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Let me start with this warning. I loved Under the Mountain – both the book and the series. Maurice Gee’s famous science fantasy/horror children’s novel isn’t exactly the strongest in narratives – but it tells its story well and manages to be suitably creepy.

The television series was remarkably ambitious for NZ television at the time and while it is pretty hokey now, it was genuinely creepy at the time it screened.

So how does this “reimagined” upgrade of Under the Mountain fare? Afterall, the technology has reached a point where NZ film/television can really do Maurice Gee’s classic justice.

It’s a shame this isn’t that film.

Firstly, I have heard that the actors have been accused of hamming it up – which I have to disagree with. Sam Neill does most of the scenery chewing, and Oliver Driver does a fair bit of it too. But the two twins and cousin Ricky do a reasonable job of the roles they were handed. I suspect much of the problem is that a lot of reviewers are still not used to hearing NZ accents in a film with flashy VFX. Personally, all the damage in this film is from a combination of some seemingly weak directing and an atrocious script that tries to be Buffy witty without actually being funny, nor having the actors trained in how to deliver comedic lines.

But the screenplay not only fails from the witty dialogue issue, it is a classic example of how *not* to write a reimagining.

I get the idea behind reimagining the story to fit into a filmic structure, make it a little more traditional Hollywood-like in pacing and structure. But you don’t just change things wholecloth to squeeze into the structure. You need to think about how the story will be changed and what other differences need to be considered. One of the biggest flaws of the movie is that nobody’s motivations make any sense.

Theo is an angry teen, but without really explaining it. Sure, his mother just died – but we get absolutely no examination of his motivation for spurning his sister’s support. It just doesn’t make sense and causes him to make some completely implausible leaps of judgement. He respects Mr Jones, but then completely ignores Jones’ warnings for no other obvious reason other than the script demanded him to be separated from the others.

And Mr Jones has been so rewritten as to be one of the most unlikeable characters in the film. He’s a douche. Not only that, but he makes no sense in the context of the film. In the original tale, Jones watches over the twins because of their connection to him and the Wilberforces – and he guides them as a mentor for the most part.

In the film, Mr Jones has no relationship to the Twins prior to Theo talking to him. Further the twins connection to events is much more coincidence rather than their destiny. Also, the word “Twiness” is stupid.

Jones doesn’t seem to care about the twins and lacks a lot of personality – he is a Deus Ex Machina to give the Twins a reason to fight the Wilberforces. Even though the Wilberforces are creepy – they are not sufficiently set up as a threat, and again their involvement comes across more as “we need a villain” than actually having a decent motivation or plan. Either the film needed to have a few more Wilberforces discussing plans, or more of them as alien remorseless monsters. In the end they just aren’t scary enough and don’t appear to actually have a drive to really do anything.

Another thing that bugged me was that not enough of a deal was made about earthquakes in Auckland. Hello – Auckland is not a town that experiences earthquakes usually. The film suggests that its a common occurance. It’s not. Even if the intention of the scene is to suggest that the quakes have been happening long enough for Aucklander’s to have become somewhat blasé about it – this was not communicated.

On that note – the quake they call a 3 pointer was NOT a three pointer. Having lived in Wellington, I know my quakes- and it is nothing like the way it was presented in the film.

For the most part, the biggest let downs in this film come from the atrociously bad rewrites. This came across as a clumsy attempt to make an accessible mainstream film without any thought about consistency or coherency. I guess in a way, the film tries too hard and fails because of this.

There were many bad decisions made on where to make changes in the script.

Conan

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Okay, I’m pretty sick and tired of the apologist BS I have been seeing on the net recently about James Cameron’s Avatar.

One of the first lessons I was taught in Media Studies is that any analysis of the film needs to consider the intent of the film-maker. It is easy to find -isms in most films if you are actively looking for it – and it saddens me to see many educated folk committing the heinous crime of overanalysis with bias. Yet here we are – people looking bringing their own preconceived notions in to spoil their own enjoyment of a fun blockbuster film.

Oddly enough there can come a point where fighting racism can lead to committing the exact same racist mistakes.

Let’s take a look at Avatar. One of the first things is that the Na’vi “look” is based off Native American tribal society at the time of Western colonisation. This is a deliberate choice and really a visual cue to provide understanding not so much of the Na’vi as it is of how the humans of the setting perceive the Na’vi. They see them as primitives living with the land. Yet we are shown how complex the Na’vi’s society is as Sully learns more of them. They are not a primitive race, but a highly advanced alien society.

Further, the Na’vi do not struggle against the humans. From the beginning of the film it is pretty clear that the Na’vi are holding their own and SecFor is getting desperate. Enter Sully – the so-called Mighty White by film detractors. He is a paraplegic, a product of his culture and time when humanity is fighting violent wars. He is offered the opportunity to regain the use of his legs by spying on the Na’vi – and initially he does so due to his training and beliefs.

The point here is that he is a broken man who is healed by the Na’vi culture – they bring out his strengths and teach him how to be a part of a family – something he lost at the beginning of the film. Never in this film did I get the impression that Sully was the best of the best. He works hard to be accepted, and he shows respect as he learns the stakes.

Sully’s involvement to save the Na’vi doesn’t come from him being the only one who can – it comes from him having to find redemption. He can only be healed and become part of the Na’vi culture by helping stop the war he began. It is Sully’s actions that lead to the Na’vi becoming out of balance , it is Sully’s betrayal that causes the catastrophe that has them drive him out of the family.

This is not about race, this is about the traditional heroes quest. That Sully is white is not a factor in the story, it’s that Sully must earn his place in his family. While some are obsessed with finding the White Saviour myth, they miss the finder points of the story – focusing on the broad strokes they think each action fulfils.

When Sully approaches Eywa, it is an apology and an admittance of fault. He seeks forgiveness and understanding. We are told that the planet seeks balance – and for balance to be restored, Sully needs to show humility and acknowledge his part in events.

Ultimately, the idea that it is about a white man wishing to be a native or saving savages – that to me is a desire to find racism in the film. What I see is a tale about a man seeking his place and a family. I felt that Sam Worthington did an admirable job of showing a man who has lost so much that he takes solace in his military training. Who is slowly but surely brought out of that place of pain by a people whose culture is built on unity and support – who show him that in their society you never really lose your family. He becomes transhuman, and must undergo strife to earn his place with a new family and life.

But to say he is the only one who can save the day is to miss the intent of the film. Sully’s awesomeness is not because he is white. It is because he is the protagonist in an action film. By dint of the rules of storytelling, your protagonist should be the one who saves the day – otherwise, why are we watching him and not the actual hero. That Sully is human is part of the story – but it is not his humanity that makes him awesome. If anything, humans in general are represented as no better and often worse than the Na’vi. Sully’s “awesome” factor is by dint of him as an individual – and even then, he needs saving by Netyri of the Na’vi by the end of the story.

To lay his successes at the feet of his race is to ignore the narrative shown in the film in favour for fixating on some older narrative told in a movie that this is not.

Film analysis is not about using the narrative of other films to judge the film you are watching – it is about properly considering the full narrative of the movie, which is told not only through the plot, but through the overall story, visuals, audio, performances, editing… everything.

All the “it’s racist” analysis I have seen picks at disparate plot points out of context of the actual characters and their surroundings. This is the worst kind of analysis because it is focused on an agenda on the part of the analyst rather than considering the film, it’s intent and the context that the story is told in and the content of its narrative.

Avatar isn’t the most original plot in the world – but it certainly isn’t the racist, anti-disability, sexist monstrosity that some rather over-educated people would like it to be. Maybe, when I get the blu-ray, I’ll do a full film analysis. (Being a film-maker myself keeps me busy y’know.) But kudos to Cameron. I enjoyed the movie. It was a marvel that swept me away in its wonder and beauty. I highly recommend it.
Conan

December 2009
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