When I first saw the trailer for Avatar, I just looked over at my wife and said: "That looks really good."
"Yeah," she responded, "it does."
I spent the next morning doing my standard procedure for things I discover to like: visiting the official website and gobbling up all the propaganda, over and over again. After another day spent away from anything Avatar, I regained some perspective. I wondered what the chances were of this movie garnering reviews with the following sentence: "The visuals are breathtaking, but the plot is cliched." Eighty percent? Ninety percent? I mean, 2012 came out just before that, and the only two things that anybody could say about that was "The plot was terrible, but the effects were amazing!" (I think that if Hollywood were to have a funeral, that would be its eulogy: "The plot was terrible, but the effects were amazing." And while we're on the topic, its tombstone would read, "The book was better.") But something about how James Cameron described his world, his Pandora, planted a seed of cautious optimism. Anybody who cares about his setting so badly that he'll pump $300 million into it must know what he's doing, right? (Wrong.)
He said the movie is based on a dream he had, which actually kind of pissed me off. Really? A dream? I've had dreams that felt like the most epic things in the universe that were actually about Bill Cosby and Jello monsters, but that wouldn't make for a movie. Frankly, it pissed me off because George Lucas said something similar about Star Wars Crime One: The Phantom Menace. There's this whole underwater adventure scene with giant fish and these weird frog people who sound like babies mocking Jamaicans, and guess where it came from? Lucas' little kid wanted them to go underwater. So he did it. Creativity is not just randomly putting crap into a story, and if that's the way that millions of dollars are going to be spent telling stories...well, that sucks, is my point. Ubersweet dreamz aren't reasons to make million dollar stories.
Or so I thought.
I intentionally avoided all reviews of Avatar the days leading up to my own viewing. I've found that reviews just ruin movies for me. As my wife and I walked into Star Trek, Allie mentioned that one reviewer had said: "This movie goes boldly where every other movie has gone before." And then for the rest of the movie, that's all I could see--the predictable plot, the standard jokes, the nice CGI. It's reviews that kept me from movies that I really wanted to see, like 9, and Where the Wild Things Are, etc. If I were to go see them afterward, I would only see those movies from the lens of these criticisms that I'd originally hoped wouldn't exist. I can't root for a movie if I read the review, because too often I'm forced to agree with the reviews after seeing the movie because I was looking for the flaw. And then movies that critics love, like Whale Rider, I loathe. It's like reviewers and I never match up. And you know why? Because entertainment doesn't exist so that other people can watch things for you. The best reviewer, for me, is me.
So now I'm trying a new policy of refusing to read reviews, and simply seeing movies that I want to see. (I guess that I'm a hypocrite because I'm kind of writing a review right now, presumably so that somebody else reads it.)
Okay, so far we've covered CGI splurge movies, basing movies on dreams, why we shouldn't read reviews, and how much I hate George Lucas. I swear, this all ties in. (All you clever kids who clicked the hyperlink will realize that I've already pulled the Star Wars card and come back to it again. This post will be one giant "The Circle is Now Complete" Darth Vader line, I swear.)
The movie itself. We saw it in 3D, which really, everybody should, even if they wear glasses like myself and are constantly readjusting their facewear for the first thirty minutes of the movie. Don't be put off by the 3D. I know that most movies that tag "3D!" to its title are complete losers, but the rule is not fast, my friends. Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs was fantastic even though they advertised its three-dee-ness, and usually my rule is that any movie with "In 3D!!!" on its poster is a waste of life. The previews in Avatar smacked of movies who coalesce to make that rule necessary. Piranha started out as a Spring Break movie with three dee hotties in bikinis, and ended with a guy sticking a chainsaw into my very face. The three dee in Avatar itself was...subtle. Artistic, even. It's as if James Cameron cared so much about his setting that he wanted his audience to be in it as much as possible. (Wait, maybe he does care.) And the typical punch-in-your-face tactics weren't enough: he wanted full and total immersion. The three dee is careful, and even beautiful.
The entire concept behind Avatar is that of entering another world, both physically and culturally. The hero dreams of flight once he loses movement of his legs, and he refers to his Avatar adventures as a kind of dream. Eventually that place becomes real to him while his human life seems a dream. This isn't just Dances With Wolves meets Starship Troopers meets 300 million dollars. The romance is the best romance I can remember seeing in a movie for a long time, and that's not just some added bonus to the movie, I think. The romance, the Avatar concept, the 3D, the elaborate CGI, the dreaming--it's all about leaving one world and entering another, and isn't that a big part of what love is all about? Isn't that a big part of what story is all about?
I loved Avatar--I don't think that the visuals outshone the story, or overwhelmed it, or anything. To sound cool, I might even say that the visuals are the story. Cinema is not a form where Story and Visuals are forever damned to battle each other, mythological nemeses whose sparks of conflict power the very universes they embody. Movies don't have to be either story dominant or visually dominant. They're both essential, defining parts of the same medium. But we've reached that rotten state in Denmark where things must be diametrically opposed, and we've already been conned by too many million dollar CGI fests.
So the twitchular reaction to Avatar is naturally going to be that its visuals are too good. For that very reason, I myself was suspicious and had to make jokes about what all the reviews were destined to say before I ever even saw the thing. I'm just getting slogged by all these movies whose stories merely serve to prop up the visuals or the action or the fact that they got these two big-name actors into the same movie. I mean, text is the cheapest commodity in the world right now; you'd think Hollywood could find people who write compelling screenplays.
But Avatar is not that movie. Everybody who leaves that movie is smiling and happy, and it's not just because of some visuals. It's because it's a darn good movie. You just can't grade this stuff. James Cameron himself pointed out that Star Wars didn't win Best Picture; some movie called Annie Hall did. What is really the best movie of those two? That's what happens when you try to grade great movies.
The buzz and critical responses that surround movies have almost become more entertaining than the movies themselves. Half the time I only go to see movies so that I can make sarcastic comments and show how witty I am, and I know I'm not the only obnoxious guy you know who does that. Spitting out criticisms afterward is a traditional process that's almost become more satisfying and enjoyable than the movies we watch.
For example, my wife and I found a bunch of criticisms of Avatar online, all along the lines of it being a liberal tree-hugging fest. Even my dad admits, after seeing it, that the writers had a tree to hug. (The phrase "axe to grind" doesn't work quite so well for these people, I think.) In a string of comments I read six or seven different readings of how ridiculously liberal Avatar was.
Let me say that we're both conservative. In fact, my wife is the kind of person who wouldn't be offended if you called her a radical conservative. She'd only be offended if you had to ask. And she didn't get any of that when she saw Avatar. (And if anybody were to reasonably catch liberal bias in anything, it would be her; trust me.) Sure, nature = good and corporate greed = bad. I'd be agreeing with everybody if this were Hellboy II, WALL-E, or The Day The Earth Stood Still (which I have). But Avatar is just too good.
So all my ridiculous movie-watching rules, like "Let's make sarcastic comments about predictability," "3D movies are bad," and "any plot with nature is contrived liberal dogma"--they go out the window, because Avatar isn't one of those things we go watch so we can tell other people we saw it and we can then share our witty criticisms.
Let's quit swishing Avatar around in our mouths and measuring the aftertaste as if it's some kind of wine-tasting. It's one of those movies that remind us all why we love movies in the first place, why we even care about stories, about other people and other universes that don't really exist. It's an adventure worth having, a dream that sticks with you much longer than an episode of Bill Cosby and the Jello monsters.
So to check--I talked about reviews being lame in the beginning, and at the end. I mentioned Star Wars a bunch in the beginning and again at the end. Same thing with visuals, CGI, and dreaming. I even mentioned my wife at the beginning and again at the end. And did you notice that zinger about the Jello dream? Am I awesome or what? All that's left is a conclusion.
Avatar is a great story and a great movie, because it knows that the visuals are part of the story. It knows that a great story is a kind of dream, an other-world worth visiting that makes us feel stronger in this one. You know how when you wake up from a dream and try to describe it to somebody, you go through narrating what happened and it sounds like the lamest thing ever, and all you can say is stuff like "While I was dreaming, it felt really, really scary/exciting/amazing/important"? That elusive element, whatever it is, that makes dreams awesome and after-dream explanations comical, is exactly what Avatar is. It's dreamlike in its amazing visuals, its emotions, its romance and adventure--things that, in the end, are exactly what make for an amazing story.