Sunday, February 14, 2010

Avatar - First Thoughts

Amber and I finally went to see Avatar today (with thanks to Nana for helping out by watching the kids). Honestly, I've heard some mixed reviews about Avatar and wasn't feeling much need to go see it, but I got an opportunity to participate in an Avatar anthology ... assuming I can come up with a worthwhile essay subject. There's certainly a lot of great material here to build upon, so I'm hopeful. Now for my initial thoughts on the film:

First of all, Avatar is a visually stunning film. One of the most impressive that I've ever seen. Perhaps I'm jaded, but I honestly hadn't quite realized how impressive it would really be, even after seeing the promos. I thought, "I've seen cool special effects before. How much better could this be?" Well, I was wrong. It's frickin' awesome! I could just sit there and stare at the images for hours, especially the night scenes, set in a fluorescent forest. Very cool. It's so good that I would pay to go see this again ... but this time in 3-D at IMAX.

The characterization, on the other hand, had issues. Especially the major villain, the Colonel. He was a total caricature of the insane military commander who wants to decimate his enemy at any cost, even if that enemy isn't doing anything wrong. Most soldiers I know would balk at being ordered to decimate an innocent village for economic reasons, but I get what happened. Cameron was going for a mythic story, and in myths evil is clearly evil. Okay, I get it.

But the problem is that it would have been a far more compelling story if he'd gone another way with it. After all, the Earth is dying, and the material on Pandora could help. Instead of making the Colonel a bloodthirsty stooge for corporate interests, he could have been portrayed as a noble hero seeking to save his own dying race, but put in the unfortunate position of having to make tough decisions to reach that goal. The film could have made us, for just a moment, consider that maybe the Colonel's side is the one we should be on.

Joss Whedon made this sort of point in the DVD commentary on season one of Dollhouse, in reference to the episode "The Man on the Street." And I paraphrase: "When you have a situation where two people that you completely agree with disagree with each other, that's good television."

It would not have taken much work to make us believe that the Colonel's motivations were noble, even if those noble motivations led him to order an attack on the innocent Na'vi. Instead, though, he was eager to attack the Na'vi, considering them barely even human.

Are there people like the Colonel out there, in every military? Sure, there probably are ... but they don't make for an interesting story. Making the villain into a cardboard cut-out doesn't make the nine foot tall blue aliens look more realistic by comparison. Because of the extreme nature of science fiction, it's even more important that the characters behave in realistic and believable ways.

I'm sure I'll have more thoughts in the weeks to come, and hopefully they'll cohere into an interesting essay topic ... but for now, those are my thoughts on the matter, for what they're worth.

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