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My Favorite Part Was When They Used the Ponytail of Life as a Joystick to Drive the Dragons

By TK Burton | Industry | January 27, 2010 |

By TK Burton | Industry | January 27, 2010 |

It was, in many ways, inevitable. Avatar, James Cameron’s magnum opus, after raking in $1.292 billion worldwide as of Tuesday, has broken the box office record previously set by his other mega-super hit, Titanic. God only knows what this will do to Cameron’s already-bloated ego. Interestingly, we didn’t actually do a lot of pre-release coverage here — a movie poster here, a bit of trailer there — whether that was due to our legitimate lack of interest, or because we’re such obscene anti-establishment hipster elitists (as many of you are likely to proclaim), doesn’t really matter. Avatar was an unstoppable force, a juggernaut destined to bludgeon its way to the top of the heap. Truth be told, Cameron didn’t even need half the budget he used to blow up the box office. Sure, he likely wouldn’t have broken the record, but he still would have stampeded up the charts anyway. The man’s name, for better or worse, is pretty much gold to the moviegoing public.

There are uncountable conversations to have about Avatar, that, now that I’ve finally seen it, I can say are actually worthwhile. Is it worthy of Best Picture? Hell, is it worthy of the nomination? Is it “better” than The Hurt Locker? Does it deserve its financial success? Should we be somehow insulted/ashamed/enraged at the ridiculous amount of money that it cost to make?

That’s up for folks to discuss, I suppose. Personally, I’m on the fence. Visually, it is unquestionably unparalleled. When I first saw the trailers, I was completely underwhelmed. I thought it didn’t look any more impressive than a really good current-gen video game. But in an IMAX theater, in 3-D, it was without a doubt amazing. Cameron may well have changed the game, although I’m not sure how possible that is, given what it cost to change it. Has he set the bar impossibly high?

At least at the moment, spending $200 to $350 million (which are the current budgetary estimates) is well out of the reach of most film makers. Only someone like Cameron, and possibly (and unfortunately) Michael Bay could ever get that kind of backing. But things change in time. What was once revolutionary inevitably becomes routine, and eventually Avatar’s effects will become just that. Afterward, we’ll only be left with the story.

Of course, much like Titanic, that story is a mixed bag. The Titanic audience, based on my completely arbitrary and often spotty recollection, was about 70 percent teenage girls who loved Leo, and 30 percent people who just wanted to see the goddamn boat sink (I was furious that nothing happened for like a goddamn hour). Avatar’s audience is comprised of those who went to see the spectacle, to see what all the fuss is about, and those who are completely devoted to it. But after I saw it, I was left strangely empty. Amazed by the visuals, yes, but Avatar was also guilty of poor dialogue, a simplistic plot, barren, obvious villains, and plenty of downright silliness (the title of this post is a direct quote from Mrs. TK after we saw the film — she was not particularly impressed, to put it lightly).

So does Avatar deserve its accolades? Probably not. Does it deserve Best Picture (or the nomination)? That’s a tricky subject. If there was some sort of special honorary Oscar for revolutionary technical achievement, or for advancing the medium, I’d say hell yes. But the fact is, strip away the effects and the hype and the whiz-bang kerfuffle and you’re left with the cinematic equivalent of a mediocre science fiction novel. There’s nothing there that hasn’t been done, and done better, by dozens of sci-fi writers. It’s no surprise that it’s popular — audiences rarely flock to the great movies, they flock to the entertaining ones. This is no surprise. It’s the rare picture like The Dark Knight that successfully merges action, effects and excellent writing. There’s the rub with Avatar’s receipts and its awards. It’s being awarded for its technology, not necessarily for being a great movie.

But one thing we’ve learned is that to make money in films, you’ve got to spend it, and in that sense Avatar definitely earned (or spent its way into) its spot in history. Avatar’s success hinged on the money spent creating it, and likely it will always be thus, with occasional, rare exceptions. The films that have made the most money have always been the ones that cost the most money — The Dark Knight, Titanic, The Lord of the Rings, and now Avatar. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re great, sometimes they’re somewhere in-between.

Still, the thing with the ponytails was pretty goddamned goofy.

TK Burton is an Editorial Consultant. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.

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