Walking home in the middle of a balmy summer night after seeing Avatar the other night, the discussion turned naturally to the merits of the film. The question that occurred to me after, is how much of a pass can you give something because of its merit on one front?
It is undeniable that Avatar, for example, is a technologically impressive. It is also very aesthetically impressive. Or pretty, if you would rather. But beyond that, the film’s merits are entirely questionable. The characters are stereotyped and one-dimensional, as are most of the performances (we’ll give you a pass Sigourney, you were OK). The script is at times very laboured, especially the anachronistic use of Iraq War terminology which just grated at times. There was nothing remotely original in the story, and I don’t think there was anything that happened that surprised me (although I did think for a minute they might save Grace, but let’s call that a minor surprise). There were a number of things which were pretty lacking in credibility (for example: if you had invested billions and billions in a business, would you be trusting its management to an unthinking loser like Parker Selfridge and the scenery chewing colonel? And the politics were heavy handed and, amusingly, enough to set off the right (particularly in the form of Miranda , bemoaning the deprecation of the military and the Iraq War and the left, with (justifiable) concerns about the depiction of disability, race and gendered notions about warriors vs spirituality. Personally, I can’t abide the white-man-rescues-poor-natives trope which is the film’s central conceit (see Sociological Images for a nice discussion of that here). I must admit that amongst that litany of problematic depictions, I actually thought that, Na’Vi earth goddess trope aside, the depictions of human women were not too bad. But this is perhaps beside the point. My other concern with Avatar as a whole though was that it, with is formulaic plot and its poor characterisation, bordered on the boring at times.
What I am particularly interested in, is to what extent can one give an artistic creation a pass because of its superior aesthetic value. Many people I know have said “well…it was pretty.” And pretty seems to count for a lot. But how do you stack pretty up against poor scripts, lack of imagination or, indeed, poor politics. Overall,as a society, when it comes to people we do seem to be willing to let a lot slip when faced with superior aesthetics! But people are different from art. Without engaging in hyperbole, or any implication that James Cameron is a Nazi etc, it should be noted that films like Triumph of the Will and Olympia were supremely aesthetically pleasing, and impressive demonstrations of their current technology. It is true, that these films are still watched and studied and indeed admired for their aesthetic values. But the questions remains as to whether they are “good” films. Can their core of rottenness be overcome by their superior aesthetics?
Is there a formula or an equation that can be reached which says, despite its poor script, its aesthetics bring it up to par, but now you add some dodgy politics, it drops out of contention? It is interesting that we often do this in the other direction – the lighting and the sets were poor and it was ugly, but the script was fantastic – it is a “worthy” story. Are there some things which cannot be forgiven in a film, no matter how beautiful?
Update: with respect to questions of the originality of the script of Avatar see this very amusing take on it.
Further update: A good discussion about the idea of considering these questions, plus the representation of race itself in Avatar is here.