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By Megan Lane · September 1, 2010
You may ask yourself, isn’t it about nine months too late to review Avatar? Didn’t it come out last December? There are plenty reviews out there already. In fact, didn’t Michael Schilf actually already review it for this site? The answer to all those questions is “yes.” However, because it clearly didn’t make enough money on its first release, Avatar has been re-released into theaters with an additional nine minutes of footage. And since I was pretty sure that this exorcism wasn’t going to be the last, I made a long overdue trip to see Avatar and a much needed opportunity to offer up a respectable refutation to everything that Michael has previously said about Avatar.
As for the actual theater experience, and per Michael’s initial review…
Though we normally don’t agree, when I exited the theater I too said, “Wow.” However, my “Wow” was quickly followed by, “I gotta go to the bathroom.”
So how could I not have seen Avatar yet? The most literal reason: I didn’t feel like dragging myself to the theater to spend $19.50 (yes, that is what it costs to see a movie in 3-D at the Arclight in Hollywood, the swankiest and needlessly overpriced theater I’ve ever come across) to sit for almost three hours (see my thoughts on movie length in my review of Knight and Day (2010)) towatch a story that I heard was pretty much the equivalent of Dances With Wolves (1990) (which I would characterize as “fine”). Granted, Mr. Schilf agrees that Avatar is indeed a retelling of a story that’s been told many times over, I think it’s necessary to point out that it’s not a story I personally find that fascinating, fantastic, or timeless, even as a reinvention.
For anyone who hasn’t seen it yet, Avatar follows the story of Jake Sully (the droll, obviously Australian Sam Worthington), a paraplegic marine, who is sent to the moon Pandora to study the natives, the Na’vi. He enters their world, learns their customs, and of course, falls in love with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). When the military decides to destroy Pandora’s natural elements in favor of progress, Jake is torn between his own people and where he feels he truly belongs. If that doesn’t make sense, just think of FernGully (1992) or Pocahontas (1995).
Michael spoke about the unbelievable “costumes” in Avatar, meaning the new technology, motion capture. I agree that director James Cameron managed to conquer motion capture in a way that no other filmmaker has to date. He may not be the father of motion capture; he is not the first director do use it. It was used in Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001). Robert Zemeckis has an entire companydevoted exclusively to motion capture movies and produce Polar Express (2004), Beowulf (2007) and most recently A Christmas Carol (2009). James Cameron is more like the adoptive father of motion capture – I’m sorry. Maybe he didn’t give birth to it, but he did raise it and teach it to be the best it can possibly be. Let me put it this way – you can’t teach a dog new tricks (i.e. 3D or motion capture), but you can jack it up on steroids and let it impress the hell out of you… but that’s the only trick it’s got.
Admittedly, my own aversion to motion capture is actually the main reason I didn’t see it nine months ago. I haven’t loved its application in the past. To me, the characters looked fake, like, well, avatars, or transvestites. And no matter how detailed the faces looked, the eyesalways looked dead. I am happy and surprised to say that this is not the case with Avatar. The movie looked fantastic and Michael, I agree again, it truly was an experience.
On top of that, the 3-D enhanced the visual spectacle rather than just feeling like an afterthought. I have a theory that studio heads think to themselves, “We’re a little over budget, how can we make some extra cash? Let’s add $2 extra dollars a ticket and make it in 3-D.” However, when we’re seeing a movie that the director actually meant us to see in 3-D, it makes all the difference in the world.
That being said, let the actual criticism begin! The movie is truly stunning. I cannot refute that. I do hope that this technology keeps moving forward and that this is the “first movie of the rest of my life.” But as we’ve learned from Michael Bay, special effects aren’t enough to make a movie, especially if it’s not in total, complete, and utter service to the story. There needs to be a story. There needs to be character development and there needs to be conflict. Yes, Avatar had these elements, but as it has been stated over and over again, even by the handsome and talented Michael Schilf himself, these facets of Avatar lacked originality. I know this isn’t really a super profound rumination, and this is certainly what was said by at least a handful of critics at the time of the original release… but I feel the need to drive this into the heads of our beautiful TSL readers.
We do live in a post-modern Hollywood world in which remakes have become the norm rather than the exception. We do see the same story time and time again. We describe movies as “this meets that with a twist”. But should we just accept that as part of the times? Should we continue to praise it? Or should we encourage more movies like Inception (2010) or Invention of Lying (a sorely overlooked film, in my opinion (2009)) that actually create something rather than just retell the same old story? Do we really want another Karate Kid (2010) disaster?
Avatar (and yes, it’s Special Edition, too) is a blatant take-off of the Native American metaphor. The white man comes in with the latest technology whether it be muskets, atomic bombs or AMP suits and takes the land and resources of the natives without regard for human (or alien) life or nature. The only difference between Avatar and every other re-telling of the Native American metaphor, is that this time, the natives actually won. Oops, spoiler alert, but seriously, if you haven’t seen it, come on. By the way, Titanic sinks at the end and Bruce Willis is dead. Anyway, yes, the natives won with the help of flying dragons and hammerhead dinosaurs. The movie is a fantasy. It’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) for Native Americans. Okay, that might be reaching, but that’s just a really fun comparison to make.
However, when a story is borrowed and retold as blatantly was (there was literally a “Paint with all the colors of the wind” sequence, all that was missing was the music), it is normally acknowledged. Let’s use Michael’s example of Romeo and Juliet. Whenever it has been remade, it is still called “Romeo and Juliet” or at least some variation thereof (Romeo must Die (2000) and Shakespeare in Love (1998) with the exception of West Side Story.)
However, I greatly disagree with Michael’s argument that Titanic (1997) is a variation of Romeo and Juliet. This really has nothing to do with my Avatar argument, but to a greater extent, it simply feeds into this overwrought use of compare and contrast with films. As I remember the story, and I haven’t read it since ninth grade, Juliet didn’t go onto live a long fulfilling life only to die eighty-four years later. She killed herself because her and Romeo’s families were at war. While Rose’s family did not support her relationship with Jack, I distinctly remember the third class passengers happily accepting Rose into their world. The relationship didn’t work because the ship sunk. Just because a romance has “star-crossed lovers” does not make it a variation of Romeo and Juliet. How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days (2003) has two people whose bosses do not want them to fall in love, does that make it a retelling of Romeo and Juliet? If it did, I think William Shakespeare might do a full 360 in his grave. EVERY ROMANCE HAS STAR-CROSSED LOVERS. And another word for “star-crossed” is “conflict.”
Okay, back to the task at hand. Avatar… Special Edition. If you are going to completely rip-off a story that has been told time and again, the characters need to be new and interesting. However, Cameron’s characters were completely one-dimensional. Nayetiti, in particular, did not have any growth or development. She did not change from the moment we met her to the end of the film. She was a nothing character. The Na’vi as a whole were completely accepting of Jake without any reason. “Oh, you’re a marine? Well come into our community and learn all of our secrets.” Does this seem ridiculous to anyone else? Luckily for them, Jake spent absolutely no time deciding whether or not to betray his Navi friends. There was no inner-turmoil, no decision time. We never see inner conflict with any of the characters. Though the outer conflict was huge, the lack of inner conflict left the characters feeling blank.
At the end of the day, Michael and I completely agree on Avatar. The visuals were amazing and the story is a rip-off. However, for Michael the visuals made up for the lack of story. For me, it didn’t.