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December 22nd, 2009
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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.

Current Location: ~/Brainstorm
Current Music: Me First And The Gimme Gimmes, "Science Fiction Double Feature"
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From:lienne
Date:December 22nd, 2009 12:02 pm (UTC)
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One of the things I liked most about Avatar was the details. Somebody made a single offhanded mention of low gravity, and there's the explanation for why the Na'vi are dragon-riding giants. When Grace is trying to explain the science of Eywa to Parker, she uses concepts I'm familiar with from a rudimentary grounding in cognitive science. There's not a lot of heavy-handed exposition, but with a few exceptions, all the sci-fi is very subtly right.

The main thing that got to me was the braids. It just doesn't make even a little bit of sense for all the Na'vi to have braids with brain-USB* filaments sprouting from the end, especially not when every other species has a pair of tails coming out the backs of their heads. If the braids are tails they shouldn't look like braids, and if they're literal braids, does that mean the filaments are braided into them? That doesn't sound logical or safe.

But then, of course, the edict of unobtainium is there to tell my nitpicking brain to shut up and enjoy the pretty. It worked pretty well on me, too.

*I can't think of a better term for this, can you?
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From:frameacloud
Date:December 22nd, 2009 12:59 pm (UTC)
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You're right, the little tiny detail-dropping instead of massive exposition was perfect. That is one of the things they did really right about this movie.

I assumed that the queue is braided *around* the neural interface in the same way that a horse's tail-hairs can be braided around an actual fleshy tail. Under the hair, I assume that it looks much the same as the fleshy tail-like appendage that other species have coming out of their napes.

Brain USB! Plug and play compatibility with all other plant and animal life forms! Including life forms not indigenous to their planet!

Unobtainium means "It's just a show, you should really just relax"? I wonder what other ways a person could put such a signal into a story.
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From:frameacloud
Date:December 22nd, 2009 12:52 pm (UTC)
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I was amused by the sudden huge amount of uncomfortable rustling and coughing throughout the theater during the love scene. The audience had total stony silence during the sex scene in Matrix Reloaded when I saw that in IMAX (no easy feat for an audience that huge!) but the audience of Avatar apparently couldn't figure out whether they were okay about being turned on by alien catgirls, and they were trying to think about some other things for a while. It sounded like the whole audience chose that moment to look at their watches, check that their cell phones were off, or find out whether they had any snacks left, or otherwise protest too much.
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From:baxil
Date:December 22nd, 2009 11:45 pm (UTC)
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That's awesome. :D I am all for subversive hypothetical sex forcing people to question their cultural boundaries. That sort of exposure might be the first crack in the wall that gets some people examining transhumanist ideas and post-species sapience and all of the other things that are going to make the future so goddamn fun.

Also, mainstream furry smut! (*cheers*)
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From:pathia
Date:December 22nd, 2009 02:48 pm (UTC)
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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 or jailed or even given a stern talking-to

Court martial? You do realize these guys were mercenaries, right? They were the future equivalent of Blackwater (Excuse me, Xe!), not the official earth military.
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From:bossgoji
Date:December 22nd, 2009 03:20 pm (UTC)
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I'd like to start this off by saying I'm looking forward to seeing Avatar, for pretty much the reasons you listed. And generally, I respect your opinions, as you're an intelligent thinker and speaker. That said... I have some fairly serious criticisms to level, here.

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."

So... basically. The reason you liked Avatar and disliked District 9, despite them sharing a nearly-identical premise... was that Avatar had prettier aliens. More than that, it indicates that your main problem with D9 was that the aliens were ugly and too alien. I'm sorry, hon, but... that just seems intensely shallow to me.

It wouldn't even be an issue in my mind, were you not going on about failures in racial relationships in the same breath. To say that one is okay because it's portraying aliens as uniformly pretty and mystical, wherees the other isn't because it's portraying aliens as, well, alien... I'm sorry, that sounds like prejudice to me. You don't want aliens that are too hard to understand, or unpleasant to look upon.... but you're willing to forgive Mighty Whitey for a blue-skinned catgirl. Jesus, dude, why don't you just walk up to an Asian woman and tell her she looks "exotic"?

This whole review bothers me as a result. Yes, they're both different takes on the same premise, but discounting one as being a giant dump taken all over race relations, while praising another despite noting it has the exact same flaws... I'm sorry, it smacks of bias. Which, again, wouldn't be a problem, IF YOU WEREN'T USING THIS TO MAKE AN IDEOLOGICAL POINT.

It just really bugs me, I'm sorry. =/

Addendum: I swear to my many gods, next time I hear somebody use the term "x fail" to describe ANYTHING, especially race or gender, I am going to tear out their teeth and wear them as a necklace. Making flippant catchphrases designed to bludgeon dissenting opinions into the ground is NOT intelligent discourse, and adopting 'hip' net terminology does not magically increase the validity of your argument. (this is not directed at Baxil in particular, but is just the poster venting about an ongoing annoyance)
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From:baxil
Date:December 22nd, 2009 06:02 pm (UTC)
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Okay. Deep breath.

... This stings because, on one level, it is completely legitimate. I hit "post" knowing that it was probably going to come up, and I bear you no malice for being the one to do so. There is no small element of xenophilia here. Does it help any that I make a point of saying so myself? I can't help liking the movie; I can at least be honest about (all!) my reasons.

On another level, I feel like that's an unfair reading of my review. Before I get into why, could I get you to clarify: what is the ideological point that you see me making (since you say that this wouldn't be a problem if I wasn't trying to be ideological)?

Also before I go on, an open statement to anyone who's offended by my words: I'm an imperfect person, and the fact I try to be an introspective and constantly-growing one doesn't change that. All I can do is to be gracious about my failings. (And though I did anticipate this particular criticism, I'm sure there are privilege issues here I'm not seeing; that's the unfortunate and pernicious thing about privilege.)

Also, a note to anyone who thinks Bea is being unfair: Please let me defend my own words here.
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From:dogemperor
Date:December 22nd, 2009 05:13 pm (UTC)
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I've heard friends of mine describe "Avatar" as essentially "Picture a Michael Bay movie--with the plot turned left". (Still waiting to see it myself--damned head cold--but generally the folks I know who saw it approved.)

And re your commentary:
Idea: Why don't we call it "Dances With Catfolk"? Some of that 1990 Oscar magic might rub off.

Among some friends of mine, the friendly nickname they use for "Avatar" IS "Dances With Thundercats" :3 (Which is pretty much what I'm expecting. Dances With Hunter-Gatherer Thundercats, in very very very pretty CGI.)
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From:aprivatefox
Date:December 22nd, 2009 06:52 pm (UTC)
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The one problem with the Michael Bay comparison is that Bay's visual spectacles have a tendency toward the incoherent. Nobody had any idea what was going where when his Transformers changed; it was the CGI equivalent of "baffle 'em with BS."

Avatar's visuals were restrained, insofar as that word can be applied to an SFX blockbuster. The 3D was used well - better than other contemporary 3D movies, which seem obliged to wave things over the heads of the audience. And the CGI worked in large part because it never did anything implausible, even though it was doing things that are impossible. That consistency-of-universe is something Bay will need to learn before anyone will call him the right-wing James Cameron.

(Sorry, I get twitchy seeing something that could be taken as praise (or even acceptance) of Bay's type of blockbuster. If Hollywood is going to keep making big-budget SF spectacles, I really want them to continue down the line of coherent worlds with a sense of wonder, not jump-cuts placed to cover incoherency in the underlying models on-screen.)
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From:dave_over
Date:December 22nd, 2009 08:33 pm (UTC)
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I saw the movie, I liked the movie, I would not see the movie again. I left feeling as though I had seen every piece of the movie before (Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, District 9, Aliens). There was nothing really new about it (other than the effects). I found the story dry and predictable, and felt thoroughly bludgeoned by the moral... though the effects were AMAZING.

Can you tell I really liked the effects?

Oh, and rule 34 is going to go wild.
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From:baxil
Date:December 22nd, 2009 09:36 pm (UTC)
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Yep, pretty much. This movie is the effects, and how much you loved them is the sole factor in whether you're able to forgive the rest of it.

I, for one, welcome our kinky blue feline Internet overlords. :D
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From:zuki_san
Date:December 22nd, 2009 08:47 pm (UTC)
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I have seen at least one person draw a colonialism metaphor from the movie in addition to all that Dances With Wolves and Ferngully stuff. Did you get that feeling?
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From:baxil
Date:December 22nd, 2009 10:17 pm (UTC)
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The film's premise is pretty much textbook colonialism ("exploitation by a stronger country of weaker one; the use of the weaker country's resources to strengthen and enrich the stronger country"); I don't see any metaphor about it.

It is definitely good to see the film show it as the evil that it is (though of course the idea of The Good Whitey swooping in heroically to save the natives is still problematic). One thing pointed out elsethread is that, for all its narrative faults, the film is quite possibly the first post-9/11 blockbuster in which you are legitimately cheering for the oppressed colonialized peoples instead of the thinly veiled American Marine -- and despite that seems to be a runaway popular success.
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From:ngarewyrd
Date:December 22nd, 2009 10:01 pm (UTC)
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you're right in a way, it DOES have the visual appeal for anyone to enjoy, with the expense of the plot, Perhaps they spent too much of the budget on OOOH SHINY! graphics (which I don't think are a bad thing mind you, glowy Da Vinci Helicopter Lizard-bugs notwithstanding)
part of the issue I had with the movie was, Well, the Na-avi are almost _too_ human for my tastes, Sure they've got the plug in adapters and all, but there seems to be no real, anatomical similarity between them and say, the riding beasts (though this might be something else, but wouldn't a planet that is all interconnected like that have a more similar bodyplan between major species, it certainly is that on earth. (as below, so above) Blue Painted catpeople notwithstanding, it just seems odd that just about everything else on the planet is a hexapod, except for the flying beasties, and the naavi
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From:lienne
Date:December 23rd, 2009 12:13 am (UTC)
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it just seems odd that just about everything else on the planet is a hexapod, except for the flying beasties, and the naavi

This led me while I was watching the movie to wonder if the Na'vi were going to suddenly sprout wings, and it leads me now to wonder if the Na'vi might be more related to the dragons pterohorses than they are to the land-bound species. Now there's an interesting thought.

(Might also explain why a horse can link to just anybody, but anything with wings is yours for life... tying into the strongly monogamous overtones of Na'vi culture... giving me some interesting thoughts about why it seems that female Na'vi link to female pterohorses and male Na'vi to male pterohorses.)
(Deleted comment)
From:(Anonymous)
Date:December 26th, 2009 07:55 pm (UTC)
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If a white filmmaker like James Cameron would have made Jake Sully a black guy, the same knee-jerk liberals who bitch about "whitey" characters would just come down on the film as a rich white director exploiting black people.

You know it's true. It's what white people who like to believe they're progressive do; they've got their own bucketload of guilt to spread around.

Say, what happens if aliens actually do arrive, watch a film like Avatar for cultural exchange, and aren't bothered by the fact that the human guy who was nice to the aliens happened to be one of the pale skinned breeds? Would lots of white people helpfully inform them that their reaction was not politically correct?

Perhaps the next space probe that leaves the solar system should have a copy of TV Tropes' database in it so that any aliens who find it can be properly educated about Earth memes and how they should react to them.
From:(Anonymous)
Date:January 13th, 2010 12:07 am (UTC)
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http://autotelic.com/180971d6be185769c6f98be97094c89c~avatar_-_the_metacontextual_edition
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