It is ironic that I procrastinated on seeing Avatar because I had heard the story was swiss cheese and corny, but still wanted to go and see the 3D for the sake of imbibing in great technology, and came away disappointed at the 3D experience while thoroughly entertained by a very decent movie.
Leading up to my seeing Avatar, I had read several reviews, including those by Ross Douthat, that suggested that the "Ferngully" meets "Dances With Wolves" storyline was so campy that it overwhelmed the enjoyment a viewer might get from the stunning visual effects. However, having seen Pixar's "Up" in 3D and liked the special effect enough that I figured it was worth the 2 dollar upcharge on Avatar.
So I went in to Avatar expecting to be disappointed. Tuesday I read Gregg Easterbrook's boldfaced evisceration:
The script was as dull and predictable as the special effects were flashy. Maybe the dialogue sounded better in Na'vi.
Given that I usually agree with Easterbrook, I was doubtful. What I saw was nothing short of a great story. Sure it wasn't revolutionary in its plot; natives fighting off attacking greedy white people, the natives start to lose, Deus Ex Machina occurs, natives start to win, blah blah. I knew what was going to happen at the end far earlier than I did at the end of the Maltese Falcon. But it was fun.
What wasn't fun was watching the 3D. James Cameron has built for this film one of the most gorgeous worlds ever imagined. During the day the forest looked like a tropical paradise to the nth degree, but at night, it turned into Cirque de Soleil on mushrooms. Everything glowed in beautiful colors, and my eyes (instead of feeling raped like they did during Transformers 2), tried valiantly to drink in the rich flora and fauna of this insane, artistic masterpiece.
Unfortunately, most of it was out of focus. The caviat of 3D movies is that the only thing really in focus is what the director wants to be in focus. Because 3D works by displaying two images that your mind naturally combines, creating 3D, only some of the images are in 3D; basically it works like this. Focus on the words I have written here, and hold a finger up in front of your face. Your finger should look like (assuming you are still focusing on these words) two semi-transparent copies of each other. Focus on your finger, and the words I have typed go blurry and duplicate. So in order to create 3D in a movie, the depth of field becomes extrememly limited.
I found myself getting aggravated when the characters would move through the landscape, as I was distracted by the gorgeous scenery, only to find it impossible to focus on! Then I'd have to spend a half a second trying to scan the whole image in front of me for what was actually in focus. The 3D was neat, don't get me wrong. Certain scenes, such as when the jellyfish-like seeds float down and land on the protagonist, were richly rewarding because of it. But all too often I found my eyes tiredly frustrated that they weren't allowed to look at whatever part of the screen they found interesting.
I find it strange that now I feel like I should defend this movie from one of my favorite writers, but here goes. Easterbrook writes:
The mineral is an anti-gravity substance that floats. Midway through the movie, we learn there are entire mountains of it floating above Pandora. So why not mine the floating mountains, where no Pandorans live, rather than go to war with the natives? The clichéd super-heartless corporation that wants the mineral is depicted as obsessed by profit. War is a lot more expensive than mining! If profit is what motivates the corporation, war is the last thing it would want.
When is it ever implied in the movie that unobtainium is an anti-gravity substance? At one point in the movie, Giovanni Ribisi's character is shown pulling a piece of Unobtainium out of a display, where it appears to be levitating. But it is never implied that it is the mineral, and not the display case, that causes the levitation! All over the internet I can buy a desktop toy that uses "magnets" to cause levitation. Later in the movie Ribisi's character is showing holding the mineral in his hand, it is not levitating out of his hand! If you consider that Unobtainium does not have anti-gravity properties, then it makes no sense that the "Hallelujah Mountains" are made of it. Nor is it claimed in the movie that the floating mountains contain any Unobtainium. In fact, the soldiers move through those very mountains later in the movie without a single mention that Unobtainium might exist there.
Easterbrook also goes after the paramilitary security forces:
And who are the gun-toting fatigue-clad personnel commanded by the ultra-evil Colonel Quaritch -- are they regular military, mercenaries, private security contractors?Audiences never find out.
Actually audiences do find out. The protagonist clearly narrates, upon arrival on Pandora, that active military personnel do not go to Pandora, and that the soldiers stationed there are ex-military personnel who are looking to get rich fast.
Lastly, and perhaps most important to me, is what Easterbrook writes at the end of his criticism:
Plus the military personnel are depicted as such utter morons -- not a brain in any of their heads -- that none notice the TOTALLY OBVIOUS detail that Pandora's unusual biology will be worth more than its minerals.
I have mixed emotions about this one. I disagree with Easterbrook: while the mining facility is making $20 million per kilogram for the Unobtainium, the botanical research performed at the planet by Sigourney Weaver and Co. has produced nothing the movie implies as profitable.
However, the Na'vi appear to have an appendage that contains adaptable, active nerves.
Ever notice how when you plug a new thumb drive into your computer, it automatically says "installing drivers," then moments later "your USB device is ready to use"? This is because the computer and peripheral device have a driver language system that allows them to communicate with one another despite their hardware differences. The Na'vi appear to have the biological equivalent of this. When one Na'vi mounts on his horse-thing, he connects his interface to the horses' interface, they immediately share a bond, and he can communicate mentally with the horse, giving it directions without physical command or motion. Similarly, when they hop on their flying creatures, they connect via their interface. At one point, some characters connect via their interface to trees!
TAE asks: how hard would it be to connect their hair-interface-thing to a computer? And if the medical geniuses back on Earth can fix Sully's parapalegia, as is implied in the movie, and if the genetic engineers are smart enough to create the Avatars (a Na'vi/human hybird), couldn't they also potentially tissue engineer the human equivalent of the Na'vi's interface, and consequently create the greatest single advance in human evolution since we stood upright and scanned the horizon?
TAE agrees with Easterbrook: the biology of Pandora could eventually yield higher profits than stripmining could. But in the short hand (the quarterly statement as Ribisi's character muses), mining was more profitable. Especially to a mining company.
All in all, I found the movie entertaining. And I feel sorry for people who expect the greatest movie of all time with the most clever, original plot ever, every time they go see a movie. They will almost certainly be disappointed time after time. I realized, as I sat back and enjoyed this movie, that sometimes you don't need to sit there and take notes on the holes in the plot, or pointlessly get apoplexy that the mindless mercenaries being killed clearly are portrayed as Americans. You just need to sit back and be entertained. And this was an entertaining film! I might actually go see it again, but in 2D this time.
...one thing did bother me. At the end, the humans decide to detonate an important Na'vi shrine in an attempt to psychologically break the uprising. They do so by filling a "bomber" with pallets of C4-like material and then fly at an absurdly low altitude and absurdly low speed over the target, dumping the pallets out the back.
Anyone with half a brain (and an retired Air Force Colonel fighter pilot for a father) would recognize the foolishness of "slow and low" attacks against an opposing Air Force that outnumbers you (and has more maneuverable fighters). It would make a lot more sense if the bomber had been at 40,000 feet, and dropped a single MOAB.
Mrs. TAE adds: how do you think the Na'vi mate? They clearly have no genitals.