales, with the main railway featured being of standard gauge, but others being of so small a gauge that accurately depicting them on screen would have been prohibitively expensive or even impossible using models.

Seventeen original episodes had to be written to stall for the time needed for the animation team to build a true to scale set for the smaller engine characters, and eventually, the high costs and technical limitations of adapting Railway Series stories for TV lead to the series abandoning the source material entirely and leaving more than seventy of the original Railway Series stories untelevised. Also banished from the screen were dozens of characters from the books, many of them my personal favorites, who never appeared on TV in part due to the expense of building the character models for them.

Recently, the live action animation that had been Thomas & Friends’ calling card was retired in favor of CGI animation, putting set-builders who had been working on Thomas for nearly two decades out of work.

Though I had stopped watching Thomas fifteen years before this change was made, I remember falling in love with the simple, somewhat crude animation, and appreciated the fact that there was actually a studio somewhere out there where the characters I loved on TV actually existed in the form of real working models that had been built by hand to be realistic in a way that CGI or even traditional hand drawn animation could never equal.

At the same time, I recognize that the limitations of live action animation prevented the Thomas & Friends TV show from living up to the vision of the books it was originally based upon. CGI allows the locations to be consistent from season to season, and stories and characters from The Railway Series that were rejected for being too difficult to film using models would with CGI have been a breeze to render and animate.

My point saying this is that both CGI and traditional effects have their strengths and weaknesses.

Yes, Avatar could have been proficiently executed using traditional special effects techniques, but would that have lived up to what was in James Cameron’s head when he envisioned Pandora and his ideal final product? Almost certainly not.

I don’t see CGI and traditional techniques when it comes to Avatar as a race between a stage coach and a sports car with one being obsolete and intrinsically inferior and the other being the future and intrinsically superior, it’s about the feel, not so much the look or the newness of the technology being used.

I think Cameron wanted to make Pandora not just “realistic”, but real in its own right, huge, seamless, and unique from anything seen on Earth, and for realizing that in the way it was done in Avatar, I don’t see how filming in a rainforest with actors in blue body paint and prosthetics or whatever other ways it could have otherwise had been done would have matched that.

I saw Avatar twice in theaters. The first time I saw it on a standard screen with Real 3D, which I believe was the same system used for the 3-D in both Up, and Coraline. The 3-D effects were somewhat reminiscent of a pop-up book with everything set upon different “layers” of depth, and while it didn’t look bad at all and was an interesting addition, it was still more of a gimmick than anything else.

My second viewing was in IMAX, and the 3-D quality in IMAX is so incredible and fluid that quite ironically I almost didn’t even notice it after a while. It’s not the sort of thing where I feel like stuff is constantly flying out at me just to be gimmicky, it was more like an upgrade of the quality in which I was watching the film, like the leap from watching a film in standard definition on a VHS tape to watching it on BluRay in high definition.

I wouldn’t say that the CGI techniques used in Avatar are “the future of film making” or that traditional techniques are outmoded or dead, though I do think that CGI will be an important part of that future in the same way 3-D environments revolutionized video games in the mid 1990’s.

I remember after PlayStation and Nintendo 64 came into vogue, it seemed for a while as though 2-D gaming was as obsolete as silent movies and zeppelins. Ironically however, the recent advent of digital distribution and a trend towards nostalgia has sparked a renaissance in 2-D game design, which surprisingly still has a lot of new ideas and concepts to contribute in the age of high resolution, high definition graphics.

Similarly, I don’t think CGI will ever completely usurp traditional effects, as they each have unique attributes and characteristics to offer that can’t be substituted for one another without losing something in the process.

So, after five hours of typing and an hour or two more in proofreading and revisions, I’ve completed my thoughts and comments on Avatar. I hope you enjoyed reading and that I’m in some way adding to the intelligent discussion and criticism of this movie.

If I had a nickel for each time I used the word "avatar" on this webpage, I'd have $2.55.

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