2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards: Best Sequel & Biggest Disappointment

The nominations for the 2009 Kaedrin Movie Awards were announced last week. This week, I'll be announcing two winners every day, culminating in a post with my top 10 movies of the year and possibly some other wrap-up posts.

Best Sequel: Star Trek. Or maybe Crank: High Voltage!

Dammit. For a category with only 3 nominees, this is hard. Star Trek is definitely the better of the two. It took an old, crusty franchise and made it fresh and interesting again. This isn't a small feat, especially when considering that I never really cared much for the original series/crew. In fact, the only real series I got into was The Next Generation, so the prospect of a prequel wasn't all that exciting to me. But JJ Abrams seems to be building his movie directing career on resurrecting franchises (like he did with Mission Impossible). Anyway, I've already reviewed Star Trek, so I'd like to talk for a minute about Crank: High Voltage, which is one of the biggest surprises of the year for me. When I first saw the previews my reaction was something like: That movie looks soooo bad... I can't wait to see it! As it turns out, my enthusiasm wasn't entirely misplaced. This really is a giant ball of outlandish fun. Sure, it makes no sense, but I'll be damned if it isn't playful and energetic filmmaking at its best. Of course, it wasn't much of a hit with critics... or audiences, for that matter, but I really enjoyed it. Sue me.

Biggest Disappointment: Avatar

Earlier this year, I posted a list of 5 Upcoming Movies I Want To See Even Though I Know They'll Suck (at the bottom of that post). At the bottom of the list was Avatar, with the note that "I'm pretty sure this movie won't suck." My expectations were drastically lowered by the previews for the movie, and even then, the film was disappointing. True, the first time I saw it, I was a bit taken by it. Indeed, I've already established that Avatar is a jaw-droppingly gorgeous movie to look at, but for me, the story is the most important part of a movie. Now, Avatar doesn't necessarily have a bad story, after all, it's the same story we've all seen a thousand times. There isn't anything inherently wrong with that, and I think there's something to be said for a really well executed cliched film. Unfortunately, aside from special effects, Avatar was terribly executed. The dialog is among the worst of the year (I think we'll talk more about this when we get to the arbitrary awards). The character development is nonexistent (I've read a lot of reviews that claim otherwise, but after seeing the movie twice, I think what's happening is that people have seen the same story so many times that they can just fill in the blanks with character development from other, better, movies). The Na'vi, while animated through technological brilliance, aren't a particularly interesting race. As portrayed in the movie, they're homogeneous and bland. Their monolithic nature could perhaps be explained away by the genuinely interesting idea that Pandora is basically a giant, living computer or distributed brain... but the entirety of that concept lives in a throwaway line in the middle of the movie. Sigourney says it, then the Burke character ignores it and that’s pretty much that. Incidentally, Sigourney argued that whole thing wrong. She should have said something like “This entire planet is a gigantic biological computer. That’s got to be worth billions to the biological weapons division!” There’s a lot to explore in that concept, but it was mostly wasted in favor of stupid mechas with proportionally sized Bowie knives (seriously? I mean...really?) Speaking of the mechas, I have to wonder how differently that last battle would have played out if the humans were using real tanks (or other mechanized armor).

I don't think I'll ever get around to a full review of Avatar, but while I'm ranting, I might as well bring up a few other things. A lot of critics seem to dismiss the bad story stuff by saying something like "yes, it’s James Cameron. You’re not there for stellar dialogue, intricate storytelling, or nuance. And you’re not going to get it." As MGK notes:
But this is exactly why Avatar disappoints so on this score: because James Cameron movies traditionally have all of those things.
The really depressing thing about Avatar is that it fails so spectacularly at things that Cameron has always been great at. Remember in Aliens, after the Colonial Marines get their ass whooped by the aliens and everyone's arguing about what to do? Ripley immediately cuts through the crap and says "I say we take off and nuke the entire site from orbit. It's the only way to be sure." This makes so much sense! It's so rare that a character in a movie says something that rational that it's become a modern geek aphorism. Again, Cameron used to be great at this sort of thing. But in Avatar, there are a million questionable plot points. Why use mechas when tanks will do just fine? Why not use jet fighters to deliver the bomb to the tree of souls (No! No! We have to use slow moving helicopters so that the Na'vi will have a chance to fight back!)? Hell, as a race, the humans have mastered interplanetary travel. You mean to tell me the can't figure out orbital bombardment (even just kinetic weapons would do the trick)? And why wouldn't the humans just come back in a few years and obliterate the planet? The list goes on and on and on and on.

This award has traditionally been difficult because I have to account for expectations. Often a disappointing film is not truly bad... it just doesn't meet lofty expectations. This was the case with most of the other nominees (except for Terminator: Salvation, which I knew would be bad). But Avatar still wins. There's a lot of potential there, most of which is wasted.

On deck: Best Action Sequences and Best Plot Twist/Surprise