Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Alpha and Omega of Special Effects

Films: Avatar, La Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon)
Format: Campus Cinemas (Avatar), internet video on laptop (Voyage).

Let’s start with my coming clean. I watched Avatar yesterday, not today. However, it didn’t really fit with the Nosferatu-based theme of Tuesday, so I figured I would wait and talk about it today. I was, evidently, one of the last six people to see this movie, since it’s been out for several months and has brought in something like the GNP of half of Europe in ticket sales, merchandising, advertising tie-ins, and everything else.

The visuals are the first, last, and only sell here. The story that is told is one that has been told before, over and over. Except for the very young, those who never see movies, or the very thick-skulled, there is nothing approaching innovation in terms of the story, the story telling, or the message at the heart of the film. Want to see it summed up in one sentence? A man learns to value and appreciate the savage but noble people who are very different from him and helps them stand against the corporate, machine-based oppression of his own people.

Chances are good that you’ve already seen Avatar, so I won’t go too into detail about the plot. Our main character, Jake (Sam Worthington), has lost the use of his legs as well as his identical twin brother. His brother had been hard at work on a top-level project on a moon four or five light years away from Earth. Jake agrees to go take his brother’s place on the moon, called Pandora.

So, once we get to Pandora, we’ll have good guys and bad guys. The good guys are Jake, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), Norm (Joel David Moore), Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez), and Dr. Max Patel (Dileep Rao). These good guys are either the scientists running the Avatar project, or their friends. See, humans can’t breathe the air on Pandora. So, using genetic clones of the giant, blue humanoid indigenous life, the Na’vi, humans can plant their own consciousness in an alien body and run around on the planet. The most important of the Na’vi in terms of the story is Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who is quite naturally the daughter of her tribe’s leader Etyukan (Wes Studi) and the tribe’s seer Moat (CCH Pounder).

Jake’s job is to infiltrate and gain info on the Na’vi, because they live right on top of a huge cache of minerals that can solve Earth’s energy crisis. This mineral is called unobtanium. No, seriously. The bad guys want it, and are lead by corporate goon Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) and military hardass Colonel Miles Quartich (Stephen Lang). Jake, of course, learns to appreciate the beauty of Pandora and the Na’vi people, and all hell breaks loose when the military and corporate bad guys decide that they want the minerals and it’s time to destroy every goddam thing on the planet to get it.

Sigh. It’s little more than Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai. An outsider becomes part of an insular, tribal group that is far down on the technology scale from those oppressing them. The outsider learns to love the simplicity, the “noble savagery” of the indigenous folk, and helps them stand up against their technologically superior but morally inferior enemies.

The problem is that this shows the world as two extremes—on the one hand, we have the bad guys who are a stop-at-nothing, obtain-the-valuable-polluting-resource, we’re-better-because-we-have-stuff bastards who are uncaring, unthinking, and unfeeling. They are bad because they don’t respect the land or the people. Certainly people like this do exist. But not everybody who works for a logging company, a mining operation, or any given factory is a heartless bastard actually looking forward to raping the land. On the other side, we get Jake, the scientists, and the Na’vi, who are so in touch with their world and their environment that they may as well be carrying non-polluting signs that say “Root for Us!” In fact, the Na’vi are so in touch with their world, that their long queues hide a nerve bundle that they can use to jack in to other creatures and the plants of their world. They can, for instance, hook up to their horse critters and control them mentally through this connection. It’s like they’re walking around with their own private Wi-Fi, and there’s a terminal everywhere.

Where’s the middle ground? Where is the “We’d like some stuff from your planet, but we’ll try not to screw it up too much” opinion? Oh, that’s far too nuanced for a film like this, so it simply doesn’t exist.

What does exist is the incredible visuals. They are astonishing, although there are times when it’s evident that the Na’vi are animated. They move well and look good, but there’s something about the mouth movements during speech that sometimes looks unnatural. Despite these little glitches, though, the world of Pandora is beautiful, and beautifully rendered. Okay, with the floating mountains it does look quite a bit like every Yes album from the 1970s, and the bio-luminescence of everything is cool for about 10 minutes and annoying for about two hours. That said, the visual wow is present.

But that’s it. The story is a retread, and predictable to boot. I knew exactly how the film was going to end a good twenty minutes before it did, and chances are that you did, too. The message is one I’ve seen over and over, and it’s applied with all of the delicacy of a sledgehammer. It’s a stereotypical supermodel of films—big, pretty, and dumber than a fencepost. It is the definition of style over substance.


Out of deference to the six people who still haven’t seen Avatar, I’ll spoil the ending here, but will place it under a warning. The moment Sigourney Weaver’s character was injured and the Na’vi had a way to heal her by essentially uploading her into the white fiber optic tree and downloading her into the body, I knew what was going to happen. She wouldn’t make it, because if it worked, there’d be no “tension” for when they tried it next. At that moment, I also knew we’d see this ritual again with Jake’s crippled body and his own avatar. The music would rise, his human body would die, the camera would pan over to his blue Na’vi face and…the eyes open, end film. I saw it coming, I knew it would happen, and it did. If you didn’t see that coming, shame on you.


When I was a kid, my parents spent three weeks in Kenya on a camera safari. During that time, my mother had her birthday, and the guides presented her with a cake. As it turns out, that cake was actually a frosted elephant turd. And that’s my opinion of Avatar. You can frost the hell out of a dumb story with all the pretty visuals you want, but at its heart, it’s still just a really dumb story. All of the pretty pictures in the world don’t change the fact that it’s unoriginal, predictable, and, essentially, an elephant turd.

So why did I watch it? Because you know it’s going to show up on this list sooner or later, and I wanted to see it on the big screen. I decided to act preemptively.

Sitting at the other end of the special effects spectrum is Georges Melies’s La Voyage dans la Lune, or A Trip to the Moon. Made in 1902, it’s arguably the first science-fiction movie, one of the first to use any sorts of camera trickery, and one of the first to have even something of a coherent plot, although this really isn’t so easy to follow. There are no title cards beyond the name of the film, and no dialogue described throughout, making it essentially a mime show.

We have a group of astronomers who look more like alchemists with their robes and pointy hats having a meeting. The leader of this group proposes a trip to the moon in a bullet-shaped capsule fired from a huge gun. Five of the astronomers agree to go on the trip, and they launch themselves with the assistance of pretty, shorts-clad women. On the moon, they watch Earthrise and take a nap.

While they are sleeping, women appear in the stars and planets and snow begins to fall. The astronomers take shelter in a cave, where they find huge mushrooms growing. One of the astronomers uses his umbrella to compare its size to the mushrooms, but it takes root and grows into a large mushroom itself. Then, a group of Selenites (moon critters) shows up and attacks. While savage, the Selenites are fragile; a single hit from an umbrella turns them into a cloud of dust. However, the astronomers are captured and dragged before the Selenite king.

The astronomers loose themselves from their bonds and attack and kill the king. They run back to the capsule and one pushes the capsule off the edge of the moon, grabbing hold of a rope himself. The capsule splashes into the ocean and sinks, then slowly rises to the top, where the astronomers are heralded in a huge parade. Sadly, this footage is missing from the film and is considered lost, although a nearly complete version was found in 2002. Still, for the available versions, you’re not likely to see much once the capsule splashes down.

This is not a movie in the traditional sense. It is blocked much more like a stage production, and the sets and props are very reminiscent of a stage play. This makes sense—with nothing else to compare it to, early films like this one did have a sort of staged drama feel to them. What’s worth watching here is not the obvious rudimentary stage and film craft, but how advanced some of Melies’s techniques were for the time. Early in the film, for instance, the astronomers are given telescopes to hold. These suddenly turn into stools for them to sit on. Certainly, today, we understand that the crew stopped filming for a minute, replaced the telescopes with stools, and started the camera back up. But in 1902, this was new, innovative, and startling.

More impressive are the battles with the Selenites, who really appear to vaporize in a cloud of smoke and dust. For its time, this kind of effect was unheard of, and would influence dozens of nascent filmmakers in the years to come. Melies was perhaps the first to truly understand what the film medium could be capable of doing and of pushing the known boundaries as far as he could.

With a running time (depending on the version you locate) between eight and 15 minutes, there isn’t a lot to see here, and it goes by pretty quickly. But real filmmaking, real cinematic storytelling, real cinema started here. It is charming, innocent, and sweet with its goofy professors and moon played by a man with whipped cream covering his face. It’s also silly and impossible to take seriously on its surface. So don’t, but do take it seriously for what it really represents.

Why to watch Avatar: Boy-howdy pretty.
Why not to watch: Putting a wedding dress on a pig doesn’t mean it stops being a pig.

Why to watch La Voyage dans la Lune: It’s charming and innovative.
Why not to watch: It’s awfully silly.


  1. I was curious to read what you thought of Avatar. I largely agree with you, though on my recent second viewing I did like it a little better. I did find it odd that film critics seemed to be falling all over themselves with praise for this. It might make my book of films you should see just for the spectacle, but wouldn't make my book of favorites.

    1. The visuals are really spectacular, but I have no desire to see it again.

  2. I'm very, very late to this review because I only just saw "Avatar," but as with "Gravity," I think you and I arrived at many of the same insights (even to the point of using uncannily similar buzzwords). Some insights were, admittedly, easy to arrive at, since Cameron himself telegraphed his intentions so vividly.

    One significant area where you and I differ, though, is in our evaluation of the quality of the story. For you, "elephant turd" pretty much sums it up, whereas I was willing to give the story credit for engaging my interest as a boilerplate, white-savior adventure once I looked past the mountain of clichés and the general lack of hard-SF imagination (all the creatures were recognizable Earth-analogues, for example—not very original). I kind of wish I had tackled the religion and metaphysics of "Avatar" more substantively; SF movies almost always tend to be masks for ethico-religious messages and worldviews (look at Cameron's "The Abyss"); it's probably one of the reasons why it's nearly impossible to put actual hard SF on the silver screen: everyone's too busy trying to smuggle God in, and the result usually ends up being more like fantasy than actual science fiction.

    1. I stand by the elephant turd comment not because the story is boilerplate. I don't always mind boilerplate if it's done well. It's that it's far too simple morally. As mentioned above, there are only two possible ways anyone in the film thinks--either "we should go away and leave the natives in peace" or "fuck 'em, take what we want." Where's the middle ground here? Where's the nuanced position? This damn movie is 162 minutes long; there's plenty of room for nuance here, but we don't get it.

      That, more than anything, is where Avatar pulls up short for me. A boilerplate story (see Dances with Wolves, Ferngully, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai) is fine as long as there's something interesting here. Avatar's only surprise was its visuals. I knew everything that was going to happen long before it did, and that's a real issue. And when I'm given only two moral possibilities, I'm apt to check out right away. Sorry, but life and morality are far more complicated and interesting that the false dichotomy presented here.

    2. I get where you're coming from, although I'd say "Dances with Wolves" suffers from a similar lack of nuance: "white people bad; natives good." The only good white people are the ones who have gone native. (I didn't see the other movies you mentioned, except for part of "Samurai," so I can't comment on them.)

    3. Dances with Wolves is admittedly without any sort of subtlety. It's also too long. I appreciate it more than I do Avatar, though, because it wasn't so completely telegraphed. I mean, I knew where it was going, but with Avatar I predicted things at times down to shot length and where the music would change.