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Avatar Backlash Backlash – Is “It Looks Beautiful” Ever Good Enough?

I’ll be honest. I didn’t like Avatar. Part of the movie made me uncomfortable. The implications of the whole “white man leads a bunch of noble savages to a victory they couldn’t have acheived without him” bit are worrying when place in the context of a metaphor for the genocide of the Native Americans. But, beyond that, it just isn’t a very good film. The dialogue is terrible. The characters don’t seem half as real as James Cameron’s wonderfully brought-to-life planet Pandora. On the other hand, I will concede that the visuals are stunning. They are breathtaking. What really amazes me, though, is the tone of backlash that most negative reviews seem to be generating, which can be effectively summed up with: just shut up and look at the pretty picture – who cares about plot and characters?

King of the new world...

The real eye opener was perusing the negative review over at The Projection Booth – browse down to the comments to see the backlash against his criticism. In fairness, he’s since followed up with some press coverage of the backlash to criticism of the film, and that’s what really got the ball rolling in my head. That and an on-going discussion on boards.ie in which a lot of people seemed to be making the assertion that simply looking incredible was enough to offer the film a perfect score of 10/10 or 9/10. Many of the comments from people advocating the film openly acknowledged the film’s terrible character and plotting issues, but simply treated them as if they don’t matter.

This got me thinking. Is this just a larger movement in the Transformers 2 backlash backlash style. Transformers 2 was a blockbuster savaged by critics that went on to make a tonne of money at the box office, causing Roger Ebert to question the taste of the average movie-goer and calling the validity of movie criticism into question (should movie critics attempt to reflect popular opinion – you’ll like this film, you won’t like this film – or instead attempt to offer an insight into the movie?)

It should be conceded that the tables are somewhat turned in this example most critics loathed Transformers 2, whereas most critics (including Ebert) are positive about Avatar. Honsetly, I think that’s beside the point. The majority of comments about negative reviews aren’t based on the assertion that the movie is some sort of existentialist marvel that critics just don’t comprehend, but that good storytelling isn’t a prerequisite for a good film.

And what is shocking is the aggressive nature of these comments. You’d swear you’d hit every single reader in the face with your fist to get such a response. Instead, you’d simply pointed out a flaw which everyone concedes is there. It isn’t a rational response you provoke, it’s as if you’re the guy who point out that… um, no, the emperor (or king of the world, to keep it appropriate) actually isn’t wearing any clothes. The response you get is something like “u dont know that cloths dnt mater, but u wouldnt get that cause your busy being all pretentous – sometimes an emperor doesnt need cloths”. Okay, maybe I’m being mean.

What’s stunning is that it seems to be a credible argument that a film’s visuals can excuse anything. Don’t get me wrong, I think that visuals can make a spectacular move when story isn’t present (that’s why Koyaanisqatsi is a cult classic), but I don’t think that stunning visuals and vistas can ever be divorced from a less than sturdy plot. What amazes me is that the same critics who lambast summer blockbusters for being empty fare are the same ones lauding James Cameron’s latest.  Take the typically uppity David Denby at the New Yorker:

The movie’s story may be a little trite, and the big battle at the end between ugly mechanical force and the gorgeous natural world goes on forever, but what a show Cameron puts on!

Avatar is Transformer 2 taken to the nth degree. It is G.I. Joe with bigger mech suits.

In fairness, some outlets are acknowledging that this increasingly begrudged criticism may merit discussion. For example, The New York Times:

So it’s been left to the fanboys, the people who’ve watched Aliens 97 times and worship the ground James Cameron walks on, to insist that there’s more to epic-making than spectacle and special effects.

And good for them for insisting. Sci-fi spectaculars deserve to be taken seriously, as pop art if not as high art, and not just patted on the head for putting on a good show. That doesn’t require comparing a James Cameron film to, say, The Rules of the Game and finding Cameron wanting. But it means recognizing that there’s a world of difference between a truly great special-effects driven fantasy — like The Matrix (the first one, not the sequels), or Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, or The Empire Strikes Back — and a gorgeous disappointment like Avatar, which succeeds at being eye-popping but doesn’t succeed at very much else.

Or Entertainment Weekly, of all places:

What’s far more interesting to me right now than the rotely predictable storyline of Avatar is the potential cultural-wide acceptance of the notion that this is now all that a movie really needs to be. Reading some of the prestige critics who have swooned over the film … what strikes me is that although both these critics make brainy, passionate cases for the movie as something radically new, what they’re really embracing, in effect, is the visual-pow!-trumps-narrative aesthetic that has ruled Hollywood for the past 25 years. [These] reviews might have run under the headline “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Eye Candy.”

I don’t know. I accept I’m the minority on this and – being honest – I would have forgotten about it and moved on, but what continues to strike me is the subtext of the response that criticism of the film draws from the on-line community.

I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect Avatar to have had both groundbreaking special effects and – at least – a reasonable storyline. Certainly given it’s pedigree – this is the man who brought us The Terminator and Aliens, by the way (some may have forgotten it) – I expected more. But does this represent a fundamental shift in how we view entertainment? Just something mindless to pass the time? I remember that one of the biggest fears with the emergence of affordable CGI was that the special effects would eventually end up replacing the story rather than enhancing it.

Yes, while watching the movie I felt like I was on Pandora. But I didn’t really feel like I was with Jake. That’s unlike ths year’s Moon, where I felt I was on the moon with Sam and GERTY. Or even the ridiculously low budget Clerks, which made me feel like I was in a dingy basement conversing with some interesting characters. Now, if you told me I had a choice to go to Pandora with Jake Sully and watch him act out a disturbing racial fantasy, or go to a dingy convenience store like every other one I’ve ever been in, and hang out with some interesting people doing mundane – but interesting – things, I’d pick the convenience store. And I’m a nerd. I fecking love space and stuff.

Is Avatar a visually stunning film? It is. Is it anything more than a sub-par cinematic experience? Oh no.

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One Response

  1. thank you for saying what nobody is thinking because they are too busy loving this movie.
    visually spectacular, but that does not make up for the cringe-worthy script and snore-inducing story line.

    “storytelling isn’t a prerequisite for a good film” well said, because apparently this is correct.

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