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Avatar plunges into the Uncanny Unimaginative Valley

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Shortly after getting gut-shot, one of the characters in James Cameron's "Avatar" wisecracks: "This could ruin my whole day." I know the feeling. The line, like so many others, lands with a hollow thud.

To my eyes (and ears), "Avatar" is the first Cameron feature that's a near-total failure. Obviously, I'm not talking about ticket sales, since the movie just opened today, or the early reviews, most of which were ecstatic. I emphasize "my eyes" because: 1) the golden-saucer eyes of the lovely, elongated blue protagonists, the Na'vi, are their most entrancing features; 2) the movie is explicitly about the act of seeing ("I see you" is one of its catch phrases, and the title of the Celine Dion-ish end-credits theme song that goes on and on); 3) the central problem with the movie is not its less-than-impressive technology but the triteness of its artistic vision; and 4) the 3D process -- at least for me, with my particular prescription lenses behind those Polarized glasses -- is continually distracting. And yet, "Avatar" strikes my retinas as an achievement that amounts to something considerably less than meets the eye.

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(NOTE: I did not see the movie in a true IMAX theater; I saw it in regular-old, $14-a-ticket Digital 3D, which is probably good because I imagine the larger format would only magnify the eyestrain and mild nausea I suffered for 2.5 hours. I think the picture will play better in 2D for people like me. I removed the glasses occasionally, during the many uninspired passages, and anything that's in focus with the glasses on is still in focus with the glasses off.)

Let's dispense with the story, the characters and the dialog. Cameron certainly does, as even the most euphoric critical raves have taken pains to acknowledge. So, what else is there? Nothing, regrettably, as gripping as, say, the forklift battle between Ripley and the alien in "Aliens" (which "Avatar" re-stages unsuccessfully), as compelling as the relentless "Terminator", or as emotionally intense as the harrowing efforts by Ed Harris to revive his drowned ex-wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) in my favorite non-"Terminator" Cameron movie, "The Abyss" (though that, too, is half-heartedly reprised here). Even Michelle Rodriguez's (minor) tough-chick stock-character is a mere shadow of Jennette Goldstein's in "Aliens."

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As much as I take delight in the appearance of the Na'vi characters themselves, the biggest disappointment of "Avatar" for me is the visual design -- a kitschy melange of 1970s Roger Dean album covers by day, and Thomas Kinkade "Painter of Light" Christmas-twinkle scenes by night. (The nighttime forest on the planet Plankton -- re, Pandora -- also seems to be based on the neon-glow alien life forms from "The Abyss," which at least made some kind of National Geographic sense in the earlier film because they lived in a world of perpetual darkness deep in the ocean.)

In the past, Cameron has pushed the envelope of cinema technology and brought to life images we'd never encountered before: the water tentacle in "The Abyss," the liquid metal T-1000 in "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," the Titanic in "Titanic"... His imagination has failed him across the board here. The CGI canvas is larger, but there's little you haven't already seen in better Cameron movies. Hammerhead dinosaurs sporting peacock feathers? OK, that's a new one -- but the creatures look silly and random (not to mention that they make no evolutionary sense). Ten-foot-tall blue salamanders riding day-glo psychedelic-patterned winged serpents? Sadly, they just look like forgotten old black light posters from some '60s head shop. (One good thing: Their organic breathing orifices. Very cool, and they are mimicked in the eternal ducts of the Earth-military's aeronautical ships.) I say this as someone who has been enthusiastic about Cameron's work from the B-movie "Terminator" to the sinking of the "Titanic" to "Aquaman" on "Entourage." This is the first time I've really felt let down by what I saw on the screen. (At least "True Lies" was funnier.)

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The imagery dive-bombs into the Uncanny Valley in the very first shot and never climbs back out of it: An aerial representation of a rain-forest is impressively full of detail but looks utterly artificial, the CGI equivalent of Astroturf. Later, the oversized bioluminescent plants glow in the dark like fiber-optic fake flora you often see as decoration in Thai restaurants. Is there an Uncanny Valley for actual valleys? It's not so much that it looks like we're on another planet (the one where Rainbow Brite resides?), it's that it looks so very much like a computer simulation of another planet. Everything is just close enough to "realistic" that it appears unmistakably phony -- even the human beings when they're just sitting around talking. Military villain Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), for example, has whole scenes in which he appears to have had digital work done on his face and head. We've seen this actor for years, but he doesn't look real anymore. The movie is set in a nearly photorealistic universe; it also includes actual photography, and inserts humans into the fantastical world of Pandora. Consequently, I had the feeling I was alternately being pulled one way and then the other, but was never fully immersed in either stylistic realm. The most successful fusing of photography and CGI in the entire movie for me is when Jake's avatar wakes up in the human world and wiggles his toes.

There's a shot drawing of a space station near the beginning that is almost shockingly flat and chintzy -- as phony in its way as the infamous Lego-people "helicopter" shot in "Titanic." But what was a lapse in "Titanic" is par for the course in "Avatar." (And so is cliché-riddled dialog that sounds like that last sentence.) If nothing else, "Avatar" serves as a reminder of how visionary, dimensional and realistic the visuals in Stanley Kubrick's 40-year-old "2001: A Space Odyssey" still are. Think of how the initial dinosaur stampede looked in "Jurassic Park"; much of "Avatar" looks now the way that did then: not quite there. They still haven't figured out how to give CGI figures in motion the proper bulk and volume.

Cameron has reportedly said he wants to make two "Avatar" sequels -- perhaps because he hasn't managed to finish, or flesh-out, this one. Big chunks of character dynamics and exposition appear to be missing, and maybe the movie would seem shorter if some of these things were restored for the inevitable DVD Director's Cut. (I'm also betting "Avatar" will look more convincing on DVD than on Blu-ray, where the pristine rendering of the CGI will only highlight to its patent artificiality.)

The movie begins with Our Hero, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), getting an opportunity to "live" inside a new body. The experience of entering that body, the exhilaration and awkwardness Jake must have felt using his lower extremities again, is virtually thrown away. After the aforementioned toe-wiggling and a preliminary stumble-and-lunge out the door, it's all over. (What must it have felt like for a human in an alien body to enter that body's native atmosphere for the first time? How does a man so long accustomed to a wheelchair that his own legs have atrophied feel to be not only suddenly ambulatory but ten feet tall? What's it like to learn to use a four-foot tail that he never had before? What does the world look like to him?) This process of exploring his new body could have, and should have, been the emotional highlight of the movie's first act, but we aren't allowed to feel it along with him. It's the first sign that Cameron has no interest in these characters, or in getting us interested in them, either.

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Lots of other, comparatively minor, things bugged me while I was staring at the screen, waiting for something to captivate my imagination: The forest-dwelling hunter-gatherer Na'vi have not developed much in the way of technology or even agriculture (they hunt and wage war with bows and arrows), but they wear walkie-talkie devices around their necks that enable voice communication while they're flying on their psychedelic pterodactyl creatures (to whom they develop an unspoken telekinetic bond, except that Jake almost always orders his around, out loud, in English). And if Na'vi warriors are supposed to bond with one, and only one, flying reptile-horse creater for life, how does Jake manage to bond with two of them, including the biggest and baddest one? The Na'vi wear loincloths, but their genitals don't appear to be located in their "crotchal regions," so what's the point? And where's Tinkerbell?

It is repeatedly stated that the Sky People (the bad guys, from Earth) have navigation instruments that won't work in a certain part of Pandora, and that they will have to rely solely on visuals. But when the Big Battle comes, their instruments unaccountably work anyway, on the ground and in the air, showing the numbers of the advancing enemy forces and their locations.

One of the avatar guys, who knew Jake's brother, apparently gets peeved with him in between scenes for reasons we never quite understand, until Jake tells us in voiceover that the guy has come back around again. And, sure enough, he does. This guy is also supposed to be around when Jake is Avatar-ing, but Jake has no relationship with him on Pandora. A lot of the movie is like that: Things are explained (like the DNA-like inner structure of the all-important Main Tree) that are not actually shown, leaving us to wonder: 1) how do the characters know that?; and 2) why didn't we see it, because it sounds like it may have been important at one time? I could go on. [NOTE: Some of these quibbles are explained by readers in the comments below. You can decide for yourself if the movie handles them adequately.]

What remains is this: A story that's pure formula (even a nifty third-act twist is basically the same as the one in M. Night Shyamalan's "The Happening"), dialog that seldom rises above the risible, characters who are simply fill-in-the-blank types (or, if you prefer, avatars), and visual effects that never let you forget they're visual effects. There's not much left to look at for 162 minutes. (A mere 18 minutes more and you could watch "Barry Lyndon" -- now there's an immersion in another world of space and time!) But, seriously, if you want to see story and dialog stripped down to their bare essentials; fantastic atmospheric landscapes (Spain -- rendered in-camera by Christopher Doyle); and impressive faces (Isaach De Bankolé, Tilda Swinton, John Hurd, Bill Murray), take a look at Jim Jarmusch's "The Limits of Control." It contains an implicit critique of movies like "Avatar," and I find it much more fascinating to watch, much more rewarding to look at.

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Finally, let me say a few words about why "3D" does not work in movies any better than it does on tacky postcards of tourist landmarks, waterfalls, or Jesus. The technology has not developed significantly since the creation in 1939 of the ViewMaster -- a plastic binocular-like toy I loved to play with, but quickly tired of, when I visited my grandparents. The Polarized double-lens process does not render images in three dimensions, it simply separates them into multiple planes. The effect is not much different than the early Disney animated features, filmed through layers of glass on which backgrounds, foregrounds and characters were painted for a more dimensional effect.

But your eyes and your brain do not interpret these different layers the way they do actual space. Instead (to my eyes, anyway), each layer looks flat, stacked in front of or behind some other layer. So, people for example look like cardboard cutouts rather than rounded figures. What's worse, if the camera's depth of field holds something out of focus in the foreground or background, you can't do anything about it. If you look at something that's closer or farther away, your eyes have a natural tendency to bring it into focus. 3D camerawork frustrates that instinct. Regular old 2D imagery, on the other hand, does not trick your eyes into trying to focus on something they can't, because both eyes are always looking at the same plane. All around, fewer headaches.

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I hung in there for the whole thing, but I'd had enough and wanted to leave after 45 minutes and the feeling never left me.

(Paintings by Roger Dean: "Floating Islands," "Dragon's Dream" "Pathways" (used on the 1973 "Yessongs" album cover).

UPDATE (12/19/09): Now that I've filed my own take on the movie, I'm beginning to read what others have said and I have a point I'd like to make: Can we get rid of the idiotic phrase "wheelchair-bound"? I thought we had, back in the 1970s, but it's still bandied about without any thought. I'm not being PC, it's just that it doesn't make sense. A disabled person is not "bound" to a wheelchair. The wheelchair is a tool that provides a freedom of movement that would otherwise be unavailable. Do we say people are "bound" to their cars when they rely upon them to travel long distances in relatively short periods of time? Stop with the "wheelchair-bound." Unless you're using it properly, as in, perhaps: "She went off down the sidewalk in her wheelchair, bound for the bargain matinee."

* * * *

OK, if you've seen "Avatar," what did you think? Be specific, please. There was an obligatory-sounding smattering (yes, but a smattering) of applause when the title appeared at the end of the screening I attended (6:30 p.m. Friday, December 18, 2009; brand new Royal Thornton Place Cinemas, Seattle). But the ten-year-old kid seated next to me kept asking his parent or guardian how much longer the movie would be, and checked the time on his cell phone regularly. You?

UPDATE (12/20/09): If you're not familiar with the way things work here, please take a moment to familiarize yourself with non-arguments that won't be published because they not valid, rational forms of discourse. They include ad hominem attributions about someone's motives and anything that doesn't add information to the discussion by citing evidence that's actually in the movie. That rules out such phony rhetorical tricks as:

1) "You just don't like it because..." (Irrelevant speculationg. Speak for yourself, and base it on specifics from the movie.)

2) "You don't know how to have a good time." (Absurd. You can't define what a "good time" is for anybody else. Stick to the movie.)

3) "You suck." Or "The movie sucks." Or "You rock." Or "The movie rocks." Those are not criticisms. They are ejaculations.

4) Straw man arguments (deliberately exaggerated or otherwise inaccurate paraphrases of arguments nobody has actually made).

5) Anything having to do with the movie's popularity or unpopularity among some segment of the population. As I said in the second paragraph, I'm not talking about ticket sales or TomatoMeter-like estimates of the movie's critical reception. I find the terms "fanboy" and "hater" offensive, because they assume that attitude is all you need to have an opinion. Only opinions based on observation and evidence are valid; anything else is just a whim.

So, let's have fun by actually talking about something of substance. Thanks.

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