This is the follow-up to 5 Reasons Avatar Will Suck, enhanced by the fact that, at this point, I have seen the movie. Feel free to go back and see how prescient I was. This one has spoilers; the last one did too, but they don’t count, because it’s not a spoiler if the movie just happens to be predictable. You have to see it first.
Barring the few slobbering orientalists who get jazzed by how Avatar fetishizes the exotic, everyone I’ve talked to has the same basic opinion of this winter’s biggest megamovie — the visuals are groundbreaking and all fancy (and crap), but the characters and story are not so good (and crap). Overall judgements on the film seem to differ based on the watcher’s priorities. Which is more important, spectacle, or the other five Aristotelian elements of drama?
If you’re the kind of movie-watcher who values shiny objects over all else, you probably love Avatar, and I don’t know if Overthinking It can do much for you other than recommend some other all time cinematic greats.
But if you are the kind of movie-watcher who sees movies as a medium for storytelling, Overthinking It can do quite a bit more for you. We can vindicate you. We can set you free. We can speak truth to power. And we can go back later, see whether or not we were right, and talk about ourselves.
We can tell you why Avatar sucks. We can even add a sixth reason, because we’ve actually seen it this time. It’s a new year, with new possibilities and new, higher Arabic numerals.
The re-debriefing on cat boobies and more, after the jump —
Reason #6: The avatars suck
Initial assessment: “An avatar has the power to turn an otherwise decent, functional person into either a raving idiot or a certifiable freakshow. Naming the movie after one implies similar debasement — such a flick is already fighting an uphill battle against suckitude.”
Before Avatar came out, I heard plenty of chatter about how believable the computer-generated Na’vi bodies were going to be. Thanks to James Cameron’s innovative “performance capture” technology, they were going to transcend traditional the limits of the believability of CGI characters. They were going to shatter the Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within barrier. Or, you know, they were going to at least not fall back behind the barriers that Gollum shattered seven years ago.
Cameron succeeded. The CGI Na’vi and CGI Avatars look great. The physicality is off sometimes, but the “performance capture” technology works, and some of the shots make them really look like they’re actually there.
However, consider this: While the Na’vi are an achievement in computing and filmic tech, “really looking like you’re actually there” and “walking and making a facial expression without alarming and creeping out the audience” are things Andrew McCarthy does 70% of the time he’s on camera. Your local gas station attendant does them 100% of the time on his security cam, even though he never watches the tapes.
Cameron managed to raise the level of CGI acting to that of the basic human being photographed. This is only an achievement because, other than Gollum, almost nobody had ever done it before. Oh, and because it was difficult and expensive.
But this accomplishment in itself doesn’t mean including the avatars in Avatar makes the movie better. It just means there’s a limit to the degree that they can make it worse.
Now we have these fancy cat bodies, what did Avatar actually do with them? I’m most interested here in Avatar’s avatars, the simulated, generically engineered catsuits. My charge in my initial article was that the movie avatars would function like online avatars — that they would prompt the characters to “descend” (from the Sanskrit) from being already pretty lame to being straight-up awful. I posited that being in an avatar is going to bring out the lamest in somebody, real or fictional.
This is a pretty good summary of what happens to the characters who take control of Na’vi avatars. There are three of them of note — Sigourney Weaver, who goes from being a pretty boring caricature of a wonkish academic sociologist to a naïve nonfactor in a crop top. There’s Jake Snaggletooth Hammerstein or whatever Sam Worthington’s name is, who goes from being an angsty paralyzed former vet who is loyal to the military to being neither angsty, nor paralyzed, nor loyal to the military, and just kind of an action movie cliché. Then there’s sort-of-goatee guy, who goes from being “in the movie” to being “not in the movie.”
I’d say that’s descent on all counts.
A shadow of my former self
But that’s not quite why the avatars suck. They suck because they make the story malfunction. The movie is already emotionally slow, clunky and inelegantly plotted, and the characters are flat and poorly developed. The avatars are responsible for making both these things worse.
When you present a character in any visual medium, from Hogarth to Verhoeven, the design of the character matters. Maybe this design is the work of an actor, maybe it is done by a cartoonist, but it gives you an instant idea of who the character is and what the character is like. Film (digital or chemical) is a visual medium, and the first impression a character makes is visual.
The avatars sort of have the faces of the actors who perform their voices and gestures, but they don’t look like those actors enough that you instantly and subconsciously connect them with their corresponding human characters. When Jake’s avatar is onscreen, there’s no “Oh, there’s Jake!” moment of comprehension. The avatars present such a divergence from what the character looks like, that when they first appear, they register as new characters and have to be introduced to us all over again.
This is compounded by the trope that the avatars represent a rebirth or baptism of the main characters. As avatars, they don’t have any of the problems they had as people. Jake Jakerson can walk, Sigourney Weaver doesn’t smoke and is younger and more vigorous, and sort-of-goatee guy stops being a random douche and becomes an extra. This is supposed to communicate an Emersonian message about the constant possibility for transcendent rebirth in the context of nature, but what it does in practice is negate the time spent in the beginning of the movie on character development. The characters don’t hold onto their shit, which means the shit you learn about the characters up front has little payoff and can’t inform the action.
Let me reiterate this, because a lot of people have misunderstood me when I’ve talked about it — if you take away a character trait you spent time developing, then it doesn’t fulfill its role of informing the action.
This is not the same as saying it doesn’t mean anything or that it accomplishes nothing in the story. Sure, it accomplishes the whole Emersonian thing I just talked (err, wrote) about. But character development isn’t just about what the characters mean or what the story is about — character development is an important part of what makes the performances in a movie emotionally engaging and interesting. In order to develop sympathies with the characters, we need to know stuff about them — even if it’s only known on impression and not explained to us (for example, we never care why Steve Urkel is the way he is, but we know a bunch of stuff about him based on what he looks like and how he talks — that’s still character development).
The example I keep bringing up IRL rants: At the beginning of the movie, we learn two things that are really important about Jake.
- Jake has a dead twin brother.
- Jake is paraplegic.
Once Jake gets in the avatar, neither of these things matter.
This is by design, but it creates a huge problem in the story, which is that Jake’s character was really strongly identified with these things, and now Jake’s character is just gone. He isn’t grounded in anything. His attitudes and emotional reality evaporate. There’s very little to inform what he does. It’s a lot like Star Trek V, which I’ve talked about before many times. Jake needs his pain — he needs it to be in the movie.
The characters are flat and the story seems slow because Cameron doesn’t solve the problem that the avatars create when they wipe the histories of the main characters more than a half-hour in. The reboot and rehashing become more boring from an emotional standpoint than they have to be. The drama in a lot of the scenes is siphoned off. A lot of scenes that might have worked in isolation don’t work in the movie, and the resulting failures (the worst being when Jake Francois Vermouth blows off the opportunity to get his legs back as if it ain’t no thing) just sit there heavy, viscous and misshapen – like turds.
I’ve said many times since seeing Avatar that the movie would have been far, far better if Jake started in the avatar. The lead-in is pretty, but it’s a waste of time, not just because you’re talking about doing something rather than just doing it (in an action movie no less) — but because, in this specific movie, because of the specific story you are serving, when you get to the avatars, you have to undo most of the exposition work you have done anyway and introduce the characters all over again. Start the movie later, and you dump a bunch of the dead weight.
Three other, far better ways to handle the visual presentation of the avatars —
- Handle it like Virtuosity or The Matrix, where people look the same in their own bodies as in their artificial representations of bodies. Tricky in this context, but possible, depending on how presentational you want to get.
- Handle it like the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers, and give us very obvious visual clues as to who each character is when they transform. Their street clothes match their outfits match their Megazords, and their names are there colors and tell you which one is which in all three places. A lot of video games do this when they transform characters into animals. See The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for some good examples.
- Handle it like Transformers: Beast Wars, and don’t delay. Switch the characters back and forth frequently, and show the changeover onscreen, so the audience can make the association.
Or, you know, you can just shove a giant chicken bone down your story’s throat in the name of technology.