10 January, 2010

All Visuals Aside, There Are Real problems

So here's the thing.

I've had a few people ask me why I had problems with Avatar, and in some ways the answer comes back to one question - "Why the wheelchair? Why exactly is the main character paralysed and in a wheelchair? What does that contribute to the story?" - that points to a larger problem with the film.

The curious thing about Avatar is that I find myself recommending the film, although I have real issues with it. I wouldn't normally recommend a bad film just because of great special effects - I'm never going to suggest people see Transformers, no matter how good the robots look. But in this case, I have to encourage people to see the film, and in 3D if at all possible. The effects work is phenomenal, and just as ground-breaking as we've heard. CGI characters have never felt this real, this convincing, so tied to an actor's performance. The design of the world of Pandora is exquisite, detailed, and the 3D perfectly accentuates the world - it's not a film that is constantly reminding you that it is in 3D, it's just a film that uses the 3D to make the world seem more real. (I've previously mentioned my appreciation of such a use of 3D.) Plus, Cameron is one of the best action directors of all times, and in Avatar he gives us some phenomenal action scenes and some indelible moments. (There's one incredible moment in particular where a character gets into a mecha suit and jumps out of the ship as it explodes around him.) And it is for those merits - the beautiful world creation, the stunning effects work, the restrained but brilliant use of 3D, and the masterful execution of action sequences - that I strongly recommend the film. Just don't expect a good film.

My problems with Avatar really come back to the story. (And it's here that I'll start discussing spoilers for the film, so if you haven't seen it, be warned.) At the core of almost any good film, you need a good story. And I don't think Avatar has one. It's a very derivative story - guy goes to alien culture, is treated with suspicion but redeems himself, eventually feels more at home in the other culture than in his own, he falls in love, and finally fights alongside his alien brothers against his own kind. Change the blue aliens into Native Americans and you've basically got Dances With Wolves (and I hated Dances With Wolves). It's a fairly typical story of guilt over the assimilation of indigenous cultures, and Cameron seems simply satisfied to have disguised the story in science-fiction trappings, never trying to do anything different with the story's direction. Since I'd seen this exact plot with these exact developments saying the exact same thing in a dozen films (most of them better-written than Avatar), I never once found myself surprised by anything the film did, and that's just not a good thing.

Adding to my frustration is the fact that, for all the imagination poured into the creation of the world, there's very little put into the the culture of the Na'vi people that populate this world. Cameron had a linguistics expert help him create the Na'vi language (I noticed him mentioned in the end credits), but that's about all. They're very "in tune with nature", in the tiresome two-dimensional way that less-technological populations are usually portrayed as whenever a filmmaker wants to preach to the audience. In fact, they're so absurdly in tune with nature that the end of their ponytails have these strands that can apparently act as a form of USB connection, allowing the Na'vi to share their thoughts with the other animals of Pandora - this means that when riding a horse or a giant bird the Na'vi can simply think "Turn left" and the creature would respond. (Incidentally, these ponytail strands also seemingly function as genitals - they're used when two Na'vi mate, and early in the film, there's even a "Don't touch that, you'll go blind" joke about the strands. This makes one uncomfortable when thinking about the relationship between the Na'vi and the other Pandoran wildlife where such connections were made, especially as (if I remember correctly) similar phrases like being "bonded for life," are used to describe both Na'vi/Na'vi mates and Na'vi/wildlife connections. Let's not even think about what is actually happening when such a connection is forced on an unwilling animal, which we see happen several times.) Anyway, back to my point, this is the sole piece of information we have about the Na'vi - they are in touch with nature - and the film doesn't seem that interested in otherwise exploring the lives of the Na'vi tribe to any great degree. This all creates a rather hollow culture on which the story rests.

But it's not just the Na'vi that are the victims of shallow characterisation. Pretty much everyone in the film, from the tough military colonel to the geeky scientist workmate, is a two-dimensional figure. Possibly the worst example is Giovanni Ribisi's role as the head of the mining corporation - a character written as such a cliche of an evil corporate guy that the very first moment we meet him he's practicing his golf putting in the middle of a busy monitoring room. Remember in Aliens how, when we first meet the Paul Reiser character, he seems like a corporate jerk, but he manages to win Ripley over and seems like he might be a nice guy, which made his eventual betrayal that much harder. No such ambiguity or uncertainty of characterisation here. Ribisi starts the film self-centred, money-oriented, and callous to the Na'vi, and through the film he continues to be self-centred, money-oriented, and callous, until the end of the film, at which point we find him self-centred, money-oriented, and callous, although mildly humbled by being on the losing side.

Fortunately some of the actors (particularly Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang) are at least able to create interesting characters out of the minimal material they're given, and Zoe Saldana's performance as the main Na'vi character Neytiri is easily the best performance of a CG character since Gollum, but most of the actors seem to struggle in making their characters seem like real people. Sam Worthington in particular falls short here. I've never seen him before, although he seems to have been appointed as the "next big thing", with main roles in Terminator Salvation, Avatar, and the upcoming Clash of the Titans. And based on this film, I'm not sure why. He just seems like a blandly-good-looking passable-tough-guy, able to play the part of the typical action-film leading hero but without the charisma and personality of an actual star. In neither the moments where we see Sam Worthington on screen, nor when we see him as interpreted by the CG-artists creating his avatars, does he seem like he has any personality at all. Perhaps he does better when he has a good script and a real character to work with, but from what I see in Avatar, I just can't see anything about him that holds the eye. Even his admitted good looks come across as pretty generic - it's significant that, while the avatars are modelled on the actors playing them and the other actors are instantly identifiable, I can see nothing obviously Sam Worthington in his avatar, even when the two are on screen at the same time to facilitate direct comparisons between the two. (Not that I'm criticising his looks - he's a hundred times better-looking than I ever will be, but then I'm not trying to be a movie star.) The fact is, based on this film, I struggle to see anything in Worthington that allows him to carry a film and a role like this.

But I'm getting off-track from my main problem with Avatar, which is with the core storytelling in the film. I come back to the question at the start of this post - why did Cameron decide to put Sully in a wheelchair? In the first couple of minutes of the film we are presented with two core pieces of information. Firstly, our hero Sully is a Marine who was paralysed in conflict - this I knew about in advance. The second piece of information surprised me - it seems that his twin brother was actually working on the avatar program, but he was mugged and killed shortly before the film starts. Fortunately since Jake Sully is a genetic match for his identical twin, he is therefore compatible with his avatar, and therefore the company hires him to fill the space and ensure the expensive avatar made for his brother does not go to waste.

Now, when I first discovered that the main character was paralysed, I thought that could be quite a good idea. What would it be like, having not walked in years, to find yourself able to walk again, but in an alien body and not your own? That seemed like an area that could be interesting to explore. But I don't think the film ever actually goes there. Now, there is one moment when some people say the film does go there - this would be Sully's first scene in the avatar, where he gets excited and starts running and jumping - but to be honest I don't see it, for one very simple reason: if I, as an able-bodied person, was to suddenly find myself in a 12-foot-tall alien body, the first thing I would do would be to run around, jump, exclaim how great and how cool this was, and generally test the body out. I can see nothing in the scene that actually shows that this is what it is like for Sully as a person with a disability walking for the first time in years, as opposed to an able-bodied person just trying out this cool new experience. Now, ordinarily, I would give the filmmaker the benefit of the doubt, in fact probably credit the filmmaker for being subtle in making such a point. Except that the Cameron that made this film is not a subtle filmmaker. Pretty much every point he tries to make in the film is clumsily stated outright - if you're lucky, you'll at least get the point made in actual dialogue, but too often he resorts to either an ever-present voiceover or one of Sully's videologs to hammer home his point. (For example, in one moment, Sully's avatar is flying his banshee, and the camera pans up to show this huge dragon creature flying above. A good filmmaker would leave it there, but Cameron needed to include a voiceover spelling out the obvious point that "there's always a bigger hunter." And there are many more examples of excessive and unnecessary explanation throughout the film.) The simple fact is that the Cameron that made this film would at least have had Sully record a videolog to talk about how strange it was to be walking again after living for so long with a disability, and the absence of that scene doesn't point to Cameron's subtlety as a filmmaker, but rather suggests he failed as a screenwriter to make use of one of the defining characteristics of his main character.

Speaking of Cameron's failings as a screenwriter, don't forget the complicated backstory that can only get Sully into the avatar program by inventing a deceased identical twin brother. Introducing an identical twin brother is rarely a good sign of a well-developed plot, especially when the brother is so unimportant that we never even get to meet him (except as a corpse being cremated). And why is this backstory necessary? What does it achieve? It gets a military-trained person on the avatar program, and it ensures he has no prior training on the Na'vi culture, thus making him a blank slate that the Na'vi can work with. But if that's all that you are trying to achieve, then there are other ways you could achieve that without going to the complications of creating an elaborate backstory that involves an identical twin brother that is never referred to after ten minutes. It's almost as though Cameron invented the rules for how the avatar program, and then realised he needed a complicated backstory to achieve what he wanted within the constraints of those rules, rather than just modifying the imaginary rules for the imaginary avatar program to better facilitate the story he was telling.

Plus, this backstory means that Sully arrives in the programme with an explicitly stated and restated lack of training - which makes his initial avatar experience somewhat difficult to accept. Remember that the avatar program involves a person entering the body of a twelve-foot-tall alien. That has got to be disorienting - so disorienting that even his experienced co-workers must ease into using their bodies, conducting tedious finger-to-thumb-touch exercises each time they use their avatar. But Sully? Literally two minutes after entering his avatar body, a body so new to him that he's surprised by his tail, Sully is running and jumping across a courtyard. Are there any consequences for him? Does he eventually stumble over his unaccustomed long limbs? Does he push his new body to its limits because he doesn't know better? Of course not. Let's put this in context. I once bought a pair of shoes, and didn't notice until afterwards that the soles of these shoes were thicker than I was used to. It was a subtle difference - it added maybe a couple of millimetres to my height - but I could definitely feel it, and for a day or two actually had to focus on my walking to avoid stumbling. All because of a couple of extra millimetres of height. This guy Sully instantly adjusts to a body twice as tall as his normal body. And don't forget, he hasn't walked at all in however many years. Now, imagine that they repaired Sully's paralysis and somehow magically removed all the substantial muscle wastage in his legs, so that he was in the exact same condition as prior to the injury. He would still require months of work just to learn to walk again in his own body. But he has no problem at all walking, running, jumping, in an alien body twice as tall as the average human. Does this seem unbelievable to anyone?

Which brings me back to Sully's paralysis: if (as I believe) the film doesn't explore how the avatar experience affects Sully as a paralysed person, does his paralysis come into play in any other ways? No, not really. Sure, Col. Quaritch promises to give Sully his legs back if Sully helps him, but there's a whole heap of other things Quaritch could offer a non-paralysed Sully that would achieve the exact same end. The simple fact is, you could amend maybe a half-dozen lines in the film and in so doing pretty much remove Sully's paralysis from the film without anyone noticing, because nothing in the film ever relies on his paralysis. And that's a sure sign of an unnecessary plot element.

There is one other moment where Sully's injury does get referenced, and it brings me to possibly the most dramatically significant moment in the film, and one that Cameron flubs spectacularly - the moment of "the choice". This is the moment where Sully has to choose between his own interests and those of the Na'vi people. Cameron rather strangely manages to both have that moment too early and as a result doesn't have that moment at all. Here's what I mean. Quaritch comes to Sully at one point, says "You've done well, I've arranged for you to have that operation, you'll be out of that wheelchair in no time." Now, at that moment, Sully says, with seemingly genuine sincerity, "Thank you. I just want to go through one last ceremony, then I'll be a member of the tribe and convince them to leave their home like you want. Then I'll come back and get the operation." In other words, when he's offered a chance to get his paralysis fixed, there's never any doubt that he's siding with the humans. By the time he does side with the Na'vi, he's not put in a moment of conflict where he has to decide whether to betray the Na'vi in order to benefit himself and get his injury repaired, or betray the humans and spend the rest of his life as a paralysed human living vicariously through his avatar. Instead, his decision to side with the Na'vi comes in an instant, he responds instinctively to the situation, at least partly because there's a bloody great big tank about to run him over. By the next time he meets up with the humans and Quaritch, he's already burnt his bridges - getting his legs back is no longer a possibility. As a result, we never actually get a moment where Sully considers the personal consequences of siding with the Na'vi and chooses to do so anyway. From a dramatic viewpoint, that's a major problem.

There's also a scene that gets replayed several times through the film, where one character disconnects someone else from the system while they are in their avatar body. Several times we are told "You can't disconnect someone while they're in their avatar, it's dangerous." Just how and why it's dangerous is never clear, because it happens several times with no obvious ill-effects to anyone. (Compare that to The Matrix, where we actually see people die when they are disconnected while in the matrix.) Once again, it seems like Cameron came up with the rules - it's dangerous to unplug someone - but then it was never convenient in his story to show just why it was dangerous, so he didn't and just left these vague undefined references hanging there because those are the rules of this world. As a result, unplugging someone from their avatar ends up seeming like pulling out a USB drive without going through the "safely remove" process - you know you probably shouldn't do it, but nothing ever happens if you do do it. Whenever you unexpectedly rip someone out of one body and force them into another body when they are not prepared for it, there should be consequences, the audience should feel as though there is some risk to such a procedure. And the fact that by the end of the film there is no sense of danger when someone is once again disconnected is another pointer to the half-hearted poorly-developed nature of Cameron's writing of this story.

So I've gone a long way to make my main point: James Cameron seems to have become so caught up in imagining every detail of Pandora, down to the characteristics of the rocks, and so caught up in trying to achieve (admittedly impressive) advances in the creation of CG-characters, that he's forgotten to really work on the script, which feels very much like a first draft. The characters are never alive, there are interesting ideas set up but then either abandoned or just never used to their dramatic potential, and if you strip away the effects, you're left with an underdeveloped film that just failed to hold my interest.

Ultimately, my main problem is that I feel like I've been to see Oz the Great and Powerful, but behind the smoke and booming voice there's just a pathetic man hiding behind a curtain. And I'm deeply disappointed that this is my reaction to the film, because I wanted it to be great. I had been keeping an eye on the film for the last decade, and was thrilled when filming finally started. I had a friend who was working on the effects for the film, and it took everything I had not to ask about it every time I saw him. On Avatar Day a few months ago, I got up early to download the trailer and watched it several times before work, then took an early and extended lunch break and queued for an hour to get tickets for the free 20-minute preview of the film. And that preview really had me buzzing about the film, convinced that it would be as incredible as I had been hoping. But that preview had just been short snippets of the film, mostly action sequences - Sully's avatar being chased through the forest by a large creature, or taming the banshee - that didn't really give much sense of the story itself. Seen in context of the whole film, those moments are still as brilliant and thrilling as they were in the previews, but the film surrounding them is sadly flawed.

It's frustrating to look at the box-office results at the moment, and see that such a difficult film is on track to finish as the second-highest grossing film of all time, (behind another problematic James Cameron film, Titanic.) It's frustrating because as much as I like Cameron (and I really do), he's not such a great a filmmaker that he deserves those spots, and especially not with these two films (which are probably his two weakest). I just get the sense that, while there is a small core of people like me that feel disappointed and frustrated by the film, most people are just so wowed by the spectacle that they are blind to its failings as a film. One of the most shocking things about Avatar is just how often I've heard people compare it to Star Wars. I just don't see it. The simple fact is, for pretty much every effect-heavy film, the effects will eventually look bad, and then you're left with every other aspect of the filmmaking to determine the place of that film in cinematic history.* We still watch Star Wars because the characters are great, the story is gripping, the dialogue has a few clunkers but is generally well-written, and the action scenes are phenomenal. Only one of these factors is true for Avatar, and I don't think great action scenes are enough to overcome the film's many other flaws. It's not that it's a bad film, necessarily, but it is a deeply deeply flawed film. And this is why Avatar was easily the most disappointing film of 2009 for me.

* (There is one exception to this rule. I don't know how they did it, but forty years after it was made, the effects in 2001: A Space Odyssey are still incredble and convincing. Fortunately, the film itself is still great as well.)

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