Wednesday, February 10, 2010

AVATAR and the Theory of Character Regression



I'm gonna warn you ahead of time: there are going to be spoilers here. But everyone in America has seen this by now, so it shouldn't be a problem...

After seeing AVATAR last weekend, I've been running a kind of unofficial survey amongst the people that I know. It's really simple - I just ask what that person thought of the movie, being careful not to betray my own bias. Here's what I found: a good 75% of the time, the person's response is something like, "The visuals were amazing, but the story wasn't so great." Now, if you'll permit me to vent a little, here's a blanket statement for you: a movie that has a weak story cannot, no matter how pretty it is, be a good movie. It can't. If it has a bad story, then it's a bad movie. Story is still king, no matter if James Cameron is the writer or not, no matter if it's gorgeous or not.

I will give the film some credit, however (snarky credit, of course). Cameron does something in this movie that I've never seen anywhere, in any movie. He turns the concept of character development on its head, and his characters actually regress so blatantly that it has to be intentional on Cameron's part. These characters go from complex, interesting people that we may actually care about a couple of hours from now, to simple, illogical caricatures that we neither mourn nor celebrate with. Let's be a little specific.

Sigourney Weaver's character of Dr. Grace Augustine begins the film as the genius curmudgeon who resents a jarhead like Jake being assigned to her mission. She provides the counter-balance to Jake's bullheadedness and serves as the voice of reason to her superiors. As the movie progresses, though, Grace (who's not graceful at all, ha!) becomes increasingly irrelevant and serves no purpose other than to fawn over the Na'vi children. Science goes out the window right along with Grace's quirky smoking ritual. It's the same deal with Joel Moore's Norm Spellman who enters the movie as a brilliant scientist who is initially jealous of Jake's success with the Na'vi (which would have been an interesting plot device, but they chucked it after 5 minutes), but regresses into a gun-toting madman who throws himself in front of bullets. Isn't he a scientific genius? The best way for him to help was with a machine gun? Really? There wasn't some way to combine the Na'vi's knowledge of the science of Pandora with Norm's brilliance? Nope. Machine guns.

Even Jake, who has the most interesting character trait of all - the paraplegic who suddenly finds himself with legs - regresses into a faux William Wallace, spouting motivational gibberish from a mountaintop. Seriously, we couldn't explore this idea about how it felt for him to have legs again for, like, ten minutes? He runs around one time and it's old for him? Sidenote: what happened to the other avatars? The beginning establishes that there are a bunch of them. Where did they go?

And the evil Colonel Miles Quaritch, who begins the film as a reasonable military man who seems to understand the ins and out of in-theater operation, becomes a babbling idiot, whose military tactics make absolutely no sense whatsoever. Like, I don't know, maybe drop the bomb from really high up so that you didn't crash into trees and whatnot? Also, out of nowhere, he regresses into a crazed maniac who wants nothing else but to kill the blue folks. The mission doesn't matter to him anymore, he only wants be an exterminator. It doesn't make sense. The guy is career military; he makes a living in situations like this.

The best example of this idea of character regression, though, is Pandora itself (hey, Cameron makes it a character - why can't I?). The first third of the movie is concerned with this idea of the living planet in which everything is connected through a kind of neural network. Sidenote: Sigourney's monologue about the neural connections between the trees provoked out-loud laughing from both Janna and me. Totally ridiculous on a Mega Shark level. Then, later, when Jake is doing the William Wallace thing, he has to send everybody flying out to the other tribes? Why can't they just plug into the network and summon the others? Isn't that the point? And isn't it a rather large planet? It should have taken weeks to get all those warriors there, right? This is another example of the limitation of Cameron's writing - he can't close the deal. In the end, it's all just an action flick and darn the details. Continuing with Pandora, what's the deal with the body switching ritual? They just had this particular dance/chant/whatever ready to go in case they needed to switch bodies? Does this kind of thing happen regularly?

Here's why Cameron is no Tolkien (not that anyone is claiming that he is, of course). In films like THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, there is an internal consistency, an internal logic, to the created world. In AVATAR, there is none. Why do the floating mountains have waterfalls? Where does the water come from? Why does Eywa choose to wait three-quarters of the way through the battle to send the animals in? Why does Michelle Rodriguez suddenly care about the Smurfs? Are the screenwriters of DANCES WITH WOLVES and POCAHONTAS going to sue for plagiarism? And the big question: don't they know that the evil capitalists are just gonna come back with bigger guns and bigger bombs?

Anyway, I'll say it again. A movie with a weak story is a weak movie. It gets some points for being extraordinarily beautiful, but that's it. AVATAR gets 2 Resident Evil dobermans out of 5 (you go watch the Resident Evil movies and tell me that the dogs aren't exactly the same as the ones in AVATAR. Go on.). By the way, I reserve the right to upgrade this in the future if the sequels are better... and I hope they are.

28 comments:

myleswerntz said...

I really hope there are exactly zero sequels to this. This is a great review, John. Way to stand in the face of the Oscars with both birds waving.

the hamster said...

you have one point here that i'm okay with: weak story equals weak movie. you and me and stephen king agree on this level. story is essential. and when story is kicked to the curb to give room to effects or theme or propaganda, then hail hitler.

but i honestly didn't care about the inconsistencies and character regression of AVATAR. i was along for the ride and the ride was fun. had i noticed or considered the things you said here, i may not have enjoyed the film as much. but i walked into the theater boasting my gullibility.

also, i hope to never sit through any of the LOTR films again, though my wife's owns them and adores them.

the hamster said...

by the way, my point in that last comment (which i lost because i was writing this in class - i know, cheeky) was that the story never tripped me up. maybe you didn't like the story, fine, but i don't think the story is that bad.

and i did not worry about the question of regression because we're talking about gauging people's behaviors in ridiculous circumstances and unnatural environments. take the characters in UNDER THE DOME, for example. do we discredit the novel because the characters suddenly acted in the middle of this week in a way they may not have the week before? especially since most regressed into bit parts and archetypes before all was said and done? no. we trusted king as a story teller, and watched the characters assume typical king roles and molds.

and, honestly, if we're going to discredit cameron on the fantasy aspect of the film (which, again, i don't see as that ridiculous) then you have to discredit the fantasy aspect of 3/4 of the films that make up the backbone of this site.

overall, i think your beef is with cameron, not with AVATAR. and i feel that you may have glanced over some of the same elements in other films and books that you used to discredit AVATAR here. i'm just saying.

still, i always appreciate how willing you are to come with guns blazing or, as myles said, both birds waving.

John Barber said...

Gotta disagree with you here. There's a significant difference between UNDER THE DOME and AVATAR. In King's work, there is a logical progression (or regression) to get to the characterization in the end. In AVATAR, the characters just sort of mysteriously get stupider. There is no logic to it.

And which movies are you referring to that also do this? FRIDAY THE 13TH? That's supposed to be an excuse for AVATAR?

And yes, my beef is with Cameron. Cameron is AVATAR. He's the writer and the director. You can't separate the two. And James Cameron shouldn't even be mentioned in the same sentence with Stephen King. It's an insult to a master storyteller.

the hamster said...

ummmm, yeah, you're right about that, too. and i'm not just being diplomatic here:

cameron and king should never be mentioned in the same sentence, especially as comparative elements in a debate. that was an emotional response on my part. i renege said comparison.

and i was not referring to FRIDAY THE 13th as the legitimacy of AVATAR's what-not, but, rather, the schlew of b-flicks . . . .

shit, i just realized we call them "bad movies," which does not bode well for my argument about AVATAR.

okay, you're winning this debate by leaps and bounds.

still, i enjoyed AVATAR, for whatever reason.

and i still love cameron's TERMINATOR and TERMINATOR 2. always will. i feel less loyalty to the na'vi than the terminator, so please be careful being too critical of T2. i do love it so.

let's do a series on wes craven next, shall we?

Pete Peterson said...

Great post, John, though I think it's partly inaccurate to say the 'story' was weak. I think it's a good story, perfectly serviceable, lots of potential.

The problem is with the storyteller or the storytelling. The writing is so god-awfully bad that you never get the chance to sink into the story and forget about the parts and characters that don't make perfect sense. Clever writing that's working hard to sell the movie both implicitly and explicitly can cover a plethora of sins. (The Lord of the Rings has loads of inconsistencies but we're fooled into seeing past them because we care more about the characters and the conflict that we do about analyzing their circumstances...also, anyone who doesn't like the LOTR movies has a broken imagination, hamster.)

So Cameron gets an epic fail for screenwriting. Ok, maybe not epic, that award belongs solely to George Lucas. But Cameron is surely vying for the title.

What irritates me is that Cameron is so exceptional at directing action, editing, design, etc. He's so technically capable that there's a lot to love other than the actual storytelling, which is why I still enjoyed Avatar against my will.

I just wish he'd get off his high horse and realize that he could make a truly 'Great" movie if he'd submit himself to the work of better writers.

myleswerntz said...

first things first: we still have to finish the last of the turd-blossoms of FTT, then on to the Cravens.

MM said...

john barber to have my babies

the hamster said...

myles - speaking of, you're up this sunday for FRIDAY PART 5. and good luck with that one.

matt moser - i'm telling lisa.

myleswerntz said...

Sunday--ain't no way that's happening. this is a hellacious week.

maybe next week. maybe.

the hamster said...

then you better start asking john barber real nice like to cover for you this month. i'm signed up for PART 7 and FREDDY VS. JASON. but we gotta get something on the airwaves this, shucks, not sunday, but saturday. saturday is the 13th.

maybe you can enlist the help of johanna.

John Barber said...

Pete - I agree with you on one thing. Cameron needs to hire writers. There are lots of them out there that are currently out of work. They could use the dough, you know? After watching AVATAR, I couldn't help but think of the writers of the recent Battlestar Galactica series, and how they would have made this a much better film.

I do think that you're wrong about the story, though. Any story that can be legitimately criticized for ripping off POCAHONTAS is a weak story.

myleswerntz said...

which ones did I take on? Hell and Manhattan?

BTW, that sounds like a good punk band name...

myleswerntz said...

I'm in luck! "goes to Hell" is an instant watch on Netflix!

the hamster said...

you realize we're putting our managerial record keeping out there for the public. you realize our Hockey Mask enterprise could crumble if the masses learned the strategies of our infastructure. oh well, here's to the end . . .

i don't remember what exactly which films either of you signed up for. i asked to do THE NEW BLOOD (7) and FREDDY VS JASON. that leaves 5, 6, 8, and 9 open for squabble. i'll rerun JASON X when the time comes, probably remodified for current tastes.

i'll let you and john work saturday out betwixt yourselves.

Pete Peterson said...

So does that mean you consider Pocahontas a poor story? There's really no such thing as a new story. It's very, very rare that a movie or book is anything but an old story wrapped in new clothes. That's why I don't think it's the story that's at fault, it's the execution of the story.

I'm picking nits, but I do think there's a difference.

John Barber said...

I guess the question then is this: What is story? Plot? Characters?

the hamster said...

john just named his next three Hockey Mask posts in that last comment.

go for it, buddy. make beefboy proud.

Tiffani R said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Tiffani R said...

Dang it - I posted and there was a spelling error...here goes:

First: Y'all are hilarious.
Second: It appears there is quite a well-oiled machine behind the curtain (except when it is not well-oiled and the maintenance records are spilled out over some poor comment list)
Third: John - BAM! Loved it (your review. Thought Avatar was mediocre to average and that it should not get within an arm's length of best picture. So glad I cajoled my family into seeing it on the 30th instead of the 31st - Sherlock Holmes was a way funner way to end 2009.
Peace brothers.

Amber@theRunaMuck said...

Aw, man. I want to agree, because you're totally shmart, but here's my thinking: there's something of story in art, in song, and in visual effect. It lends a lot to story if it doesn't tell its own story.

So weak dialogue or plot, for me, can be very swayed by the visuals. Maybe I'm just a snake, and something in there was a charmer. I don't know how to chop it all down. I just know I liked it. I liked the story.

Was this another one of the comments that says, "I liked it because it was good"?

Shoot.

John Barber said...

I've got no problems with liking a crappy movie - I like lots of crappy movies. I jut don't like a crappy movie like this being held up as a cinematic masterpiece. AVATAR has no business being mentioned alongside THE HURT LOCKER.

To further prove my point, I love this movie: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ULSL-taDLeg

the hamster said...

john - i'm completely on board with what you just said. i did like AVATAR, but i know that even SHERLOCK HOLMES and BOOK OF ELI were better.

myleswerntz said...

Okay, Jason Goes To Hell--watched. What an awful, awful movie. And not even in an enjoyable sense of 'awful'. This reminded me of a "Made for USA" version of FTT. What happened that someone thought that was an acceptable script or plot?

I'll post today or tomorrow.

wonderstuff said...

Great review. I wholeheartedly agree. Cameron depends on archetypes, but doesn't know what to do with them halfway through. Weak story. But, of course, when you make a movie every ten years so you can have the best technology for the vision, no one gives a rip about story. So, yeah, they'll give this turd the Oscar, just like they did to the horrible, horrible Titanic.

In a related story, here's a link to all the stuff Cameron might have ripped off...
http://io9.com/5460954/the-complete-list-of-sources-avatars-accused-of-ripping-off

Avatar 2009 said...

Don't you think "Avatar" is the greatest film of the year 2009. If I am not wrong, it was most expensive film ever made. There is lot of special effects has been added in this film..

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