Bonus Content is the new feature where we talk about things we don’t usually cover. Last week we did a round up of mini reviews for iPhone games which was popular enough to have us consider doing more of the same. This week on Bonus Review I’m veering even further away from our usual subject matter.
This week I want to talk about movies. Well, one movie in particular but I’ll reference other movies too. That movie is Avatar, James Cameron’s latest box-office smashing epic.
I know this won’t be a particularly popular point of view to have but I thought Avatar was, at it’s very best, a distinctly average movie. Yes, it had unbelievable cgi which was almost perfect. The 3D was done exceptionally well; it was almost tasteful rather than gimmicky. It wasn’t a very good film though. And here’s why.
It’s already an old joke to compare Avatar’s plot to Disney’s Pocahontas movie but that’s actually a pretty accurate comparison. The “Technology-obsessed invaders vs Nature-loving natives” is a tried and tested device which plays on a general conservative paranoia that technology (or science) will end up destroying us and we’d all be much better off if we just put the shutters down again and went back to believing in those crazy mythologies (or religion). Avatar does this as obviously as possible. It is the same plot as Pocahontas but it’s also the same plot as many other films, including, to an extent, The Last Samurai. Which moves me nicely onto the next issue I had with Avatar.
I’ve heard people say that Avatar has a really good message that we should learn from. Those people are idiots. I assume they mean the superficial but glaringly obvious message (stop mining all our resources and be nice to less technologically advanced cultures) that is set on top of the other, disgusting messages which permeate the movie.
First amongst these is that it’s not okay to be disabled. Jake, the lead character, is in a wheelchair. My mother is in a wheelchair, I know what it’s like to be around wheelchairs. It’s not something to look down on (well, factually I suppose I do have to look down to see people in wheelchairs but you know what I mean). And yet Avatar uses Jake’s disability as a weakness he can be manipulated with. The insidious villain (Quaritch) even offers him a fix for his disability if he cooperates with the subterfuge – “We’ll make you a normal person again if you betray these blue monkey-cats”. At the end of the movie Jake finally wins the overall struggle against his demons by getting legs that work. Why can’t a disabled character just be disabled and still have the virtuous traits that let us empathise with them and see them as heroic?
Interestingly, my mother didn’t have an issue with this; I suppose she’s used to that general assumption. She did, however, think that it was a bit weird that in the future, when they “fix” their second-class citizens and make them whole again, they still make every building and spaceship (including trailers in the jungle) wheelchair accessible. That is a bit odd.
The second disgusting message in Avatar, and the one that likens it to The Last Samurai (or Dances With Wolves or any one of a number of similar movies) is that we can only integrate with other cultures if we get to be better than them and, eventually and rather obviously, rule over them.
Jake succeeds with the Na’vi by being better than them at being a Na’vi. This is utterly ridiculous, of course, but it also hints at what is the most colonial attitude in the whole film: Jake as emperor. Yes, they end up defeating all the stormtroopers by rallying around with the other Ewoks and throwing rocks at helicopters but they do it because Jake told them to. He sold them out to his own colonial masters and then used their plight – and his amazing skills as the best Na’vi ever – to engineer his own rise to power by defeating his former masters. Sick.
Sure, the relentless stripping of resources (Unobtanium is also the worst possible name they could have given to their valuable commodity) is bad but the deception and eventual military enslavement of an entire race kind of outweighs it a bit on the evil-ometer. Still, it’s alright because a glowing tree (or religious icon) told him to do it. That justifies most serial-killers, terrorists and genocide-hungry lunatics but we tend to take a dim view of them so why not Jake?
The third and, for the sake of brevity, final reason I dislike Avatar is this:
How many people have you heard saying it was better than Star Wars or drawing Star Wars comparisons of some sort? I really do think that those people are either caught in the instant on the crest of a wave of hype or they have never actually seen Star Wars.
Sure, Avatar has better cgi than any of the Star Wars movies. It even comes close to equalling the plot, script and acting of at least two of the most recent Star Wars movies but it is in no way comparable to a movie which was made on a tight budget, with mostly unknown actors (or those in the twilight of their careers) that had one thing going for it from the very start: An imaginative vision.
Before everyone starts pointing it out, I know Star Wars also borrowed from existing mythologies. Basically it was a fairy tale wrapped in a Western and set in space but at least the setting, the subtleties and the plots were the result of a focussed vision and they surprised almost everyone who was involved with it.
Star Wars changed movies (how many times have you heard people say Avatar is a “game-changer”?) because it showed that people wanted escapism, they wanted fantasy and heroism but it didn’t have to always be done in the same way. Avatar tells us that people want the same things done in the same way with a lot more money thrown at them. If that’s how the “game” is changing then I think I’ll stop watching movies.
When George Lucas and his crew were in Tunisia filming Star Wars (A New Hope) almost everyone involved thought that he was mad. They all thought it would be a budget release or be completely ignored. From the moment James Cameron had his first pre-production meeting with the studio they all knew that their movie would be a success. They knew that they would pump money into it and then throw some more at the marketing of it until it was guaranteed to be a hit. They didn’t want to make a movie as much as they wanted to make a product. The only Star Wars comparison that is actually valid is that Avatar is basically a re-telling of the last half-hour of Return of the Jedi.
So there you go, three good reasons to dislike Avatar and I haven’t even mentioned the fact that it’s completely flat in the third quarter or that it’s about an hour longer than it should be and features some of the most wooden acting and cheesy dialogue I’ve ever seen on a big screen.
Don’t get me wrong, I thought it was an enjoyable experience. I thought it was a forceful display of technology and visual creativity brought to life in an easily digestible package which was clearly and expertly designed to appeal to the masses. I just don’t think it was a very good movie.