Ava…I’m sorry, I got distracted. What was I saying?

No football column today, at least not right now.

For new readers:  sometimes I review movies.  Why?  People asked me to.  Feel free to check back when football is on the menu. I’m sure it won’t be a long wait.

Last night I went to see Avatar at the IMax in Buenos Aires with some friends.

To be 100% honest, I still don’t know what to make of it.

My first impression was that I was watching The Empire Strikes Back.  Not because it was good and amazing like the best movie ever was.  It was as if I was watching Big Hollywood fire back at internet pirates everywhere.  Avatar is a movie whose value is entirely wrapped up in the experience of seeing it in 3D on a massive screen.  It is more like an amusement park ride than a movie.  As the images flooded over me, challenging my mind’s ability to concentrate on anything plot or story related, I recall wondering to myself, “How could you ever watch this movie on a television set?”.  Everything you’ve heard about the amazing world created by James Cameron is true, to an extent.  While there were parts of the visual experience that felt derivative of the Star Wars Prequels, Terminator films, and a half dozen video games, Cameron did manage to create a world that fooled the eyes into believing…as long as the mind stayed distracted enough not to question the improbability of it all.  The floating mountains, for example, were breath taking, but I found myself annoyed that Cameron made precious little effort to explain why they were floating at all.  Yes, I realize that makes me a huge geek, but good Sci Fi has to either attempt to explain the impossible, or at the very least provide a skeptic with whom the audience can identify.  Too often the world was filled with the impossible and the characters showed remarkably little curiostiy about it.  If they don’t care…why should I?

Immediately after seeing the movie, I had a favorable impression of it.  My mind was still on a sensory sugar rush from the experience.  Now, all that springs to mind are the massive problems with the film:

  • The dialogue.  No one had ever dare rip George Lucas for ‘wooden, cliche ridden’ lines again.  He’s David F. Mamet compared to Cameron.  Ugh.
  • The preachy plot.  The was an hour in the middle where I lost myself in the story and the world.  That’s an amazing experience, and I give him credit. However, for too much of the movie, I felt like I was watching Dances With Space Wolves.  District 9 is the perfect example of how to work a metaphor into a sci-fi flick without beating the life out of it.  The metaphor made that movie richer.  The ham-handed attempt to preach about Iraq and the treatment of Native Americans (issues I actually care passionately about) almost ruined the movie.  I wept aloud when I read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, and even I felt assaulted by the over the top tone of this movie.
  • The bad guys with no discernable motives.  There was Military Bad Guy.  He just wanted to kill him some natives.  There was Coorporate Greed Bad Guy.  He just wanted money.  Together they committed unspeakable attrocities on the level of Hitler with no depth, pathos, or explination for their actions.  Horrible, horrible writing.
  • The score.  A good score should leave you with the music in your head at the end of the film.  Avatar had the most forgettable music of all time.  Play three bars of most great movie themes, and you can immediately get people to name them.  You could play me the whole sound track of Avatar 12 hours after I watched it, and I still wouldn’t be sure it was the music from the movie.  If you are going to spend $500 million on a movie, why not bother to write some decent music for it?  Don’t even get me started on the train wreck of a final song at the end. I have no idea what that was that played during the credits, but it caused me pain.
  • The MacGuffin:  Unobtanium?  Really?  They didn’t even bother to explain why it was so valuable.  They killed scores of people on screen for something that was never explained.  Awful.  People would have burned Lucas at the stake for such a crime.

There was a lot of good in the movie as well, perhaps more than I anticipated.

  • Cameron created a world I would like to know more about.  I would love to see a movie about first contact with Pandora.  I would have loved more scenes at the end showing the cease-fire negotiations where they escorted the miners off the world.  He created a valuable sci-fi world and some great concepts.  He gets lots of credit in my book for that.
  • The animated characters were utterly believable.
  • The acting was acceptable whenever the actors were given anything decent to say.
  • The middle hour is engrossing
  • The plot was essentially sound.  Sure, it relied heavily on borrowed ideas, and wound up with a typical mano a mano fight, but the subject matter was sufficiently epic for the quality and scope of the visuals.

Do I reccommend the movie?  If you can see it in 3D, especially at an IMax theater?  Definitely.  Without question.  You’ll get your money’s worth.  Our IMax is two hours from my house.  That means I invested roughly 7 hours in seeing this movie.  For the experience of it, it was worth it.

Whatever you do, however, don’t rent it from Netflix.  You are better off with Star Trek or District 9.  On a normal TV, it’s just another lame space movie.

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