December 22nd, 2009

forbidden savannah love

In which our dragon LIKES a film for once

So let me tell you about this movie I saw. It's a CGI-heavy film about humans, and aliens, and a single human stuck in the middle because he's now inhabiting a body with fused human/alien DNA. He has to struggle with issues of identity as the process unfolds. There's an evil corporation, and our hero must fight the evil, and he alone can save the aliens from their evil evil grip ...

[Avatar movie poster] ... But I already dissected District 9 back in August, so let's start over and discuss Avatar.

It would be fair to look at this movie in the same critical light as I did D9; there's certainly race fail with the "Noble Savage" Na'vi1 and heroic Mighty Whitey learning their ways just in time to become their epic hero. However, this time I'm not going to be the reviewer who goes through all that, and you know why? I liked this movie. Period.

If you are looking for reasons not to see Avatar, don't let me ... um ... unstop you. heron61 has covered the race fail and given some fantastic suggestions for how to make a better Avatar story. krinndnz has pointed out that the film's main attraction is special effects that will inevitably show up in a better movie. (Edited to add: And outside my friends list, cleolinda does the dissection that I won't do, and also points out the "no one disabled can ever be happy" angle that a lot of people, including me, missed. Also also: When will white people stop making movies like Avatar?) ... My goal is to try to give you some reasons why you might enjoy the movie anyway.

As for me, they had me at the unobtanium.

... I'll get to that in a moment. First, let's start with why I had such a profoundly different reaction to this one than I did to the last human-joins-the-alien-race effectsfest. Amazingly, despite the two films sharing their basic premise, Avatar is (as kadyg pointed out) the anti-District 9.2 They are opposite in color, attitude, and message.

D9 is relentlessly lonely, dusty, gritty, and cynical; Avatar does deal starkly with the horrors of war, but is generally lush, luminescent, and pretty. The D9 aliens are nicknamed "prawns" and have all the charisma of Cthulhu; the Avatar aliens are good-looking, cat-eared, magic-haired humanoids. Avatar's main character has loyal friends throughout the movie, in both the alien and human camps, and they cooperate, something unheard of in D9's crapsack world. D9's main character is forced into an unwitting transformation, and loathes every minute of it, so that the movie's takeaway message seems to be "humans suck and being an alien isn't any better"; Avatar, for all its stereotypical romanticizing of the aliens living in harmony with nature, immediately shows the main character enjoying his transformation, and comes off more as "some humans suck and let's face it aliens are pretty cool."

If you're a xenophile, this in itself is enough to redeem the movie -- but regardless, you'll find lots to lovingly stare at, simply because the film is so damn pretty. I didn't even see it in IMAX3, and it still popped off the screen. The scenery is a character, and the alien world of Pandora steals every scene it's in. The way the characters interact with the environment is lovingly rendered; from the main character examining spiraling delicately-fronded plants that retract at his touch, to his first night encounter with bioluminescent mushrooms (he jogs down a walkway surrounded by them, whacking them with his hands to boost their glow), the film walks you through a world that plays by its own rules, and the operative word here is "play."

Did I mention how pretty this movie is? [landscape screenshot]

And then there's the unobtanium. Those of you not familiar with the term just need to know that it's a long-standing engineering and science-fiction in-joke to refer to whatever Material Of The Week is needed to make future technology work; those of you who are familiar will find your jaw dropping that they actually use that name in the movie. I kid you not. The first time the Evil Corporation referred with a straight face to the thing-they-were-strip-mining as "unobtanium" I almost fell out of my chair. It was perfect: the mineral was never a plot point, other than as a motive for Evilcorp to do their evil things, and so the movie naming it that was a flat-out order: "Hey, nitpickers, sit down and shut up and enjoy the beautiful stuff already." It worked. I did.

Oh, there was still stuff to nitpick. There's one scene where an army pilot turns tail and very obviously runs from an active fight, and yet doesn't get court-martialed shot or jailed or even given a stern talking-to; Pandora's atmosphere has the curious effect that it's exactly as deadly to humans as the plot calls for it to be; most characters' reactions to the protagonist seem badly plot-driven rather than organic. But the end effect was a sort of mild disapproval that registered in the back of my brain and never pierced through to destroy my suspension of disbelief. The movie did its job: it sucked me in and held me in straight through to the end. Considering the lashing I give most movies, this is high praise.

I do have to caution here that your mileage may vary. Eye candy is a lot of the movie's appeal ... and I'm not just talking about the scenery. A movie about aliens living in a nature-centric hunter-gatherer society means that you're going to be staring at a lot of nearly-naked, athletic, blue, tailed bodies for three hours. This pushes my buttons like a toddler at a Star Trek console. The aliens are human enough in shape (if not in proportion) that even normal people are likely to have this reaction, but if you're unwilling to let the borderline pr0n4 distract you from the storyline's weaknesses, you'll have an easier time finding Avatar's flaws.

I could go into the storyline, but by this point you're either going to see the movie or you're not, and the story won't make an appreciable difference. This is not a movie to see for the story. Still, for completeness: The story is predictable Hollywood stuff (the ending was sorely obvious halfway in) about a guy finding an unexpected appreciation for the primitive culture he was sent there to fight. Except set in a future with space travel and mecha and of course a dose of "hey their mysticism is totally fantasy-novel real." (Idea: Why don't we call it "Dances With Catfolk"? Some of that 1990 Oscar magic might rub off.) The protagonist teams up with the good-hearted scientists against the evil soldiers and a lot of shit gets blown up in really dramatic ways and then there's a desperate last stand against overwhelming odds and the Power of Heart (warning: TV Tropes link) saves them all.

... Have I mentioned yet that this is a really beautiful film?

So, yeah, I plan to see Avatar again -- hopefully but not necessarily on an IMAX screen. I can easily see how people might dislike it, but I found it a film that transcends its mediocrity by the things that it does get right. Verdict: A.


1. I cannot utter this name without nightmares stirring in the back of my head ... "Hey! Listen!"
2. Put them both in the same room and they would annihilate each other in a flash of special effects, releasing enough energy to power IMDB for three days.
3. Though we did spring extra for the 3D, and it was worth it. I've never actually seen a 3D movie before. It added to the presentation -- nothing essential, but a neat effect -- and today's 3D glasses neither tint the movie nor give you vertigo. We both went three hours without taking the glasses off with no ill effect.
4. Another huge difference between Avatar and D9: There was nothing sexy in the slightest about the D9 aliens. One could, for the wordplay value, consider the idea of "prawn pr0n," but really honestly ew.
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