‘Avatar’ Part 2, with David Cho: Who Remembers ‘District 9’?
So as not to be confusing: I definitely think you should go see Avatar as soon as you can, if only because of what it does visually by creating a completely new world that is really amazing-especially the 3D, it’s all very, very cool and mind blowing! That being said (SORRY LARRY DAVID AND/OR JERRY SEINFELD), when watching Avatar, I was never really invested in any of the characters or emotionally compelled by what was happening on the screen. I walked away thinking that I had never seen anything like that ever in a movie, while at the same time also very reminded of another movie from this year, that did a lot of what I thought Avatar tried to do but with much better results: Neill Blomkamp’s District 9.
Now, I don’t want you to think that I’m being contrarian for the sake of being contrarian. I swear I’m really not. I completely agree with all of what’s being said about how much of an EXPERIENCE it all is, but here are my main qualms with Avatar:
1) The characters are a bit like what you would expect from the characters of the Squaresoft-era Final Fantasy series circa the late 90’s (think Final Fantasy III/VI), which is fine if you’re a Super Nintendo game, but less so if you’re being lauded as one of the greatest movies ever.
2) The dialogue-well, there’s a lot of times where what the characters say sounds like what a foreign person probably thinks an American would say in the various situations-especially the military dialogue.
3) Both of those things conspire to really telegraph where the story’s headed. (Obviously the articulation of that resolution is a really gorgeous sequence of events.)
In a lot of ways, Avatar and District 9’s plots are pretty similar, especially in how they’re structured. Without giving too much away (NO SPOILERS FOR EITHER MOVIE AHEAD!), both movies deal with the unlikely protagonist and audience being thrust into an already existing world of foreign creatures and the situation forces the hero to grow and change accordingly. The main difference however, is how much tension District 9 and its characters created. You care about what they’re all experiencing, and a lot of times are even conflicted because there are so many different emotions in play. Whereas with Avatar, particularly at the slower, dramatic bits, I caught myself just marveling at how interesting and cool the really specific details of this new world were-and not really giving two hoots about what the characters going through.
There are more than a few comparable moments in the movie, but one of the most similar ones is found in the last hour of both movies. At this moment, there’s a lot at stake for the characters involved in both movies, and they’re both visually incredible and impressive, but one film has great tension and the other doesn’t. If Avatar is a fairy tale, then District 9 is a home movie.
It’s questionably relevant to have a bias like this, but while Avatar’s production budget was somewhere between $250 and $350 million dollars, District 9 was produced for something like a tenth of that: just $30 million. And while Avatar does not waste any of that money, District 9 looks much, much more expensive than it is. A lot of comparable movies from this year with a lot more money, have looked much, much worse. (Terminator Salvation, production budget: $200 million).
Sidebar: I watched a “making of” Avatar piece on 60 Minutes after I had seen the movie, and while watching, I didn’t realize how much of the CGI’d characters faces were taken from the facial movements of the actual actors. I was especially confused/surprised/bewildered when I saw sensors all over Zoe Saldana’s face, because she is about 500 gajillion times hotter in real life than her on-film blue-person counterpart. Just saying.
So all I’m trying to say is this: go see Avatar and really be amazed that technology and James Cameron have put a lot of time and work into creating a really photorealistic future that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen and appreciate it for that. But you know what else? Go check out District 9 again, or maybe for the first time, and enjoy that spectacular movie too.