Monday, January 18, 2010


If you haven't seen Avatar then don't read this. Likewise, if you saw it and loved it and don't want me to hurt your feelings, then don't read this. It's been a while since I've let a good rant loose, and I think Avatar deserves one.

The thing about James Cameron is that he's really, really good at blockbusters. He's got the formula down, he knows how to appeal to cheap thrill seekers, and he has a way with visuals that almost consistently astounds. His films, from The Terminator series, Rambo (1985), the Aliens series, The Abyss (1989), and True Lies (1994), all have set various monumental standards in action and science fiction movie making. Along with George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, he's embedded into the canon of big, fun adventures in film. I can totally appreciate that.

It's where he tries to get "serious" that things go bad. All of his films are gaudy and blatant, my understanding is that this is their charm. Gaudy action is acceptable because that's what action movies are meant for. EXPLOSION!! Whoa!! ROBOTS!! Cool! CRAZY ASS ALIENS!!! Holy moly! This gaudiness doesn't fade when he treads into drama though, and his penchant for over-the-top, totally obvious emotional manipulation is disgustingly apparent anytime he makes a dramatic film. I loathed Titanic for this reason. I hated how aggressively it tried to make me empathize with the story. It could have been simple, subtle, and poignant, but of course Cameron does NOT deal in subtlety, and our faces had to be mashed into every cheesy, grossly inflated spectacle of gooey emotion that the story presented. I thought that it was a bloated, disrespectful account of a tragic event. And I can't stand Celine Dion. EVERYTHING SHE DOES MAKES ME FEEL ANGRY.

Then along comes Avatar. Sure, Cameron did some stuff between now and then, but Avatar is Cameron's first feature film since Titanic, and as such was highly anticipated. I must say that my impression of the movie was swayed by negative feedback prior to my seeing it, but everything I was told was justified, and then some. This movie itches something inside of me that makes me feel kind of depressed and sick with the world. At the same time, it was a genuine stroke of brilliance on Cameron's part. He knew exactly what he was doing, exactly who would watch it, and exactly how it would be received. I'm sure of this. He knows his audience the way a parent knows his children. In that respect, it isn't him who I'm so upset with, it's the rabid fans who swallowed the film hook, line, and stinker, and then cheered for more.

Let's begin:

Avatar, the title itself, as well as all of the subtitles in the film, are in Papyrus font. This fact is detailed hilariously in a design blog here, but let me break it down real quick. I'm not a font person, but I did snigger audibly when I saw Papyrus used to represent the dialect of the Na'vi (the indigenous peoples of the human-occupied planet Pandora). Here is an excerpt of Wikipedia's description of papyrus: "Costello [the designer] described his goal as a font that would represent what English vernacular would have looked like if written on papyrus 2000 years ago... As has been the case with Comic Sans, Papyrus is often criticized by graphic designers and others for being overused or used incorrectly in various media. Interviewed in 2007, the typeface's creator, Chris Costello, agreed that Papyrus had become overused." Interestingly enough, when I saw the font used in the theatre, my first asshole thought was "why didn't he just use comic sans?". Comic Sans is a running joke between myself and my brothers. I won't get into why, I'll just say that I'm an asshole about it. Anyway, my point being: why, with a 300 million dollar budget, would Cameron use one of the most clichéd, overused fonts ever? Why not pay a few extra thousand to get a unique font designed for the title and subtitles? Didn't he go out of his way to create an actual language for the film? Wouldn't it have made sense to create a new font as well? Or at the very least, not use Papyrus as subtitles in an attempt to idiotically drive the point of "ancient civilization" home to his viewers? Did the Na'vi even use papyrus paper? Is that really the best representation of an alien vernacular? Couldn't the subtitles have just been a basic Futura, or something equally inconspicuous so that the whole subtitle thing was a non-issue? Anyway, I thought it was lame. And it only aggravated my opinion of the film. My theory is that, Cameron didn't bother with a new font, because he knew that his target audience wouldn't care. He isn't out to impress design nerds or finicky nitpickers. Fair enough, but still annoying.

On a similar title-related note, the use of the word "avatar" for the title was smart. Everyone, even middle-aged housewives, have some kind of an internet avatar now. We all know what it means, and most of us can relate to what having an avatar indicates. It's a popular, trendy term, and using it as a movie title guaranteed  plenty of interest among potential audiences. A small detail, but part of my "he's a smart mofo" point.

Moving along.

I don't want to make this post too crazy long, so I'll try to summarize my problems with the story as best as I can. First: the word Unobtainium. Humans are on Pandora to find this rare, extremely valuable, yet, gasp!, UNOBTAINABLE metal. See? Get it? You see what he did there? It's called Unobtainium because it's... oh, yep, you're getting it! Yes it's a word that has been used in previous science fiction, but as far as I know, it's generally used tongue-in-cheek. It's a dumb word. Geeks know that (or should know that). I don't think Cameron used it ironically, which is seriously annoying.

So there are three types of humans/clichéd caricatures on Pandora. The trigger happy military, the arrogant corporate swine, and the bleeding heart nerd researchers. The military wants to blow everything up (and they do, of course), the corporate swine wants money (in the form of Unobtainium!) and wants it fast, and the researchers want to learn about the planet and also convince the natives that they should move because, really, the humans need that Unobtainium! real bad. Along comes brooding, sympathetic (because his twin brother died and he's an ex-Marine guy who can't walk dammit!!! If ANYONE would miss his legs, it would be an ex-Marine, am I right here, Cameron? It's tragic, like a gerbil with no exercise wheel), handsome Jake Sully. He can't catch a break: the other military guys think he's a puss cuz his legs don't work, and the nerd researchers think he's a jughead dumbdumb. The latter is true, yet he still manages (in his Avatar form) to win over the trust of the entire Na'vi tribe and become "one of them" in three months time (when the researchers had been trying for however long) and even bangs the chief's daughter. They end up putting the fate of their entire civilization in his hands (a fate which he directly brought about by selling them out), got bombed to hell because of him, and then still accepted him as their savior. Bottom line: according to Cameron, only a hunky white ex-Marine could save the quaint little lives of the beautiful, but exquisitely naive indigenous peoples (seriously, all Cameron gave them to defend themselves were arrows and the inability to understand that arrows can't take down armored helicopters).

The completely non-subtle environmental morals were very clear (and trendy, not that I disagree with them, but he seemed to be trying really hard to win a greeny award), yet everything got blowed up anyway. And as horrible as Cameron made the human race seem, it was still only the humans that could save the Na'vi. Everything was about the white dude dominating, and in the end the white dude still dominated. And he can walk now! YAAAAAAY!

Overall, a visually stunning, big budget action film with overt racist undertones and clichéd morals meant to insert integrity into what is really just another blow 'em up, over-the-top Cameron flick. The characters translate easily into McDonald's Happy Meal toys and spin-off cartoons, are sexy for the lusty teenager demographic, and allegedly represent "serious morals" that grown-ups can appreciate. Fun for all ages. Score for Cameron.

The only lasting impression that I took away was this: what did the Na'vi men's dongs look like? We got to see Dr. Manhattans, why not theirs? TOTAL RIP.

Friday, January 15, 2010

mind games!

I should be working on art and grant stuff right now, but I got an idea and am anxious to procrastinate.

I've been thinking a lot of how nice it would be to be telepathic. Not just me, but everyone. No more misunderstandings, lies or confused motives, just straight up 100% open communication. I don't wanna get into why it'd be better, I'm just musing on how it may actually be possible in the near-ish future.

Most of us are pretty dependent on the internet. Some of us (like myself) kind of live on it part-time, using it as a social gathering place, an endless encyclopedia, a complete resource for entertainment (I heart torrents), and a place to spout opinions to whoever may care (like right now). I know that this concept is nothing new, and that how "plugged in" our society is is no real revelation. It was cool ten years ago, now it's just a fact of life. Many many many books are out there covering the topics of post-humanism, contemporary cyborgism, not to mention all the media about AI and stuff... anywaaaaay the idea that I had is this:

Say we eventually hook our actual minds up to the internet. Say all it takes is a chip embedded at just the right spot near our skulls, and suddenly everyone is online. This is different than uploading consciousness though – what I'm thinking of is just taking the step to remove the middleman -the body- from the experience of being online. Again, that isn't a new idea, as gaming nerds everywhere have wished for this since the internet was invented. BUT if all it took to send a message was to think it, wouldn't that kiiinnd of make us telepathic? I mean, it wouldn't be 100% reading minds since we'd all still have secured access to our own "desktops" and we'd be able to choose whether or not we "opened" the sent message, but still, it would be pretty close to telepathy.

Of course, if it was the actual internet installed into our brains we'd be screwed, because marketing agencies would go berserko with access to the inside of our heads. Digital viruses would be the scariest things ever since they could essentially crash our brains. Plus the whole "government implemented population control" thing would be a little obvious. I'm sure the first generation of users would have crazy brain tumors and stuff too. I'm not sayin it's a waterproof idea.

Still though, telepathic technology might be out there. If we were all plugged in to something outside of the internet, but similar in design, it could be possible. Who knows, maybe if this rickety civilization makes it through the next 50 years or so, we'll all be saying our hellos, goodbyes, and eff-yous with OUR MINDS.

It's kind of a cool idea. Just sayin.