Monday, January 11, 2010

Avatar Without the Special Glasses*

The hot movie at the moment is Avatar - in 3D, of course. We'd been waiting for the crowds to die down a little before going to see it, and went to an early session. I wondered if it would really be as good as everyone said. I posted a comment on Facebook, and was interested in what people put up - quite a few said things like 'There are plot holes but just go with it' or 'Just enjoy the experience' or 'The 3D is amazing'. A couple of friends said the same kinds of things. So off I went, curious about what they meant.

Now, if you absolutely loved Avatar and won't hear a word said against it, stop reading now! Because although I liked it, it came nowhere near reaching my Top 10 Movie list. Yes, the 3D is amazing, and adds a huge amount to a movie about a world where the environment is in perfect synch with the animals and natives. I loved the various plants and animals they created, the colours and the details. But as a writer, I couldn't get past two big glitches: the story structure was poor, and the villainous characters were so one-dimensional and OTT that they were unbelievable.

Halfway through, I got that feeling you're never supposed to get in a great movie - I started looking at my watch and wondering when something was actually going to happen. There is a huge sag in the middle which is basically drumming it into the viewer that this is a perfect world and Tully is falling in love with it and the people (and of course the girl). It's all about showing off the special effects, and it goes on and on. And while we get all these special effects, the character complexities fall away into almost nothing. I felt like I was being given a big dose of telling, instead of believing what was happening through the characters.

The two villains - the boss money man and the boss marine man - were terrible. Who on earth wrote their dialogue? It could have come from a 1950s B grade script. It was as if we were handed two stock baddies, whose motivations were money and killing, and expected to go with it because that's how the baddies in our world today are behaving. Because of course the themes were all about invasion and environment, and they're the hot topics for people who care, so a movie that blatantly portrays bad characters as 'evil destroyers' is going to be a hit, right?

Yes, I sound really critical, and I'm trying hard not to be. The themes of Avatar are very worthy, and it's really difficult to create something worthy that doesn't ram stuff down people's throats (or make them feel that way). But the way you do that is through good writing, i.e. a great script with complex characters that you engage with on every level. An amazing world in 3D is not going to make me feel any less or more committed to the environment. But, like any story, characters who show me the world through their eyes works every time.
What did you think of the movie? As a writer? Or a viewer?
(* those are the rose-coloured ones, not the 3D ones)


Sheryl Gwyther said...

I did enjoy the spectacle of it (no pun intended). Yes, the baddies were 1-dimensional.
I didn't look at my watch but have to admit I didn't think about it once I got home - not like what happens when I've been to a great movie. Like "Bright Star'!

Sherryl said...

Yes, I'm still thinking about 'Bright Star". And then I got to thinking about what would be my top 10 movies. Now that's an interesting exercise, if you just focus on the ones you loved (no matter what other people thought) and forget the lists all the 'experts' make!

Tracey said...

Okay, okay, I'm going to bite. lol

Hmm, _Bright Star_ I enjoyed, but I saw it once, won't buy it on DVD. I enjoyed it, but thought it slow and haven't really thought about it since. Whereas _Avatar_, I've seen multiple times and will buy on DVD -- and am trying to talk my husband into upgrading to a theatre system so I can *really* enjoy it, though I love the story enough to watch it on a iPod if that's what's available. I haven't stopped thinking about it, and while the special affects do add enormously, and the fact that it's so beautiful, it's the story I love. Perhaps it's the plot-driven versus character-driven thing? Perhaps it's that the themes are ones that engage me particularly, not just the environmental aspect, but invasion, definitely, betrayal, fitting in -- things I'm exploring in my own writing.

I don't think the baddies one-dimensional. I imagine it took a bit of string pulling for Quaritch to get corporate approval to get Jake's legs fixed --Jake says he can't do it himself because it's very expensive. And Quaritch keeps his promise and only turns on Jake when Jake betrays his people, even if for good reason. I found the whole betrayal theme interesting, because Jake comes in as a science person (ex-marine), but Quaritch right from the start asks him to betray the science team, and you can see they're not happy with Jake when they realise what he's doing. So he's facing acceptance issues not just with the Na'vi but with his own colleagues as well, which is bought full circle when Quaritch shows the three drivers Jake's recordings, later on, in which he has unwittingly (to my mind) betrayed the Na'vi.

The middle, as I've said to you, is my favourite part -- it's the hero's journey with Jake facing many obstacles to gain acceptance from the tribe, and losing more and more of his normal self along the way. (I have to say that even though I enjoyed _Bright Star_ I thought less happened in this whole movie than happened in the middle section of _Avatar_. Do you think perhaps it's to do with expectations? That we go into a blockbuster movie expecting it to be all go, whereas our expectations of a more "literary" movie are for deeper characterisation and less go?)

I certainly never looked at my watch. Not the first time, and not the last time I went, and I'm sure I won't next time either. That whole middle section, I didn't feel was telling at all, but I felt that we were being shown the world through Jake's eyes -- his introduction to a foreign culture, which he hasn't the training to deal with, his learning gradually to appreciate it, to expand his boundaries.

Anyway, I'd better leave it there! It's good we all have different tastes or there'd only need to be a few movies or books a year! And discussions like these would be so boring! lol

lonestarr said...

This is the "cheese sandwich" syndrome: if a chef make an awesome cheese sandwich, you won't look too deeply in it. Pleasure is enough, even if that's just a very common cheese sandwich. If it's awesome, we can easily forget how common it is.
Avatar is nothing but an incredible out-of-space cheese sandwich. That's why nobody cares (except writers!) about bad guys being 1D, etc. All of these plot holes are just like a thin rind...

Sherryl said...

True, Sebastien! And I like cheese sandwiches...