Saturday, February 6, 2010

Pandora, our new theme park attraction

Sam Worthington tries to convince me that Avatar is indeed better than Titanic and True Lies. No luck.

UC Riverside sent me an acceptance letter a few days ago. In addition, I received an endearing pop-up brochure of the different departments at the university.

Avatar in 3D is very much like that pop-up brochure. It's impressive for about five minutes, but then the fascination fades. But unlike that pop-up brochure, I can't just tuck it away. I still have to stay in the theater for two-and-a-half hours. I didn't pay $10 for nothing.

James Cameron is a master of cultural phenomenons. He hasn't been original since 1991, yet his films are hyped to a point where they're simply unavoidable. Case in point: Titanic and Avatar. But the difference is, Titanic is a better film, if only slightly. Avatar only proves that, with all the endless cinematic magic that can happen with modern technology, a film is nothing without a great story.

Avatar contains odds and ends of other stories. It's Pocahontas, Jurassic Park, Castle in the Sky, and Splash all rolled up in one big, blue package, though I would much rather watch any of those aforementioned films. Even as Avatar's credits rolls, a poor man's "My Heart Will Go On" begins to hum in the background.

So welcome to the future. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a paraplegic and ex-marine who takes over his deceased brother's avatar since they share the same DNA and in return, Jake might get new legs. Disguised as the Na'vi (the natives of a planet named Pandora) in their avatar form, the humans are able to roam more freely in Pandora. The scientists, led by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), hope to gain the trust of the Na'vi and study the biology of the planet. But Pandora also contains some sort of precious mineral that Earth needs in order to survive.

Jake thinks being an avatar is really cool! Without any formal training, he's surprisingly competent and comfortable in his new giant, blue body. Now he can walk! Feel the mud on his feet! And, well, fall in love with his Na'vi mentor, Poca--I mean, Neytiri (Zoe Saladana), who wants to kill him, until she finds out he has a strong heart--because some glowing plant organism told her so? I'm barely an expert on Earth botany, so I'm not going to bother to learn about the various supernatural-spiritual plant life on Pandora.

No matter. Jake is the chosen one. He befriends the Na'vi. When the humans decide it's time to destroy Pandora and get what they want, Jake goes into superhero mode and protects the Na'vi, and of course, the woman he loves. What follows is an unexciting series of action sequences. Just when one is about to end, another starts. And it goes on and on and on. Typical Hollywood.

There has been a lot of hurrah about the groundbreaking visual effects in Avatar. Sure, it's impressive, but 162 minutes is a lot of time to stay impressed. Lots of glowing flowers. The trees are kind of lovely. Cool CGI birds. The thought that the actors and their movements were eventually turned into the Na'vi is pretty awesome. Nice waterfalls. There is so much to look at, yet so little I held onto. Avatar feels like a forgettable, never-ending amusement park attraction.

While tech geeks might marvel at the dedication that went into Avatar's visual effects, I am a moviegoer. I don't like effects-driven films, but I still like to entertained, excited, enthralled, compelled, and captivated. I like a film that grabs my attention and never lets go. Avatar is not that film.

The most interesting aspect about Avatar, ironically, is when the film is not in Pandora. Weaver's tough gal scientist is an interesting character who should have had more screen time. She is the stereotypical no-nonsense genius but possesses a conscience that the power-hungry crooks are eager to ignore. The human characters (including Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez) are the film's most captivating bunch.

However, the script is weak. And while some might argue that Cameron's vision isn't about the script, the script should be the foundation for any film. To add insult to injury, Avatar is not fun. 3D doesn't elevate the movie-going experience at all. I don't think watching it in 2D would've made a big difference. While I did get a minor headache, it wasn't a major distraction. I was bored.

Here is a film that has already made box-office history. It may very well go on to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. What a shame, then. I wished I loved it as much as everyone else did. C


  1. "A blog by an average teenage film lover who has to Wiki 90% of filmmaking terms and IMDb the names of 70% of French New Wave directors. Beware."

    This is a good thing. Love of film isn't about knowing all the right words and knowing what Jean-De Fleu La Mar Le Fromage directed, it's about finding your own way and what speaks to your heart :)

    Stay You.

  2. Well I don't agree obviously :) I saw it in regular theatre and I still liked it. I think any films (good or bad) can be stripped down to a few lines and made to sound pedestrian. Avatar's strength is not the script, but I don't find the script bad either. Still, it's all subjective.

    PS. You say Titanic is only better by a little, so is it a C+?

  3. Oooh, love the new layout darling!

    hmmn, I don't completely agree with you, but I don't DISAGREE either...I did really enjoy was a great experience. But I'm not in love with it - apparently a lot of people who came out of cinemas were wishing they lived in pandora and were completely transported - I felt that way about lord of the rings and even narnia, but not about this. It was beautiful, it was entertaining, but it wasn't a masterpiece in terms of a film and not just visuals. I can't comment on the script cos I saw it in german lol, but from what I could tell it wasn't bad. Basically, I think it was good, doesn't deserve best pic oscar, but if it wins, I won't be too sad - it's kind of inevitable :) xxxxxxx

  4. @Kid - I'm glad you think it's a good thing! I believe I can still love a film without completely understanding its true meaning or knowing every detail. It's the experience that matters.

    @Andrew - But it's so predictable! The dialog sounds like it was written in five weeks (or by a five year old) in a 10 year period! But like you said, it's all subjective. That's what makes criticism so awesome.

    Titanic is more like a B- for me. I've seen it several times since its release and it's a solid film, though a tad too ridiculously lovey dovey for my taste. While I have high tolerance for cheesy rom-coms, I seem to have low tolerance for cheesy romantic dramas.

    @Anahita - I feel like I was a little too harsh on Avatar in my review. I gave it a C. It's a fairly mediocre film. I thought the visuals in Lord of the Rings surpassed Avatar's visuals. Pandora felt like a slightly repetitve setting (trees, flowers, trees) while Middle Earth had drastically different locations. Middle Earth felt like a real world to me while Pandora felt like a strictly movie world, if you know what I mean?

    Sigh. I've only seen Avatar and Inglorious Basterds out of the 10 (not.even.a.joke.ugh.) Best Picture nominees and IB is definitely superior. I do want to see An Education, The Hurt Locker, Up, and Up in the Air before the ceremony, but I'm not sure if it'll happen.

  5. @Anahita - And thanks! I like the new layout too. Much more compact. Default blogger layouts are usually nothing special, but this one is lovely.

  6. First of all, congratulations on your acceptance to Riverside!!!

    Good going, girl. (Assuming, of course, that you want to attend.)


    We saw Avatar in 2D.

    I used to get savage migraines...and I just refused to take that chance.

    I echo your thoughts, Marcy. If I had to give it a letter grade, a C is probably where I'd end up.

    No disrespect whatsoever to Mr. Cameron, who poured his heart and soul into this project for years on end. The visuals and the special effects were dazzling. But I was left completely unmoved.

    I couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.

    Totally agree. The script is weak. If it's not on the page, then a classic motion picture is a long shot at best.

    But I understand why people are embracing this film. It is a bona fide EXPERIENCE. It may be derivative in some respecrs. But it is starkly different in others. Audiences (in droves) are responding to that. That's what's driving the box office.

    BEST PICTURE? Definitely NOT. IMO it should be INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS. Failing that, UP IN THE AIR or PRECIOUS.

    With the preferential balloting this year in that category, anything COULD happen. We shall see.

    And for the record, I couldn't stand Titanic either.

  7. @Miranda - Thank you! I applied there as a back-up school, knowing it'd be fairly easy to get in. Though it looks like it has a fine campus, the school is literally in the middle of nowhere...

    I was told that the Avatar 3D experience isn't like the other 3D movies where major headaches ensue. I did get a minor headache, but I swear, I was dizzy for the five hours that followed.

    Many of my friends responded positively towards Avatar. And yes, it's understandable. And yes, it's an experience. It's a film that's making history. I can't remember what happened back in 1997 with Titanic, but I'm sure it was a similar outpour of wonder. Hyped movies become box office hits because of positive word-of-mouth.

    But if you want to dazzle with movie magic, at least have a great story to make the effects in a scene matter. I remember lots of great effects, but I can't connect them to the scene because I didn't care what was happening on screen.

    Inglorious Basterds is a MUCH better film than Avatar. To be honest, I'm actually a tiny bit underwhelmed by IB because of all the great things I've heard about it from friends and bloggers, but I did think it was a really cool experience. It's much cooler than Avatar.

    I hope that the 10 BP nominations ideas don't go on for long...

    I hated Titanic the first time I saw it. Then I watched it again and thought it was pretty tolerable? And by the third time I saw it I felt immune to it? (I swear, it's just the kind of films people show at their birthday parties. Well, the people I know, at least.)

  8. i have not seen 'avatar' yet, and your review does not make me want to rush out tomorrow. the problem as we all know is that hollywood is all about production; there apparently is no money for content. i may be wrong, but i think there are no big name actors in avatar either. who needs them.
    sadly, the first 'star wars' movie back in the 70's, was the beginning of the big production - no content movies, and that was one of my all-time favorites.

  9. btw, congrats on the acceptance, even though the pop-ups sound a bit scary

  10. @Richard
    I don't mind big productions. I just like substantial ones.

    Today's special effects movies are like some of those movies from the late 60s and 70s. There were some movies that relied too much on shock value and too little on actual storytelling.

    Many of my favorite movies were big productions. I loved The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I grew up watching Jurassic Park and I think I've seen that movie 4 or 5 times. What made those movies great was that they did have content and they appealed to a huge audience.