Friday, January 8, 2010

Still waiting for the "Avatar" backlash

I thought I knew the internet. I thought that it would be only a matter of time before message boards, blogs, and Youtubes were flooded with masses of disgruntled film fans blasting Cameron for the silly "Dances With Wolves" plot, terrible characters and dialogue, and worse-than-high-school-drama-club acting (don't believe me? Go to 2:48).

The internet has, along with the rest of the world, let me down. "Avatar" has grossed almost $400 million to date domestically, and when those numbers are added to the international box office returns, "Avatar" shoots to over $1 billion dollars earned. For the time being, it doesn't show any signs of slowing.

Collectively, we're about as artistically discerning as an infant being taunted with a dangling set of car keys.

What worries me the most about the success of "Avatar" isn't that people are going to see it - in its theatrical run roughly the same amount of domestic viewers saw "Transformers 2" - it's that the movie-going public seems to be hailing it as one of the best movies ever, and that the Hollywood establishment, in their infinite wisdom, will undoubtedly try to recapture financial lightning in the bottle with motion-capture CGI epics that don't pay much attention to story or characters but are still advertised as high art.

As I said in my original review, "Avatar" is pretty to look at, and the 3D experience is impressive, but it is ultimately a very shiny package for an empty box. The characters are of the most simplistic background and motivations, the plot is tired, predictable, and lacking in any substantial depth or emotional relevance.

Compare "Avatar" to Cameron's 1989 underwater epic "The Abyss". There are a lot of similarities - military aggression versus scientific research, alien species under threat of annihilation, and yes, unprecedented computer technology was used to bring the film to the screen. The difference between the two films is that the story and characters of "The Abyss" drive the movie. No, the characters are not richly developed, but they are certainly more fleshed-out than the absolute cookie-cutter stars of "Avatar". So far is the plot is concerned, there's a lot more going on in "The Abyss", especially in the excessively long yet superior director's cut. Even though both films have bleeding-heart messages (and both start with the letter "A"!), "The Abyss" works because it's focused on the two main characters repairing their marriage and in turn saving the world in the manner of Sodom. The story and characters of "Avatar" pale in comparison. Just as infuriatingly, "The Abyss" occasionally has a sense of humor about itself, whereas "Avatar" takes itself more seriously than does a teenage poet.

The other significant worry about the momentum of "Avatar" is this year's Academy Awards, where there will be ten contenders for the prestigious - and meaningless - award for Best Picture. There is a distinct possibility that "Avatar" and Cameron will be up against the fantastic "The Hurt Locker", directed by ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow (Cameron, though, has been a vocal supporter of Bigelow's drama all year). I am afraid there's a real chance that big-budget CGI will triumph over low-budget visceral character-driven action and drama when it comes time for the Oscars. This discussion has been ongoing this week at Slate's Movie Club, and as Roger Ebert stated, "should Avatar snatch that Oscar away, it will be because it grossed zillions of millions, not because it's better".

That is what is at the core of my curmudgeonly objections to "Avatar". Film is, as is the case with any art-form, subjective. I have long since come to terms with the fact that I am an unapologetic snob, and not everything that I appreciate will be accepted by the masses, and likewise what pleases the masses will not necessarily impress me. In this case, though, I feel like the case against the film is so clear, so obvious, yet the masses have had the wool pulled over their eyes by the incessant marketing and glimmering visuals, and are hailing this as one of the best movies ever made.

I've seen the emperor's new clothes for what they really are. I hope you do, too.

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