More noise than signal


This review has been ‘repurposed’ from my other site,

I do not know exactly what it is about this time of the year that causes the critical faculties of otherwise sensible people to turn into a thin, useless paste. Allow me to take you on a trip down memory lane for a paragraph or so. Honestly, it’s relevant and germane. Trust me on this.

Late December 2005. You would be forgiven for forgetting, along with everyone else on the planet, the blockbuster smash King Kong. It was a noisy, empty graphical spectacular that made a big splash on release and just as quickly faded into complete obscurity. Who talks in hushed tones about the big monkey film now? How many conversations that turn to discuss best films of the decade would consider talking about King Kong? Yet, at the time, everyone was creaming in their jeans about it. Hate to blow our own trumpet, but we called it. The event film of the year was a non-event in waiting.

Oh, look! Here’s another one!

James Cameron returns with the massively hyped purported saviour of 3D films, Avatar. It may perhaps be redundant given the avalanche of bluster surrounding it to talk much about the plot of the piece, but I suppose that’s one of the functions of this site so let’s crash onwards.

Having mined the total shit out of Earth, humans find a welcome source of fuel in the form of Unobtainium, taking a break from the zany drill-ship in The Core. Unfortunately it’s only available on the distant planet of Pandora, which is one of the less welcoming places in the galaxy. It’s also home to the Na’vi, a race of sentient, bright blue, seven foot tall native tribal irritants who have the sheer gall to build their homes on the richest supplies of the precious, shiny material.

The Na’vi refuse to make life easy for the corporations trying to mine the planet, understandably viewing the stripping of their planet as sub-optimal, especially when as a species they are entirely up to their necks in Gaia theory nonsense. When you’re swiping one of the central tenets of the film from Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, there’s questions to be asked about the wisdom of it. That was, after all, a film so bad it sank the studio that made it. With the Na’vi making things difficult for Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang)’s squads of hired goons, the suits (represented in the main by Giovanni Ribisi) attempt to win hearts and minds through Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver)’s Avatar program.

Through the judicious application of Science!, those futuristic boffins have come up with a way of having humans remotely control a custom grown, genetically engineered Na’vi in order to study and interact with the big blue critters. Into one of these bodies steps Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who in short order ingratiates himself into their society because he turns out to be the Chosen One Of Narrative Convenience. He winds up going native and leading the fight against the invading humans and so on and so forth, all of which you already know because it’s in the trailer and Jimmy Cameron courteously make no attempt to add a single thing deeper or more complex to it.

Right. Now we’ve got the contractually obligated recap out of the way, allow me to make a small observation: This is as generic a plot as you could possibly have hoped for. Indeed, brighter people than I have observed that it is little more than a high-tech analogue of Pochahontas. Of course, this plain, vanilla, seen before so many times over you could write it yourself basis for an action film is not, in and of itself, a recipe for disaster. After all, the critical term in that last sentence was “action film”. There’s any number of highly enjoyable action films with entirely disposable plots. Those guys, however have the sense not to present themselves as though they are, in fact, a deep work of narrative brilliance, which Avatar makes entirely too many nods and gestures towards.

This is particularly risible in light of the quite majestically stiff, wooden performances by, well, everyone, really. While the supporting cast have shown their chops in previous works they are, to a man jack, appalling in this characterless mess, but particular anti-plaudits have to go to Worthington. Showing all of the charisma of his turn in Terminator Salvation, which is not a compliment, he stumbles through his lines in much the same manner as a haddock freshly plucked from the sea and dumped on the deck of a boat would. Flop flap gasp die.

As uninspiring as the live action performances are, things get substantially worse once what we’ll loosely call interaction between your actual humans and your big CG blue things start in earnest. Despite having an amount of cash spent on effects work that would end hunger in a number of third world countries, the interaction between the live action and CG elements look just about as convincing as they did in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?. Regarding those much vaunted, 3D-laden effects themselves, and I appreciate this is more of a judgement call than an absolute truth, they look quite tremendously ugly. The garish, primary-coloured ecosystem Cameron has envisaged has little chance of looking realistic, even in an ‘alien’ sense, and is plagued by a total lack of internal logic. A silent, stealthy, invisible race of hunters tumbling through a green planet while being bright blue? Yeesh.

It’s baffling to me that Avatar is even recommended as a spectacle. On an episode of Richard Herring and Andrew Collins excellent podcast, they both lay out much the same case as presented above before Richard says it’s still worth seeing as a technical achievement, and in the same breath saying he fell asleep during it. This should, perhaps, illustrate the lack of value in spectacle alone. But if you want to spend a tenner to rent an uncomfortable bed for a few hours, knock yourself out.

Of course, given the massive box office success of Avatar warning anyone away from it seems redundant, and given that a lot of people seemed to quite genuinely enjoy it perhaps I’m just being overly curmudgeonly. However, people seemed to genuinely enjoy King Kong too, and that didn’t stop it fading into a historical footnote in short order. The same fate awaits Avatar, of that I am sure. It’s not a bad film, in the strict sense of the terms. It’s arguably worse. It’s a dull film, and I have little tolerance for mediocrity these days.