Tuesday, December 22, 2009

About Avatar.

I'm not that crazy about Avatar. And I feel kind of bad about it. I mean, it's a big ambitious sci-fi adventure movie. I should love it. And I might love it if I was still a 14-year-old. Still, it's a movie worth discussing.

The Story

You've probably heard somebody describe Avatar as "groundbreaking," but the movie's plot is anything but. It's Dances With (Alien) Wolves. Actually, the plot was old when Kevin Costner made Wolves. It's the old "civilized dude meets good-hearted primitives, goes native, saves primitives from less-enlightened civilized dudes" story.

There's nothing wrong with retelling an old story. People have been doing that since Homer (the Greek, not the Simpson). But, other than the science, I didn't feel Avatar director James Cameron brought anything to the story to make his version worth telling. I was especially annoyed with the dialog, which mostly consisted of interchangeable "clever" insults--seriously, you could switch up much of the dialog of the main scientist character, the main military character, and the main alien character, and end up with the same movie, and that's a problem because each of those three characters should be very unlike the others--and clunky exposition.

The Science

Avatar takes place on a lush moon (Pandora) that orbits a massive Jupiter-like planet in a solar system with three suns. Now that is interesting. To me at least. It's certainly a new setting for the old "going native" plot. And a lot of thought went into the science of Pandora. Like what the "people" look like and the kinds of plants and animals that populate the moon and how those animals and plants behave and interact (yes, even the plants "behave" on Pandora).

But, with all of that expository dialog, some of the more interesting science ideas are left unexplained. Humans can't breathe the Pandoran air. Okay--what's in that air? Is there no oxygen and carbon dioxide? If not, are the Pandoran plants and animals not carbon-based, like all of us Earth critters? And what about the floating mountains? I mean, floating mountains are such a fun cinematic idea, and they even serve the movie's plot on a couple of occasions. But what makes them float? The vaguely-alluded-to "vortex?"

If somebody writes a good "science of Avatar" book, there's a strong possibility that book would be more entertaining than the actual Avatar movie. For science nerds (like me), at least.

The Technology

Avatar is supposed to be a "game changer." I mean, one of our most technically-savvy directors spent ten years and hundreds of millions of dollars making Avatar and created some new filmmaking technology (including 3-D cameras and motion capture devices) while he was at it. And you can see that money on the screen. I'd estimate that 70% of the movie is totally computer animated. And it looks like really good computer animation.

But Pixar has been doing really good computer animation for years. I'd say Pixar's animation actually works better, because Pixar movies are "cartoons." Maybe it's just me. But I love animation (whether computer, stop-motion, or hand-drawn), and when I sit down to watch a "cartoon," it takes me about three seconds to adjust to the particular style of animation being employed, and then I'm in till the end credits roll. However, when a movie promises "photo-real" CG animation, then smashes that animation up against real actors on real sets, I just can't quite get into it.

And I don't think I ever will. Honestly, no matter how good computer technology gets, will it ever generate an image that looks real (I mean really real, not "good enough" real)? And is that a goal that filmmakers should be concerned with? I think computer animation has been good enough for "cartoons" for some time now (check out Pixar's last three features for examples). And talented production designers, set builders, model builders, and makeup artists have been creating convincing sci-fi and fantasy imagery for years. Check out the sets and model work in Stanley Kubrick's 2001, a movie that was made more than 40 years ago. Or the opening shot from the 1977 Star Wars, with the big ship chasing the small ship toward the planet--I think that shot looks more "real" than most any of the CG stuff I saw in Avatar.

There's nothing wrong with modern filmmaking technology. If you can imagine it, and if you have a sufficient budget (high-end CG doesn't seem to be making filmmaking any cheaper, by the way), somebody can put it on the screen for you. So, James Cameron (and any other directors who command budgets in excess of 100 million dollars), you don't have to worry about the technology anymore. All you have to worry about is telling good stories.

Oh, yeah, and the 3-D

The 3-D in Avatar is pretty solid. Then again, the 3-D is also pretty solid in Up and Coraline, both of which came out earlier this year. It seems like 3-D that adds "depth" to the image works a lot better than 3-D that goes for the "coming at ya" effect. Except for titles, which look admittedly cool hovering a few inches in front of the screen. But maybe I'm the only one with an aversion to the "coming at ya" stuff, or maybe it's because I don't sit close enough to the screen at 3-D movies.

I'm not sure the "language" of 3-D cinema has really been worked out yet. I mean, are we audience members looking out a window into a 3-D world, or are we supposed to be in that 3-D world? It seems most 3-D movies these days are going back and forth between those two approaches, and that back-and-forth doesn't really work for me.

It could be worse

It looks like I'm in the minority. Avatar is making money and getting generally good reviews. So, if you like sci-fi adventure, don't worry about my opinions--see the movie and judge for yourself.

At least it's not as bad as The Phantom Menace.