Monday, January 04, 2010

How to Make Any Movie Good, plus Avatar review

I always say that I'm not so much a movie person as a movie-neutral to slightly movie-averse person who ends up seeing a respectable number of movies anyway. (Actually, even that has fallen off a bit recently--besides Avatar, the movie I saw most recently in the theater was Inglourious Basterds back in August.) Avatar, I think, illustrates my relationship with the theater perfectly.

But for the suggestion and company of my good friend Jessica, I probably would not have gone to see Avatar. For instance, the dilemma "it's a slow day... either I can screw around on the internet for a few hours, or I can go see Avatar!" probably would not have presented me with an overly difficult choice, and the internet would have won handily. I'm glad I did see Avatar, though, if only because it helped me define better what I think a good movie is, and by extension, how to make any movie seem good.

(Well, okay. It probably wouldn't have helped Aliens Versus Predator: Requiem, and nothing in the world could have saved the second Transformers movie from being by far the worst movie of the year. We'll go with "almost any movie".)

Rule #1: Play to the movie's strengths. No movie is going to be able to fulfill every single cinematic desire that every single viewer might want. For example, if you're interested in clever, witty banter, a behemoth historical epic is probably not the best place to look. And a romantic comedy can hardly be blamed for not having enough explosions.

So going into Avatar expecting dramatic characterization, an original premise, and realistic dialog is sort of missing the point of the movie. Avatar is predictable, its characters are flat, it's a rehash of a story you've seen a dozen times, and the script is clunky, but it doesn't seem to care--and neither should you.

Instead, focus on the things that the movie is good at. Avatar is a movie that lives and dies by its setting more than the story that takes place in that setting. So focus first and foremost on the visuals and graphics, and second on the verisimilitude and the believability of the setting that it's created.

"Okay," you might be thinking, "that's fine and good, but what if I'm not at all impressed by any of that either?"

Rule #2: Lower your expectations. Frankly, this is the easier part of the plan. Take the parts of the movie that you're not focusing on, and expect literally nothing out of them. Take the parts of the movie that you are focusing on, and pay attention to them all, but don't expect to be blown away by any of them.

In retrospect, I think this is why I liked Inglourious Basterds more than Pulp Fiction. From Pulp Fiction, I was expecting a coherent, insightful cinematic experience. Instead, I got confusing, pointless, over-the-top violence. From Basterds, I expected only over-the-top violence... and instead, I got humorous, thoroughly entertaining over-the-top violence.

When you watch Avatar, expect the dialog to be abysmal, and when it's merely bad, you won't be disappointed. Expect the characters and story to be terrible, and if they elevate all the way to average, you'll be pleasantly surprised.

Final thoughts on Avatar? It's a movie with a strong sense of purpose. It knows exactly what it wants to be and what it wants to do. And mostly, it accomplishes those goals. Obviously, Avatar is a gorgeous movie. From conception, through design, and all the way to execution, the visuals are excellent.

A note on the graphics: Jess and I agreed that the least impressive graphical achievement was the now-notorious blue people. If you're going to go out of your way to make a distinctively non-Earth setting, why make the indigenous people so humanoid? Everything else was fantastic: the flora and fauna, the sky and atmosphere, the geological features, the inexplicably floating chunks of rock.

And what about its second purpose, trying to create a believable, immersive setting? Avatar does okay there too. Frankly, it's far from the best example of world-building that I've ever seen. Fans of epic fantasy will recognize the names Robert Jordan and George R. R. Martin; their Wheel of Time and Song of Ice and Fire series are many times more complex and convincing than Avatar. There's even a litany of video games that deliver settings better than Avatar's: Dragon Age: Origins and the Elder Scrolls games (Morrowind, Oblivion) immediately come to mind. But here I'm comparing apples to oranges: surely it's easier to craft a setting in 900 pages or 8 gigabytes than 3 hours. Given the inherent limitations of the medium, Avatar does a respectable job.

(Yes, Avatar is three hours long, or very close, and yes, in classic James Cameron fashion, it feels like all three hours.)

I could sit here and complain more about the characters, plot and dialog. I could echo the hundreds of other reviewers who point out (correctly) that Avatar is more or less a rehash of Pocahontas and entirely a rehash of Dances with Wolves. But then I wouldn't be playing by my own rules. Instead, focus on what's good. Watch Avatar entirely focused on the setting, and you'll almost certainly enjoy it.

Currently listening: "(Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar", The Guild (which I had stuck in my head for at least half the movie)

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