Monday, December 21, 2009



I'm not in the business of giving bonus marks out of ten for technological prowess and pushing the digital envelope, because frankly it's not something that interests me very much. Many people are intensely fascinated by the minutiae of film making, the blow by blows, the bit transfer rates and mo cap suits that make up the so called heart of Avatar.

But lets address this issue, which Fox's News International buddies are pushing as its USP for reasons that will, I hope, become apparent.

For this movie all new frontiers of digital film making have been discovered and conquered, real emotional performances elicited from the digital puppets and in "the volume" we actually have a controllable environment that can be made to be anything, achieve virtually limitless variety and feed that back to the actors immediately so the whole performance is rewarding for them in a way that digital performance can never be.

So let me be clear - on a purely technical level, James Cameron's Avatar is a colossal, barn storming, eye wateringly complete and total triumph.

Here's the thing -

Why is the whole marketing campaign for Avatar based around its technical creativity and its 3D?

Simple. On absolutely every other level, it is a horrific, bloated, trite, patronising, vacuous, heartless failure.

Avatar, and none of the vested interest journos will say this, is rubbish.

And not in a subtle, hard to spot way. Oh no.

Every character is so underdeveloped they spout dialogue like characters from the bad age of early of narrative console gaming while being crowbarred into supplying the back story in such obvious terms they practically start each sentence with "This is the plot, OK?..."

Case in point: a scientist, played by Sigourney Weaver, who has been intimately involved in events suddenly gets reminded of "why we're all here" in pretty much those terms by Giovanni Ribisi's phoned in cliché of a project manager (he even plays GOLF in the office while laughing at the savages who are standing in the way of progress).

It's as if the scriptwriter of woeful US TV dud Flash Forward, which often flashes back to things that happened THAT EPISODE in case you're confused, has been roped in to write a script in an afternoon and was then asked to make things clearer. Avatar doesn't have any flashbacks, but it repeats itself and its childish message constantly.

I've seen some of the worst dialogue ever written (Plan 9 From Outer Space, for instance) but Avatar consistently surprises with just how far it pushes the boundaries of predictability, awkwardness and cliché. It also boasts one of the poorest voice over performances since Harrison Ford's legendary "If I do this badly they won't use it" VO for the studio raped version of Blade Runner.

Sam Worthington's marine Jake Sully doesn't sound in awe or like a man changed.


Perhaps he'd seen Avatar.

It's obviously going for an epic coming of age and self discovery film like, say, Lord Of The Rings or Dances With Wolves and to an extent you do get the sense that there is a huge story to be told about this world - but this, crucially, is not it.

If you are going to make a vastly long film it is necessary in my rulebook (which I must write, incidentally) that at some point, any point, the audience identify or perhaps even sympathise with anyone.


Instead virtually everyone is stupid, self obsessed and dull. The only slight bit of fun comes from the frankly crazy Marine chief - who is played with the dial set to "Extra Ham" throughout. But at least you connect with him on the level of humour.

Let's put the entire book on bad characterisation aside though, since you want to know about this amazing world they created, yeah?

Playing Devil's advocate for a mo, with a big brainless blockbuster the experience that's important, not the plot and characters?

Firstly, when did "brainless" and "preachy" become bedfellows?

Oh yeah... it's a FOX production.

And whoah boy is Avatar preachy.

Guess what, humanity? You're all scum. Real scum. These aliens know what's what. They're in touch with their planet and you're not. You absolute filth.

Great, meaningful, original stuff. Yeah. Sarcasm doesn't really come over on the web.

So lets look at this perfect world, that James Cameron described as "like nothing you've ever seen" (I may be paraphrasing, don't have a team of researchers)

It's Native Americans living in the jungle.

That's it.

There's nothing even remotely original or unexpected. These guys have two arms, two legs, ride horses and coexist with a lot of critters in the jungle (cats, rhinos etc) due to a very real physical link with every other thing on the planet. Oh, the horses have extra limbs and everything seems to have gills, but there's an Earth equivalent of everything except that link.

Actually, the link is the one thing that captured my imagination a bit, but it isn't remotely explored to the degree it deserves since we have to get to the next whooshy explody bit to justify the expense of 3D.

Actually, for a film set on a distant unfamiliar inhospitable planet I found the whole thing slightly racist. In an Earth sense, I mean. Diversity seems to be something the corporation in question doesn't really do. The few ethnic minority actors are an Asian scientist (how original) and Michelle Rodriguez playing that ballsy Michelle Rodriguez character you write in your movie because you want to meet Michelle Rodriguez. Pretty much all of Hollywood's non-white acting talent is in the motion capture suits playing natives.

How progressive. How patronising. How pathetic.

The alien race are 10 feet tall, incidentally, though the filmmakers, in a rare outbreak of budget logic, do their best to limit direct interaction between humans and them since I guess the Mo Cap environment would have trouble letting them do so.

Know what I'd do? Tell the story of this planet and not have any humans there at all. Think of all the options that gives you! This is not just a failure, it has come at the expense of god knows how many great potential films - you could, for example, make Paranormal Activity roughly 50,000 times for the cost of one dud like Avatar. I know which represents the better artistic return on investment for me.

Of course I'm all too aware of the simple economic models of film making and how they will ALWAYS trump artistic considerations. Doesn't mean I have to like it.

So - Avatar is not just bad, it's OBVIOUSLY bad. So obvious for the first time I am seeing the wheels of Hollywood marketing machine turning.

It seems owning not only the film, but many of the news outlets that are telling people whether it is good as well, will be the paradigm for a long time. Expect many more soulless gilded turkeys in the future folks.

I'd rather see The Phantom Menace again, frankly.

If that isn't intensely depressing, I don't know what is.


There. I just saved you nearly three hours of your life. And many of you will be seeing your computer screen in 3D. Maybe someone will give me a 5 Star review for this.


  1. So I'm not exactly clear about this from reading your review: Did you like Avatar or not? :-)

    You said 'On absolutely every other level, it is a horrific, bloated, trite, patronising, vacuous, heartless failure.' But you're telling me that with a 3/10 it was less of a failure than, say John Carpenter's Vampires - a movie you described as an 'outrageously tepid jaunt'?. Did the 3D on Avatar mean it got an extra mark?

  2. In fact I did consider giving it the "turd two" but essentially thik it's just plain better on that particular day than John Carpenter's Vampires or Ghosts Of Mars (which haven't got as many unintentional laughs) and certainly isn't as repugnant as The Strangers which, while preachy and smug lacked even Avatar's level of bonding with characters.

    Maybe it would have been more accurate to class Avatar as a 2.5, but that's a can of worms I am just not willing to open.

    It's got good company at 3/10, though, including a fat Steven Seagal movie, The Matrix Revolutions and Wanted.

    Frankly, I think the actual text in the review review may sound worse simply because I could get angry about it, whereas, say, X Men: The Last Stand just couldn't get me interested enough for even that emotion.

    Different crimes, same sentence.

    Thanks for posting.


  3. It was pretty, but I agree. Dr Kermode on Radio 5 made an interesting point about the lack of editing. Example - Sigourney Weaver gets off of futuro-helicopter, walks across heli-pad, walks in door, walks across room, opens fridge. Cut to new scene which is actually plot related. 5 shots there totalling maybe 20 seconds that were irrelevant.

    Total up all the extrenuous stuff - you have an hour off the film. But I also agree with you generally, looked pretty. Ooh lovely colours...but it lacks in every other department.