Monday, December 28, 2009

An atavistic "Avatar"

Been there, done that

You may have heard of this legendary computer-animated film in which the protagonist finds himself in a drastically resized body and falls into the hands of those whom he was originally trying to destroy. Once among his erstwhile enemies, he is taught their ways by a winsome lass who wins his sympathy and inspires him to switch sides.

The movie is The Ant Bully and it came out in 2006.

Oh, did you think I was talking about Avatar? I guess I could be.

James Cameron's Avatar is currently raking in box office receipts and capturing the imagination of the movie-viewing public. Cameron got a few bucks from me earlier today. I have to admit that Avatar is very pretty and serves as an excellent example of the state of computer-generated graphics. In that sense, Avatar is a tour de force.

In every other sense, it fails.

Perhaps I was inoculated against truly enjoying Avatar by the premature hype and over-the-top expectations. I was irked when the characters of Bones were drooling with anticipation over seeing the movie. To me, product placement is an irritant and a distraction. Aggressive marketing predisposes me to dislike the product, whatever it may be. It does not whet my appetite.

Nevertheless, I wanted to see Avatar and give the movie an opportunity to entertain me. The visuals are very nice, with spectacularly imaginative flora and fauna for Pandora, the planet on which the action occurs. The gigantic blue natives, the Na'vi, are rather excessively humaniform, but that's okay. Rapacious Earthlings want to mine Pandora for its motherlode of “unobtanium,” which has antigravitational properties. A little trite, yes, and scientifically absurd, but I can suspend my disbelief that much. I sense, however, that I'm getting just a little overextended.

Our hero, a marine named Jake, gets lost in the Pandoran wilds and is rescued by a lovely native named Neytiri. She turns out to be the daughter of her tribe's chieftain. (Of course.) Her mother is the tribe's spiritual leader (naturally) and it is she who decides that Neytiri will be responsible for teaching our hero the ways of the Na'vi tribe. (Wouldn't you know it?) This will cause some trouble with the heir-designate to the leadership of the tribe, Tsu'Tey, a great warrior who is also Neytiri's betrothed. (Oh, please.)

I was instantly bored and restless. Nothing surprised me. Will our hero learn the ways of the tribe? Of course. (At least they spared us a montage.) Will he win grudging respect from the people? Damn right. Will Tsu'Tey continue to resent him and hope he dies? You bet! Does Jake make mistakes that put him in dire straits but still recover and win through? Every time!

I'll grant you that it would be unfortunate for the hero to be put out of commission too early in the movie, but it would be nice if something provided a modicum of suspense. When Jake and Neytiri barely escape an attack from a Leonopteryx, a flying monster the Na'vi refer to as the “Last Shadow” (because its shadow is the last thing you'll ever see), she tells him that her legendary grandfather was the last member of the Na'vi ever to tame one sufficiently to fly upon it. Instantly, you know without a particle of doubt that Jake will be flying one before the movie ends. And, of course, he'll displace Tsu'Tey as Neytiri's fiancĂ©.

At least, I assume so. I walked out right after Neytiri's story about her ancestor and the Last Shadow. I was afraid of dislocating my jaw.

35 comments:

Miki Z. said...

I'm still waiting for the Thomas Covenant movies. Everything before that is going to feel morally predictable.

We'll probably see Avatar when it comes out on iTunes. Movies here are about 20 USD per ticket, so it's a pricey outing for the three of us. We just stay a few months behind. Last night's movie: District 9.

Frank Sweetser said...

The movie is The Ant Bully and it came out in 2006.

Or Fern Gully. Or Dances with Wolves. Or Pocahontas. Or The Last Samurai. Or...

Zeno said...

Cameron acknowledges Dances with Wolves as an influence. It's a shopworn theme that needs more than pretty pictures to redeem it. The boy in Ant Bully ends up flying atop a bug just as Avatar's hero ends up riding a flying critter, adding a further parallel that I found amusing.

Blake Stacey said...

Hundreds of millions for special effects; ten bucks for story. Business as usual!

Fern Gully was worth watching for the pure, unadulterated Nightmare Fuel which was Hexxus. If Avatar can't compete in the scarring-children-for-life department, I don't see any reason to spend time and money on it.

Thrawn said...

Unobtainium is anti gravity? That explains the flying mountains! I thought they were flying because "no reason, it just looks cool" which is the justification for pretty much everything in the movie.

Zeno said...

I did not hear that actual explanation in the movie, Thrawn, but our first glimpse of unobtainium (stupid name) shows a chunk of ore floating in its container. We're told that huge lodes of unobtainium lie under the Na'vi settlement, necessitating the tribe's removal. Trying to put 2 and 2 together without getting 5, I assumed the floating mountains must be loaded with it. But perhaps I was trying too hard to have things make quasi-sense.

Blake Stacey said...

Coincidentally, I just saw another movie with the "strange rocks cause anti-gravity" idea: Jackie Chan's San wa (2005). Now that was entertainment!

unapologetic said...

Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within

And I was absolutely gobsmacked when I first heard that Cameron actually called his MacGuffin "unobtanium".

Anonymous said...

I've not seen the movie (and surely won't, at this point), but didn't Upsidaisium come long, long before Cameron's "Avatar"? There was the mountain where it could be found, a floating mountain, no less.

And I'm sure it was more fun watching adventurers going after Upsidaisium, even if in 2-D (in black-and-white on a 19" TV).

Zeno said...

As for "unobtainium", I would not have minded it if there had been some indication that it was a gag label that the humans were using in preference to some jawbreaker of a technical name. But no. They just call it "unobtainium" with a straight face. Ugh.

I recall "upsidaisium" from the adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle. (But little did Rocket J. Squirrel suspect that Bullwinkle was planning to take over "Rocky and his Friends" and get top billing in "The Bullwinkle Show". You just can't trust a moose!)

Cameron should have borrowed the name "upsidaisium" for his movie. Would have shown he has a sense of humor.

AnyEdge said...

In the spirit of obvious spoilers, this post has some, so pass on if you don't want to read them or you have the ability to be surprised by the painfully inevitable.

My big problem with the movie is that the END is a false dawn. The Na'vi win, sure, and send the humans packing. Do we think that they're just going to give up?

"Welp. They beat about a thousand of us. That's probably the best we could ever do. No way to come back with a better armed force and win. Or, you know, bomb the site from orbit."

The humans are coming back, the Na'vi will been vanquished. The corporation will win.

Anonymous said...

Glad I didn't waste money on it. I wouldn't have lasted as long as you. Seriously using the term unobtanium with a straight face is a dealbreaker. Not interested in a movie where the makers aren't even trying.

AnyEdge said...

To be fair, we engineers do use the term 'unobtanium' for things like ideal pulleys and such:

"Consider and unobtanium block and tackle witha a mechanical advantage of..."

unapologetic said...

Yes, AnyEdge, that's the point. "unobtanium" is a joke name; a metasyntactic term, even. Using it in Avatar is like if the villain in The Usual Suspects were named Keyser MacGuffin.

AnyEdge said...

Ah. gotcha.

Blake Stacey said...

Keyser MacGuffin: "Just when you think he has a purpose other than kick-starting the plot — he's gone!"

Interrobang said...

Not only that, but there's the entirely disturbing subplot that the only way you can ever really accomplish anything is by dominating everything and everyone, and killing everyone who gets in your way. A friend of mine mentioned that the "kill the obstacle" lesson was repeated at least three times, not least of which was Neytiri killing a bunch of creatures to save Jake's ersatz hide early on.

Social lessons for the 24 generation, folks...

Owlmirror said...

I liked it, but I had my expectations set beforehand: Trite plot, way kewl FX.

Maybe I'm just a sucker for phosphorescence. Shiny!

The bit about "unobtanium" didn't really bother me precisely because it fit in so well with the hackneyed plot: This is what's driving the plot conflict. Nobody involved with the film cares what it is or what it does -- it's just worth $MEGABUCK$$$™, so $BADGUYS from $CENTRAL_CASTING will have motivation to do $MEGA_BADSTUFF, so that in turn $PLUCKY_HEROES can oppose the $BADGUYS heroicly.

As a minor language-usage note, some searches on the term "unobtainium" suggest that it was first used in the car and/or bike racing world, for any superlatively strong and light metal, which was necessarily rare and therefore very expensive. That's the usage I first heard it, anyway.

Mentat said...

If the mountains are floating because of unobtainium... why not go mine them, instead of digging up the giant tree? I guess they must contain low-grade ore, which can only levitate mountains, as opposed to the concentrated stuff under the tree which... um... fails to levitate anything.

Blast, now I've gone and made myself angry again.

uri said...

It is (barely) explained in the movie that unobtainium is a high temperature superconductor.

The mountains float in local magnetic anomalies due to the Meissner Effect.

As far as I can remember, the origin of the intense magnetic "vortices" is not explained.

If you are in a generous mood, you can imagine some interaction between Pandora and its jovian primary which produces a complex and powerful magnetic field near to surface of the moon.

Wise Bass said...

As for "unobtainium", I would not have minded it if there had been some indication that it was a gag label that the humans were using in preference to some jawbreaker of a technical name. But no. They just call it "unobtainium" with a straight face. Ugh.

They expand upon this in the source book that came out with the movie. Unobtainium was the nickname Earth scientists gave to a room-temperature superconductor - which they then found on Pandora. The name stuck.

If the mountains are floating because of unobtainium... why not go mine them, instead of digging up the giant tree?

Probably because mining a giant floating rock some distance away is more difficult than mining under a tree that you can demolish (and use your tree-cutting ground machines to do so).

The humans are coming back, the Na'vi will been vanquished. The corporation will win.

Yeah, probably, but keep in mind that Pandora's at the end of a very long supply line light-years from Earth (there isn't FTL in the Pandoraverse). There's only so much they can send there at a time without breaking the bank, and the corporation clearly had its hands tied on the whole "bombing them from orbit" deal (why do you think they bothered with the Avatar program in the first place?).

It's a pity you left, Zeno. While the Na'vi did end up winning due to a Deus Ex Machina (or rather, Deus Ex Natura), just before that they got completely stomped on on the ground (the human ground forces completely chewed up the Na'vi ground forces with few casualties), and even with the whole "giant floating rocks screwing up tracking", the humans did eventually managed to beat the Na'vi in the sky. It was all quite beautifully done, too.

aracne said...

It's a pity you left, Zeno. While the Na'vi did end up winning due to a Deus Ex Machina (or rather, Deus Ex Natura), just before that they got completely stomped on on the ground (the human ground forces completely chewed up the Na'vi ground forces with few casualties), and even with the whole "giant floating rocks screwing up tracking", the humans did eventually managed to beat the Na'vi in the sky. It was all quite beautifully done, too.

Meh. I stayed through the end and that didn't say anything to me. There was no possibility of the Na'vi losing, seeing how the stuck to the predictable plot, so I didn't feel anything. I couldn't even have the suspension of disbelief that makes it enjoyable in other movies (I don't know, James Bond, Vin Diesel... I know they are not going to die, but at least I feel that there is some suspense).

The ground forces had no reason whatsoever to be there, as the plan was to throw a stupid bomb that coincidentally was in a plane. The ground forces seemed really out of place as they were fighting for nothing. So what if they killed somebody somewhere in the jungle waaay behind the planes? They didn't matter. And even then, the tactics of the Na'vi didn't seem right. They were surrounded in the jungle, why fight them head on?

That's the problem with having a completely cookie-cutter plot, that the actions do not seem to have anything to do with the story. They wanted a land battle, they had a land battle, even if it didn't make the tiniest amount of sense.

And, he spared himself the pathetic ending, for which he can only be grateful.

entropy said...

Reading this brief text has been more entertaining than the film could possibly be. And cheaper. Thanks!

mengbomin said...

I feel like part of the art of movie watching is knowing how to enjoy the movie. It's true that the plot of Avatar was weak, but the plot was not the point of the movie.

If you felt so disgusted by Avatar that you felt the need to walk out early, then chances are that you were focusing on the wrong aspects of the movie.

Now, I'm in no position to tell you that you should enjoy yourself. If you want to be miserable, that's your prerogative, but if you had paid any attention to other feedback from the movie, you would of known that the main draw was not the plot.

I suppose that if you are a connoisseur of well-constructed story lines and special effects leave you numb, then Avatar is not for you. But to me, the visual spectacle more than made up for the cheesiness of the story line.

Zeno said...

mengbomin: If you felt so disgusted by Avatar that you felt the need to walk out early, then chances are that you were focusing on the wrong aspects of the movie.

I suppose you think these are helpful remarks, mengbomin, so thanks for trying. However, I never said I was disgusted with the movie. I merely said it did not entertain me. It was boring and vapid. I'm happy to look at pretty pictures, but not two hours of empty and unengaging spectacle. It didn't hold my attention, so I left and went browsing at a local bookstore. That was more fun.

But it's nice that the eye candy was sufficient for you.

llewelly said...

"I'm still waiting for the Thomas Covenant movies. Everything before that is going to feel morally predictable."
I'd wish for The Real Story: The Gap Into Conflict and its sequels as movies.

Nick Barrowman said...

I thought Avatar was a great, flawed movie. I agree with many of the previous comments in terms of both strengths and weaknesses. I would add that I found the extended battle sequence at the end of the movie to be quite gratuitous. I can't help but suspect that exposure to this sort of thing inures us to the horror of war.

In spite of this (and perhaps due to long practice), I found that I was able to filter out the weaknesses. For me, what came through was a truly magical experience, and I think the filmmakers created something remarkable.

And though it's been done before, I did find the plot very moving and relevant. The political allegory is hardly obscure, and I wonder if it will encourage a few moviegoers to question the imperial pursuit of unobtainium in our own world. Also, I haven't heard anyone comment on this, but I thought the 9/11 reference in the felling of the great tree was very moving.

Jimbo Jones said...

Arcane: there was a reason for the ground forces. The corporation knew Jake Sulley was leading the Na'vi, and to have him drop out of the sky would have been a morale killer worth the minor casualties caused.

Naturally, the Na'vi wanted their leader conscious and controlling his avatar during the battle and, not so naturally, saw this as important enough to risk many lives.

Not that they actually pointed this out. Five seconds of a sergeant yelling orders, or a briefing would have made things much better.

Regarding the predictability that everyone has a problem with; I've seen James Bond thrown around in here too, but favourably in comparison. I don't get it, JB and Avatar are around as predictable as each other. I found interest in the things that weren't predictable. Things which are admittedly minutiae to the story, but which took up more screen time because the plot was fairly thin.

The humaniform nature of the Na'vi and 'unobtainium' being played straight were my only complaints.

allium said...

@Mentat: re - skyberg mining

Word of God (i.e. the tie-in books) is that they tried mining one once, and only once.

It flipped over.

Porlock Junior said...

Everybody's awfully mean about unobtainium. Isn't it enough just to say, "It's a joke name, sir. Like Sillius Soddus or Biggus Dickus"?

But I guess there is a point to be made, and it links to the really important issue of James Bond: The movie seems (according to reports; I'm not gonna see the thing) to take itself pretty seriously. You can't make a modern Go Native movie for 300 trillion bucks any other way. Joke names don't work in that context.

OTOH, nobody, but nobody, ever thought of taking Bond seriously; in retrospect it's a pity the Bond industry never thought of using unobtainium.

This just in: Wikipedia has banned fly-by-nights from editing its article on unobainium. Must have been a lot of action there for a while. The recent changes have focused on issues of major importance, like whether the article should use five-dollar words that no real people understand, like "facetious". No, I'm not being, umm, uhh, humorous here. Seems that you can't expect an English vocabulary because it's read by foreigners. Who, obviously, have no wish ever to become more fluent in the language.

unapologetic said...

Porlock, that's the point. "unobtanium" is a joke name. But it's used in a context that suggests Cameron wants to be taken seriously. The Pythons never claimed to be producing great art or revolutionizing an entire industry with Brian. It just shows how absolutely shoddy the writing was on Avatar.

The Ridger, FCD said...

I held off on reading this till I'd seen the movie. Actually, Tsu'Tey ends up liking him.

It was predictable, but pretty enough I wasn't ever bored.

But I DO wonder why the Na'vi don't have four eyes and six limbs like every other animal on the planet.

Eamon Knight said...

Just got back from seeing the 3D version. It was fun, given I went in forewarned to expect pure eye-candy wrapped in a thin plot. Points in its favour:
- spooky native spirituality gets a reasonable explanation (well, reasonable for sci-fi).
- what plot there was kept moving: fights and other dramatic scenes were not dragged out a la the Matrix trilogy, or Peter Jackson.

Anonymous said...

I can understand honestly not liking the movie. I've read many thoughtful negative reviews of the movie. Yours was not one of them. From the way your "review" reads, you obviously went solely to stoke your own raging narcissism. Did you feel all Important and Intellectual when you stormed out of the theater in a sanctimonious, self-absorbed huff? Thanks for the biggest laugh I've had all week. What a laughable pretentious clown.

Zeno said...

Nice case of projection there, Anonymous. My "raging narcissism" is doing fine. How's yours? I've read thoughtful comments on my negative review of the movie. Yours was not one of them. However, you have quite a discerning eye if you could tell that my quiet departure from the move theater was "storming out." Thanks for the heaping helping of pretentiousness.