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LOOKING AT AVATAR

He did it. James Cameron pulled it off. All of the praise and positive quips you’ve read, heard, and watched are spot on. Avatar is a behemoth spectacle to behold, a mighty game-changing cinematic dinosaur made of fire and fueled by Jolt Cola. The all-encompassing 3D CG environment coupled with the “BEST EVER” motion-captured actors is all numbingly realistic to the point of confusion. Take one of the greatest mainstream directors of all time, let him gestate on a film’s production for over a decade, then stir in a well-used $300 million and you will get Avatar. This is hardly the misfire, dream-project that so many feared. This isn’t James Cameron’s Legend (even though I like Legend.) It has all the markings of a wet-dream-big-director-project gone wrong, yet in the equation Cameron remembered one thing, to make the movie for himself AND the audience.

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The film is a triumph not because it’s perfect, which it isn’t, but because it’s succeeds as grand entertainment. When is the last time the public received a movie of this caliber, based on original material, with this level of passion behind it? The fact that this is an original script with a production of this magnitude, sadly, gives it a nostalgia factor of 15-20 years ago, regardless of the technology. It is a very welcomed feeling that makes us glad that Mr. Cameron is back, and worried that he will go away, possibly back to the obscurity of making ocean documentaries.

The film’s plot, blue aliens, and overarching themes have obviously been heavily criticized for the past few months. The horrid advertising for the film should be to blame for this. What marketing department in their right mind thought that advertising a movie as “game-changing” was a good idea? Is “backlash” or “cynicism” not in their vocabulary? What is curious about all the criticism is that they are all more or less true, but not really in a detrimental form. Cameron’s script is simply playing on conventions as old as storytelling itself, which does lend the movie to being rife with cliché, but it’s cliché done well. Let’s take a closer look at the criticisms, from the point of view of someone who’s seen the flick:

***************EXTREMELY MILD SPOILERS**************

Criticism 1: “It’s James Cameron’s Smurfs.”

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The Na’vi are blue.

They Live in the woods.

They are peaceful.

The villain (Humans) send a “Smurfette” (Sam Worthington) to infiltrate them.

The “Smurfette” is won over by the love and way of life of the Na’vi (thank you Donnie Darko, and Wikipedia .)
The “Smurfette” yearns to become one of the Na’vi.

The male leader of the Na’vi tribe has prominent RED body adornments much like Papa Smurf. (yes, seriously.)

Conclusion: Yes, it is sort of like James Cameron’s mega-budget-ultra-serious Smurf movie. It should be pointed out that Saturday Night Live called it first, even down to the Celine Dion/Titanic joke. SNL guessed Cameron’s next movie over a decade in advance!

Criticism 2: “It’s the exact same movie as FernGully, even down to the message.”

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The humans have come to sap resources (Unobtainium) from the land.

The male lead gets physically transformed into a being much like the natives.

A female of the forest dwellers befriends a member of the humans.

The man and the native fall in love.

The humans continue to collect the resources, without care or regard for the natives.

There is a winged creature that helps the protagonists along the way.

There is a clear message about humans destroying nature for the sake of progress.

Conclusion: Ok, so it’s “sort of” like James Cameron’s live action FernGully remake. It probably even has more thematic/character similarities that I forgot to include, however that doesn’t mean its plagiarism. Do you honestly think James Cameron cares about, or even remembers FernGully? If so, do you think he’s seen this?

Criticism 3: “It’s Dances With Wolves on an alien planet…with Smurfs”

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I’m going to cop out and just say watch the South Park episode entitled “Dances With Smurfs.” I doubt anyone could explain it as well as Eric Cartman.

Conclusion: As usual, South Park is pretty much on the mark.

Criticism 4: “The Delgo Comparisons.”

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Look at them.

Conclusion: Yes, it is pretty similar… but what movie was in production first?

So what does all of that mean? Is James Cameron a plagiarist? No, certainly not. FernGully and Dances With Wolves are both stories built on conventions as old as time, and none of us are going back even further to see what they were “copied” from. If you are going to insult the film for something trivial, how about for using a title font, and subtitle font that is way to close (if not exactly the same) to the corny, over-used font known as Papyrus. As for the Smurfs comparison, yes, that is humorously close. James Cameron even said he found it funny in an interview, right before he went on to insult Jar Jar Binks, which should help us to give him the benefit of the doubt. When all is said and done, even if you think he stole from these other things (which he didn’t) he took the elements and made something great with them. Do you really think for the past 15 years he has been in his basement watching FernGully, Dances With Wolves, and Smurfs DVDs, while sipping cognac and laughing maniacally about his deceptive future plans? Is the theft of FernGully really worth creating revolutionary new technology for? No offense to FernGully, but no, it isn’t.

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This column, Opinion In A Haystack, is often overflowing with disdain for special F/X of the computer generated persuasion. Bob Rose (me) is not a fan of CG. However, the level at which Avatar’s environments work, and the nigh-photo-realistic skin texture and muscle movements achieved by Cameron’s team make it so real, that it’s just that, real. By the second half of the film, the effects aren’t even a question anymore. Avatar doesn’t feel like Sin City, Sky Captain, or 300. There’s not this constant search to see the seams because there is no seams, it is one giant cohesive visual. The 3D is not gimmicky either. It is only used as a tool of depth and space, much like how Pixar’s Up utilized it earlier this year. 3D most certainly adds to the whole experience, but even now I think 3D should still be considered a gimmick. Avatar would work in 2D just as well as it does in 3D, if it didn’t then the whole film would be a gimmick itself. I don’t really care how much Cameron, Spielberg, and Jackson back the tech of 3D, until it can be accomplished without the viewer having to wear glasses then it’s not “normal” cinema. To me there is a fear that some movies will start being produced ONLY in 3D with no 2D counterpart.

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All the performances in the movie are top notch, perhaps except for Sam Worthington being a touch bland. The shining star of the movie is easily Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch. Once again we have cliché in his facial-scars coupled with his hard bitten disposition, but Lang pulls out all the stops and goes for broke with the cliché. He is easily the most enjoyable character to watch through out the run time, and his physical appearance is baffling. It looks as though James Cameron told Lang to spend the last decade in physical training to play this role, it’s hard to believe that is Ike Clanton from Tombstone, or George Pickett from Gettysburg.

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The question of whether or not this movie will prove successful is not really a concern of mine. It’s classic Cameron through and through, right down to the “revolutionary” effects, and it’s a damn entertaining flick. The downfall of this will be the aura of “pretension” surrounding it, most people will walk in thinking that Cameron himself is saying that he reinvented the reinvention of the wheel and he’s damn serious about it. However, after reading most interviews with him, he is much more concerned with the quality-entertainment aspect then the need to change cinema. He didn’t spend 15 years on a useless light show, he spent it on a story he felt people would want to experience, and how to tell that story. Avatar works because Cameron worked hard.

Thanks for reading.

Comments:

6 Responses to “Opinion In A Haystack: Looking At AVATAR”

  1. pHitzy Says:

    Great column, and pretty much echoes exactly what I’ve been saying to my friends since I saw it.

    I can’t wait to see it again.

  2. Opinioninahaystack Says:

    Thanks pHitzy, I agree.

  3. ellen Says:

    papyrus is awful.

    its like a dagger in my heart every time i see it on the poster.

  4. Opinioninahaystack Says:

    ellen: I hate the use of papyrus as well. Infact, I hate all the promo materials for the movie. The posters are just awful.

  5. alex Says:

    whats worse is the damned papyrus typeface is used in the subtitles throughout the movie

  6. levi Says:

    i think this movie sucks some ass .

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