5 Reasons Avatar Will Suck

5 Reasons Avatar Will Suck

As the biggest movie of the winter approaches, I think we all hear the whispers of prophesy. Avatar is going to suck.

Reason #1: John Smith / Pocahontas stories suck

Boy, does this suck!

Boy, did this suck!

Some people remember 1995 for the OJ Trial. I remember it as the year the torch was passed in movie animation, when Toy Story proved that Pixar was the future and Disney had to get on board or get out of the way. At least, that’s one side of the story — that in 1995, Toy Story was awesome. But there’s another side of the story, which is that, in 1995, Pocahontas sucked.

After Pocahontas, Disney could never again call itself the King of animation. While it still did fine at the box office, the streak that ran from The Little Mermaid through Aladdin and Beauty and the Beast to The Lion King finally snapped. Disney would love to tell you that it was because technology trumped talent and experience, but really, it was because Pocahontas stories suck, and everybody knows it. They threw their weight behind a lost cause, and they, shocker, lost.

Still, moviemakers keep insisting on pumping out the darned things like John Smith and Pocahontas are some legendary mythological couple whose tale speaks to the human condition and stands the test of time.

Unfortunately, they’re not. The John Smith / Pocahontas story is awful, and the insistence on telling it over and over again is a foolhardy exercise in wishful thinking. From what it seems, Avatar is at its heart a John Smith / Pocahontas story — a man who is a bit of a ragtag outcast from a company of colonists goes to meet the natives and accidentally falls in love with a native woman, who teaches him the beauty of her world even as tries to decide whether or not to conquer it. Avatar’s participation in the John Smith / Pocahontas quasi-mythological sham is as strong an indication ahead of time as you are going to get that it will suck.

"Here, let me teach you how to use our weapons, harvest our resources, and conquer my heart, I mean, our planet, I mean, my heart."

"Here, let me teach you how to use our weapons, harvest our resources, and conquer my heart, I mean, our planet, I mean, my heart."

This realization came to me about a month ago as I started falling asleep halfway into the “watch Colin Farrel doing nothing” / “listen to James Horner doing nothing” film The New World. This meditative memory movie about Jamestown, John Smith and Pocahontas was critically acclaimed for its treatment of historical perspective — it grafts vivid moments of immediate observation to constructed personal meaning through reflective narration, self-conscious pacing, subtle handling of theme and context, and a deliberate, intense treatment of what is not said or done. It’s the birth of America, painted in fleeting images of Virginia mangroves.

This is not cool. This is creepy.

This is not cool. This is creepy.

The New World is an impressive piece of directorial craft, and I see where the praise is earned. It also sucks a whole lot. Like, it sucks donkey balls sucks — unambiguously (as opposed to all the ambiguous donkey balls out there). I would not recommend watching it.

(To be fair, I did turn it off after some interminable stretch of time, which was still before Christian Bale showed up, so maybe it eventually got better. But the part I saw was miserable. Brilliant, but really miserable.)

The director has plenty to say about landscape, about people meeting people, about the exotic, the immediate, and the distant — but the story is dead weight. It feels like it’s going for what Roman “The Rapist” Polanski’s MacBeth or Sean “The Rapists for $200” Connery’s Robin and Marian did — pull the audience into a challenging visual and symbolic vocabulary with an understated take on a classic tale, Except, because the tale in The New World is neither classic nor interesting, The New World repels us from its stirring and complex imagery with half-apologist, half-exoticist hot streaks of disappointment.

I’m sure we all wish the John Smith / Pocahontas story were good. We wish Vanessa Williams and Mel Gibson could really fall in love, we wish it weren’t so creepy when Colin Farrell was making eyes at that little girl as she wanders about dehumanizing herself, styling herself a cross between Dr. Dolittle and Jessica Rabbit. It would be convenient to contemporary political consensus and to audience appetite for historical romance for it to be so. It would be a nice counterpoint to all the tales of empire that tend to come down pretty strongly against romance as a viable alternative to conquest.

I mean, love conquers all, right? Right? Please tell me that’s right?

Unfortunately, it isn’t, at least not in the story of John Smith and Pocahontas. In the story of John Smith and Pocahontas, love is a big part of the problem, but nobody ever takes this problem seriously, so the story flops. There are stories that support this much hoped-for thesis, that people can find in each other a new way of living and understanding, but this isn’t one of them. All the movies people make leaning on this thesis and based on this story get lost and end up sucking.

The first clue that the John Smith / Pocahontas story sucks is the ever-haunting sense that the ending is always wrong. In real life, the story ends in a sloppy, multideterministic way characteristic of real life: Pocahontas got together with John Rolfe, not Smith, and left her people to go live in Europe, where she enjoyed some celebrity. Eventually, her people were driven like leaves before the wind out of their homelands and Pocahontas died of diseases to which she had no natural antibodies.

This is unsatisfying, which is why the “John Smith / Pocahontas” story is usually a drastic fictionalized departure in tone and plot from what actually happened. Usually, there’s a notion that she should or wanted to end up with John Smith, who is really a pretty big d-bag.

Still, the story intuitively points in that direction. Even people who know the real story well walk into Pocahontas stories assuming she’s going to end up with John Smith, having to correct themselves (and usually others) that, no, that isn’t how it ends. They also assume her people will achieve some sort of happy ending — that some sort of reconciliation will be affected or the natural world will be saved from the ravages of the white man by the power of love. That John Smith, Mr. “He who does not work shall not eat,” learns something about nature and cultural diversity from the whole experience.

There is no evidence that he did so, and shoehorning it into the story always seems false because it contradicts with so much of the other stuff that is going on.

Progress is a slow process.

Progress is a slow process.

Once you really dig into fictionalizing the history to make a John Smith / Pocahontas movie, the first thing you have to do is fix the ending, and I have yet to find a solution that actually works — whether you’re talking about Disney’s Pocahontas, Cameron’s Avatar, or Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest.

Neither the happy “let’s all frolic in the forest” ending, nor the “I’m going to go to England with John Rolfe and I’ll miss you — remember everything we learned together” work, and there isn’t a comfortable place along the continuum for it to work either. You end up with a story template that is in itself a huge problem.

Why pick a “classic” story to base your fiction on if the template is ugly — if the ending always has irreparable problems? You pick a template because it makes things easier, cleaner and more elegant, not to make your movie more difficult to make and alienate your audience.

Think of Hercules on his funeral pyre wearing the cursed cloak that killed him, given him by his wife without her knowledge or intent — and compare it to Darth Vader on his funeral pyre, in his cursed suit also given him by his wife sort of by accident. Two men of power felled by their misunderstanding of love — there’s a reason the scene repeats, and there’s a reason it ends multiple good stories.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bIaYfLkpCdg

There’s reason nobody ever watches Disney’s Pocahontas and why nobody ever gets my jokes that quote “Colors of the Wind.” It’s because the structure of the underlying story sucks, as the structure of Avatar will suck, too.

The second clue the John Smith / Pocahontas story sucks is its contradictory way of looking at the differences between races. On one hand, we are to believe that the bond of love, or at least of curiosity and excitement, between John Smith and Pocahontas is enough to build a bridge, if only for a moment, between their vastly disparate peoples.

But on the other hand, every version of the John Smith / Pocahontas story I’ve ever seen treats her as extremely exotic. She has magical powers, she can talk to animals, she has a Sisters of Avalon nature virgin sex goddess vibe going on, whatever. She’s almost always in some sort of slinky imagined Native American garb — more than she wore in real life when with her people, but as it is for the sake of provocation, not accuracy. Pocahontas as superhot crunchy sex spirit is so ingrained in the story that, if the woman isn’t depicted as sexually exotic, if that isn’t one of John Smith’s main motivations in wanting to be with her, it isn’t a Pocahontas story.

But if the chief quality of Pocahontas is that she is extremely different from John Smith to the point of not even qualifying as human in any way he can understand, then she fails to build a bridge between peoples — their relationship fails to serve as a lever for communication, mercy and understanding. She actually just further “otherizes” Native Americans and advances the notion that they are not people in the same way white folks are people.

If this story is supposed to teach us something about how not to colonize people, then why is the central romance itself a colonization?

The archetypical, fictional Pocahontas is a comfortable meeting place for discussions of “diversity,” but not a good one for actually talking about race. She lends historical legitimacy to the notion that people who are different from each other should try to get along, but she reaffirms prejudices rather than shedding light on them. She encourages us to see each other as something other than enemies, but also as something other than equals. She is the American landscape that is begging the European man to take what he wants from her. She’s the head Uncle Tom of a fictional nation of magical Indians that would be more at home in Never Never Land than they ever would be on the coast of Virginia.

Of course, what she really wants is to sleep with white dudes. That is awfully convenient when building an imperial narrative for white dudes. And any pretentions this story ever has to being about how imperialistic white dudes shouldn’t take what they want when they want is undermined by its reckless — and essential — fetishization of the exotic.

The worst part of all this is that we know the John Smith / Pocahontas bond fails. We know her people — indeed, all the peoples similar to hers for thousands of miles in any overland direction — are eventually all but exterminated by the buddies of this guy she just had to save from Powhatan’s wrath. And we know that the romance between John Smith and Pocahontas is a model for exactly how that is going to happen.

And yet the Pocahontas story is still put out there as something positive, as a mark of hope, as a heroic narrative of love and understanding, rather than the first act in a massive, massive tragedy.

Sure, it’s positive, fun and exciting for the couple of dudes who get to have sex with Pocahontas, but it sure sucks for everybody else!

The tale of John Smith and Pocahontas is a boulder The New World shoves uphill for three hours. It’s bad news that Avatar has its own John Smith / Pocahontas boulder and its own three hours of ours to waste pushing it. The whole thing feels dirty and dishonest, as I don’t doubt it will in Avatar when Sam Worthington inexplicably and inevitably falls in love with the CGI cat lady and they save Christmas or whatever the frig they end up doing.

You want a good narrative about forbidden love across different peoples set against the clash of civilizations and the expanding drive to colony and empire? You want a story that is still pretty sexist, but that at least doesn’t suck about a woman who makes a questionable decision to spare a man for sexual reasons and ends up paying for it in the eventual demise of her country? Give me Dido and Aeneas (the Roman myth in any of its forms) over Pocahontas any day of the week. At least Dido and Aeneas acknowledges what is actually at stake in the push for empire. At least it properly locates the power of eros in the scope of human endeavor (i.e., not strong or sincere enough to slow down people who are seriously committed to taking over other people’s countries — and usually actually encouraging them).

Avatar better have a really sad ending, because if these cat people are actually saved because Sam Worthington gets a fur-on for one of them, that’s just nonsense.

But no, I think Avatar, like most Pocahontas stories, will shoot for a happy or ambiguous ending by trying to play it both ways — endorsing colonialism in its romantic narrative while condemning it in its political narrative, leaving it a broken mess of pronouns severed from antecedents and modifiers cut adrift from what they modify.

In other words, because it will be dressed up as an unconventional political movie, but will actually be a conventional romance that endorses the very status quo it attacks, Avatar will meander into a train wreck with itself and will suck.

Is it too late to ask him to do Terminator 5? Or at least The Abyss 2? Or maybe something original that doesn't look like Final Fantasy X fanfiction?

Is it too late to ask him to do Terminator 5? Or at least The Abyss 2? Or maybe something original that doesn't look like Final Fantasy X fanfiction?

And also because of the cats with human boobs. Freakin’ cat boobies.

43 Comments on “5 Reasons Avatar Will Suck”

  1. Redem #

    Heh while I don’t agree (I’m a salvation apologist), but anyway the the last part is quite the Jewel

    The article mention the fact that John Smith is a bit of an outcast in his own society. When you think about it this rather kill the whole “love know no boundary” theme its suppose to have
    because John Smith aspiration and value class with those of Europeans societies and therefore he can only fit with the natives hence why he so attracted to Pocahontas.

    Reply

  2. josh #

    What if the ending involved the be-boobed cat people winning the war and driving out the invaders permanently? Would that work to make it suck less?

    Would you be willing to admit that the bipedal mech-armor in District 9 didn’t suck? Cuz I dug that. Especially collecting the bullets in a magnetic field bit and the way they animated it when damaged to actually seem very wounded beasty.

    Have you considered the possibility that Tahmoh Penikett is himself a suit of bi-pedal armor? (maybe for a dwarf warrior of some sort) Something weird about the way that dude moves. Like his torso and hips are always aligned, usually with his jaw. Check it out next time. He kinda stalks around like a T-800. It’s odd. Or maybe its the way he seethes and juts his jaw out. I can’t put my finger on it.

    But yeah. Overall, you’re right. Blue boobed cat people cartoons leaping around CGI Eden. Looks like a steaming pile of fail.

    Bonus Cameron quote: Right from the beginning I said, “She’s got to have tits,” even though that makes no sense because her race, the Na’vi, aren’t placental mammals.

    Reply

  3. perich OTI Staff #

    Fenzel: I’ve always understood your “Paint with all the Colors of the Wind” references.

    Reply

  4. Simber #

    That’s a great piece on Pocahontas Fenzel, but strangely it lights a small candle of new hope for Avatar for me. (I had a feeling it would suck for a long time.) Because if there’s one constant in Cameron’s work it’s that identity is forged (and crushed) by powers individuals can’t fathom, let alone control. And the movie is not called ‘name of exotic planet’ or ‘name of exotic blueboobcat’, but ‘Avatar’, so the crux must lie there.

    So if Cameron has decided to make Avatar a romantic tragedy (like Titanic) instead of a romance, it just might be satisfactory. And I suspect this is the case because it’s not Sam Worthington/John Smith who appeals to Blueboobcat, but the disguise; a Cyrano theme. So inevitably there will be a third act confrontation between Sam Worthington *as human* with Blueboobcat – frought with irony until the treason is revealed. This is not romantic comedy treason, which is immature and easily forgiven (She’s really a maid! etc.), but hardcore peripety and in all probability tragic.

    This just leaves the four other reasons why Avatar will suck, of which especially the cats with boobs thing pretty much convinces me.

    Reply

  5. stokes OTI Staff #

    This is pretty damning stuff. But I’m still trying to get excited about this movie, and here’s why: James Cameron’s narrative elements have always kind of sucked. I don’t have any interest in seeing a troubled youth teach his distant, threatening father-figure how to cry. And woman-in-prison movies right up there with catgirls on the “Wait, who thought this was sexy?” scale. But Terminator 2 still ruled.

    I also don’t really want to watch a tough-as-nails chick learn that all she ever really wanted was to be a mommy, even if her response to this knowledge is to just become tough-as-nails-ier. And Vietnam… IN SPACE!!! is not really as good an idea as filmmakers seem to keep thinking that it is. But Al|ens still ruled.

    Cameron’s strength is not in the stories he tells: it’s in the uniquely filmic way that he tells them. And from what I can tell, he spent most of the past decade teaching himself how to use 3D technology. So here’s what I’m hoping: I’m hoping that Avatar will be one of the first 3D movies where 3D stops being a gimmick and starts being part of the visual arsenal of filmmaking. That 3D will be for Avatar what cross-cutting is for, say, Birth of a Nation… another movie whose narrative aspects – lest we forget! – suuuuucked.

    But I dunno. After reading Fenzel’s post, hoping got a lot harder. Like I said, it’s pretty damning stuff. How hard would it have been to give the natives less revealing clothes? Or hell, just switch the gender dynamic: make the imperialist agent-provacateur a woman and the sexotic native a dude. That alone would probably be enough to throw the traditional Pocahontas narrative out of whack, and at least give the story a chance to stand on its own merits.

    Reply

  6. stokes OTI Staff #

    p.s. I think it goes without saying that most of the writing staff will see Avatar regardless. What would people think of a James Cameron theme week?

    Reply

  7. thinkwatchthink #

    This was great. Awesome. I am in awe. “Case of the Jars Jars” alone would make it worthwhile, but I loved your take on Pocahontas narratives. It is twisted that we keep going back and saying, “But see, they fell in love and that makes us totally taking over everything all okay.”

    And can I just register annoyance at the idea that putting something over the nipple makes the woman somehow not naked. There’s more to the boob than that one little spot. You’re not fooling anyone here.

    Reply

  8. Darin #

    Awesome post, read every word, gonna be late, worth it.

    Reply

  9. Diana #

    “The archetypical, fictional Pocahontas is a comfortable meeting place for discussions of “diversity,” but not a good one for actually talking about race. She lends historical legitimacy to the notion that people who are different from each other should try to get along, but she reaffirms prejudices rather than shedding light on them.” = FULL OF WIN.

    Also, thank you for finally saying something about the awfulness of cats with boobs. This is what happens when board rooms try to do “nerd-friendly female characters” — it’s worse than the manic pixie dream girl thing that happened when Hollywood discovered that indie rockers don’t like Pamela Anderson. The extent of the tone-deafness is embarrassing for everyone involved.

    Reply

  10. mlawski OTI Staff #

    Great article, Pete.

    @josh: If the magical Native Americans/boobed cat people do end up beating the humans for good, the movie will still be sucky and racist, just in a different way. I worried about this when I saw the Avatar trailer at the movies recently. It’s the Mighty Whitey tale all over again. The cat people are too dumb to know they need to fight the humans, and too weak to know how to fight them. Luckily, Mighty Whitey (Humaney?) Sam Worthington is there to show them the way. You need to fight, he says. Here’s how you fight my people, he says. Then he starts flying around on their computer-generated sky horses and kicking ass.

    I can see it already. Sam Worthington, who has been in the body of one of these cat people for maybe a week, is inconceivably the best damn blue cat warrior there has ever been in the whole history of blue cat warrior people. (He may suck at being a cat warrior for about seven minutes in a comic relief scene, but, don’t worry, a quick montage will help bring him up to speed as The Best Cat Warrior There Could Ever Be.) Only with his awesome help would the cat people have a snowball’s chance in hell of defeating the nasty humans. In short, humans (white people) suck, but only a human (white person) with his infinite intelligence and badassness can defeat them.

    This is definitely going to happen in Avatar. Even if the cat people ultimately lose in some faux-tragic ending, this is definitely going to happen.

    Reply

  11. Jesse #

    Heey, wait. Why isn’t there a single-page or print-view option? As a longtime podcast fan, I’m disappointed in you.

    Reply

    • Matthew Wrather #

      Just installed a print option. Thanks for pointing it out to me.

      Reply

  12. M Chan #

    Maybe it will be more like Dances With Wolves, where the romance between Male Outsider and Sexy Boobed Tribal Representative is merely a sideplot, and the main thrust of the film is the misunderstanding between peoples that goes far beyond mere linguistics.

    Or maybe it will be mostly about CGI and Mecha suits. And boobed catpeople.

    Reply

  13. A man of science #

    Great post, Fenzel! The Pocahontas story — even the mythical, idealistic version — has never sat right with me, but I could never quite put my finger on why before now.

    I agree with you about the power armor legs. They’re a vulnerability (cf. “The Empire Strikes Back”, naturally), they’re slow, and it would have to be a tremendous waste of energy to lift those huge legs and put them down again, over and over.

    But let me play devil’s advocate: how do you respond to the typical rationalization that legs let the machine “walk” on any kind of terrain, where wheels cannot go? A sufficiently nimble walker could pick its way over a rocky mountainside, through a swamp, or over the uneven ground of a jungle. Okay, even those examples suck — any large vehicle would simply be blocked by the trees in any forest or jungle setting, whether it’s on wheels, treads, or legs. And the tremendous pressure on the feet (think of stiletto heels versus a flat sole) would send the legs sinking straight down into a swamp (or snow — I’m looking in your direction, General Veers). Also, none of this justifies using legs to the exclusion of wheels/treads; everyone knows that multi-mode robots are the coolest anyway. But the “rocky mountainside” example still sort of holds, and the terrain excuse is the number-one reason trotted out to defend those giant walking impracticalities we can’t help but love. It seems to have escaped mention in your post, Fenzel, so I’d be interested in your response to it.

    Also, “Magic: The Gathering” rocks! Wild Nacatl is good in Extended if you have any of the dual lands from “Ravnica” at hand, and a little duct tape covers the cat boobs nicely.

    Reply

  14. KevinR #

    Y’know, if this thing isn’t a huge boxoffice success (which will probably be the case even if it does make fuckloads of cash), maybe Fox won’t be able to afford further development on their proposed Fantastic Four reboot, and will have to sell it (and maybe Daredevil too) back to Marvel. So, maybe some good will come out of this either way.

    Reply

  15. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Fenzel –

    I haven’t seen The New World, so I can’t really argue with your assessment. But let me ask you, have you seen any OTHER Terrence Malick movies? The guy is somewhat notorious for making gorgeous, plotless movies. Days of Heaven is really breathtaking… while also being dull as hell. So I guess I’m saying that if The New World is completely boring, it’s not necessarily the subject material that’s the problem. That’s just the way Terrence rolls.

    Reply

  16. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @mlawski –

    I bet there is another young cat-man, who is a rival for the cat-girl’s love. And when Sam Worthington wants to take over the tribe, the cat-man challenges him to some sort of cat-duel. Anyone want to bet a dollar?

    The sad part is, this totally happened in Stomp the Yard.

    Reply

  17. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    @Fenzel –

    I’ll add a sixth reason: these special effects don’t look that impressive. They look like a videogame. A GREAT videogame, but still – they look fake. I may very well be eating my words, but I’m not buying the “This is the most technically-advanced thing ever created” line.

    Reply

  18. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    And YES, I’m going for the rare QUAD-QUAD-QUAD-QUADRUPLE comment, because no one has yet mentioned the “Dances With Smurfs” episode of South Park from last month. The episode is mostly a takedown of Glenn Beck, with Cartman using the morning announcements to rip into Wendy for no reason. He eventually tells an elaborate story about how she murdered all the Smurfs.
    http://www.southparkstudios.com/clips/255337
    And at the end of the episode, the punchline is that James Cameron makes a movie about it. “How many smurfberries is the life of one Smurf worth?!”

    Trey and Matt are right – Avatar is “Dances With Smurfs.”

    Reply

  19. fenzel #

    Thanks for reading the post everybody!

    @josh — The District 9 armor was supposed to suck — it was leftover, kind of half-operational armor in a refugee camp. So the fact that it was ugly and moved awkwardly was okay. The aliens were supposed to be really off their game, but still really advanced, so I think the inherent suckiness of that armor helped.

    Also, much of BSG already posed the question of whether or not Helo was a robot, as it did for its entire cast. If he turned out to be one, or perhaps a suit of bipedal armor with a smaller half-Eskimo driving it, it would still be better than the series finale of BSG.

    @stokes — I am hoping the movie is good, too. Its main hope is 3D; the 3D might just be so awesome that the rest doesn’t matter. Like, I’m a big fan of Captain Eo, but I wouldn’t expound on a great many redeeming qualities.

    I’d be up for a Cameron theme week.

    @shana — love your take on the cats-win-because-of-white-dude scenario. It’s spot-on.

    @Jesse — Sorry you’re disappointed. We’re working on a redesign now, but it’ll take a while. I’m hoping the eventual redesign has a “view as a full page” option. I split this into pages because it was just way too frickin’ long with too many images for the default to be one giant pageload.

    @man of science — Yeah, but two legs are still not very stable. Four legs would be better for traversing rough terrain, or many legs like a spider. But it’s not like the usefulness is why they make it bipedal — Volton is bipedal and spends a lot of his time flying around outer space. They make it bipedal to look like a robo-super-person, to be an extension of the human body. It has a tiny bit of promise, but it’s overdone, and it still sucks for reasons mentioned earlier.

    Also, man of science, if you like Magic and want to read more stuff written by me, I have a bunch of humor articles at another site, http://www.goodgamery.com, under the name GyantSpyder. It’s a fun place.

    http://goodgamery.com/index.php/tag/gyantspyder/

    The jokes are pretty obscure for non Magic players, but I’ve enjoyed it.

    I mostly play online, and mostly limited these days, but yeah, Nacatl is great in extended, of course, but it’s also good to see it in play in standard again in the naya lightsaber decks. I’m wondering whether Worldwake will have additional manafixing that will make it really firmly playable again — or will at least give some tools to let somebody put a decent UG aggro-control deck together to fight the other midrange decks. Too much Jund! TOO MUCH JUND!!

    @Blinks

    I CHALLENGE FOR LEADERSHIP OF THE CLAN!! The Kevin Costner parallels continue! They really should have made him the lead of this movie — he would have been amazing.

    Never have seen other Mallick movies, but it makes sense then that he would pick The New World if he likes this kind of thing. Just so freaking boring.

    As for the Avatar special effects, yeah, a lot of it is going to rest on the 3D and whether it is too exhausting to watch or integrated into the rest of the moviemaking well enough. I’ve seen a few 2D stills with interesting composition that lead me to believe there are going to be some really impressive 3D images in this movie — but it still doesn’t look like it will transcend novelty.

    To be fair, it’s entirely possible that some of the images in this article are actually _from_ the video game. The pictures have kind of gotten jumbled on the ‘Net. They’d have to be FMVs, though. They’re too fancy to be in-game.

    And yeah, thanks again to everybody who liked it! Hopefully, the movie will be awesome, embarrassing me, but giving me solid enjoyment, and prompting a “Five Reasons Avatar Didn’t Suck” post. But I’m not holding my breath.

    Reply

  20. Mike M. #

    How is it that mech armor has entered the discussion, yet neither article nor comments has a single mention of “Iron Man?” I hereby submit that film as the exception that proves (i.e., challenges) your rule. The entire film is basically Robert Downey Jr. building his own mech armor, and it’s all pretty awesome.

    Also: James Cameron Week is an awesome idea. I’m surprised you haven’t done it yet.

    Reply

  21. fenzel #

    @mike m

    An observant question! I actually originally included a discussion of the difference between “mecha” and “power armor” in the piece, but I cut it because, well, it was confusing and not fun to read.

    Note the use of the word “giant” in the heading for reason 4.

    It’s generally acknowledged in fictional-robot-related geek circles that large piloted armor is different from human-sized “worn” armor, and that “mecha” only apllies to the former. Thus, the Iron Man suit is not mecha. stuff the size of the rig in aliens or the armor in district 9 is borderline, but feels more like a vehicle than a set of clothes with special powers. “Worn” armor that is only slightly larger than its user is much less stupid, because you can understand why it has legs and it usually is built in such a way as to protect the user as opposed to deliberately not protect him or her while focusing on durability everywhere else.

    This is discussed in the Wikipedia article for Mecha:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/mecha

    The irony is that I cut this discussion out of the post because I didn’t want to get into too much depth on it, because it’s a tricky distinction that doesn’t much reward figuring it out and has lots of exceptions.

    Good question, though!

    Reply

  22. josh #

    I realize it’s petty and small, but I want it to suck. Or rather, I want it to fail mostly because I’m 95% convinced it will suck. Although I’m pretty sure it’s too big to fail.

    I mean, the guy has unlimited resources at his command and he makes a reactionary Dances with Smurfs cartoon? And we still can’t get a watchable Terminator sequel?

    I don’t want to live in a world where that’s rewarded! (gestures dramatically, jumps into abyss)

    Reply

  23. Gab #

    Small IMDB-ish fact before the meat: Christian Bale also did the voice of Thomas in _Pocahontas_. If the narrative itself is a recipe for disaster, he probably won’t ever redeem himself by participating in a *good* Pocahontas story- 0 for 2 forever.

    I hadn’t thought of it before, but you’re quite onto something about how the failure of the Pocahontas narrative led to the failure of Disney. Their next film, _The Hunchback of Notre Dame_ didn’t do so well, and it was also a rather messed-up transfiguration of a previously known narrative that has parallels to the Pocahontas one (Pheobus and Esmeralda). Same with _Atlantis_ (much more blatantly, too). Then they did _Treasure Planet_ (I didn’t see it) and _Home on the Range_ (the only movie about which I have ever not known answers to in Disney “Scene It!”). But since I miss the Good Old Days in which I grew up, I’m hoping they succeed in this _Princess and the Frog_ coming out. While it probably could have a “5 Reasons it will Suck” article of its own, I’m holding out for it the same way I (and it seems you and most of the other commenters here) am for Avatar. (And on a related note, I am also praying Shymalan’s movie will be good because the cartoon it’s based on is amazing. Seriously, Fenzel, if you haven’t seen it, this is something you need to fix.)

    Re: Dances with Wolves. First, Kevin Costner is awful. If he *had* been cast in this one, he would have been good because he was so damned bad. But whenever the narrative fails, too, then the “good” part is really hard to get to. I know I’m probably alone in this, but he’s an actor I can’t stand watching; and his movies are examples of the rare ones that I dislike enough to choose turning off the TV over watching when they’re on “just because” or something- if those are the “best” things on HBO, I’d rather go do something else. If I do like the movie, it’s always because it has a plot based more around an ensemble cast, and there is usually at least one person that totally outshines him in some way, compensating for his vast amounts of not-awesome; and even then, I’m sort of uncomfortable during his scenes.

    Okay, now that that’s off my chest… His character didn’t fall in love with a Genuinely Real Sparkly Native. She was a white woman that had been adopted by the Sioux leader Kicking Bird. That’s a gigantic loophole I have been bothered by since I was old enough to understand it (I saw it when I was way too young because it was filmed basically in my grandpa’s backyard and I’m related to a bunch of the Lakota extras). There are lots of ways to pick the relationship between Dunbar and Stands With A Fist apart (hmmmmmm), but the fact remains he couldn’t build the bridge between himself and the tribe on his own and needed her to dredge up her memories of English to really make any progress. And, further, the success of *their* relationship is based on that language link- I really don’t think it would have worked out if she hadn’t tried to remember English in order to talk to him (and had been able to as much as she had). She was curious about him, but that would have been the end of it (if her character was still in the story at all)- *everybody* in the tribe was curious about him in some way, after all.

    The fetishism of the Pocahontas narrative seems to be one of the biggest problems with it, right? Even if the colonist Goes Native, it’s presented as some big, noble sacrifice instead of what it really comes down to: his eros taking over. It gets made out to look like he’s Doing the Right Thing by sticking around. So he’s always with the Token Sparkly Native Woman. It’s like roleplaying (not the DnD kind) made into “reality”- its foundation is an erotic fascination/fixation on an other, someone typically not encountered and untouched, someone typically taboo or off-limits.

    MORE MAGIC POSTS!!!! I actually seriously, seriously thought something very similar to A: “Wow, that could get really overpowering REALLY fast.” Stuff like that is why artifact lands are banned from tournament play.

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  24. Darin #

    Check out Fenzel’s awesomeness…

    [via io9 via Telegraph]
    James Cameron gave his overview of the story, straight from the six-legged horse’s mouth:

    “We’re telling the story of what happens when a technologically superior culture comes into a place with a technologically inferior indigenous culture and there are resources there that they want,” said Cameron. “It never ends well.

    “It’s also a love story about an awakening of perception through the other person. That person must teach him something and there has to be a greater reason for him to be in love with her other than she’s a hot blue alien chick.”

    Superior culture, resources, indigenous culture, love story, and the money shot “hot blue alien chick”.

    I was wavering on seeing it, then was a ‘yes’ after I saw a certain promo, and now am definitely in the DVD category.

    Honestly, thank you for saving me ~$15.- First round is one me.

    Reply

  25. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    I always think it’s a little disappointing when aliens are portrayed as being basically human, but a tiny bit weird-looking. This happens really, really often. But CAMERON, in Aliens and The Abyss, actually did manage to depict aliens that seemed ALIEN. That’s another reason why it’s disappointing that his aliens are basically people, but blue and furry.

    Reply

  26. stokes #

    You can’t give him credit for AL|ENS, though… that was Scott and (mostly) Giger all the way, Cameron just took the baton they passed him.

    Reply

  27. Valatan #

    @Gab:

    The parallel with Hunchback is interesting, because Victor Hugo actually kind of got THAT narrative right: Phoebus is a colossal, immature jerk, Quasimodo is a caring outcast living in Claude Frollo’s evil world, and Esmerelda is a sort of immature, alluring girl from the wrong side of the tracks. And all of this leads to ruin for everyone but Phoebus. Hugo’s resolution is that the bad guys win, and it sucks royally. Hunchback is a compelling tragedy. Of course, the ending to The Hunchback of Notre Dame would have left 80% of America’s under-9 set crying approximately 10x more than during Bambi, so this had to get changed.

    Disney then tried to turn it into a semi-comedic adventure story with a super-happy “Three cheers for quasimodo” ending. This required turning Phoebus into some sort of heroic figure, so that him ending up with Esmerelda wasn’t completely insane. Disney turned a story about the tragedy of power and misunderstanding INTO a Pocohontas story.

    Reply

  28. Lisa #

    This article didn’t mention another reason, just from the trailers, that the movie seems likely to fail. Sam Worthington is in a wheelchair at the beginning, but being an avatar (or however the technical lingo defines it) means he can walk again? He’s not really a person unless he can walk, of course. Because that’s just how things are. Yet he is only allowed to walk if he takes on an alien image, because by being careless enough to become paralyzed but not get himself killed, he has abdicated all rights to being a human. (Oh, and yet if he proves himself, somehow he’ll be let back into humanity by getting his legs back?)

    I mean, maybe not. But indications are not good here.

    Reply

  29. fenzel #

    @Lisa

    Yes, you are definitely on to something. The whole thing seems to come from a huge sense of entitlement – that, if you are a heroic, good person, then the universe will give you opportunities to take what you want from it, and damn the costs to everybody else.

    And if you’re handicapped, and you’re good, then you’ll get a chance to walk again. And damn all the people who have to stay handicapped.

    It’s classic Hollywood Happy Ending stuff, but it really seems woven into this story in a way that is kind of perverse.

    But, of course, I haven’t seen it yet, so this is all just a guess.

    Reply

  30. fenzel #

    @Valatan

    Yeah, Pocahontas sucked because Disney bought into the mythology and told the messed-up story with all its problems.

    And Hunchback sucked because Disney didn’t buy into the mythology and tried to take out the stuff its audience couldn’t handle.

    I think they were both just bad choices for stories to do. At some point the people overthought (heh) what they needed to choose for a story. They got too obsessed with being the Next Big Thing — almost all the really good Disney animated movies are based on stories that have only a very weak claim on the zeitgeist — the characters captivate, but the stories are kind of half-remembered, and if they change, it isn’t a big deal, which gives the animation studio a lot of opportunity to flesh out the story and make it interesting.

    Nobody cared that the Little Mermaid totally departed from the original story in immense ways, because the story wasn’t really why people like the original Little Mermaid.

    Like, Aladdin is a good example — to an American audience, the actual story of Aladdin doesn’t matter. All that matters is that he rubs a lamp and a genie comes out to give him three wishes.

    But if you pick a story that itself has this really dominating, really intense angle that is important to people – where they don’t have this comfort with the characters that makes them forgiving about whatever you choose to do with them, that’s a problem. Something like Pocahontas, where the stakes are the fairly recent historical genocide of a bunch of real people, or like Hunchback of Notre Dame, where the characters aren’t really beloved, the tragic tone and ending are well-known, and you don’t have this etherial mindspace to play in where the story is still the story, that’s not the raw material you want to use to make your cartoon.

    Mulan is an example of them getting it right. The “girl who dresses up like a soldier to fight” story is right where it needs to be. It’ll be familiar to anybody in any country who sits down to watch it. The actual source material doesn’t matter to anybody.

    Of course, by taking that strong political stance with the choice of movie, they do take a somewhat alienating tone that hurts them at the box office (ooh, aren’t Chinese people exotic! It doesn’t exactly play well with Chinese people or with anybody else.), but it alone doesn’t doom their movie, just the marketing.

    Reply

  31. Gab #

    Lisa: I didn’t want to get on a disability high-horse (again…), but I noticed that, too. The implication I got is that you can’t be whole or happy if you have a disability.

    Fenzel: Did _Mulan_ to poorly? I had forgotten it earlier, but now you mention it, I thought it did well. And I don’t know anybody that saw it and didn’t like it. In fact, it feels like an exception to the rule of “_Pocahantas_ killed Disney,” so I guess that’s because they did it right, like you said?

    By the way, I watched a special on the new one last night, and some of the interviews made it sound like they’re doing what you said works, Fenzel, meaning going for the story everybody relates to and making it work for their purposes. So maybe there *is* hope for it.

    Reply

  32. Rosiepigs #

    Reason #7: Michelle Rodriguez is unwatchable. I feel bad for every halfway-talented Latina actress out there who should be getting parts given to Michelle every-line-read-wrong Rodriguez. In Fast and the Furious She was worse than Will.i.am in Wolverine, and he redefined awkward. She was bad in Resident Evil. I cheered when she died in Lost. And she’s not even hot! Please let her part in this disaster be minimal–I’d rather the ickiness of being aroused by a bluboobed cat than have to watch Michelle Rodriguez for more than 1 second at a time.

    Reply

  33. Chloe ellis #

    IT DID NOT SUCK SO SHUT THE HELL UP!!!! ITS THE BEST MOVIE I HAVE EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE. THE GRAPHICS ARE SOOO GOOD, YOU ARE JSUT A LOSER FOR MAKING ASUMPTIONS!!! :@ :@

    Reply

  34. crazydave #

    Well, I have read your opinion and I have seen the movie and I must report most enthusiastically that the movie didn’t suck! In fact it was incredible, one of the best movies that I have ever seen. Perhaps it was the incredible panorama of breathtaking special effects that make you want to believe in the impossible. It could be the captivating and imaginative script and storyline. The action packed thrill ride that carries you awestruck from open to close could be it also. Or is it the sexy aliens that have you wishing that you could climb into a booth and go for a romp with one as one of them. In the end it is everything, including the catgirls boobs that bring to life this story and make it one of the best movies that I have ever seen.

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  35. Gab #

    I haven’t seen it yet, but crazydave, I can’t help but note how the majority of the positives you mention are aesthetic in nature and not about story or character development (and by that I don’t mean cup size), so it sounds like what Mlawski said on the Think Tank page in carnate.

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  36. fenzel #

    Just saw the movie myself, and I stand by what I wrote. Most of what I guessed was going to be wrong with Avatar turned out to make it into the movie. Visually, it’s very impressive, but the story is weak, the acting is weak, and there are lots of conceptual and structural problems.

    Watch for our special Avatar podcast on Monday to hear the full report — including at least one overthinker who disagrees with me, loved the movie, and will fight me over it!

    Reply

  37. Kopakka el Incrópito #

    I’M VERY IMPRESSED AT AVATAR.
    i AM PRETTY CERTAIN I HAVEN’T SEEN A MOVIE SUCK SO BAD AND SO THOROUGHLY IN SO MANY LEVELS IN A VERY LONG TIME. (I MEAN, THIS IS “PHANTOM MENACE BAD”, AND WITHOUT THE SENSE OF HUMOUR)
    BUT THEN AGAIN I’VE BEEN TAKING A LOOK AT CAMERON’S ENTIRE DIRECTING CAREER, MAYBE IT’S JUST NOT MY CUP OF TEA. BUT ALMOST EVERYTHING SUCKS BIG TIME.
    ALSO VERY INTERESTING TO SEE HAW ACCURATE FENZEL’S PREDICTIONS WERE, THAT KINDA MADE ME HAPPY IN A SORT OF EVIL WAY.
    THE IDEA OF SEQUELS GIVES ME THE CREEPS, BY THE WAY.
    I’D LOVE TO SAY MORE BUT I CANNOT DO W/OUT SPOILERS, AND IT WAS BOUND TO GET A LI’L POLITICAL, SO THAT WOULD MAKE ME EVEN MORE OF A UNBEARABLE READING.

    AND TO THINK WHEN THE MOVIE ENDED THERE WAS A ROUND OF APPLAUSE IH THE THEATRE (BECAUSE IT WAS FINALLY OVER, PERHAPS?), BOY THAT WAS REALLY CREEPY.

    I WANTED TO HAVE A “RORSCHACH MOMENT” BUT BOREDOM KEPT ME FROM IT.

    DOES ANYBODY KNOW IF THIS WAS A CHILDREN ORIENTED MOVIE OR IS IF THIS PART OF THE DISNEYFICATION OF, WELL APPARENTLY EVERYTHING.

    Reply

  38. Kopakka el Incrópito #

    AND YES THE VISUALS WERE AWESOME, COOL. IT’LL PROBABLY WIN AN ACADEMY AWARD FOR FX, OR HOWEVER THEY ARE CALLED TODAY. I’M PRETTY SURE IT WILL.

    Reply

  39. JAS none #

    This is a fail. I disagree with almost every point. The one I disagree with the most… “Cats with human boobs suck” Why? Because boobs make anything better.

    Reply

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