Sunday, January 17, 2010

We did see it in 3D

I don't give a lot of coverage to movies on this page, mostly because I don't think there are very many of them of recent vintage that qualify as good sf, and the older ones that do qualify have been written about plenty elsewhere. But Jeff and I went to see Avatar in 3D last night, and it seems to warrant a few comments.

First, both Jeff and I feel irrationally guilty and sad that we did not like it as much as we are expected to. We feel like we're failing as movie-viewers somehow. We both acknowledged that it is a spectacular piece of filmmaking, at least as a technological accomplishment. But everyone's said that a billion times already, so I won't dwell on it here and instead move right into where we had problems.

I was having difficulty from the beginning with the 3D. My vision is pretty bad and I require glasses at all times to see. Even those sunglasses that I am seen wearing in pics fairly often are prescription glasses. My current Facebook pic shows me without glasses and it looks so strange to me that I hardly recognize myself every time I see it. So there was the simple discomfort of having to wear the 3D glasses over the top of my real glasses, but then I had visual difficulties that I don't think other people were having. Things were quite blurry most of the time, especially stuff way in the background or way in the extreme foreground, and especially during the action sequences when a thousand things were in motion at once. The whole effect of it started a low-grade tension headache and moments of vertigo, and my eyes felt effed up for a long time after the movie. Basically, 3D ain't my bag, and I really don't look forward to this being the way movies will always be in the future, as director Cameron insists.

Jeff fortunately did not have these visual issues, and he was able to appreciate the 3D more than I did. We shared in our assessment of the  story. As far as we could tell, the plot has two main strands: 1) the tale of the Marine Jake who translates into an alien body (the "avatar" itself) and has a saga of struggle, love and revelation among the people of Pandora; and 2) for some goddamned reason, Earth people are fucking with this alien world in order to mine a  substance called unobtanium. The first plot thread is solid, if predictable. Nothing surprises in it, but it's lovely anyway and pulled the emotional strings that needed to be pulled in such a story.

The second plot thread, however, is ri-frakkin-diculous. For one thing, the motivation of the Earthling douchebags, represented by a "Company," and the United States military, seems to be simple evil and douchebaggery.  According to some technical expert on this film, that was interviewed on Science Friday a few weeks ago, this unobtanium substance is all over Pandora and is even the reason that those floating mountains exist. I don't think all this was specified in the script itself, but if it's true, then why the hell do they have to mine it right exactly where the native population lives if the stuff is all over the place? Just to be assholes, evidently. Indeed, after they cruelly destroy the Na'vi's Home Tree, they come back later out of pure malice to try to destroy another even more important giant tree (Soul Tree, I think it was called). Also, if it was ever explained what they need unobtanium for, then I missed it. And I have a huge problem anyway with the notion of interstellar civilizations traveling the galaxy hunting for natural resources under almost any circumstances. More than once I have encountered (even  in the M-Brane slush pile) the absurd notion of aliens wanting to invade Earth for food and water even though water is one of the most commonplace substances in the universe and would certainly not be in short supply to a species that can send spacecraft between the stars. Whatever unobtanium might be, it beggars the imagination to think that Earth needs it and that they need to get it right at that one spot.

And what about the depiction of the military? I haven't heard much commentary on it myself, but Jeff said that he saw a TV program recently where someone was worrying that the film was meant to be taken as an attack on the conduct of the real US military in foreign lands and was calculated to make military people look cruel, racist and stupid. Well, if that was Cameron's intention, he succeeded. Really, James Cameron? In the 22nd century, a major military operation will be commanded by some kind of aggressively stupid, stereotypical, macho Southern asshole? I don't think that even goes on now. Yeah, I'm sure there are some macho assholes like that in the real military, but this dude in the movie would be equivalent in position to our theater commanders in Afghanistan and Iraq, and those generals do not act like that even now in 2010. Of course the Colonel is supposed to be an irredeemable villain and we are supposed to hate him on sight and throughout, but we found the whole idea of him to be crap, shite, balderdash, and bloody awful. If this one character would have had some nuance, it would have gone a long way toward salvaging something out of the otherwise wholly lame unobtanium plot thread.

We do, by the way, "get" it that we are supposed to get from the Colonel an Apocalypse Now flavor, with him drinking coffee on the deck of his gun ship and speaking entirely in cliches, but…damn! A lot of the film is, of course, homage and re-hash, some if it good and some of it less so. The first thing Jeff noted when we left the theatre was that we had just seen Sigourney Weaver reprise the role of Ripley (even wearing a Ripleyesque outfit in her avatar guise) and that we had just seen a remake of the robot-machine vs. alien fight from Aliens. I swear I even heard a bit of the actual James Horner score from that Aliens scene as the Na'vi chick battled the robot-clad Colonel. Also, Jeff pointed out that he was constantly hearing something very much like the Celine Dion Titanic song through the whole thing. "Near…far…where-eeever you are!" Fortunately that did not set into my own brain during the movie.

Despite these gripes, there is a lot to like in it, at least visually, and much of it was lovely to behold even with my vision problems. So, even though, most of what I said here, and most of what Jeff and I said to each other during our discussion of it last night, sounds fairly negative, I will endorse the overwhelming chorus of "You gotta see it the the theater! In 3D!" at least for the novelty of it, for it being the first thing of its kind in its technical prowess. Normally, I am happy to wait until the Netflix rental for most any movie and will trade the "big screen experience" for the comfort of my living room any day. But Jeff and I agreed after seeing Avatar that we would not have wanted to have waited for the video, then had this same assessment of its storyline and then be told by everyone else that "You just don't get it because you didn't see it in 3D!" So, OK, we get it. We saw it in 3D. Unobtanium is still frakkin dumb though!

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Christopher Fletcher said...

BTW, I guess we're gay in all species, since we found Jake in avatar mode and some of the other Na'vi dudes to be pretty hot. Just saying.

G2L said...

First, no active military involvement on Pandora; they were all contractors, more Blackwater than U.S. Army. They did make that clear, as noted by my U.S. Marine step-son when I asked him which side he took during the movie. BTW, he ended up on Jake's side thru-out its shifts despite the ooh-rah speeches.

2nd, the colonel is a great villain, with all the nuances of the word, true to himself, the hero in his own story. Reminded me of J.R. in "Dallas". Everything you called him, but that's the way it should've played. The kind of bad-ass you want on your side when the boots hit the ground.

3rd, you're right smack on about the 3D experience. We saw it 3D IMAX, the best way to go.

RE "Gay in all species" Humanoid is humanoid; if you reacted that way to, say, Niven's Puppeteers, well, _then_ you'd be ready for the trans-species gig.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Yeah, probably an apt comparison with JR, and I don't necessarily object all the time to that kind of villain, but this dude just wore me out. The actor did a good job with it, though. I guess I missed it that those people were contractors like Blackwater, but I guess it makes sense since "the Company" seemed to have over-arching control of the operation and their did not seem to be the imprimatur of a proper civilian government on it.

As for the, NO, I don't think that would be possible for me. Indeed I remember finding it remarkable how widely accepted "rishathra" is on the Ringworld, but, as you say, humanoid is humanoid.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy pretending that The Company is the SAME company as seen in the Alien flicks. Sigorney Weaver playing roles in both not withstanding.

One thing that I think the guys pointed out, is that the methodology for both filming and watching a movie changes with properly implemented 3d. Example, traditionally a frame that has a single element in focus, we have learned to search the out of focus area, ala the Psycho shower scene. with 3d, if you don't want to get a headache, you'll trust that if it's out of focus, don't worry about it and cast your attention on what is in focus. To do otherwise will almost certainly lead to a headache.

So, what are the full on adult SF films *that aren't boring*? Are Blade Runner and 2001 the only ones? Maybe A Scanner Darkly, though it is just barely SF. I want a 'space movie' that is adult. That is even more rare.

Christopher Fletcher said...

Yes! We, too, decided that perhaps it is set in the same universe as Aliens just in a different time period, but with that very same Company.

A reasonably recent proper adult space movie that is real sf is SUNSHINE. And that may be about it for the past decade. Though I hear that the new movie MOON is supposed to be very good (and I think it's even due soon on DVD). And I like AI (I know I'm the only one!). Every other recent "sci-fi" film in recent years seems to be crap like TRANSFORMERS or super-hero movies or that latest TERMINATOR business. I had high hopes for the new STAR TREK, and while I did find it fairly entertaining, it was completely preposterous story-wise, even by STAR TREK time-travel movie standards.

If you go further back to older films, I'd rate highly FORBIDDEN PLANET and even some of the slightly sillier ones of that era like FIRST MEN IN THE MOON and DESTINATION: MOON and, of course, classics like WAR OF THE WORLDS and THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL. The late 1960s-early-70s period had some solid sf film in it, like 2001, PLANET OF THE APES, SOYLENT GREEN, and even stuff like LOGAN'S RUN and ANDROMEDA STRAIN and A BOY AND HIS DOG. Indeed, I would even consider the first STAR TREK movie in '79 to be a pretty good serious space movie, but that came out post-STAR WARS, which pretty much killed off the genre of "serious" space movies before it even really got established.

So, yeah, there's not much. I wonder why? Is it just too boring for the masses, and so can't be a blockbuster genre? I'd like to see some very realistic hard sf in movies more often, and there's no reason why it can't work. After all, the good stories are still human stories regardless of the trappings, so why not try to do something really hardcore science-fictional more often?

Ed Robertson said...

Moon is very, very good. In the 2001/Solaris vein. Sam Rockwell should seriously by up for Oscar consideration for it.

Anonymous said...

I had a lot of the same problems with Avatar, or as I like to call it, Dances With Wolves, but With Aliens.
It's true that the Marines were Black Water type contractors, but the film did it's best to shit on the military. They even refer to the company's planed assault against the Navi as a "Shock and Awe Campaign." It also replays the notion that all white people are ruthless colonialists and all aboriginal populations are absolutely nobel, pure, and beautiful.
All in all though, it was pretty cool.
I'm glad you mentioned the gay in all species thing. I thought Jakes Navi girlfriend (i forget her name) was pretty hot. I was wondering if there was something wrong with me.


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