Thoughts on Avatar

So Swiss movie theatres have a slightly evil habit of having a 15 minute break in the middle of every movie. It’s the cinema’s way of taping you on the shoulder and saying: “Stop! Don’t get too immersed! It’s only a movie. Perhaps you should take a breather and go out and BUY some ICE CREAM.” I can perhaps forgive them for a break in the case of Avatar, since the movie is longer than the 30-year war.

Another terrible part of the break is the inevitable question that your movie-going neighbour asks: “So… what do you think of the film so far?” For a plot or character driven movie, I hate this question. No: I do not want to judge a film until it has finished; I don’t want to articulate my half-formed thoughts on the movie until it’s over.

Not so for Avatar though. The first half is an aesthetic experience and the mid-film review a simple emotional reaction: the movie is just beautiful. The 3D is stunning and used to exquisite effect creating a magical and completely immersive world. Some of the scenes literally brought tears to my eyes.

Parts of the world reminded me of underwater seascapes seen whilst diving. The most obvious being the jellyfish/tree-seeds. The spiral plants that retract when you touch them also exist in tropical waters, unfortunately the real ones are only 1-2cm in size, not 1-2m. I guess the underwater inspiration shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise since James Cameron has an obsession with water and the undersea world.

After the break came the second half of the movie.

It’s as if the writers gave up and handed the unfinished script to a couple of teenagers along with a book of movie clich├ęs. The remainder of the movie lacked the slightest hint of originality. The movie lost me from the moment that Jakesully fulfils his destiny by harnessing the beast-that-has-only-seldom-been-tamed and uniting the tribes that have only once-before-been-united. The gung-ho cry “This is our land!” seemed incongruous with the earlier tone of all-living-creatures-are-precious-gifts.

The first half of the movie talks about the “interconnectivity of all living things”. While this makes a nice metaphor or spiritual belief, it loses a lot when it is used in the climax of the film to “kick some ass!” as mother nature opens a can of whoop-ass on the technologically superior humans.

One grating scene has the human characters unironically declaring: “We have to save the Tree of Souls!” This shouldn’t come as surprise though as by this stage of the movie we’ve discovered that all the characters are one dimensional. The scientists are tree-huggers and the military personal all thugs. The exception of course being the protagonist and the pilot who, also stereotypically, fall in love with the beauty of the forest and realise the error of their ways

Avatar has been compared with Dances with Wolves. The key difference for me being that Dances with Wolves ended on a down note with the natives fleeing before the invaders and ultimately to their effective extinction. Avatar would have been a much better film if it had ended on a similar note.

Another parallel that can be drawn is that of the quagmire wars that the United States has gotten itself involved in – Vietnam and Afghanistan. This is another theme that James Cameron has touched on before – he declared that Aliens was Vietnam set in space. The message being that a technologically and military superior force can be brought down by a determined opposition with local knowledge, guerilla tactics and a love of their homeland. But this metaphor doesn’t work in the world of Avatar. After some half-felt wincing expressions the commander decides that the bottom-line comes before the lives of the locals. Both Vietnam and Afghanistan could have been won if the invading force decided they didn’t care about the lives of the locals instead implemented a scorched earth policy of wiping out the locals.

Another alternative ending that I would have found more satisfying would have been along the lines of Gandhi in India style of passive resistance. Sadly it seems that James Cameron didn’t consider himself a strong or daring enough film maker to create such a movie. Perhaps it was just commercial pressures on the studios. The current ending is certainly selling to teenage boys the world around.

In the mid-movie break, I declared that I’d happily see Avatar a second time. A complement formerly reserved for the Lord of the Rings movies. Given the disappointing ending, I think I’ll wait for a Director’s Cut where hopefully James Cameron decides a complete rewrite of the second half is required.


iPhone App Review: Lonely Planet Hong Kong City Guide

An electronic travel guide is something I dreamed for years. This is a potential killer-app for the iPhone, but the Lonely Planet Hong Kong Guide shows that we are not there yet. Good content is let down by an unpolished interface.

The biggest selling point for me would have been the map functionality enhanced by the iPhone’s built in GPS and compass. Unfortunately, the map function has many frustrations. Firstly,every time you open the map, it forgets the last view you were on. Thus the switching between the text and the map (more on this below) is an exercise in frustration. This wouldn’t be too so annoying if the locate-me function was a bit more robust (perhaps a hardware issue). Also annoying is that the map is not searchable by street name. When looking for a street, I ended up grabbing a free paper map as it was bigger and easier to scan over. Also, the map is either incomplete or not up-to-date. My hotel (Novotel on Nathan Road) was not in the guide. I wasn’t even to overcome this by adding my own marker to the map: custom waypoints isn’t a supported feature.

The text content is great as it is taken directly from Lonely Planet’s reputable guide book. Unfortunately it doesn’t exploit of any of the advantages of an electronic interface. The index is a list of all the item and sub-items – Getting Started, Background, Neighbours etc. Unfortunately each sub-section is not collapsible, so it takes a minute scrolling to get to down to the section you are interested in. Searching doesn’t help either: typing in the name of the region “Kowloon” results in multiple entries all saying “Kowloon” – only by tapping on one and going back can you find out which one is “accommodation” and which one is “eating”.

The text pages themselves are then frustratingly devoid of hyperlinks. There are no links from one page to another beyond previous/next buttons. Worst of all, there are almost no links to the map and, as mentioned above, jumping between the map and the text is an exercise in hair-pulling frustration

The price is cheaper than the equivalent dead-tree edition and an electronic version had the potential to be superior to a physical version. Sadly, with the software limitations, I found myself using a paper map and wishing that I’d just shelled out the extra money for the book edition. I’ll keep an eye on this class of apps though as the limitations will hopefully be overcome in future versions.