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Lakeshore
An author of no particular popularity

Jay Lake
Date: 2009-12-29 06:00
Subject: [movies] My obligatory Avatar review
Security: Public
Tags:craft, culture, movies, reviews, writing
Here's my Twitter review of Avatar from yesterday:
Need to post an Avatar review, but in sum: "magic honky" criticism is valid but overstated, the effects are paradigm shattering. Go see.


On reflection, that mostly speaks for itself. I don't feel a need to amplify those points much if at all, except to say, go see the damned movie on the big screen. In 3D if possible. If you're any kind of cinemaphile or media fan, you'll regret it in years to come if you don't.

A few other (mostly non-spoileriffic) comments...

James Cameron got the grammar and form of 3D right. This is the first time I've ever seen a movie in 3D that didn't feel like a stunt. Some scenes in this movie triggered severe vertigo in me, the sense of depth was realistic. (That's a plus, by the way, in case you were wondering.) That alone makes Avatar worth seeing, if you find filmmaking trends interesting.

The renderings were incredible. I think Cameron has bridged the Uncanny Valley with his Na'vi, but it runs much deeper and more detailed than that. The gums of the jaws of the forest animals, for example. I could watch this movie half a dozen times just to track the different sets of details.

Yes, the plot is stock, bordering on fatuous, with a shot of magic honkydom. But it's serviceable, and given all the other things this movie is trying to do, a serviceable plot was probably a better choice than something subtle and sophisticated. I say this as someone who is normally very focused on screenwriting and plotting as part of the movie experience.

By the same token, I could spend some time whining about world building and SFnal gaffes of various sorts. I may in fact make a future post about what bothered me. But as with the plot, that's not the point of this movie, and I'm willing to accept some stock SFnal cliches in service of such an immensely immersive and captivating movie experience. Like the plot, the SF worldbuilding could have been handled (much) better, but the SFnal elements did what they needed to do.

However, I'm betting the same stock approach to many of the moviemaking elements will keep Avatar from being another Star Wars. The two films have a lot in common, including the high likelihood that Avatar will be a seminal moment in a new era of moviemaking. But the sheer, raw fan appeal of Star Wars was drive both by the Campbellian appeal of the Akira Kurosawa story (cf The Hidden Fortress) and the broadly accessible archetypes of the ensemble cast. Between Luke, Leia, Han, Obi-Wan, even Chewie and the droids, there was someone in Star Wars for almost everyone to identify strongly with. Avatar is more emotionally remote in that sense, and I don't think it will generate the same level of fan loyalty. I do, however, predict a strong future in Na'vi fetishism and all that entails on the seamy underbelly of the Internet.

All in all, even with the obvious and not-so-obvious flaws, if cinema is an important part of your entertainment life and cultural experience, go see Avatar in the theatre. Several times, if possible. It really does bear up under the weight of expectations.

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Gary Emenitove
User: garyomaha
Date: 2009-12-29 14:50 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I've mentioned this elsewhere -- we both had trouble with the darkness (visibility, not plot) of the presentation, apparently caused by the 3D system. We saw it in a standard digital theatre equipped for 3D -- not an IMAX. I've read that IMAX presents even darker. I can understand my difficulty, considering my eye problems, but I'm not sure why M. had similar concerns, unless it was truly *dark*.

We also both found the 3D to be somewhat subtle -- perhaps also related to the particular theatre? The only "aha" moment was when a spear was thrust toward me.

Perhaps we need to travel to San Francisco for scientific study to compare presentations?
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-29 15:39 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
A trip to San Francisco is scarcely ever not in order, methinks. And if you come soon, calendula_witch might even put you up. She is just over the hill from the Castro...
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(no subject) - (Anonymous)
Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-29 15:38 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
This is probably damning with faint praise, but don't be too worried about the "dances with Smurfs" issue. It's present, but at least to my (white, privileged) eye, not nearly so arrant or offensive as some have found it.
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User: renatus
Date: 2009-12-29 16:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I just saw Avatar last night, and I agree--it struck me that the Na'vi had a lot more agency than I'd been lead to expect.
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Matthew S. Rotundo: CE3K
User: matthewsrotundo
Date: 2009-12-29 15:49 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:CE3K
Yeah, that tracks pretty closely with my review. Brilliant effects, stock script.

I'll give it this much: it was better than Star Trek.
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scarlettina: Movie tix
User: scarlettina
Date: 2009-12-29 16:12 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Movie tix
Brilliant effects but a stock script are what I've come to expect of James Cameron. The ultimate example is Titanic, which brought new technologies to the screen but had a script that still makes me laugh unintentionally ("Jack!" "Rose!" "Jack!" "Rose!" ::gurgle::). Oscar winner or no, the dialog was simplistic and at moments as bad as The Phantom Menace. But I find myself watching it again and again because it just looks so good.

Haven't seen Avatar yet but I really want to. The time will come, I'm sure.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2009-12-29 16:23 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm betting the same stock approach to many of the moviemaking elements will keep Avatar from being another Star Wars.

One thing Star Wars had that this movie lacked was multi-dimensional conflicts. What I mean is, the sense that there are more than two sides. The good guys don't fight with each other enough. And the bad guys don't fight with each other enough. And the lead bad guy isn't amazingly cool, setting up a tension so that even though you don't want him to win, you don't want him to go away yet.
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madrobins
User: madrobins
Date: 2009-12-29 17:09 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I'm trying to recall my initial reaction to Star Wars (other than, of course, Wow). I am hampered in this by the fact that my first viewing of Star Wars I was in a highly suspect chemical haze (hey, it was a long time ago and I was young) and, as near as I can tell, when they made the jump to Hyperspace, I went through the screen and saw the rest of the movie from that side. But...

I think, because Star Wars was so amazingly paradigm shifting, it gets a pass on some things. Every time I see Star Wars (which I will never call "A New Hope," even though my husband works for Lucas these days) I am stunned with how lumpy and disconnected the first half of the movie is...and how profoundly annoying Luke is. Maybe it's because I have teenagers now, but his whining drives me nuts. Yes, Darth Vader is way cool. He also is Eeeevil for the sake of Eeeevil; by the time you get to the third movie (which I will never think of as the sixth movie, because...never mind) they've retconned in some motivation and elevated Vader to the status of Tragic Villain, but in the original film? Not so much. (**cringes, waiting to be struck dead by Death Star**)

Star Wars was a game changer, and yes, it has those Campbellian archetypes for people to latch on to, in ways that Avatar may not. But the years have sanctified it as well. I wonder what the years will do for Avatar.
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mcjulie
User: mcjulie
Date: 2009-12-29 17:34 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Actually, Luke being so annoying is sort of what I'm talking about. Luke is annoyingly whiny. C3PO is annoyingly fussy. Han is annoyingly smug. Leia is snappish and kind of bitchy, which I didn't find annoying but the other characters did.

Avatar has a little of that going at first, but they drop the conflicts too early. Sigourney Weaver doesn't stay bitchy long enough, and the Na'vi start to accept Our Hero far too easily. Han and Leia bicker for two straight movies before they admit it's because they're in love. And then the third movie where everyone gets along was kind of a waste.

It's true that first-movie Vader doesn't have all the backstory piled on yet, but there is that cool scene where the other Empire hotshots trash-talk the power of the force and he strangles one of them from across the room.

My feeling with Avatar was that it let all the conflicts go too easily and they're too streamlined. When Our Hero decides to fight against the humans, there's no sense that's even a hard choice for him to make.
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houseboatonstyx
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2009-12-29 22:13 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I liked hearing that some of the oddness in the original Star Wars trilogy was that Lucas was making it up as he went. If Luke is lost, "There is another" was in case that actor didn't hire on again.

Reminded me of the fun of D&D, a gamemaster trying to stay one night ahead of the players.

One thing about the plot holes in Avatar (future attack from orbit, and everyone ignoring the big planet) is that they might become hooks for sequels.
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User: renatus
Date: 2009-12-30 14:02 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:Weird.
Er... those are plot holes? It's not a 'plot hole' if things are left open--and I find it a looong reach to consider those much in the way of openings.

Five (?) years to get back to Earth, an unknown amount of time to deal with the inevitable PR disaster and disapproval of stockholders and trying to explain how all of those resources and infrastructure and cannon fodder got utterly wasted, then another five years to get back to Pandora--and considering the characters repeatedly harped on how expensive all of the Pandora business was--I'd have a very hard time believing anyone would want to pay for what would be, at that point, a revenge attack.

As for the big planet--really? Seriously? What exactly are they supposed to do with a gas giant?
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houseboatonstyx
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2009-12-30 19:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
At boingboing they're saying Cameron has sequels planned.

/wanders off humming Star Wars music/

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madrobins
User: madrobins
Date: 2009-12-29 17:01 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
You got it spot on. The plot is a hardy evergreen. A few nice bits (I thought the networked planet angle was intriguing, though I'm not sure I loved how it played out). But omigod the visuals.

Oddly, my specifically favorite bit of CGI is that they gave the guy withered legs. He looked like someone who had been paralyzed for a good long time, rather than a strapping lad in a wheelchair who has some sort of medical "unobtainium" going on.

And I did love that name. Sarcasm Girl found it stupid, but she's read way less stock SF than I have.
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houseboatonstyx
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2009-12-29 22:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
I think 'unobtanium' is very promising. No one has mentioned anything else FUNNY in the movie.
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Tim W. Burke
User: timwb
Date: 2009-12-29 17:37 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
No.
No, and no.

I did not see Titanic despite the very same thing being said about Cameron: "Script was weak, characters were punched out of cardboard, but man those visuals!"

As a writer, I want more out a near billion dollar movie than "pretty."

As a thinking human, I want more out of Cameron than for him to come up with 300+ critters all with their own alien taxinomy and a whole alien language, then say "my non-placental babes must have boobies."

He is a lightweight with a budget.
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Nancy
User: nancymcc
Date: 2009-12-29 17:54 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
My favorite part of your review is "...if cinema is an important part of your entertainment life and cultural experience..."

I appreciate that you recognize that, for some of us, movies are simply not essential. Give me a book or a live play every time.
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-30 00:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Being as how television is utterly absent from my lifestyle, I get this...
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houseboatonstyx
User: houseboatonstyx
Date: 2009-12-29 20:55 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Appreciate the review. For me a theatre movie is a big investment in gasoline, tickets, and dinner out.

So at the moment I'm collecting consumer, er, viewer reports. It seems to be shaping up that the full 3-d will be worth the trip. (And waiting for the tv version is out, it's now or never.)

I guess I should rant about Star Wars and interstatiality on my own LJ....
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Jay Lake
User: jaylake
Date: 2009-12-30 00:56 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Rant! Rant! Rant!
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vicki_rae: No one writes love songs about the ones
User: vicki_rae
Date: 2009-12-29 21:14 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Keyword:No one writes love songs about the ones
This is the same 3D tech, yes? Glasses? Which, unfortunately, don't work for me :(

Life long lazy/drifting eyes so when I'm tired, focusing both eyes on the same thing is a concious thing and it's always easy for both eyes to take off in different directions. This gives me the odd ability to automatically suppress whatever the non-viewpoint eye is currently seeing when the eyes are drifting, or the the images don't for any other reason.

I can switch manually between the two images, but not combine them into one merged image.



Edited at 2009-12-29 09:17 pm (UTC)
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Gary Emenitove
User: garyomaha
Date: 2009-12-30 03:15 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
Hmmm. Thanks for posting. This may be part of my problem with 3D. The very worst thing at the ophthalmologist's office for me is the visual fields test -- I wonder if that and this are related? I simply didn't experience the "oh wow" factor from the 3D although I appreciated the visual effects in general.
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User: renatus
Date: 2009-12-30 14:04 (UTC)
Subject: (no subject)
FWIW, I think Avatar would be just as gorgeous in 2D. I saw it in 3D, and while it was neat, it wasn't essential.
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