Monday, February 8, 2010

When "Good Enough" is Good Enough

Avatar is an excellent movie.

There, I said it.

I've heard all the nays that the nay-sayers have had to say. I get it. The characters could've been stronger. The story could've been more original. These things are true. But I say that the movie, as it exists, is excellent.

And it's not just because of the special effects and the 3-D. Oh, how I resent the people who preface their anti-Avatar rants with, "I'm not saying the special effects and the 3-D aren't great. They are. But I need more than that out of a movie." Ah, yes, and my puny little bird brain doesn't need more out of a movie than special effects. Right. Thank you.

Sorry, but I know how to distinguish between special effects and a good movie, and Avatar is a good movie. When I rent it on home video, stripped away of its 3-D, I'll still enjoy it. Avatar exceeded expectations because the story and the characters are better than they needed to be, which is much better than not good at all.

That's right. I'm here to make an argument for "good enough."

Let's take a look at some of the other big special effects movies from 2009: Transformers 2 and G.I. Joe. Transformers 2 has a few defenders, but most reasonable people acknowledge that it sucked. G.I. Joe, as far as I can tell, has no defenders. It just sucked.

The first Transformers movie sucked as well. Other than its special effects, there was nothing satisfying about it. And at nearly two and a half hours, even the special effects outstayed their welcome. But people went to see it -- mostly out of a sense of nostalgia, I suspect -- so a sequel was inevitable. "But people are going to have learned their lesson after getting burnt the first time, right?" I asked myself. "No way it's gonna do well." Wrong! It did even better than the first one. Most people hated it, but they went to see it anyway.

And then G.I. Joe came out only a couple months later, and I thought to myself, "Well, after getting burnt twice on Transformers, there's no way people will get suckered into G.I. Joe, right?" Wrong! Big hit.

Avatar gives us more than just the hollow, cynical pile-on of special effects. The story may be routine, and the characters broadly-drawn archetypes, but that's more than most studios are willing to put into their tentpole movies and it's more, apparently, than most audiences are willing to demand. For that, I'm grateful to James Cameron.

That may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I assure you I mean it sincerely. Cameron has a knack for finding the right story to complement his interests. When he made Titanic -- a movie that received pretty much the same criticisms as Avatar -- he was interested in the boat itself. He was interested in the rich and brief history of the Titanic. The boat's construction, the prominent historical figures who sailed on its only voyage, the class distinctions, the hows and whys of its sinking. He went down in a submarine himself to visit the wreckage.

These are the things he wanted to recreate in his film. He wanted to create the experience of being on the Titanic. The Jack and Rose story was exactly what it needed to be - a simple love story, with simple but interesting characters caught up in standard movie conflicts. The point was to feel what it felt like to be on the ship, to see what it looked liked when you were on board, to get a sense of how it operated... and then to feel the sheer helplessness of slowly sinking out in the middle of nowhere; to have enough time to realize you're about to lose everything. People have complained about the story and characters in Titanic, but I think they were exactly what we needed to usher us through the experience.

And if you don't believe Titanic did a good job with its characters and story, then watch Michael Bay's atrocious Pearl Harbor. They thought they had the formula figured out - simple characters and a simple love story set amidst an overwhelming historical catastrophe. It didn't work. It was boring and emotionless. It was cynical. It was insulting. Titanic worked. It was involving and emotionally stirring. Say what you want about the "unoriginal" stories Cameron frequently falls back on - the guy believes in his stories, and that makes all the difference.

Back in the '90s, as you may recall, the big thing was independent cinema. There was an explosion of quality movies made outside of the studio system, and they became accepted and mainstreamed (largely through the efforts of the Weinsteins). Many great movies came out of that period. But if you look back now, outside of "the moment," it's easier to pick out common flaws in those movies. Typically, they were of low visual quality, adequate-at-best audio quality, borderline inept editing. They were often made by amateurs, and they looked like it.

A lot of allowances were made by critics and audiences. If the material was strong -- solid characters and an interesting story -- then we could overlook the artless camerawork and the lack of production design and frequent bad acting. We admired them simply for getting it done, and for getting it done on the cheap.

In other words, good enough was good enough.

Avatar is a movie I really enjoyed. If the story and characters weren't the best, I still found them very enjoyable. You're not wrong if you disagree; if you weren't entertained, you weren't entertained. But let's agree on one thing: we've seen much, much worse. This movie was more than just a technical achievement. It's a good movie. It's interesting and engaging in a way that movies like Transformers and G.I. Joe are not. Cameron deserves more credit for that than he's getting.

Oh, but it's not the Best Picture of 2009...


  1. I saw "Pearl Harbor" for the first time on Christmas Day ... whatever year it came out on DVD. My sister Ellen got it for Christmas, and we all watched it after Christmas dinner. At one point, my sister Chrissy and I were clutching one another and sobbing. (It might have been when Ben Affleck told a dying Josh Hartnett, "You're going to be a dad!" and Josh Hartnett said, "No, you are!")

    So I guess the formula worked for us, at least. Interestingly enough, I also sobbed through the end of "Titanic," and Chrissy thought it was funny. Go figure.

    I haven't seen "Avatar," and I don't think I will any time soon. The previews and reviews just make me go, "Meh."

  2. I'd be interested to know how you felt about it if you watched it again today.

  3. Love your comments, Joe. You know I LOVED "Avatar" and everyone I know that saw it loved it too. For me, it was better than good enough. It was a beautiful place with wonderful, spiritual characters.


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