Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The "Avatar" Live Diary

This has been a long time coming, in part because the DVD took forever to come out and in part because my Netflix account has been straining to manage a busy throughput of pornography. I'm just kidding; Netflix (remarkably) doesn't offer any kind of adult content. Which begs the question: why doesn't Netflix offer any kind of adult content? I don't care what the real answer is; I just know that if they opened it up, CEO Reed Hastings would wake up the next morning with piles of cash stacked on palettes in his driveway. It wouldn't have been delivered by anyone; it wouldn't even have been income from Netflix. It would have been a natural phenomenon--if someone leveraged porn across such a large mainstream service, money would just accrete via Newtonian laws of gravity and physics.

Avatar is a bit different from the other movies I've tackled with running diaries: not only is it actually a good movie, but I've already seen it prior to this writing. I suspect this will improve the product. Let's get going; this is a long one, and I've had the DVD menu's video/music loop going for 15 solid minutes now. Surprisingly, the only thing I really hate is the menu UI. For shame, Mr. Cameron.

0:01 Exposition GO. "I was in the VA hospital, with a big hole blown through the middle of my life...and also my spine, because my legs don't work." Also, his brother was murdered "by a guy with a gun for the paper in his wallet." Sam Worthington thinks of events in simple terms.

0:03 Six years in cryo-sleep makes sense in the context of real space travel, but wouldn't it make quality talent hard to find? Oh wait, the military guys say "The pay is good...VERY good." Sam Worthington is now sold. What use a bunch of money is on a God-forsaken jungle planet, I don't know. Especially when it'll be 15 years (travel included) before you get to spend any of it. Interstellar travel is really a bummer when you think about it.

0:05 "One life ends...another begins." Sam Worthington and his brother both managed to get themselves shot in completely different ways in rapid succession. His brother didn't even shot in combat! They are lousy soldiers, the Jakesullys.

0:06 "They can fix a spinal if you've got the money...but not on vet benefits. Not in this economy." The VA is a government organization and thus operates pretty independently of economic concerns. Seeing as Jake got shot in combat, I'm pretty sure they'd pony up.

0:09 Sweet, the big intimidating speech from the big intimidating soldier. I'm not sure if they got a real actor to play him, or whether he's a CGI character straight out of Gears of War. Cartoon scar and all.

0:11 Our hero is introduced to a plucky crew of half-characters. Their half-stories will mature into half-subplots, then everything will get abandoned halfway through the movie. I don't blame you, Mr. Cameron. This movie probably should have been 4 hours long.

0:14 Shipping scientists back and forth between Pandora and Earth seems really inconvenient. By the time these Avatar program guys get out to Pandora, they've missed out on six years of research. Having an ignorant marine like Jake Sully on board shouldn't be a big downgrade, because in a ridiculously fast-moving field like xenobiology your knowledge is invalidated by the trip.

0:16 Unobtainium! We don't know what it's used for or why it's valuable, but we know it's awesome. We also know what Giovanni Ribisi apparently has $30 million of desk ornamentation. He's come a long way from The Mod Squad. Claire Danes, not so much. And she was so pretty.

0:18 "Maybe I got tired of doctors telling me what I couldn't do." Follow that up with a seething look perfected by the kid who played Ryan on The O.C.. Eat it, Sigourney Weaver. You a bitch.

0:19 It dawns on me that the Na'vi, for all their physical prowess, must have really small genitals. They go through some amazing contortions and wear really tiny clothes and never once does a ball pop out. "But Tony, maybe Na'vi don't even have junk like humans." Oh really? Well, every other fucking thing about them just says "blue person." Tiny dicks. Be aware.

0:21 Blue Sigourney Weaver tosses Blue Sam Worthington a big plant pod and he just sinks his teeth into it. Delicious fruit! Good thing that was edible, because you didn't ask and you certainly don't know shit about alien botany. The Gears of War guy even TOLD you that everything on Pandora is a lethal hazard, and you're just eating the first plant you see. Suppose that's poisonous and your avatar just drops dead. Oops.

0:23 Sam Worthington walks in on Gears of War guy liftin' weights and spittin' tough guy cliches. "They could fix me up if I rotated back, make me pretty again, but you know what? I kinda like it." Also, that would take at least 12 years of space flight, by which time Mr. Gears would be pushing 60. He gets in a few parting cliches, complete with some air boxing in his mech. More on the mechs later. I have many important thoughts to share.

0:27 Sorry, I got caught up watching the gunship fly over Pandora. There's nothing I can say about the big exterior shots in this movie. They're amazing and everyone knows it. Michelle Rodriguez ably plays the exact same character as Pvt. Vasquez in Aliens. Did you know the actress playing Vasquez wasn't even Mexican? She's Jewish. Amazing.

0:31 Blue Sam Worthington runs into a big rhino thingy in the jungle. Given that Pandora is a low-gravity moon and the Na'vi are appropriately gangly, where does this giant thick-boned monster come from? And how could a whole herd of them operate in a dense jungle like this? On a savanna, maybe.

0:33 Big scary predator, as we run the gamut of Interesting Pandoran Wildlife. Life all Pandoran wildlife, it is oblivious to gunfire. Maybe the marines' shipment of Guns that Actually Work is still on the six-year journey from Earth.

0:35 First appearance of Blue Zoe Saldana (who's just Zoe Saldana, since there's no non-blue version of her). This is a weird character, because Zoe Saldana is unbelievably hot...but her character isn't as hot, because she's full Na'vi and has their facial structure. All in all, she's 92% as hot as Krista from the movie Ferngully. Which, if you weren't aware, has a nearly identical plot to "Avatar."

0:37 Blue Sam Worthington fights off a pack of space hyenas, attractively rendered by the Unreal 3 engine. The shot where one of them gets lit up in slow motion by firelight shows its seams pretty badly. Zoe Saldana makes a big deal out of finishing one hyena off, though she just killed five of them.

0:39 Blue Sam keeps running his mouth at Zoe Saldana, though she's an alien who has no idea how to speak English. Oh hey, turns out she speaks pretty fluent English. You're smarter than you look, Blue Sam.

0:42 Mysterious jungle jellyfish! They show up at critical plot junctures to totally change the minds of the Na'vi. They are ignorant savages, so the simplest natural displays can sway them. Okay, now the jungle jellies are all over Blue Sam like a shirt. That seems like magic. The Na'vi are also smarter than they look.

0:45 we're introduced to Tsu'tey, whose name I will probably have to keep typing out. His relationship with Zoe Saldana is never clear. Are they siblings? Are they supposed to be mated one day? And why does Blue Sam insist on making human gestures at aliens? They don't understand.

0:48 A really nice touch as Zoe Saldana complains at her mother--equal parts cute and petulant. Just reminding you that this movie doesn't actually suck.

0:50 Jake Sully returns, temporarily not blue! They never make it clear how much sleep people need when they're doing this stuff. Jake is "sleeping" while he's in the avatar...but the avatar needs to sleep too. Does this operation require 12-16 man-hours of sleep per day? If so, why aren't the avatar pilots put to sleep immediately when their avatars crash, to minimize downtime? Also, we get a nice shot of a resentful Dorky Scientist, jealous at Jake's success. This is an interesting subplot, but don't worry--it'll vanish completely in about an hour.

0:52 Here we learn the real source of the conflict: the native village is built on top of a giant unobtainium deposit. Neat! I don't recall exactly, but I believe they leave this as a pure coincidence. Sinister Executive states, "If there's one thing shareholders hate more than bad press, it's a bad quarterly statement." Well, seeing as it would take years for a communicade to reach Earth and even more years for the actual ore to reach Earth, aren't we dealing with long-term issues exclusively? Whatever. They want this stuff and are willing to resort to a reasonable amount of evil to get it. Not too much evil, though.

0:53 Sigourney Weaver says explicitly that Zoe Saldana and Tsu'tey are supposed to be a mated pair and rule the clan eventually. But they're brother and sister, right? I can think of at least two things that are wrong with this arrangement. Also, more resentment from the nerdy scientist. Whatever.

0:57 "We're gonna need accurate scans on every column," speaking about the structure of the big tree. "Roger that," Jake responds. With what shall he scan them, dear Leader? He's using a borrowed loincloth. It's even more embarrassing than the time I had to borrow a short-sleeved dress shirt for a wedding.

0:58 The legendary floating mountains of Pandora! That's really cool! There's nothing to support them; neither stone nor physics. I'm sorry, but if you have floating mountains in a sci fi movie I expect an explanation. It doesn't have to be good--we'll set a Geordi LaForge engineering idea as the baseline of acceptable nonsense.

0:59 The whole "flying on big lizards" thing is cool, but I question the goggles. What exactly is the point of eye protection made of twigs? A bug could still hit you right in the eyeball and disrupt zahelu or whatever.

1:01 "The days are becoming a blur." This means it's time for a slowed-down, narrated montage. You gotta have a montage. Even Rocky had a montage. We also hear, "Norm's attitude is improving." Say goodbye to your subplot, Dorky Scientist. It was fun.

1:02 Oh man, triumphant music rears its head in the montage! We must be getting close. After a bit it gets soft and tender, as Blue Sam and Zoe do fun things together. She shows him a helicopter lizard: the most useless animal on Pandora. Then Sigourney Weaver puts him to bed, which works because his legs weigh about 15 lbs. combined. Blue Sam and Zoe end up cheek to cheek while she instructs him on archery--and suddenly, we're feeling something. When did that happen? When did the Na'vi become real people, just like us? Wow. And finally, after Blue Sam makes a fuss about killing some stupid animal, Zoe knows he's achieved Supreme Intergalactic Oneness. Like in Ace Ventura 2.

1:06 Blue Sam climbs the floating mountains. As he does, stones break away...and fall? What the fuck? Also, the majestic floating mountains are dotted with majestic FALLING WATER. Giant stone mountains can float, but water? Get out of here, you clown.

1:09 Blue Sam makes his way among the flying lizards, across rocks suspiciously lacking in flying lizard guano. Maybe it's like the rocks, and just floats out of their scaly sphincters.

1:11 Blue Sam's efforts to tame his flying lizard reminded me of the horse-breaking missions in Red Dead Redemption, only if you got to fuck the horse when you were done. Come to think of it, that might have actually made RDR worth playing.

1:13 Blue Same is now Jakesully. He banged his first dragon, so he's officially more than just the blue version of a non-blue person.

1:16 We are introduced to Turuk, the super-dangerous predator of flying lizards. Why, on a planet filled with solo flying lizards and other flying things, would a predator go after a lizard with an armed Na'vi aboard? It's smarter and more dangerous than anything else in the sky.

1:18 "It's hard to believe it's only been three months, and I barely remember my old life." Well, you certainly remember your old accent; these voice-overs make Sam Worthington's mouth go all funny and Australian.

1:20 Mr. Gears, once a big proponent of this project, has apparently decided he's against it. Not sure when this happened; maybe around the time Dorky Scientist decided to abandon his beef with Jake and Sigourney Weaver stopped being interesting.

1:22 Aww snap, the scene in the purple trees with Retard Helicopter Lizards flying everywhere and giving themselves motion sickness. It's nice and pretty and Jakesully gets to bang Zoe Saldana. Though she's apparently supposed to mate with Tsu'tey, she really doesn't hesitate at all. She's pretty much begging for it the whole scene and nobody seems to consider this taboo. All the conflict and duality in Jake's character is compressed into a whispered-to-himself "What are you doing, Jake?" after banging Zoe. Good talk, self.

1:26 Jake almost dies because he's eating oatmeal. A real tragedy, since oatmeal is great for your heart. It also makes you wonder why a guy who's about to spend 12 hours unconscious (and has no legs to begin with) needs a hearty meal.

1:27 The giant excavating machines are STRAIGHT out of Ferngully. There is no Tim Curry pouring like liquid sex out of the smokestacks, but, uhh...Giovanni Ribisi looks nice in that shirt. The Na'vi are caught completely by surprise by these machines, though we know they've been chugging for three months. These guys suck at being attuned to nature.

1:29 Jake and Zoe get in some trouble for banging. Tsu'tey is upset, but nobody else seems too scandalized. See why I said there was some ambiguity here? Not much of a tradition. Also, the Australian accent is in full effect when Jake gets upset.

1:32 Jakesully broke a camera on a tractor, so now he's an enemy of the state. To be fair, he and Sigourney Weaver are really not making this easy on the corporate guys. These folks need a bone thrown their way. They want unobtainium, and you should figure out a way for them to get some of it. Compromise! Work it out. Giovanni Ribisi yells, "they're just goddamned trees!" Sigourney Weaver disagrees. Who'll be proven right???

1:36 He's kinda mean, but Giovanni has a point. I actually like the guy and wish his character was more important. He's not a bad guy, but he's got a job to do and somebody else would do it if not him. The entire Pandora settlement is financed by this metal, and he needs more of it. And since it's called "unobtainium," it's probably hard to find.

1:39 The flying human armada, especially the big ship, is pretty awesome. James Cameron has a true gift for Space Marine aesthetic. If they ever make a StarCraft movie, he needs to direct it and we cannot have a discussion about this unless the discussion is an attempt to define the length, width and breadth of this idea's awesomeness.

1:43 Michelle Rodriquez (not a Jew!) bails out of the attack in the most futile gesture of civil disobedience ever. Zero lives saved, zero trees saved and a bunch of other Marines pissed off. Still, her character couldn't stay credible and open fire. You get a pass, Mr. Cameron.

1:44 The Great Tree finally falls, and...well, aside from a lot of crushed blue people, nothing really happened. The world wasn't destroyed. The big "network" appears to soldier on. There was no greater calamity here. So, uhh...I guess Giovanni Ribisi was right! It was just a big tree. Moving on.

1:48 Michelle Rodriguez rescues the good guys, throwing out a "tree-hugging traitors" line to bait the guard. Apparently nobody, including the angry Marines on her gunship, noticed her bugging out in the previous scene. Making her civil disobedience all the more futile.

1:50 Mr. Gears earns his Total Badass merit badge by running out in the funky atmosphere to shoot at the good guys. He mortally wounds Sigourney Weaver, whose most interesting line of the past hour has been "Oh, shit!" Aside: I really like the fact that the Pandora atmosphere is unbreathable to humans. This is a nice element of realism: a non-toxic atmosphere with the wrong balance of gases for human survival.

1:55 Was Sam Worthington drunk when he recorded these voice-overs, or was his dialect coach sick that day?

1:55 Jakesully captures Turuk to become the second biggest badass in the universe: Turuk Mak'to. The biggest badass is Kurak Mak'to, and that is such an inside joke that I won't even explain it. There are like three people on the planet who MIGHT laugh.

1:58 Tsu'tey is the chief of this particular Na'vi tribe after his father's does he have to marry his mother? Does he have other options? I don't know the answers. I do know that Sigourney Weaver's "I'm not really naked" vine wrap looks absolutely ridiculous. If she can't wear clothes, why bother at all? Old ladies with bullet holes in them aren't sexy. I kid; Sigourney Weaver is always hot. In any event, she dies and it's sad.

2:02 Big speech by Jakesully. Stirring stuff. But it turns out that Tsu'tey (doing the translation) is a really lousy public speaker and butchers his delivery, so the Na'vi get lost. The moment is rescued by Jake jumping on his Turuk; the babes love that. A brief montage follows, where Jake skips the awkward translated speeches and just shows them his ride. And Na'vi across Pandora agree that his ride is the most pimpingest of all flying lizard mounts, so they join his crusade. We talking pimpin' since been pimpin' since been pimpin' etc. etc.

2:06 Mr. Gears delivers a counter-speech where he prepares to blow up the tree of ancestors or whatever. The first tree going down didn't do a whole lot; why will this be different? It's even more specialer?

2:11 Final battle is ramping up. Mechs have been deployed. Let's talk about mechs. These ones are cool and realistic in several ways, but they make the crucial (usually Japanese) mistake of giving mechs hands. Nobody would ever build a mech with hands, and then build special guns to be held and fired by those hands. That just doubles the number of things that could break or go wrong. Any real mech would have weapons built in, or at the very least attached to modular hardpoints. I have spent a lot of time thinking about mechs and you need to respect that.

2:14 Not sure why, in a jungle setting, you have to rush the line of human marines (using guns) with your own line of horsey-riders with bows and arrows. The guys in the air came from above and behind--that might be a good idea.

2:16 Thrilling aerial chase/battle scene with Jakesully and Michelle Rodriguez (in a badass war-painted gunship). I kind of wonder where Jake's original lizard mount went when he upgraded to Turuk. The critter can't find another rider; it had to be heartbroken, or as heartbroken as a cold-blooded animal can be. It's like somebody who dates an American Idol contestant--you're just gonna get upgraded and it sucks.

2:18 Tsu'tey dies. Bullets...his only weakness! Incidentally, he'd jumped off his lizard into the back of the Carry-All. Donald Rumsfeld could have plotted a better exit strategy.

2:21 In their darkest hour, the Na'vi are bailed out by the forest goddess Eywa and her animal minions. Best surprise comeback since those suits of armor beat the Nazis in Bedknobs and Broomsticks. What's the Greek term for a forest goddess? Deus ex machina?

2:23 Dorky Scientist pulls on a mask, grabs a gun and runs out into the jungle. They needed to get him out of the scene so Jake and Mr. Gears can get a 1v1. We'll see him again at the end of the movie.

2:24 Jakesully stumbles while riding the giant mega-gunship and has to grab a missile to hold on. I really wanted them to launch the missile so he could ride it like the third level of Contra 3. Meanwhile, the gunship blows up and Mr. Gears is alone in a mech.

2:27 Zoe Saldana, riding a big predatory thing from earlier in the movie, disarms the mech and breaks its gun. Maybe the gun should be attached to the mech, so these things don't happen? Nah.

2:29 Jake has missed two killing blows on Mr. Gears now, but Zoe Saldana finishes him. Not since Kobe Bryant in Game 7 has such a poor performance been bailed out for a win.

2:32 White Jake and Blue Zoe are together, and for the first time we notice the fundamental weirdness of their relationship. She's twice his size and blue and weird. Human beings would NOT be attracted to Na'vi under typical circumstances, so it's good they both met as blue folks. Zoe's trying to be really nice here, but all she can think of is "Oh my god, what the hell is wrong with your legs?" Invalid Na'vi get dropped off the top of the Big Tree.

2:34 Jake lets Turuk go and presumably returns to slumming it up on his old mount. They kick the humans off the planet, including a chastened Giovanni Ribisi. I'm sure the humans will slink off, defeated, and never return to the ridiculous economic bounty of which they've already invested countless billions. Conflict resolved. And Jake gets his own ridiculous leaf shorts to ease his transition to full-time Blue Person. It works because he wasn't already dying; Eywa sees right through that shit and she's not going to give you a pass just because you were hilarious in Galaxy Quest. Eyes open, credits roll.

Looking back on this diary, I feel a little bad. It's a good movie and it's still moving and satisfying on the third viewing. The payoffs still work. Cameron created the first work of Serious Science Fiction in a long time, though I'm sure nobody will take the hint and we'll spend the next decade saddled with poorly-shot shit heaps featuring vampires and werewolves. Eclipse comes out today, and the action shots in the trailers are enough to make me cringe. It's awful and it pains me that modern technology is not being put to work making better movies. Criticize James Cameron all you want, but he's doing things that nobody else is willing to do. I imagined a Cameron-directed Dune and now I have to take a cold shower. For reference, the picture below is an example of what happens when people who aren't James Cameron try to make serious sci fi epics. Thanks always for reading.

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