Is “Not Bad” good enough?
That’s really the question when it comes to assessing the quality of Avatar, James Cameron’s first film in over a decade. His first major theatrical release since Titanic, it has been obvious for a long time that Cameron and the studios had every intention of making Avatar as much of a blockbuster epic as its Oscar-winning Leonardo DiCaprio-starring predecessor.
Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate. Since then there has been a virtual love-fest between the media and the studios, and a $75+ million opening weekend despite a blizzard-hampered East Coast has dispelled any fears that the audiences wouldn’t bite. The mutual consensus: It isn’t bad.
But, again; does Not Bad = Good?
Avatar’s notoriously gargantuan $400+ Million budget actually delivers on its overall promise of over-the-top 3D and special effects. Over half of the film is dominated by advanced CGI-rendered characters, animals and Day-Glo jungle environments. And yes, they are quite amazing. Seen in 3D or 2D, you can see where all the money went. But when it comes to justifying the amount spent, the lines of reason and good taste begin to blur.
The main chorus being sung by the film’s promoters and apologist film critics (speaking of blurred boundaries) is that these are the most realistic CGI rendered characters you will ever see. To paraphrase one of many identical review/interview/commercial spots, the realism invoked by these realistic animated characters is so overwhelming that you will actually come to believe that they are real beings.
This, of course, is a load of crap.
As impressive as these computer generated characters are, there is no point during the film that any rational adult will find themselves wondering how they managed to make the Navi look so real, because they don’t look real; they look like what they are, extremely impressive computer-generated characters. Now, children in the audience might feel differently, but kids aren’t an especially discerning audience. Decades ago, millions of underage film-goers were more than willing to believe that a bunch of midgets in fur suits running around the screen in Return of the Jedi were actually a race of heavily-merchandised half-pint Wookies.
Its called the Suspension of Disbelief, an integral part of the movie-going experience that is not necessarily increased exponentially with the amount of money spent on the effects budget.
The lack of a decent script is almost understandable; when you are completely focused on delivering groundbreaking visuals worthy of a half-billion price tag, you’re going to want to keep your script as lean and simple as possible. And simple it is. Anyone who has ever seen Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai or Enemy Mine already knows this story (aka Plot #17) inside and out: Main Character battles Good Group on behalf of Evil Group, but eventually indentifies with Good Group and helps them defeat Evil Group. Roll credits.
But again, apologists are eager to claim that the amazingly expensive special effects more than justify the extremely light and simplistic screenplay. After all, the nearly half-billion-dollar special effects made the Navi almost seem like a real race, right? My rebuttal to this nonsense is last year’s surprise sci-fi hit District 9.
In District 9, we have yet another film featuring humans interacting with a computer-generated alien species. Instead of the tall, wasp-waisted Navi (yet another Hollywood attempt at increasing eating disorders in young girls) frolicking in a jungle paradise, District 9’s aliens are giant grubby-looking insectoids, affectionately dubbed "Prawns" by their South African benefactors. Both films feature themes regarding the treatment of foreign races and cultures utilizing metaphoric alien races, but District 9 takes the time to explore the relation and exploitation with more attention paid to the complex nature of such situations, with a storyline and character development that doesn’t feel like a black-and-white storybook parable. It garnered rave reviews, also including the realism and believability of its alien creatures, and went on to earn nearly quadruple its
budget during its American theatrical release.
District 9 might not have been a pillar of originality either, arguably being a remake of Alien Nation. But it still treads on far more philosophical and socially relevant ground than sour-milk-drinking populated pun-titled predecessor. Also, while not achieving the extreme ratio of CGI to real world screen time, District 9 managed to achieve the same level of critical and financial success as Avatar, and with a vastly superior screenplay. Its budget: A measly $30 million, less than a tenth of Avatar’s price tag.
So, does Not Bad mean Good? Not really. It doesn’t necessarily mean Bad either, and considering the money it is bringing in, that’s all that matters. Weighing the amazing visuals against the uninspiring script, the only fair assessment is that the film is just your typical Hollywood mega-budget blockbuster; big on spectacle but lacking in substance, no more or less deserving of its box office totals than Transformers 2 or 2012.
But let’s stop making excuses for the obscene amount of money thrown at what is nothing more than another unforgettable weekend blockbuster extravaganza. As much as the Hollywood elite might feel the need to engage in these annual meg-budget pissing contests, special-effect stroke-fests are no substitute for quality filmmaking. And contrary to popular belief, there is a difference.