Thursday, January 14, 2010

Avatar Review

There are some spoilers here, so if you haven't seen the film, don't read this. Simples...

This was visually gorgeous. Superb, astounding special effects and three-dee that generally made things clearer and managed to impart a sense of scale I’d never before seen in a film. That first zero gravity scene with the arriving humans leaving their hibernation pods had me gob-smacked. There were jungle scenes later where I occasionally moved my head aside to stop getting whipped in the face by some plant, and there were other scenes when you felt you could reach out and touch something on the screen. A slight disconnect between the size of the aliens and the humans – I was constantly surprised when an arrow shot from a Na’vi bow arrived the size of a spear to impale a human, but that might be due to mental assumptions on my part, generally because the Na’vi were too human. Also when both humans and avatars were together in the human base that didn’t quite work. Small points, irrelevant points – I’ve never seen effects done so well.

The alien life was excellent too. I particularly liked the hyena-like creatures our hero had to defend himself from during his first night on the planet, and the lizard that took off like fluorescent helicopter, and the plants (animals?) retracting their parts into the ground like tubeworms. I did, however, feel that the visual gorgeousness was taken a little to far into fairy-light territory and half expected to see a glowing Santa Claus crouching on one of the branches. And there also seemed to be a bit of a disconnect: why was it all the mammal-like creatures had six legs whilst the Na’vi were bipeds? Well, I can let that go – insects share our world and have six legs too. Just another small point, really.

But then we get to the story itself. I won’t go with the disparaging ‘Dances with Smurfs’, this was, as others have noted, ‘Dances with Aliens’. In fact it wasn’t even that because, really, the Na’vi were too human. They were Indians, American Indians with a touch of African native or maybe Aborigine tossed into the mix, but they were also so much less than that. Not run-o-the-mill Indians these, but noble savages and the realization of that myth of natives living in harmony with Mother Nature, who herself has been turned into a living force the natives could plug into without using mescaline. These were the anti-thesis of nature-raping evil capitalist imperialists and were not the dead before forty, one child in four surviving, eat grubs and be happy natives that we know.

The sheer joy of the visual effects was degraded by the large green mallet regularly smacking me in the forehead. Earth is no longer green, we are told. Humans can splice alien and human DNA and grow hybrid avatars, they can travel between the stars, but apparently growing plants is beyond them. Obviously Earth has been raped by the corporates who have now gone to the stars to rape other worlds for the allegorical unobtanium. Big mistake on Pandora, however, because between their first encounter with the human military and their second, the Na’vi apparently invented armour-piercing arrows, whilst the humans neglected to consider the utility of dropping a rock on them from orbit.


There are those who are speculating that Avatar cost near on half a billion dollars. So, half a billion on special effects, wages for actors and others, on marketing, all of that, so couldn't they have just spent a bit more on the story? My feeling, after wards: huge talent and astounding effects wasted on a clumsy and shallow parable. Such a shame.

Update: But in the end, what the fuck do I know? I've just been told by someone on the inside that Avatar has done 1.4 billion in just a few weeks.


R Mutt said...

This was long, but quite amusing:

Anonymous said...

Nice review Neal. Like you I felt the story needed more work and that it was simply a vehicle for the effects (check out my review)

Plus I ran a poll on what people thought of the film and of the 1315 people who have voted so far 50% thought it was the best film ever so I think it will just keep making money.

Box Office Mojo have a good breakdown of the films takings so far.

Anonymous said...

I also forgot to ask - When one of your books gets made into a movie would you want it to be 3D?

Martin Sommerfeld said...

I couldn't agree more Neal. The story was abysmal.

Though maybe I would have to add: When thinking "Best-3D-Ever", while surely true, one has to add that nearly all 3D up till now really really sucked.

For me the 3D worked especially when it was computer generated. The actually "filmed" stuff not so much. So I think there is still have a long way to go.

Neal Asher said...

R Mutt, what an excellent link. It just about covers how dire the story was. Though the bit about the armour piercing arrows got missed.

liveforfilms, you do make a point in your review: introduce the audience to this 3D super CGI SF with something like Janet & John. It is rather patronising on the part of the movie maker though. However, a simple story well told can be brilliant. This was a simple, and hackneyed, story badly told.

Yeah I'd like my books in 3D -- it's going to get better and better. Anyway, one of the main requirements for an SF book to be turned into a film is the writer being dead, so I'll give it a miss for a while.

Yes Martin, I remember wearing those blue and red cardboard specs to watch Jaws.

Anonymous said...

The moment he said with a straight face "we're here for the unobtainium" I stepped out of the story. There's no GD reason to actually call it unobtainium.

The price tag can easily be attributed to development costs. The only reason he made the movie was to sell his new camera/system. Now he can go back underwater and film Titanic-3D. And eventually he'll make his Battle Angel Alita adaption... and all will be right with the world (i hope. i hope)

And yes, they've confirmed the sequelS.

Matt said...

I thought this review of Avatar that concentrated on the science was very informative.

Neal Asher said...

Matthew, I could have gone deeper into that sort of stuff in this review, but there's was a danger of getting wrapped up in too much detail. And maybe Cameron didn't get too wrapped up in the detail because he didn't want it to get in the way of the story. My beef isn't with the detail, but the story itself.

Oh yeah, Pandora, gas giant up in the sky, breather masks, numerous hostile life-forms ... where have I seen that before. No, I won't go there.

vaudeviewgalor raandisisraisins said...

'And there also seemed to be a bit of a disconnect: why was it all the mammal-like creatures had six legs whilst the Na’vi were bipeds?'

couldn't have a straight out plagarism again could we?

ps: no luck with Subminds still.

Neal Asher said...

Hey, what's your problem with subminds Vaude?

Xanares said...

I was surprised the humans didn't show up with 10 times the guns in the end. He wanted to be moral, but didn't want to go all the way?

Anyway, quite agree with ya Neal. I am however sure it would make less money/mainstream had it been more complicated and less of a deja vu. (pocahontas/dancing with wolves/matrix/etc)

Jebel Krong said...

xanares - the point was it was a corp not earth involved and the distance meant resources were limited (especially given the state of the earth).

personally i loved the film. sure the story was simple and sometimes badly told, but when you are introducing so much (not even counting the 3d), sometimes it works better. it also cleverly drew you into the world slowly revealing more and more depth - you could tell they spent a long time making it believable and so beautiful.

it is also the first film i've seen that justified the 3d effect - instead of the usual pop-up looking characters (see the alice in wonderland trailer for a good example) it was layered into scenes, as it should be, giving proper depth where needed and it really added to the film.

personally i'm just glad to see such an epic science fiction film do so bloody well - it can surely only bode well for the future.

Xanares said...

Aight Jebel, cheers.

I did enjoy the movie immensely too. Especially the slow moving scenes in the jungle and off the floating rocks.

GraemeGRFinch said...

Simple story, maybe a bit cheesy but there were some great moments.

The leap from floating mountain to vine gave me a moments vertigo and put me up a tree on a windy day when I lost my footing and swung.

As for the green message, well... there's nothing wrong with it... after all we haven't got anywhere else to go have we?

Pan said...

This is a bit of an old post, but I was looking for something else when I ran across it.

Did you know the creature designs were all done by the talented Wayne Barlowe? If you're familiar with his work, it will make perfect sense.

And if you're familiar with his work, it will also be obvious to you that the Na'vi were NOT done by him. So my thought is that they were a cop out on the part of the producers to make the main characters "relatable". I would have liked to have seen what Barlowe would have came up with. I think he could have done alien as actual alien rather than blue na'tive americans.