A no-shit Sherlock

Instapundit and John Nolte are quite right: the new Sherlock Holmes movie was better than we had a right to expect from the trailers. We were led to anticipate a fun, mindless action comedy – a sort of reprise of Iron Man in Victorian drag, with Robert Downey Jr. in full scenery-chewing mode.

I would have enjoyed watching that movie just fine, thank you. I’ve read the entire Holmes canon, but I don’t worship it any more than Arthur Conan Doyle did, and having Guy Ritchie reprocess it into a mere popcorn flick wouldn’t particularly have bothered me. But…to my pleased surprise, Ritchie aimed for — and achieved — something much better.

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. The script was heavyhanded and stupid in spots, though no worse than par for an action movie and light-years better than the crap James Cameron was shoveling in Avatar. Rachel McAdams was, as another reviewer noted, only poorly integrated into the main plotline. Ritchie overdid the sepia-and-grime thing a bit in the cinematogaphy. And there was barely a line of the villain’s dialogue you couldn’t see coming.

Still. These are minor defects compared to what the movie gets right, and how it challenges Holmesians to rethink their comfortable and somewhat stultified image of the great detective.

This movie goes back to canon and presents Doyle’s original Holmes from a different angle than the Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett performances. The Holmes we have become used to from later interpretations is sort of Holmes-as-Vulcan, the Mr. Spock of the gaslight era; cool, cerebral, controlled, a bit disdainful. Forgotten in the Holmes-as-Vulcan version is that the original Holmes was an eccentric drug addict who went to pieces in the absence of a degree of mental stimulation ordinary life could not afford him. Also forgotten is that he was written as a man of tremendous physical energy, a boxer and martial artist who relished describing his victory in a brawl (The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist).

I would bet serious money that Robert Downey Jr. read the entire canon, or at least most of it, in preparing for this role. I would bet more serious money that Ritchie gave him wide interpretive latitude and that some of the best lines in the film were ad-libbed from deep within character. Because Downey’s performance is right. It is truthful to the original in a way that the Holmes-as-Vulcan version could not be.

This was not, as in Iron Man, the actor drawing a thin layer of Tony Stark over his own personality and mugging outrageously at a camera we are at all times fully aware of; it is the actor fully inhabiting the character and, for all the surface showiness of the action, portraying that character with craft and subtlety and restraint. Downey demonstrates that he can act.

All the positive reviews have noted, correctly, that Jude Law’s Watson is a tremendous asset to the film. As important as his own performance was that he enabled Holmes to be Holmes. The repartee and occasional friction between them propels the film as effectively as its plot. I want to also note that Kelly Reilly, as Watson’s intended, steals a couple of scenes not with her fragile physical beauty but with a steely mental toughness rather at odds with it.

The negative reviews have been entertaining. Predictably, the New York Times reviewer sneered at the movie, dismissing it as “laddish”. The common objection from the naysayers seemed to be basically that Downey was somehow desecrating the canon by playing against the Holmes-as-Vulcan version of the character.

I say that’s effete pseudo-intellectual snobbery and I say the hell with it. This movie wasn’t perfect, but it was far truer to its source than a lot of Holmes fans are apparently willing or even able to admit. I look forward to a sequel.

66 thoughts on “A no-shit Sherlock

  1. On the other hand (and I haven’t seen the film yet, but) the epitome of intellectual prowess was MYcroft, and Sherlock only approached him in intellect, being constrained to physically investigating rather than pure reasoning. There’s a bit of faith to the original in the intellectual depictions of Sherlock Holmes as well. Holmes was a vigorous Victorian gentleman, phyiscally active in certain prpscriptive ways, but true to class considerations.

  2. I’ve always enjoyed your media reviews. Care to share your objections on Avatar? Most movie buff types seem to have enjoyed it, although I haven’t seen it myself.

    ESR says: I haven’t seen it yet. I’m going by the book released to go with the movie, which I skimmed through in a bookstore. That made it look like “Dances with Aliens”, a wearily predictable white-people-suck movie emitting a political-correctness field so dense that you could probably lose braincells from being too near a performance.

  3. There was a review of Avatar linked from HN a week ago _An astrophysicist reviews the science of “Avatar”_ http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=1012112

    I made the comment : I have no intention of seeing the movie, although I may when it’s on DVD if I get sufficiently bored. If you can find a copy see Benford’s essay “Reactionary Utopias”, originally written as a reaction to Ursula Leguin’s anti-industrial screeds masquerading as science fiction.

    The whole review reminded me very strongly of Leguin’s novel “The Word for World Is Forest”; where pure at heart natives defeat brutish commercial exploiters.

  4. There’s exactly one objection I have to this movie, and it has to do with Watson’s abilities. Holmes himself notes it in the movie. I suspected it right off, and it spoiled the movie (in terms of revealing the essential plot point.)

    There were a couple of steam-punkish embroideries that nagged a bit, but nothing outlandish.

    Everything else was fine. I went in to theater expecting a name-stolen-from cartoon, and thus had no expectations.

    Therefore, I enjoyed myself immensely when it turned out as well as it did.

  5. I would bet serious money that Robert Downey Jr. read the entire canon, or at least most of it, in preparing for this role. I would bet more serious money that Ritchie gave him wide interpretive latitude and that some of the best lines in the film were ad-libbed from deep within character.

    Per the “How it was made” documentary currently making it’s way through the cable TV rotation, you win on both propositions.

    Being interviewed for the piece, Downey makes the point that, from reading all the Doyle stories, he thought Holmes was actually a much darker character then even Richie was willing to put on screen, never mind any of the earlier interpretations. Ritchie opines that much of what did make the final edit was the spontanious interplay between the actors. I got the impression he was referring more to the successful interaction between actors then he was about Downey himself necessarily. Hard to tell since the acting culture is so steeped in self-deprication once proper credit has been rendered.

    Finally, your point about Jude Law’s Watson, “The repartee and occasional friction between them propels the film as effectively as its plot.” This is yet further evidence of the deliberate attempt to re-cast the characters in their original presentation. All of the Sherlock Holmes stories are related from Watson’s perspective, if not always his individual viewpoint. Indeed, the only two characters that really can be said to rise above fairly shallow charicature are the two central one’s; Lestrade, the various villians, the Baker Street Irregulars, Mycroft even are all near-props in comparisson, so it’s a bit harsh to fault Downey or Law for “chewing up the scenery”. Who else populates the story that can carry some of the burden?

  6. DMoore: This is clearly notable, but IMO acceptable, as Watson downplaying his own abilities is entirely within character.

    I very much agree that the movie is fundamentally true to the spirit and the letter of the original stories — it’s also interesting to note the differences between the movie’s Adler and Carol Nelson Douglas’s Adler — and the ways that both of them remain true to the depiction in the stories despite the very different directions they take.

  7. I haven’t seen it yet. I’m going by the book released to go with the movie, which I skimmed through in a bookstore. That made it look like “Dances with Aliens”, a wearily predictable white-people-suck movie emitting a political-correctness field so dense that you could probably lose braincells from being too near a performance.

    It’s anvilicious all right, but it’s also amazing to watch and a step up for Cameron from his previous effort: a meager film with a thin story called Titanic which won eleven Oscars and grossed more (in terms of raw unadjusted dollars) than any film before or since.

    The big take-away for me was that communing with nature is easy if both you and nature have built-in Ethernet.

  8. The canon Holmes isn’t a professional fighter, he’s a gentleman who knows some elegant fighting tricks.

    When you add up all the tricks: singlestick, some boxing, baritsu, etc; they make him look like a pro. This is an artifact of Doyle writing about five novels worth of short stories.

    The way Spenser being an eighty-years old Korean war vet is an artifact of Parker doing a book a year for forty years.

  9. Thanks for the insight. I was seriously considering giving this one a miss, even though I’m a Ritchie fan….but you’ve successfully whetted my appetite. It sounds like I’ll enjoy it after all :)

  10. > …and a step up for Cameron from his previous effort: a meager film with a thin story called Titanic which won eleven Oscars and grossed more (in terms of raw unadjusted dollars) than any film before or since.

    Yep, Read, that was a truly underwhelming film on every level.

    “The Abyss” was a good movie, but also not really special. I see Cameron as an auteur sort of director who tells the same story over and over with replacement heroes/bogeymen. The bogeyman is always some permutation of “the military-industrial complex” and the heroes are always a mixed bag of social activists, proletarians and noble savages. Mel Gibson is a similar sort of one-note epic storyteller. He’s been re-filming “Braveheart” for more than a decade now. In some ways, he never really stopped filming “Mad Max.”

    I guess the one partial exception for Cameron would be “Aliens,” which was probably his most artistically satisfying film. I recall that, when confronted with the old Conservationalist meme of “this is a unique species and we don’t have the right to wipe them out”, Cameron allows his marine corporal to reply: “We’ll nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.” A good, memorable and murky line.

    I’m not very excited about this whole “Avatar” business, even given the bells and whistles of the technology on display. Good stories, like good gifts, don’t require wonderful wrapping. That’s a lesson that been forgotten by the George Lucas’ and Jim Camerons’ of the world. Sounds like the same old, same old to me. I suppose its a matter of taste. For me, the best movies always ask more questions than they answer.

    In short, the wife and I aren’t shelling out twenty bucks for tall smurfs, stilted dialogue and Cameron’s mid life crisis. On the other hand, the new Holmes movie now sounds a lot more interesting than I’d originally thought.

  11. As far as Avatar goes, I thought it was nicely written in the sense that it has space travel without the “magic” crutches of artificial gravity, universal translators, and coincidentally breathable atmospheres. Even without the “anvilicious” holy primitives, though it is basically impossible to watch without being distracted by comparisons to “Aliens”. Naively, the depictions of soldiering in “Avatar” can’t have come from the same hand as those in “Aliens”, except for the fact that they did.

  12. -ESR said: That made it look like “Dances with Aliens”, a wearily predictable white-people-suck movie emitting a political-correctness field so dense that you could probably lose braincells from being too near a performance.

    Yes, it was all of those things and more, but it was still awesome. There was one point in the movie where I wanted to stand up and walk out (to the point of my ass leaving the seat for a second) because of its portrayal of people in the (human) military. But I calmed down when I remembered that the movie was just ecstasy for the eyeballs. The technical accomplishments of Avatar were seriously amazing (leaping over the uncanny valley with ease, legitimizing three dimensionality, for instance), and it really is this generation’s Star Wars, terrible PCness and all. But hey, from the libertarian perspective, Avatar has been box office dynamite. It can’t be all bad. It’s considered a shoe-in for best picture as well, which would reverse the trend of pop genre movies being ignored.

    And thanks for the Holmes review, I’m definitely going to go see it now. One question: should I read the books first?

  13. The only way to watch Avatar is in 3D, because that’s the only reason to watch Avatar: because of its beautiful cinematography. The story is crap, of course. They’re fucking amerinds! With blue skin! And tails! Sheesh.

    By the way, changing the subject only slightly, the Teensy is an excellent rendition of the Arduino family. Talks directly to USB, so it can be a USB keyboard, or mouse, or serial port. What? You want a URL? Why, is Google down?

  14. Just one thing: Brett’s Holmes is in no way Spock-ish or cerebral. It’s the best bipolar Holmes I’ve ever seen.

  15. It’s been a long time since I read the Holmes stories … The two things I remember most clearly are the cocaine use and a very strong sense of Watson as under-appreciated alter-hero.

    Sounds like it’s worth checking out the Ritchie interpretation!

    Oh, and Avatar is seriously good. You libertarian types will have to grit your teeth and bear it during some of the sillier “holy trees” business, but it is worth it.

  16. I grew up watching Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce on rainy Saturday afternoons. As a result, for me (and I’m sure many people), they defined the roles. When I got older and read the complete works, those movie personas were inescapable. For better or worse.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet and maybe I shouldn’t comment but why should I let that stop me. It seems from the trailers to be a “re-telling” with a “Wild, Wild West” flavor. That’s all I can say about that.

  17. William B. Swift: Avatar: I too noticed that it was “The Word For World Is Forest” – or, as others have put it less kindly, “Dances With Smurfs”. But despite the trite story I found it an enjoyable evening and worth seeing for the effects alone. For which, however, you need a big screen and ideally 3D. My wife commented that on TV it would have been a complete waste of time, and I agreed. One of the things Cameron seems to be trying to do here is come up with something that makes it worth going to the cinema to see it BIG, and in that at least I find he has succeeded.

    (But: cavalry in a forest? Tcha)

    ESR: thanks for the tip re: Sherlock Holmes. I wasn’t going to bother, but now I probably will.

  18. My arm was twisted to see this movie last night, and I loved it. Most of Guy Ritchie’s movies tell a rollicking story, which is always a plus, and Robert Downing Jr despite personal travails is one of the best actors around when he decides to pay attention. His Holmes is superb, and I didn’t even remember the connections with Holmes-as-written (it’s been decades since I read the stories). We like the grime; Victorian London was surely filthy.

    The surprise for me was liking Jude Law’s Watson — not only because it’s so well-played and the dynamic is terrific, but because I haven’t liked him in anything since “Enemy at the Gate”, and not much before that.

    Well worth seeing; would watch again; another one could be fun too.

  19. I decided to ignore the shallow use of Campbellian monomyth (it is sickeningly blatant) in Avatar, as well as the absolutely painful rendition of the military, and just enjoy the sheer prettiness. To see this film in anything other than 3D is to miss the point, and I was thinking throughout the film how painfully mediocre it must be to see it 2D. In 3D though, it is an experience, and spectacular in the literal sense. I felt similar to how I felt after Jackson’s King Kong; here is a film that is trying to bring back the Magic that has faded so much. It sold me on 3D 100%, and I am a cynical, skeptical bastard about that sort of thing. Worth seeing on the big screen _in 3D_. I hope more like this in the future.

    I was excited about the new Holmes when I heard Jude Law was playing Watson, as it was a good indicator Ritchie was going to be more true to the source. Now I am almost chomping at the bit to see it. Steady on!

  20. >One question: should I read the books first?

    I recommend it. You won’t fully appreciate Downey’s performance otherwise.

  21. They’re fucking amerinds!

    Only in the most stereotypical noble-savage sense at that. The fucking Quileute werewolves from Twilight are more authentic than the Na’vi.

    It really doesn’t matter though. If you dismiss of it because of its message you’re missing the point. The movie isn’t packing theaters and sweeping the reviews because of its message. If it were, the same thing would have happened to The Day the Earth Stood Still (2008) and The Day After Tomorrow. And nobody I know saw either one of those. Go see it in 3D, and do bear in mind that once Jake Whatshisname steps into his blue avatar body, almost everything you see is generated by computer. Getting the faces to look and emote correctly was an enormous challenge, one that after three films the technique used by Zemeckis wasn’t quite able to rise to. With Avatar Cameron nails it in one.

  22. While it’s been a few years, I’ve read the whole Sherlock Holmes canon at least three times (and own William Baring-Gould’s massive one-volume “The Annotated Sherlock Holmes”). So I’m amused when reviewers and viewers carp about this not being the “real” Sherlock Holmes. Yeah, Ritchie punched things up a bit, but no more than the better pastiches have done. It was a great movie, and I plan to see it again in the theaters soon.

    As for “Avatar”: yes, it really was “Dances with Wolves” meets “Ferngully: The Last Rainforest”. What’s really embarrassing is that the Na’vi are not modeled after actual Native American cultures (which might have been very interesting) but after the classic (modern) Hollywood stereotypes of Native American cultures. It was Cameron’s most embarrassing script, IMHO, and I say that as a fan of most of his previous movies. ..bruce..

  23. There is one anachronism I did find seriously distracting; the pistols.

    On at least two occasions, Watson is shown checking his ammunition by rotating the cylinder to the side of the frame and, at least once, using a rotational snap of the wrist to return the cylinder to battery. I’m prepared to just sigh and overlook yet another example of stupid gun handling on film as regards the latter, but not when the story is set in an historical era when that type of pistol hadn’t been brought to market yet. The pistol type that uses the side rotation to expose the cylinder is a Smith & Wesson Type 3 I believe; the more historically accurate model would be the top break Type 2.

    All that said, for two actors who have obviously (and ostentatiously) studied the Holmes canon there are two major and hard to explain related errors. First and simplest is that Watson determinedly carried the Webley .455 service revolver he brought back from his Afghanistan deployment along with a sword cane due to his serious, military career-ending leg injury (which Jude Law evidenced no sign of). I also seem to recall him having a small pocket gun of the break-action, double barrel type commonly called a “derringer”. In the film he carried neither type gun.

    Most outrageously though, Downey’s Holmes also carries a (equally historically inaccurate) pistol. In an era when quirkiness was the “English Gentleman” norm, Doyle chose to illustrate Holmes’ social oddity by having him never carry a gun himself. If he needed one, he simply borrowed one (usually from Watson) or relieved an adversary of his. In the event, there are at least two scenes in which Holmes produces his own pistol mid-fight and one other which pivots on Holmes having “forgotten” to pick up his gun from a table when exiting the room (I’m trying to be explanatory while not completely ruining the movie experience for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet). Notwithstanding all the other quirks and oddities he was depicted with, I think it telling that it was so emphasised that, in a mileu where the default option for correct gentlemanly attire was to include a firearm, Holmes didn’t.

    Note to Mr. Richie; when the vast majority of your audience is likely to know a certain fact, don’t you think it proper to provide an on-screen justification for reversing that condition? Something as simple as a post-fight raised eyebrow and pointed look at Holmes’ gun from Watson followed by a glib “Age comes to us all if we have but the wisdom to help it along” from Holmes as he put it away would have been sufficient, I think. It’s little details like this that shatter the suspension of disbelief any film like this depends on to achieve audience acceptance.

    I certainly hope that, if there is a sequel, Guy Richie hires a good author to write an original story in the Holmes universe instead of a mish mash of Doyle short stories only barelt plausably layered together like the current offering. Somebody like Eric Flint maybe.

  24. Looks like more proof that Madonna’s spotlight will burn the career of any artist who ventures too close. Ritchie made some pretty flawed films while married, but did better with Rock’n’Rolla when the marriage was apparently already over and seems to be back in business now that he’s divorced.

  25. Not having immersed myself into the Holmesian canon, I can’t speak to the portrayal of the character, but I was immensely relieved that the skeptic-conversion narrative was, in a rare example, subverted. We’re shown all sorts of magical happenings, which become ever more difficult to explain as the story proceeds, until Holmes is reduced to (apparently) attempting to indulge in mysticism to solve the case.

    Nope. It’s all magic tricks and sleight-of-hand. Skeptics do not have a religious experience and start praising the Morphic Field. There are not Things Science Cannot Explain. It did not pull a Scooby-Doo. I was immensely relieved.

    esr: That made it look like “Dances with Aliens”, a wearily predictable white-people-suck movie emitting a political-correctness field so dense that you could probably lose braincells from being too near a performance.

    Having seen the synopsized version in the trailer, it is clear that the film is (this may be the only time you’ll ever hear me use this phrase) predictable liberal crap… but for more specific reasons than you think. See, it is “Dances with Aliens”, in that a white dude fulfills the white-liberal fantasy of becoming nonwhite. Apparently blackface would be a bit too offensive, so here we have the white dude becoming amerind, and furthermore becoming the awesomest amerind ever, rising to lead the poor oppressed minorities, because, underneath all of this fapping-to-nature nonsense, white dudes are still better than non-white dudes, because even when he’s no long white, the white guy is still the protagonist.

    Kind of like Dune, if you think about it.

  26. Excellent review, although I quite liked the overdone “sepia-and-grime”. Made me feel like I could almost inhale that wonderful coal-polluted London air and feel the fluttering wings of peppered moths against my face. ;P

    By the way, your email is once again rejecting anything I send to you. Most recent return error if it helps you debug: 554 554 5.7.1 : Relay access denied (state 14). It’s hit or miss whether I’ll be at the con (thanks to an unknown work schedule at the moment), but I’ll be sure to say hi if I do come. :D

  27. grendelkhan:
    > Apparently blackface would be a bit too offensive, so here we have the white dude becoming amerind, and furthermore becoming the awesomest amerind ever, rising to lead the poor oppressed minorities, because, underneath all of this fapping-to-nature nonsense, white dudes are still better than non-white dudes, because even when he’s no long white, the white guy is still the protagonist.

    I’ve noticed this is a common trope in many, many Hollywood films, and not just in recent memory. Maybe it’s the cancer of the liberal elite: heroism for non-white protagonists is grounded in racial “authenticity”, while the reverse is true for their white counterparts. It doesn’t stop abruptly at the racial corridor either: when all of the characters are “white”, further cards must be dealt to finish the hand. Whites from non-Anglospheric cultures are presented with more desirable cultural byproducts (usually some amalgam of superior passion and virture). It’s pretty much nonsense: Anglocentric cultures are presented as nullities; the glass into which various other cultural concoctions can be poured and measured… usually by some white dude, who invariably decides that the grass is greener on the other side.

    i think this tendency is not so much dangerous as it infantile. It probably also a unavoidable side effect of Western civilization, which is introspective and self-critical by evolution and design. The fact that the artists themselves are self-congratulatory and non-introspective is a side effect of something else, maybe more akin to self-flagellating monks. Maybe it’s just a result of living such a weirdly shaped life. They are the real-life villains of their own stories: white, wealthy, non-proles, gifted with a much greater share of resources then the commodities they produce (at least, on strictly Marxist terms). There must be a form of insanity that sets in after awhile, particularly when they are hemmed in by pop-soc multiculturalism, softheaded communism and increasingly strident attacks on the maxim of racial-blindness-as-virtue.

  28. Ritchie in an interview at http://www.esquire.com/features/guy-ritchie-interview-1109

    “Holmes was a gentleman, but he was also a street guy who could scruff it up a bit. I thought the story had lost that part of its essence,” Ritchie says. “I like street life, but I like grand things, too. Being able to move within those two worlds appealed to me. Besides, he was the West’s first martial artist.”

    Apparently he practices Brazilian jujitsu himself.

    ESR says: I’ve seen it claimed that Downey and Law are martial-arts players in real life, too. I believe it; they moved well on screen.

  29. Will Brown says: “All of the Sherlock Holmes stories are related from Watson’s perspective,”

    Not true. “The Musgrave Ritual” and “The Gloria Scott” both took place before Holmes and Watson. Both are narrated by Holmes to Watson with no interruption after Watson’s intro. “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” takes place after Holmes’ retirement, and is narrated by Holmes himself. “The Adventure of the Mazarin Stone” and “His Last Bow” are told in standard third-person narrative.

    Will Brown also says: “… there are two major and hard to explain related errors. First and simplest is that Watson determinedly carried the Webley .455 service revolver he brought back from his Afghanistan deployment along with a sword cane due to his serious, military career-ending leg injury (which Jude Law evidenced no sign of).”

    Watson never carried a sword cane. As for his injury, it moved. In A Study in Scarlet, he stated “I was”struck on the shoulder by a Jezail bullet, which shattered the bone and grazed the subclavian artery.” Yet in The Sign of Four, Watson says “I had had a Jezail bullet through [his leg]“, and Holmes speaks of “a six-mile limp for a half-pay officer with a damaged tendo Achillis.” Then in “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton”, Holmes and Watson “dashed away across the huge expanse of Hampstead Heath. We had run two miles, I suppose, before Holmes at last halted and listened intently.”

    Will Brown also says: “Most outrageously though, Downey’s Holmes also carries a (equally historically inaccurate) pistol. In an era when quirkiness was the “English Gentleman” norm, Doyle chose to illustrate Holmes’ social oddity by having him never carry a gun himself.”

    Wrong again. During The Sign of Four, Holmes carried a gun. Vide: “‘Jonathan I shall leave to you, but if the other turns nasty I shall shoot him dead.’ He took out his revolver as he spoke, and, having loaded two of the chambers, he put it back into the right-hand pocket of his jacket.” Later, when Holmes and Watson encountered that other: “Our pistols rang out together.”

    In “The Adventure of the Solitary Cyclist”, Holmes “slipped a revolver into his pocket before leaving our rooms…” and displayed it to subdue the various villains. In “The Adventure of the Three Garridebs”, Holmes used the butt of his pistol to subdue “Killer” Evans (which is odd, because Evans had a gun and had just shot Watson). It was Holmes who shot The Hound of the Baskervilles.

    ESR: sorry about the double posting. Had a piece of extraneous text slip by.

  30. ESR says: I haven’t seen it yet. I’m going by the book released to go with the movie, which I skimmed through in a bookstore. That made it look like “Dances with Aliens”, a wearily predictable white-people-suck movie emitting a political-correctness field so dense that you could probably lose braincells from being too near a performance.

    Having watched it a couple of weeks ago, i’m actually interested in watching it again just to verify the impression that i’ve processed the story into. I actually think JC actually managed to sneak a little in under cover of the obvious overmessage of “colonialism bad”. The primitive utopia/evil colonial divide is actually nicely blurred with neither side being really that holy. The main thing is that the past isn’t really talked about. While it could have been the “sky people” who started things rolling, it’s just as possible that the na’vi started it with lots of xenophobic tribesmen being depicted. (It’s very possible that the xenophobia is blow back from botched efforts at espionage but again, we can only assume this, it’s not talked about)

    Ultimately yes, the anti-colonialism anvil is ever present but I don’t think it’s really that PC. If you can recognise the anvil and then look around it, I think there are some interesting things to look at.

    YMMV of course, and I can’t say if the book doesn’t describe all the past history and thereby destroying the potential out.

    Jeff Read Says:
    Go see it in 3D, and do bear in mind that once Jake Whatshisname steps into his blue avatar body, almost everything you see is generated by computer. Getting the faces to look and emote correctly was an enormous challenge,

    Actually there is three comments i’d like to make here.

    Firstly, my biggest grumble about the movie was regarding the 3d. I’m not sure if its my eyes, where I was sitting or how it was rendered but the main thing that drew me out of the movie was there were a few of the twirling dandelion like things in the foreground that I just couldn’t bring into focus. It annoyed me enough to be interested in a repeat viewing but in 2d. Other than that it could have been 1 and a half hours or three and i’ve only my watch and ticket stub to tell me. The movie drew me in enough that my ass complaining about shitty seats wasn’t heard.

    Secondly, I daresay a large chunk of the look/emote “correctness” is due to the fact that it’s an alien look/emote so it doesn’t run afoul of the uncanny valley. Having said that, they did move pleasingly.

    Finally, I heard this via word of mouth but apparantly the CG is less cut and dried than you’d think. Apparantly the scene where the main character is in his avatar for the first time and is feeling the sand through “his” feet, that is actually real sand with the image being slightly massaged to make it work for inhuman feet. I kind of feel the same thing about Avatar’s CG that I do about Babylon-5s CG. The effects have this downplayed feel to them that makes it easier to suspend disbelief and enjoy looking at an alien world. In a way the most gag-worthy piece of cg tech in the movie was the Super-VTOL command ship thing.

    Having said that, my recommendation to all is if you think the anvil is going to be offensive to you, make it a DVD release. But I think it’s definately one to watch eventually.

  31. ESR, please don’t watch “Avatar”. Good graphics, but all but two of the characters are cardboard. The plot is cowboys and Indians set in the future. Also, I thought the combat scenes went a little too long and the scenery could have been more varied (the world only seems to have one, jungle-like, biome), especially for a $500M film with the hype to match.

  32. >(the world only seems to have one, jungle-like, biome)

    Actually I think we see only one “environment” in detail but others are featured also.

  33. Thomas Corvello Says:
    The plot is cowboys and Indians set in the future.

    My belief is that is only true at the same level where lord of the rings is a hiking movie with a battle scene at the end.

    At some point in the next month or so i’ll probably watch it again to make sure i’m not remembering with rosy coloured glasses. If nothing else I have a feeling that any character, regardless of affiliation, that doesn’t move beyond their allotted stereotypical reaction gets a sticky end.

    the world only seems to have one, jungle-like, biome),

    Did you actually watch avatar or just look at the trailer?

    The central location has a mostly Jungle theme (as would make sense for an area that is a couple of km squared (rough stab… willing to be corrected)) but we also see a plain settlement and a ocean-side cliff settlement as well. Ultimately i’d rather they did one terrain type well (and i’d submit that they at least did that) than created a tour of the seven wonders of an alien world and the locations all sucked.

    especially for a $500M film with the hype to match

    http://www.thewrap.com/article/true-cost-and-consequences-avatar-11206

    The production budget is actually supposed to be $237M with an advertising budget of $150M.

  34. >> Apparently blackface would be a bit too offensive, so here we have the white dude becoming amerind, and furthermore becoming the awesomest amerind ever, rising to lead the poor oppressed minorities, because, underneath all of this fapping-to-nature nonsense, white dudes are still better than non-white dudes, because even when he’s no long white, the white guy is still the protagonist.

    >I’ve noticed this is a common trope in many, many Hollywood films, and not just in recent memory.

    It’s an old trope: http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MightyWhitey

  35. Thank you for your corrections Rich Rostrom, I can only assume I let my memory of reading (many) of the stories along with watching several of the films at about the same time (my early to mid teens) merge together. As demonstrated, confusion follows.

  36. One enormous relief about the Holmes film was the absence of a heavy-handed political message. Sure, Blackwood speaks of a “1000 year empire” and of taking back the colonies, but the movie wasn’t burdened with pulled-from-present-day anti-imperialist ideas – after all, Holmes himself exclaims “what an industrious empire” and shoots a patriotic “V.R.” into the wall of his room (which is canonical, BTW).

    Also pleasant to hear a reference to England’s greatest Prime Minister – even if they did name the dog after him!

  37. Ritchie’s is a legit bjj practitioner. I /believe/ he’s a brown belt.

  38. Yeah, I was right. And a brown belt under Renzo Gracie. That’s super legit

  39. I thought Avatar was one big WorldOfWarcraft ripoff. But the people who compared it to Fern-Gully meets Dances-with-Wolves are more on the money. The special effects were so well done you could almost ignore the political message wrapped up in the eye-candy. The dragon-riding especially was something else.

  40. Eliki, how did a story set in that era reference England’s greatest PM? Churchill wasn’t even in Parliament then.

  41. What was truly pitiful about Avatar was that Cameron missed a GREAT opportunity to do something truly interesting with his native biosphere…he dropped a reference to the trees being all interconnected, presumably a planet-wide “brain”, then just dropped it. (Anyone remember Harry Harrison’s “Deathworld”?).

    He could have used it as an opportunity to have truly alien aliens (controlled by or symbiotic with the worldnet, say). It’s a shame he didn’t spend a few million of the $200+ millions on developing that as a theme and making a really original movie.

    And the flying mountains really sucked.

  42. > If nothing else I have a feeling that any character, regardless of affiliation, that doesn’t move beyond their allotted stereotypical reaction gets a sticky end.
    But that doesn’t redeem it. I don’t want to watch a movie where only the good guys have character development.

  43. Alsadius- Churchill was a famous journalist and son of Randolph Churchill, an almost-Prime Minister.

    In Fact- haven’t seen the movie, but a horny dog might be named for Randolph- his syphilis wasn’t known to the public then, but it is now- and Sherlock or Mycroft would have known.

  44. I haven’t seen the movie and Elki didn’t mention a name, but surely “reference to England’s greatest Prime Minister” could as easily have meant Benjamin Disraeli as WC.

  45. I thought the Holmes stories were set in the 1880s or so. Churchill wasn’t well-known until the Boer War, in 1902.

    And William, I was mostly joking – I figured it referred to one of the 19th century ones. I just like Churchill.

  46. Thomas Covello Says:
    I don’t want to watch a movie where only the good guys have character development.

    Maybe I said that badly, I’m not talking about character development. Although to be fair, I can’t off the top of my head think of any genuine character development in someone other than the main protagonist that wasn’t directly caused by the main protagonist.

    My point is that I think there’s something hidden a little deeper than “cowboys vs indians” that translates the standard moral story from the standard “indian utopia” to a slightly more interesting “re-evaluate your prejudices or die”.

  47. Alsadius: Holmes and Watson met about a year after Watson was wounded in the Battle of Maiwand (1881). Two of the stories took place earlier (Holmes recounted them to Watson later); the rest through the 1880s, 1890s, and 1900s (the last being in 1914).

  48. “I guess the one partial exception for Cameron would be “Aliens,” which was probably his most artistically satisfying film.”

    Maybe for Cameron, but I found Ridley Scott’s “Alien” light-years better. Cameron seems not to grasp the fact that quantity is not the same as quality. Some beautiful cinematographic moments in Avatar were completely overpowered under by the thunderous military mass acts which seems to be necesarry for Cameron.

    Ripley in Alien and the Coen bros for instance learned from Hitchcock that one fears the most what is in their own imagination.

  49. Masukomi’s reviews are stupid. First, he or she does not understand the idea of “noble savage” that they are claiming doesn’t apply to the Na’vi. Second, especially in the second, they are basically just repeating (all too frequently for such short pieces) that people who disagree with him have some “agenda”, which apparently just means they believe something other than the leftist crud Masukomi spouts.

  50. “The Abyss” was a good movie, but also not really special. I see Cameron as an auteur sort of director who tells the same story over and over with replacement heroes/bogeymen. The bogeyman is always some permutation of “the military-industrial complex” and the heroes are always a mixed bag of social activists, proletarians and noble savages.

    While that may be true of movies like The Terminator series and maybe, to a lesser extent a couple of other movies like Strange Days or Rambo II, that’s not true of all of Cameron’s movies. What about True Lies or The Abyss? In True Lies, Harry Tasker (R’Nold) works for “the man,” and seeks only to win back the affections of his wife Helen (Jamie Lee Curtis); he does so by showing her that he’s, in fact, a spy working for “the man” and not a boring computer salesman as he had always maintained. In the Abyss, the bogeyman is a mysterious creature; sure “World War III” looms ominously in the background, but this is simply a very common theme in Cold War-period flicks; Americans were, as a whole, were pretty obsessed with the threat of nuclear war.

  51. Okay, on the strength of this article I saw Sherlock. Man, that was badass.

  52. On the strength of this article I saw Sherlock as well. I will never watch a movie recommended here again.

  53. Not to blatantly self-link or anything, but I would love to hear you guys’ thoughts on my analysis of Avatar, linked here. Though there are critical, deal-breaking problems with Avatar, there are also aspects that are excellent and bear further scrutiny. (And I don’t just mean special effects, but conceptual aspects too.)

    I thought Sherlock Holmes was just fantastic. As an Objectivist, I found the great plot reveal very satisfying. That movie gets an unqualified “A” from me.

  54. Avatar does look like “Dances with Aliens” (a boring, hackneyed, Hollywood PC, plot line), but might be worth watching in 3d.

    On the other hand, I’m seeing a new kind of PC on this thread, something that I’m seeing in a lot on politically oriented blogs, where libertarians and/or conservatives lurk:

    PC that is anti-PC. That is, there seems to be a political correctness, of it’s own sort, that reacts or rejects any kind of traditional political correctness (as defined by liberals, Hollywood, et al).

    In other words, there is a new kind of PC that says it’s not PC to be race sensitive, or generally sensitive to others’ needs/emotions. One is labeled “bleeding heart liberal”, or “part of the liberal elite”, if one suggests, or acts on, racial/religious/ethical/cultural sensitivity.

    But sometimes racial/religious/cultural sensitivity is just that, and that only, and not some sort of commie-liberal PC.

    Mind you, I’m not excusing the boring hackneyed PC plot line of Avatar.

    But this new kind of anti-PC PC is kind of amusing, really.

    And thanks for the Sherlock review, ESR. I was already considering seeing it, but now I definitely want to see it.

    Another modern character that draws on Sherlock is House. I’ve particularly gained an extra appreciation for that show after I read an interview with one of it’s creators saying that the House character draws heavily on the original Sherlock Holmes character.

  55. Here is an example of anti-PC PC, where the writer brings in the right-wing political-axe-to-grind into watching and reviewing Avatar:

    http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/nilegardiner/100020721/avatar-the-most-expensive-piece-of-anti-american-propaganda-ever-made/

    The reasons for my posts are:

    1. What’s wrong with being against exploitation?
    2. What’s wrong with being racially/culturally sensitive?
    3. What’s wrong with realizing that colonialism has caused major suffering in the world?

    I know, I know, “the liberal elite” often times go way to far with their hyper-PC-ness.

    But is is okay to “do unto others as you would unto yourself”. That’s not liberal PC-ness. It’s the “the right thing”.

  56. >1. What’s wrong with being against exploitation?

    “Exploitation” amounts to offering people alternatives that the weenie using the word doesn’t like.

    >2. What’s wrong with being racially/culturally sensitive?

    Nothing as long as you don’t take it too far; unfortunately in today’s world “being racially/culturally sensitive” means kowtowing to the lazy, stupid, or vicious (often all three at once).

    >3. What’s wrong with realizing that colonialism has caused major suffering in the world?

    “Colonialism” has relieved far more suffering than it has been the cause of. Suttee, slavery, caste, disease, tribal/ethnic wars have all been reduced by colonial powers. Many have resurged since the end of colonialism.

  57. I liked Jeremy Brett’s Holmes because he would occasionally (very occasionally) break out of the “Spock” mode and get weird, gallivanting around and making “AHA!” sounds.

    But for Watson, you can’t do better than Duvall in “The Seven Percent Solution”. No wimp there.

  58. Have you seen the sequel? What did you think? I love both these movies, although I think the first one was slightly stronger. But then my own knowledge of Holmes comes completely from the written canon, i.e. I’ve never seen any of the Rathbone movies.

  59. >Have you seen the sequel? What did you think?

    Entertaining, but not as good as the first one. I have not figured out quite why yet.

  60. Have you seen the “Sherlock” (2010) TV series? IMDB: “Sherlock” (2010) .

    A quote from the TV series: “I’m not a psychopath, Anderson, I’m a high-functioning* sociopath, do your research.”

  61. >“I’m not a psychopath, Anderson, I’m a high-functioning* sociopath, do your research.”

    Heh. I have a friend who describes himself as a high-functioning sociopath. I can readily imagine him saying this.

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