The Avatar Backlash
If there were a place in the universe where James Cameron’s long-long awaited sci-fi epic Avatar should have been guaranteed to be embraced it was at the Butt-Numb-A-Thon last weekend. The annual film festival, held in Austin, Texas and sponsored by the ultimate movie geek Web site, Ain’t It Cool News, is a fan boy’s paradise: 24 hours of non-stop movies hand-picked by AICN’s founder and geek extraordinaire, Harry Knowles. This year’s lineup included Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Shutter Island, the ‘80’s Hong Kong gross-out film Centipede Horror—and Avatar.
The $300 million-ish film, which Cameron has been working on for more than a decade and is his first since 1997’s blockbuster-of-the-century Titanic, was the festival’s grand finale, and to say that the audience of 200 fans—most of whom have been die-hard Cameronites since The Terminator—was excited is understating things.
“Walking out of the film in Austin, I can tell you I heard the correction. A ton of people were making the Dances with Wolves comparison, and the fact that it’s so clichéd, I mean rigorously clichéd,” said Jeremy Smith, West Coast editor of Ain’t It Cool News. “People were supremely disappointed.” (The term “ Dances with Wolves in space” is also cropping up across the Internet.)
Yet what should have been an orgiastic love fest, was, surprisingly, far more muted. During the film’s visual piece de resistance—the final, 45-minute, war-of-the-worlds type action sequence—“the applause was really half-hearted,” said Jeremy Smith, West Coast Editor at AICN. “It was like, yes, we’re into it, but we’re not that into it.”
• Kim Masters: The Genius of Avatar After the film—which tells the story of an Earthling (Sam Worthington) who goes to a faraway planet to mine its natural resources and ends up falling in love with the native race of Na’vi creatures—Smith, "a.k.a. Mr. Beaks," rushed to write his review—not of Avatar, but Kick-Ass, an upcoming action movie directed by Matthew Vaughn ( Layer Cake) that played right before Avatar. “I wrote my Kick Ass review first because I had so much enthusiasm for that film. With Avatar, it was more like I was performing an autopsy.”
The lackluster reaction of geeks is the latest, wildly dramatic pendulum swing in the reception of Avatar, a film that has been actively dissected and analyzed—and loved and hated—well before there was even any footage to judge. Now that the film is finally being screened—it opens Friday—reactions are flooding in, and the results are defying expectation.
The mainstream press, which for months had taken a cautious and vehemently skeptical stance toward a film that was touted as nothing short of a revolution for its technological breakthroughs, fell in love—hard. “Twelve years after Titanic, which still stands as the all-time [box office] champ, Cameron delivers again with a film of universal appeal that just about everyone who ever goes to the movies will see,” gushed Variety’s Todd McCarthy. Just about everyone else felt equally ebullient, even those who had previously weighed in as disbelievers. (The same about-face also happened with Titanic.) Avatar’s profile not just as an extraordinary film but a serious awards contender, was boosted further this week with the announcement of the Golden Globe nominations. The film is up for best picture and director; only Nine and Up in the Air racked up more total nominations.
The geeks, too, pulled a 180. After making snide swipes at Avatar after footage was presented at Comic Con last summer—the Na’vi were “Thundersmurfs” and were reminiscent of Jar Jar Binks, the highly-ridiculed character from Star Wars—fan boy pandemonium broke out over the Internet last weekend. “Okay, about Avatar?” Tweeted ComingSoon.net “WOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOWOW Unbelievable… amazing. James Cameron does it again.” AICN’s C. Robert Cargill joined in: “So I just got from a movie. It was pretty great…if by pretty great I mean OMFGHOLYFUCKINGSHITOMGOMGOMG. Because that’s what it was.”
Yet the rapturous spell was broken in Austin, and, according to Smith, a revisionist movement is now afoot among nerds, the center of the presumed sweet spot of the Avatar audience, and a powerful marketing tool for studios. “There’s this thing that happens, when people are the first group in [to see a movie], it is often judged to be better than it really is. There’s a rush to judgment,” Smith said.
“Walking out of the film in Austin, I can tell you I heard the correction. A ton of people were making the Dances with Wolves comparison, and the fact that it’s so clichéd, I mean rigorously clichéd…People were supremely disappointed. (The term “Dances with Wolves in space” is also cropping up across the Internet.)”
Among the complaints from Nerdom are that the story of noble savages who show the ignorant, civilized man the virtues of living in, and according to, nature, has been done before; the dialogue is clunky ; and that while the CGI effects and mo-cap work is cool it isn’t as cool as they’d hoped. “This isn’t Jurassic Park,” said Devin Faraci, a writer and editor at CHUD.com, a leading movie fansite. “When I saw that movie, I said, ‘Oh my God, I’ve seen the next level. This isn’t that.” (The nerds do, however, give it up for how real the Na’vi’s eyes look, a challenge that other mo-cap filmmakers, such as Robert Zemeckis ( The Polar Express, A Christmas Carol) have yet to master.)
Fox and Cameron, of course, have gone out of their way to court the geek demo, counting on it to be the most vociferously impressed by Avatar’s ground-breaking 3-D and mo-cap technology, and the meticulously designed fantasy world that Cameron designed down to every last micro-creature. There was the Comic Con presentation, followed by an “ Avatar Day” over the summer, when 20 minutes of the film was screened in IMAX theaters across the country. The Avatar video game was presented at E3, the annual electronics Lollapalooza. And then, of course, there was Butt-Numb-A-Thon, where Cameron insisted the film play, overriding Fox, which has a contentious relationship with AICN. (The site has been tough on Fox co-chairman Tom Rothman over the years, holding him responsible for destroying, as the geeks see it, comic book franchises such as X Men and The Fantastic Four.)
Faraci, who was at the Austin screening, said: “I’d read all the glowing reviews by mainstream critics, and I said, ‘Wow, maybe this is going to be something that’s actually, really astonishing on a new level. It was not.
“Anyone who’s seen a James Cameron movie knows what to expect—sort of broad, extremely obvious, paper-thin characters who speak in ridiculous dialogue, terrific action, stunning visuals, and not a whole hell of a lot else,” Faraci continued. “There was nothing for me to grab onto emotionally in the whole picture.”
The problem, it seems, is that Avatar is proving to be a little too much like Titanic—a dramatic love story that, to fan boys, is all about the sinking ship scene—as opposed to the James Cameron films that geeks hold closest to their hearts, such as Terminator I and II and Aliens. In other words, there are no tricked-out, never-before-seen gadgets, and non-stop fight scenes until the very end of the movie. Geeks can also do without the political and eco-commentary that are woven throughout Avatar, which amounts to a thinly veiled criticism of the United States’ might-makes-right foreign policy.
Analyzing the Butt-Numb-A-Thon debacle, Drew McWeeny, an editor at Hitfix.com and formerly the critic known as “Moriarty” at AICN, said: “Two things happened. Kick-Ass, which played directly before it, was a huge spike of adrenaline and wore the audience out. And Avatar was the last film in a 27 hour marathon, so many people, no matter how excited, were slipping in and out of consciousness.”
Avatar’s length—it is nearly three hours—added to the tortuousness of the experience. Though McWeeny says he was one of the few who didn’t mind. “I like epics. My favorite film is Lawrence of Arabia. That’s 3:20. Why would I complain?”
Nicole LaPorte is a West Coast reporter for The Daily Beast. A former film reporter for Variety, she has also written for The New Yorker, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, The New York Times, The New York Observer, and W.