Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

I could write a long and philosophical post about religion or the true meaning of Christmas or keeping spirits up even in these gloomy times, but it's been done by better folks than I far too many times.

So, I'll just wish you all a very Merry Christmas, and here's hoping you get all the gifts worth getting.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dances With Cats in the Uncanny Valley

One thing I've been meaning to do for a long time with this blog is to talk about movies because this dinosaur has always been a big fan of them. Tonight I have the time to post and the memory of a new movie fresh in my mind in the form of James Cameron's Avatar. If you'd like to skip my full discussion below, my entire review can be boiled down into the word "meh." Otherwise, go ahead and click the link to see the full post.

So let's get the basics out of the way first. Avatar is about a human corporation that is working to mine the moon of an alien gas giant approximately six cryo-sleep years away for a mineral the movie calls "unobtanium", which is apparently very valuable for reasons never discussed. (Since that's what they call the substance that allows heat and pressure to be converted into electricity in the abysmal movie The Core, I guess that's what it does here too.) Unfortunately for the humans, there is a race of sentient 10' tall cat people living in a giant tree sitting right on top of the biggest and best deposit of the stuff. Oh, and the planet is full of hostile animals, supposedly. All of which are apparently connected through some kind of biological God-mind thing.

Enter the Avatars, which are essentially home grown clones of the cat people (mixed with a little human DNA to make them genetically compatible) into which our main characters can temporarily download their consciousnesses so that they can operate the bodies. Ostensibly, it's an attempt for the humans to find a diplomatic solution with the cat people (called the Na'vi.) Of course, humans are greedy evil people, so conflict ensues anyway.

There are many problems with Avatar, but to start, I'll explain part one of the title of my post. Avatar's plot is pretty much a straight ripoff of Dances With Wolves in a more SciFi setting. Moreover, the characters are completely 1-dimensional gingerbread cookie stereotypes. The head of the military is a thickheaded war mongerer. The corporate overseer is a profit-driven wuss. The head scientist is snarky but secretly good-hearted. The main character is a broken soldier, but still has his moral compass. And of course, he falls in love with the princess of the alien tribe of "savages" who talk to the Earth and worship their pagan tree.

Thus, in three hours of movie, I never learned to care about any of them. I knew everything they would do hours before they did it, and most of the time what they were going to say before they said it. It is the complete opposite of the movie Up in that way, as Up manages to nearly make even a stone-hearted person like me cry in under 15 minutes. Avatar tries real hard to make the viewer feel for the characters a few times near the end, but it's so contrived and so obvious that it's nearly insulting.

Really, we learn almost nothing about these characters because there is nothing to learn. Cameron's focus is clearly wasted along with his money on his CGI, which brings me to the second part of my title.

The "Uncanny Valley" is a term used to describe a gap between where animation and computer generated imagery is fake enough that a person's imagination can take over to handle the details, and actually looking real. What happens is that as CGI gets closer and closer to looking real, the minor details and subtleties of things that are missing start to become really noticeable, and thus everything looks wrong somehow, even more "wrong" than it would look if it were obviously not real.

Cameron manages to avoid much of this, not because his CGI is that much better than what the average video-gamer will see nowadays, but because most of his CGI is used on an alien planet with alien life forms. Since the Na'vi are giant blue cat people, it doesn't have to look all that real. There are some great body parts, like the teeth, tongue, and to some degree, eyes, but for the most part even the Na'vi do not really seem tangible. Almost none of the alien animals feel "real", something which the short movie, Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children accomplished with its Bahamut creature years ago. The fact that most of the stuff glows in the dark in some way does not help either.

The other half of the CGI is really stuff that has already been more or less perfected. Backgrounds, war machines, fire, explosions, foilage, mountains, waterfalls...basically all of the things that get inserted into movies when it costs too much to do it for real. With Avatar, it's good enough to never truly distract the viewer, but it's not "Wow. That looks real!" or "Damn, look at the detail on that!" Moreover, the quality varies wildly between convincing and nearly cartoony. Cameron also doesn't spend a terrible amount of time zoomed in on it, so unlike Advent Children which would frequently showcase tiny details like the stiching on clothing or reflections on swords, Avatar tends to stick to the panoramic stuff.

That brings me to camera work. What is it with Hollywood and shakey-cam? I have never felt as though having the camera rocking and bouncing while the on screen action is zipping and swinging and zooming around succeeds in heightening suspense. The shakey-cam calms down a bit in the final action sequence, but it manages to thoroughly obscure all of that fancy CGI Cameron paid for in the first 3/4 of the movie. The rest of the time, the camera is clearly influenced by Cameron's documentary work as it seems bland and clinical, almost as if this movie were studying the Na'vi rather than living amongst them.

Similarly, the score is less about emphasizing everything on the screen and more about being there when it's supposed to be. There's very little that's memorable it and no real unique and recognizeable theme to walk out of the theater humming.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I didn't discuss the stupidity of some of the plot elements and wasted themes. For one, the Na'vi have bows, arrows, and spears, ride on animals and live in the forest. They have no firearms of any kind (except for the Avatar folk) and yet their spears manage to pierce the glass (?) of cockpits of the human flying ships and giant walking mecha. Speaking of the mecha, what a fantastic design that is almost entirely wasted. For the most part, they stand there blasting away at the foolish Na'vi charging at them. There is one, count it, one scene in the movie that makes the mecha look truly badass.

More importantly, this company has spent an untold fortune creating these Avatars to talk to the Na'vi to find a diplomatic solution, and at no time does anyone indicate that somebody actually mentioned to the Na'vi why the humans are there. It doesn't seem that anyone ever actually ASKED the Na'vi about getting at the valuable stuff under the tree. Not only that, the entire planet is implied to be one giant interconnected, sentient life form that the Avatar can connect to, and nobody asks the stupid planet if IT will trade with them. Moreover, at no time do they explain WHY the stuff is valuable. Just that it is. So basically, the military jerk ends up slaughtering most of a sentient alien race and pissing off the rest of it for no particularly good reason.

This all goes back to the wasted themes. The best SciFi examines humanity as it is or as it could be and confronts us with that image. Many people complain Avatar is some liberal eco-friendly, war=bad, profit=evil themed movie, but mostly that's just due to the cookie cutter "we're going to take the Indians' land because we want it" plot. Cameron wastes a great opportunity to do something with a human seeing his own people literally through another sentient race's eyes. He could have at least made the corporation full of people caught between a need for a critical material and their moral desire not to harm another sentient race, much like we are caught between our need for security and our desire not to be at war and not to harm civilians.

But all is not entirely lost for you Cameron fans. Despite being ridiculously long (something like 3 hours), Avatar is not a slog-fest. It doesn't feel like it will never end, and it is mostly entertaining. Some of the creatures and glowy stuff is genuinely interesting and pretty. The final battle sequence is reasonably engaging and since it stops with most of the shakey-cam, you can actually see it. There is also that one cool mecha-moment. And to be fair to the CGI, I did not see Avatar in "3D" or IMAX, so it's possible the detail pops a little more there.

Ultimately though, if you've got a Blu-ray player and a decent sized TV, I'd say wait for the DVD.