Why Atlas Shrugged Part I Is a Good Movie

The views on Atlas Shrugged Part I range from lavish praise to moral denunciation. My reaction immediately after viewing it opening night was that it is “basically good,” despite some obvious problems with it. See myinitial review as well as some audience reactions.

Having just watched the film again, I stand by my initial review, though I enjoyed the film even more the second time.

I wanted to see the film again just to enjoy it on the big screen. However, I also wanted to check my initial estimation of it. Undoubtedly before I saw it I expected it to be an utter failure, yet I was nevertheless excited to see it, so I felt quite relieved that it turned out to be much better than I expected. But had I erred on the side of overemphasizing its merits while ignoring its flaws? No. This movie got a great deal right, much more than its detractors recognize. The fact that it also got a lot wrong explains why I describe it as good but not great.

I have seen several basic camps emerge in evaluating the film.

1. Some fans of Ayn Rand lavish the film with praise, regardless of the virtues and flaws of the movie, simply out of fandom.

2. Some fans of Ayn Rand bitterly condemn the film, refusing to acknowledge any virtues of the movie, because the film does have some flaws and is not consistently true to the spirit of the book. (The fact that the film lists David Kelley as a consultant, while Kelley remains on very bad terms with Rand’s heir Leonard Peikoff, does not help in this regard. Disclaimer: while I recognize the value of some of Kelley’s older works, such as The Evidence of the Senses, I think he’s gone basically off track since then and that Peikoff’s criticisms of him are on target. Moreover, I think the film’s producers would have done far better to turn to somebody who actually knows something about film, such as the Ayn Rand Institute’s Jeff Britting.)

3. Various conservatives praise the film for its political messages, regardless of the quality of the film. This group likes the film basically for its propaganda value.

4. Various leftists condemn the film because they hate Ayn Rand and everything she stands for, and there’s no way they’d ever say anything good about anything relating to her.

5. Some, like me, enjoyed the film yet see in it virtues and flaws. Some basically didn’t enjoy it because they put more weight on the problems that I too recognize.

6. The large majority of Americans, meanwhile, wonder what the hell this is all about or ignore the film completely. But maybe the film will encourage some of these people to grab the novel off their shelves and blow the dust off of it.

Frankly, I’m as skeptical of those who cannot find fault with the film as I am of those who cannot find anything to like about it.

First I’ll review what I liked about the film. Obviously there are spoilers below!

The Cinematography: The Colorado landscapes are gorgeous. The bridge is stunning. The interior settings are rich. I particularly enjoyed the construction scenes of the John Galt line. This is all the more impressive considering the film’s limited budget.

The Acting: I have heard that the acting is “wooden,” claims I regard as silly. Some of the acting is superb: see Patrick Fischler as Paul Larkin, Rebecca Wisocky as Lillian Rearden, and Armin Shimerman as the bureaucratic scientist. Matthew Marsden does a very good job as the entitled sniveler James Taggart.

Unfortunately, the acting of the heroes is on the whole less-good than the acting of the villains. Of the heroes, my favorite performance is Graham Beckel as Ellis Wyatt. Though physically he does not match the Ellis of the novel, I liked what he did with the role. He turned nicely from bitter anger toward the Taggarts to warmth toward Dagny and Hank.

I really liked Grant Bowler as Hank Rearden. I like the way he smiles lightly at his metal. I have heard the complaint that he smiles too much throughout the film; this is not the Hank of the novel. No, it is not, but the Hank of the novel is horribly emotionally repressed for the first third of the story, and that would have been extraordinarily difficult to portray in a stand-alone movie. Notice that Bowler invokes both the fond half-smile as well as a sarcastic, forced smile with his wife. His acting is anything but “wooden;” it is subtle and emotionally rich.

Those who call Taylor Schilling’s performance of Dagny “wooden” I think unfairly malign her intentionally understated performance. What I get from her performance is what I get from the Dagny of the novel: a very rich emotional life hidden (from those who don’t know her) by a hardened exterior. I thought she did this very effectively, though I grant some of her hand gestures are a little awkward.

The Setting: The film does a very nice job setting the context for the story. Very quickly it establishes that we are in the near future, that the global economy is falling apart, that rail is now the most critical component of transportation, and that bureaucrats continue to seize control over the economy.

True, the novel Atlas is timeless, almost an alternate reality of a slightly altered America of the past. But imagine how hard that would have been to set up in a film. You’d have to communicate to the audience why we’re seemingly in the past, but not America’s actual past. That would be incredibly difficult to do, and I think critics of this aspect of the film simply haven’t given much thought to the enormous challenge of setting the context. Remember, we are now several additional decades away from the quasi-historical setting that Rand envisioned.

My own solution, what I’ve envisioned, is a film shot in black-and-white, with certain scenes (including Galt’s Gulch) shot in color. But such an approach brings its own set of difficulties and risks.

The Themes: True, the film only skims the intellectual surface of Rand’s novel. But consider what the film does manage to convey. Dagny makes decisions based on her first-hand understanding of the facts. The producers move the world. There is a difference between producing versus mooching and forcing, and the latter are wrong. The film largely stays true to the intellectual underpinnings of Rand’s works, and it does so without (or only rarely) sounding didactic. That’s quite a feat.

The Pacing: I’ve heard the complaint that the film is too fast, that the audience won’t follow the story, etc. I disagree with all that. Yes, the film moves along briskly, as I think appropriate. Imagine the reviews if the film seemed to drag! The best comparison I can think of on this point is Joss Whedon’s Serenity, which also compresses an enormous amount of background into the opening sequence and moves the story along quickly. I’m not bothered by this. Anyone who pays attention to the movie can follow the basic turns of the story. To me the film is “richly layered” in a way that invites multiple viewings.

Next I’ll address some of the other criticisms I’ve heard about the film.

The Bracelet: I did think the film misses much of the emotional richness of the bracelet scene. Dagny is nearly out of her mind with anger during the scene, and that simply does not come across. Dagny should have confronted Lillian as she berated the Rearden bracelet in front of others, as happens in the novel. Still, if you forget the book, the scene works okay.

The Music: Frankly, I didn’t even notice the music my first viewing. I’ve heard complaints that it’s not spectacular. But usually if you’re thinking about the music while watching a film, the music isn’t doing its job. This time, because I was consciously thinking about the music, I did notice it, and I enjoyed it. I liked the pristine horns during the train run.

The Drinking: The first time I watched the film, I didn’t notice that the characters often have a drink in their hands. I noticed this time because others have commented on it. But it doesn’t bother me. I also noticed that Hank was drinking coffee at his anniversary party, sitting in bored solitude, which is just right.

The Sex: True, the sex scene between Dagny and Hank captures nothing of the emotional complexity of the book. Rather than include a silly “I want to kiss you” scene, I think the film should have cut straight from the train scene to a far more rowdy sex scene. That would have left all of Hank’s conflicts suitably in the background. Still, I didn’t hate the sex scene; I just don’t think it did much for the movie.

Ellis’s Strike: I didn’t notice this the first time, but I did after others pointed it out. Ellis’s strike is oddly split up. It’s as though he goes on strike, then comes back to burn his wells. But I think it’s not too hard for a viewer to make this work; just assume that Ellis had to stick around for a while to close down his business, which is actually how the characters often go on strike in the book.

Stadler: Yes, I was surprised by the casting for Dr. Stadler. But, again, try to forget the book and just contemplate whether the character works within the movie. He works okay (not great). Yes, the dialog about the three students seems to come out of nowhere. But, again, it’s fairly easy for a viewer to fill in the gaps: Stadler is generally disillusioned because he lost three great students, so now he doesn’t give a damn about Rearden, either. I don’t think that’s too big of a gap for a viewer to cross. A few words could have made the connection clearer.

Owen Kellog: Ethan Cohn’s “Owen Kellog” is again nothing like the book. I think the role was basically miscast and misacted. Still, it’s not impossible to believe that a mousy man is nevertheless quite competent at his job, and the viewer basically has to take his background on Dagny’s word, anyway.

Now I want to touch on the truly bad aspects of the film.

Hugh Akston: It’s absolutely impossible to believe that the Hugh Akston of the film is a brilliant philosopher. Hopefully they’ll fix that for future parts.

Dagny and Francisco: I still hated the scene where Dagny casually offers to sleep with Francisco to secure a loan. That line served no purpose, and it greatly distracted from the emotional impact of the sequence.

Francisco: I didn’t consistently hate the film’s portrayal of Francisco, but I didn’t like it, either. It’s impossible to believe that this scruffy barfly is some sort of great man. I think the actor could have done an okay job if he’d had a better understanding of the character or better direction (and a better costumer). One of the film’s missed opportunities is the first scene between Francisco and Hank; this should have been electric, but it was instead a little boring.

The Motor: In the case of the motor, I think the film needed to stray farther from the novel. You have this great climax of the train run, then this long and seemingly pointless quest for the motor. That time could have been spent building up the train run more completely. For example, the novel’s scenes of the room full of engineer volunteers, and the guardians of the rail, reveal the deep importance and emotion of the event, yet those scenes are absent from the film. In general, the train run, though inspiring, didn’t capture Dagny’s ecstatic state of mind, which means it didn’t set up the sex scene as well as it could have.

Some of my favorite films are far from cinematically perfect. I absolutely loved Equilibrium and saw it many times in the theater, though it too has some problems. Whedon’s Serenity remains one of my all-time favorites, despite some somewhat cheesy scenes with “Mr. Universe” and some less-than-spectacular digital effects. While I’ll never like Atlas as much as I like those other two films, it definitely joins my list of favored films.

I return to where I began: I think Atlas Shrugged Part I is a “basically good” film despite its flaws. And I just don’t get those who think the film deserves nothing but praise or nothing but condemnation. I still think I’ve made the best analogy: it’s Atlas Shrugged as directed by theFountainhead‘s John Snyte, though I would add, on a good day.

Atlas Shrugged Audience Reactions

After the Atlas Shrugged Part I opening in Westminster last night, I asked audience members what they thought of the film. Of course, I could catch only a few people, and some didn’t want to be recorded. (One lady who declined an interview said the film reminded her of Dynasty.) Here are all the interviews I did capture. Among this group the view of the film was relatively positive. See also my take.

Go See Atlas Shrugged Part I!

As I mentioned earlier in the week on Twitter, I had never been so excited to see a film for which I had such low expectations. But I truly enjoyed the film adaptation of (the first part of) Atlas Shrugged.

I see that one lonely reviewer listed at Rotten Tomatoes gives the film a passing grade, leaving Atlas with a paltry six percent rating overall. Yet I am reminded of the scenes in Atlas in which the State Science Institute pans Rearden Metal for political reasons. While Atlas is not as good a movie as Rearden’s product is a metal, I think the film faces comparable biases. I think that a film of comparable production value, but based on a politically correct novel or pushing a leftist agenda, would have scored in the forty to sixty range at Rotten Tomatoes.

Based on the trailers, I wasn’t sure I’d enjoy the performances of Taylor Schilling (Dagny Taggart) or Graham Beckel (Ellis Wyatt). But I thought they did a fine job. Generally I was impressed with the acting throughout. I was disappointed with Jsu Garcia as Francisco D’Anconia; he played more of a bar-hopping playboy, whereas the real character is a refined, intensely elegant man. And the character of philosopher Hugh Akston is completely misplayed. But everyone else is quite good, and at moments inspired. Patrick Fischler brilliantly portrays the conflicted Paul Larkin, and Rebecca Wisocky nails the serenely devilish Lillian Rearden.

The film looks beautiful. The outdoor scenery and the interior locations are gorgeous. I loved the sequences of building the rail line. And the train run itself proves inspirational (though it retains something of a digitized look).

No, the film does not come close to the intellectual or psychological depth of the novel. And sometimes the film gets the book totally wrong, as when (according to the film) Dagny casually offers to sleep with Francisco to secure a loan. Wrong, wrong, wrong. But the film remains basically true to the story and gets a great deal right.

I’ve spent quite a lot of time contemplated the Harry Potter universe, and, like Atlas, the last two Potter films leave out wide swaths of the books on which they are based. Both Rowling and Rand spend a lot of time inside the heads of the characters, and that’s extremely difficult to carry across on screen. While obviously the Potter films have much larger budgets, I think they’re roughly as true to their source material as the Atlas film is to Rand’s novel.

Another apt comparison is the 1949 adaptation of Fountainhead. Atlas is a far better adaptation. In the older film, both Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal play their characters (Howard Roark and Dominique Francon) totally wrong. (In fairness, Roark would be very hard to portray well.) By contrast, at least at moments Schilling and Grant Bowler (Hank Rearden) revealed the true spirit of their characters.

Of course, it may be hard to top the 1942 unauthorized Italian production of We the Living.

Honestly, I prepared to endure the movie clinching my teeth and trying to keep myself from getting continually ripped out of the story by bad acting and technical faults. But that didn’t happen at all. Instead, I was impressed by the opening sequences, and slowly I relaxed, forgot my trepidation, and started to enjoyed it.

No, the film is not the novel. But at least the film respects the novel. Overall the film succeeds, which is a feat under any circumstances, and particularly given the film’s extremely low budget (something like ten million dollars). So go see the movie. And then forget the movie as much as possible and return to the book.


Joshua Zader commented April 16, 2011 at 6:54 AM
You write, “And there’s no ‘Money Speech,’ or even a quick line!”

Francisco’s speech on money appears in Part 2 of the novel. This movie covers only Part 1 of the novel.

Ari commented April 16, 2011 at 6:59 AM
Good catch! I deleted the line accordingly. I’m not sure why I was misplacing it mentally.

Rob commented April 16, 2011 at 10:49 AM
It will be interesting to see how they handle the Money Speech in Part 2 – if there is a Part 2 – as it may tell us something about their approach to Galt’s Speech in Part 3.

SteveD commented April 16, 2011 at 6:45 PM
I’ve gotta admit that galt’s speech seems insuperable to me. Though I understand AR actually wrote an adaptation of it. Maybe they’ll use that.

Review: Book of Eli

Among post-apocalyptic flicks, Book of Eli is among the better ones, though it’s not nearly as good as the emotionally gripping The Road. (Both movies share certain features: bleak landscapes, food scarcity, cannibalism, and roving gangs.)

Cinematically, the absolute best part of the film is Gary Oldman’s chillingly gripping portrayal of the villain (with shades of Jack Nicholson), though I also quite liked Denzel Washington’s performance as the lead (Eli). Some of the landscapes obviously were digitized, which pulled me out of the story a bit.

Don’t read any more of this review if you don’t want to know about the story.

The upshot is that God tells Eli to travel West (across the U.S.) in order to protect the last copy of the Bible in existence. That premise, of course, is ridiculously stupid for two reasons. First, there have been so many copies of the Bible printed up (and saved digitally) that there is no way that even a concerted effort to destroy every Bible could possibly come close to succeeding. Second, the idea that God would tell this guy to go West with the last Bible is silly. (And why God would choose to save the stilted King James version remains a mystery, given the existence of better and more accurate versions.)

The main theme the film promotes is religious faith. Eli travels West because he literally hears the voice of God tell him to do so. Moreover, God tells him He will protect Eli over the course of the journey. It turns out that God was directing Eli to a sanctuary off the coast of San Francisco where a team of librarians eagerly await the arrival of the Bible so that they can put it to the printing press. Outlandishly silly stuff.

The failed theme of the film is altruism. At one point Eli summarizes the theme of the Bible: “Do more for others than you do for yourself.” But he does quite a lot of stuff for himself. For one thing, he brutally slaughters dozens of men who happen to get in the way of his mission. There’s no “turning the other cheek” for this God; this is more Old Testament bloodshed.

At one point Eli puts himself and his mission in danger by getting his iPod charged up while he seeks water in an obviously troublesome bar. (Why didn’t God just direct him to strike a rock with a stick or something?) True, Eli rescues his new friend, but he’s obviously lonely and enjoys the companionship. So, while Eli explicitly preaches altruism, he doesn’t exhibit much of it. Perhaps his journey as a whole, to save the Bible, can be viewed as an act of altruism, but in that world his journey seems as safe and personally fulfilling as any other.

It is interesting that Eli formulates altruism as a balancing act; you’re supposed to do something for yourself, but you’re supposed to do more for others. This recognizes that altruism cannot be consistently followed; you’d quickly die if you never tended to your own needs. (Of course the alternative to such moral pragmatism is a consistent, rational and benevolent egoism as promoted by Ayn Rand.)

Thankfully, the film also delves into a much more interesting tertiary theme: the reliance of tyrants on religious dogmas. The reason the Bible was nearly destroyed, says Eli, is that many blamed it for the war that destroyed the planet. The main villain seeks the Bible because he wants to use its text to subdue the people he rules. Now that is interesting commentary. Of course, the message of Eli is that such treatment of the Bible is misuse of it (and God keeps the text out of the villain’s hands), but, in fact, the Bible has been used for thousands of year to justify tyranny and oppression. (It has also been used to justify better causes, which demonstrates only that people can read into religious texts pretty much whatever they want. That is the ultimate nature of faith.)

I also appreciated the fact that the movie’s heroes devote their efforts to saving books. The Bible features some great stories and literature — and it offers poignant lessons about the nature of religion — and it would indeed be a tragedy to lose it. So here’s to post-apocalyptical films that celebrate literacy!

Review: The Business of Being Born

Last month, my wife and I visited Mountain Midwifery Center, where we’ll probably go to deliver our baby (assuming we successfully get that far; we’re not even pregnant yet). Tracy Ryan, owner of the midwifery, praised The Business of Being Born, a film we’d already purchased (and which is now available on Netflix online). A couple nights ago my wife and I finally watched the video.

The main thesis of the movie (as it was with Ryan’s presentation) is that, in the large majority of cases, baby deliveries work best with minimal medical intervention. In unusual, abnormal cases, medical intervention, including C-section surgery, is necessary to protect the life of the mother and baby.

The film goes into this theme in greater depth. I am persuaded that, for normal deliveries, inducement of labor often makes labor worse by interfering with the flow of hormones between the woman’s body and the in utero baby. The drugs given to induce labor tend to stress the baby’s body, interfere with natural delivery, and make C-section surgery much more likely.

One of the greatest things about the film is simply that it shows several normal deliveries. (I had already watched some water births on YouTube.) Watching these more-natural births was an eye-opener for me. I had always just assumed that delivery is living hell, with the woman laying down on her back, legs in the air, with the doctor peering up her vagina. Well, delivery does hurt, a lot; on that point I remain persuaded. But it need not involve the excruciating pain and screaming we’ve always seen on television. Instead, the natural births I’ve seen usually involve a woman squatting or in a tub of water. The head blurts out, then the shoulders with the rest of the body.

Seriously: if you’ve never witnessed a normal delivery, you owe it to yourself to watch a video of one. See the movie, or watch the YouTube videos I’ve found.

I was horrified to watch how U.S. medical doctors treated deliveries in the 1920s. Doctors gave women horrifying drugs and strapped women to their beds, sometimes for days. In general this was a period of treating people as though they were machines, rather than viewing technology as a means to meeting human needs. This trend was also evident in the rise of factory education and, to a far uglier extent, the rise of fascism.

While today’s medical interventions are more humane, they are largely unnecessary and counterproductive. The movie mentions that U.S. infant and mother mortality rates are high relative to the rest of the industrialized world. While this does not take into account the fact that U.S. doctors try to save more premature babies or the fact that mortality is much higher among narrow segments of the U.S. population, I am persuaded that, in most cases, inducement drugs and C-section surgeries cause more problems than they solve.

I do worry that the “all natural” attitude may make those women who do need medical intervention feel somehow inadequate. Generally it is not a mother’s fault if something goes wrong in delivery. Yet one of the people interviewed for the film claimed that, because a C-section interrupts the flow of hormones spurring motherly attachment, such births somehow lack love. But especially for humans love is not reducible to hormones, and a woman who gives birth by C-section is just as able to love her baby as is any other parent. The movie explicitly makes room for necessary medical interventions, but I’m not sure it sufficiently emphasized that a troubled delivery manifests no moral failing.

The director of the film, Abby Epstein, got pregnant in the course of making the film. Unfortunately, she had a severe complication in her pregnancy; her body stopped delivering nutrition to her fetus, who redirected nutrition to the brain and away from the rest of the body. Epstein went into delivery several weeks early. Because of the premature delivery (and because the baby was breech), Epstein went with her midwife to the hospital, where she gave birth by C-section. Thankfully, everything turned out fine. However, the incident does reinforce the need to get good prenatal care and to seek medical attention when needed. While deeply unfortunate for Epstein, the silver lining is that the story made for a much more balanced and informative film.

Another thing that struck me about the movie is how much it reinforced my existing political views about modern American medicine and health insurance. One person interviewed for the film claimed that often a C-section surgery is a legal strategy. The idea is that, if a doctor performs a C-section, he or she has made every possible medical intervention, and so cannot be sued. So the problems with American torts certainly show in this area.

I have long argued that third-party insurance payments — entrenched by decades of federal tax policy and controls — subvert individual responsibility. One women in the film said, “People in our culture spend more time and effort researching to buy a stereo system, a car, probably a camera, than they do checking out what their choices are for birth.” In our third-party system of prepaid health care, most people have no incentive to seek out good value for their health dollars. Moreover, most people get the health care their employer’s insurance company tells them to get, rather than the health care that would best serve their needs.

My wife and I, on the other hand, buy low-cost, high-deductible health insurance and pay for routine and expected care through our Health Savings Account. We’re going to pay for our delivery by writing a check or running the debit card. We know what care we’re getting and how much it costs. It is only if something goes terribly wrong, resulting in higher bills, that our insurance would kick in.

Nothing is more central to the continuance of the human race than the delivery of babies. People should know more about that, and The Business of Being Born provides not only a wealth of information but wisdom on the matter.



Craig Latzke May 19, 2010 at 6:00 PM

My wife birthed our two kids (now 1 and 3-years old) at home with a direct entry midwife, her assistant, and myself. There is no place like home.

On the money/insurance topic you bring up: Both times we paid most ourselves, with insurance kicking in and reimbursing me for a portion after our deductible was met (the second time even at in-network rates). Between the two we probably averaged spending what our share would have been with a hospital birth, but saved my insurer lots of money. One thing you certainly won’t get at a hospital is knowing the fee up front (save for the very rare instance where transport to hospital is necessary).

On that rare necessity: You wrote, “The movie explicitly makes room for necessary medical interventions, but I’m not sure it sufficiently emphasized that a troubled delivery manifests no moral failing.” I don’t recall the movie enough to judge the balance you speak of. Even if it is off in the direction you mention it is but a whisper against the deafening shout of the medical establishment and popular culture (which are much farther off, in the other direction).

Avatar: Cinematic History, ‘Matrix for Hippies’

Avatar just set a new standard for blockbuster movies. Before, 3D was a fun frill. Some movies happened to be filmed in 3D. An animated film might throw a ball in your face. But Avatar is a 3D movie, fundamentally. From the numerous flight scenes to the battles to the crowd shots, 3D is built into the way the movie is made. Immersive” is a term I’ve heard, and it holds.

Moreover, the computer imagery is integrated with the live-action filming in a nearly seamless way. There might have been a couple brief scenes where I noticed the line between the “real” world and computer graphics. And this film creates a new race of humanoids in addition to putting people into all sorts of cool gadgets. Gone is the clunky, awkward, somewhat spooky imagery of movies like Polar Express. Robert Zemeckis looks like he belongs to the previous millennium. Avatar creates a beautiful, stunning world.

If you’re going to see Avatar, then, there’s no use waiting for the DVD. See it in all its glory, in 3D, preferably on an IMAX screen. Unlike most films, it’s actually worth the extra money.

Avatar also brings good news to theaters. With the expansion of large, high-definition televisions and blu-ray movie releases, the big screen needs something extra to keep up. Avatar offers that. (Will movie-disc releases start selling in 3D, and will families start collecting 3D glasses for all?)

Only days ago I swore I would never watch Avatar, after reading a summary of its story. But I started getting mostly-positive feedback from people I trust. Once I decided to see it, I saw it twice in a day.

The great irony of the movie, as others have noted, is that its cinematic technique, which epitomizes the union of humanity and technology, carries an anti-technology theme in its story.

What follows below reveals significant elements of the movie’s plot.

The basic story is that a human corporation sends a mission to Pandora to mine the substance unobtanium (or “unobtainiam”). (Corporate bad guy: there’s a new one for Hollywood.) The corporation funds a scientific venture to send human-controlled avatars — alien bodies linked to the minds of humans — to make-nice with the locals. When the miners, backed by hired military guns, want to relocate the locals, the scientists rebel and join the aliens to send the miners packing.

The movie actually offers three stories: a voyage of personal adventure and discovery, the struggle of the locals to protect their homes, and the environmentalist theme.

To me, the most compelling part of the movie is the personal adventure of the hero, Jake Sully, who had lost the use of his legs while on a military expedition earthside. His twin brother, a scientist for whom an avatar was created, dies, so the corporation funding the venture hires Sully to fill the role. (The avatars are keyed to the biology of a particular person, which is why the twin can step in.) Sully spends several years in a cryogenic state during travel, then wheels out onto an alien world, where he gets a new life (and new legs) in his avatar.

Sully explores this new world, naturally, with the beautiful daughter of the tribe’s first couple, and the love story is nicely done. (Zoe Saldana scored huge with the role following her stint aboard the Enterprise.)

James Cameron cleverly created a lower-gravity world inhabited by very-resilient aliens, making possible the amazing aerial scenes. It is a world in which the tall, fit aliens ride dragons and bound around treetops in a way that would make Tarzan envious. Apparently unobtanium keeps a range of gigantic islands floating; they look spectacular on screen.

Also a joy is Sully’s budding relationship with the hard-ass leader of the avatar program, Dr. Grace Augustine. The two actors, Sam Worthington and Sigourney Weaver, create a sparkling relationship that’s great fun to watch. (Indeed, the entire cast is great.) The “adventure” story, then, is beautifully done.

The “home defense” story has aptly been compared to the Kelo case. Mean guys come to destroy your home; you kick their ass. Good, basic story, and it offers Sully a chance to play the hero and win back his girl (not to mention ride the baddest dragon in the skies).

I’ll need to shift into sarcasm mode to explain the environmentalist aspects of the story, which descend to the frankly ridiculous. It often feels like Cameron hired a starry-eyed, catch-phrasing eighth-grader to help him write the script.

Just by coincidence, this highly valuable substance, unobtanium — the uses for which are never mentioned in the film but which apparently is a superconductor — is located only on the only other world in the entire universe known to be inhabited. (Pandora is a moon.) I didn’t count the number of other moons and nearby celestial bodies, but apparently unobtanium is not located on any of those, either, just the single moon of Pandora. According to one script treatment, unobtanium is “unique to Pandora.” How the evil corporation discovered unobtanium and its uses in the first place, then, escapes me.

By another astounding coincidence, on the entire moon of Pandora, home of some fifteen clans, each of which apparently contains a few thousand members at most — so we’re talking about a miniscule total population — the highest concentration of unobtanium on the entire moon is found — you guessed it — right under the treehouse of our favorite clan.

Nevermind the fact that this clashes with the apparently large quantities of unobtanium found in the floating islands. According to the script treatment, the miners are supposed to be after the floating islands, which are sacred to the locals. Apparently Cameron didn’t think it would be dramatic enough to just make off with a floating island; the corporation had to destroy the giant treehouse instead.

So let’s recap. According to the movie:
* Unobtanium is found (in mineable quantities) only on Pandora, a single moon in the entire known universe.
* It is cheaper to send hundreds of people across space in cryogenic storage, complete with gigantic space ships and lots of military equipment, and to finance technology for the complete transference of human minds into test-tube-grown aliens, than it is to synthesize the substance.
* Even though we currently know of no moon in the entire universe that hosts life of any kind, this particular moon does.
* Not only does Pandora host life, but it hosts intelligent humanoids (who happen to look fantastic in jungle-wear).
* Even though there is an entire range of gigantic floating islands of unobtanium, in addition to the surface of a large and sparsely-populated moon, far and away the best place to mine the substance is directly under the village of the local clan.

So, in other words, the premise for the entire movie is completely unbelievable. Perhaps “unobtanium” more aptly describes the otherwise-unobtainable plot elements pulled from Cameron’s behind.

Let us move on to the the Noble Savage motif. Amazingly, the locals have managed to find a gigantic tree just perfect for housing an entire village. Moreover, despite no evidence of agricultural activity, the tribe has managed to settle in just one place. Unlike settled but primitive tribes of our planet, they have not exhausted the local firewood supply or the game animals. It is a veritable Garden of Eden, Pandora.

Another amazing thing about the tribe is that its youth grow up to be great warriors, even though, apparently, they never actually fight anybody (except the evil humans!), for the Pandorans are a peaceful lot. If there has been warfare among the fifteen (or so) tribes, there is no mention of it in the movie.

Another amazing fact: while initiation rites of tribes on our planet have often involved human sacrifice and bloody beatings, on Pandora when you get all grown up you get to climb up into the floating islands and pick out your very own pet dragon to ride. Granted, this process can be a little tricky, but, hey, pet dragon!

As Sully suggests, the evil humans have absolutely nothing, no form of technology whatsoever, that the locals might have any interest in. Anything beyond the simple life of eating wild fruit, hunting wild game with bows and arrows, and (don’t forget!) riding dragons would only detract from the idyllic Pandoran lifestyle. The Pandorans don’t want computers, telecommunications, surgical instruments, metal needles or cooking pots or arrowheads, energy production (for the Pandoran climate is always perfectly temperate), and so on.

It would be an interesting exercise to calculate the total amount of gasoline burned, coal burned, and materials mined in the production and distribution of Avatar. Include all the facilities, all the gear, all the trips, all the maintenance of stars and personnel, all the theaters and their heating, all the car trips taken to watch the movie, and so on. Compare that to the similarly-figured costs of an average American lifespan, and that will tell you about how seriously James Cameron takes his own environmentalist dogma.

The Gaia theme is actually more interesting as science-fiction. On our planet, the notion that the earth itself is a living or conscious entity is fanciful, pseudo-religious environmentalism. Avatar asks, what if the earth really were alive? Pandora is alive, or at least its network of interconnected tree roots form a vast organism that functions something like a brain.

Even more interesting: the local people can “jack in” to this super-tree-computer through specialized fibers coming out of their hair. It’s like the Matrix for hippies (as I’ve heard others note). In a real sense this network offers something like immortality, because part of one’s essence joins with the trees. (Not explained is how the plains clan taps into treenet.)

At one point Sully notes that Evil Humans have “killed their mother [earth],” and “nothing” on earth is green anymore. Of course that prediction is nonsense. Unlike the science-fiction moon of Pandora, on earth there is no conscious super-organism consisting of tree roots. Moreover, the rise of industry and technology is quite consistent with maintaining lots of greenery and a healthy environment. A space-faring civilization would also be able to bring in resources (including energy) from off-planet and set up production facilities elsewhere in the solar system.

Still, the science-fiction idea of a conscious tree network is interesting, and it poses a special dilemma in terms of developing resources. I imagine the biological barriers to the development of such a life form are insurmountable. If it were possible, such a unique biological entity would require new philosophical thinking. Presumably a mining operation could at least operate on parts of the moon without trees, such as the plains and oceans (or the conveniently floating islands).

The upshot is that Avatar offers some really interesting science-fiction mingled with some pretty silly fantasy-fiction. It’s core story is a compelling one, and it is told artfully and with innovative technology. Ultimately, what saves the film is that its method of production rebels against its affectations.

Ben Carson, A Hero of Medicine

We just rented and watched Gifted Hands, the story of neurosurgeon Ben Carson of Johns Hopkins. It’s a fantastic film. In today’s cinematic world of mindless action, dumb comedy, and grotesque horror, here is a different sort of movie, a movie about a true hero, someone who made medical history with his innovative brain surgeries.

Dr. Carson says in a documentary accompanying the film, “It will show the incredible power of education and what it can do for a person. How it can take a person from a life of virtually nothing to the pinnacle of one of the toughest professions in the world.”

Carson grew up in poverty. Though illiterate, his mother drove her sons to educational excellence, requiring them to report on books from the library. Carson overcame struggles in school and racial prejudice to achieve an outstanding education and take the path to medicine.

The film has an obvious religious theme and emphasizes Carson’s religious faith. What drives the heroic story, though, is Carson’s dedication to learning and to his career goals. Well worth viewing.

Half-Blood Prince Review

Jennifer and I decided last-minute to see the midnight showing of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I figured I was already way off my schedule, so I might as well write a review as well. I published it this morning around 5:30. My review is targeted to those already familiar with the story. I’ll be interested to see if I notice anything new — or change my mind about anything — on a second viewing.

Feel free to let me know if you have a different take on the film.

Read my review, “Movie Does Justice to Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.”

Update: David Yates discusses leaving out the Minister and adding in a couple of of scenes not from the book. I liked the bridge scene, but the waitress scene seemed out of place. I wish he had dumped it and put the Minister back in!

Waitress, Stardust Best Movies of ’07

I spent Oscar night watching good movies on video. I didn’t even know the Oscars were on television until I happened to check the news online and notice that some winners had already been announced.

Out of the 24 Oscar winners, I’ve seen only four of the movies. Of those, I didn’t particularly like Golden Compass, and Bourne won only for technical achievements. I quite liked Ratatouille (even though I’ve never understood why “animated feature” gets its own category, given that there are so few decent animated movies in a given year), and Elizabeth: The Golden Age was okay. The only other winner that I have a particular interest in seeing is Juno. I do want to see No Country for Old Men, and I might watch Once, though I’ve already marked There Will Be Blood off of my “maybe” list. I don’t care how good the acting is if the movie is fundamentally grotesque.

So what did I do while happily ignoring the Oscars? My wife and I watched Feast of Love, which we enjoyed despite some serious problems with the writing (such as the use of a psychic as a plot device), and then we discovered a very fine film: American Pastime.

I’d never heard of this latter film till we saw a preview on another rental. Both my wife and I loved this movie. Okay, part of the plot is somewhat contrived; the interracial romance, the father who just doesn’t understand his daughter, the competition among brothers, and the miracle sports comeback all felt a bit obvious. But I’d rather watch an old-fashioned, heartfelt story than a play of some miserable moral monster. Oscar can stuff it, as far as I’m concerned (though I’ve rarely been much of a fan, as my notes from 2006 and 2004 suggest.) At least Michael Moore didn’t win, which surprised me.

American Pastime is about a baseball team formed in a Japanese-American internment camp. But it’s about much more than that. It’s mostly about a young man’s struggle to deal with racism and injustice. The main character loves jazz and baseball, but his pending college education (on a baseball scholarship) is interrupted by the war and his forced relocation to the camp. Understandably, he feels bitter about this. He and his brother clash — until his brother joins the Army to fight in Germany. And the young man finds a romantic interest in a girl who just happens to be the piano-playing daughter of the camp’s main guard, who just happens to be the star player on the local baseball team. As I mentioned, this sounds like a story-telling setup, but the characters are well developed and believable. The main actors are quite good.

Looking back at 2007, two movies stand out for me. Neither received a single Oscar nomination.

Waitress is a spectacular movie. The Oscar group committed something approaching a moral sin by failing to recognize Adrienne Shelly for screenplay, Keri Russell for best actress, and Andy Griffith for best supporting actor. Waitress is among the great films of the decade, not just of 2007.

Russell plays a waitress (big surprise) who is also a spectacular baker of pies, which reflect her moods. She works at a pie shop owned by Griffith’s character, and Griffith is absolutely superb as the grumpy but perceptive proprietor. He nimbly tightropes between a cynical demeanor and a compassionate heart. The problem is that the waitress is married to a complete jerk — and she is pregnant. This is a love story, but not between the characters of Russell and romantic interest Nathan Fillion, but between the woman and her child. It is a beautiful, gorgeously written story.

Stardust is my other favorite film of the year. I’ve already briefly summarized it:

A young man, trying to win the heart of the local beauty, sees a falling star and pledges to fetch it in exchange for the girl’s hand. But to retrieve the star, our hero must cross the wall that separates England from the magical world beyond. In that world, a fallen star is not a hunk of metal and ash — it is a lovely young lady, in this case portrayed by Claire Danes. Our hero must learn to become a man, save the star, and figure out whom he loves.

This coming-of-age story is a fantasy for grownups. Forget about how silly it sounds to make a star into a girl: it works. And Robert De Niro as the tough-talking (but eccentric dressing) pirate is both hilarious and touching.

Both Waitress and Stardust are such fabulous movies that, of course, neither won even a single nomination from Oscar. (In neither film is a despicable son of a bitch the main character.) But who cares what Oscar thinks: both films earn an Ari.