Avatar: A Review


Starring :   Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Joel Moore, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang
Director:   James Cameron

Length:  160 minutes

Avatar, if anything, is big. Big on the screen (I saw it at an IMAX Theater so it was really big); big on computer graphics, big on technology, big on scenery, big on messages.

The film, through its vast publicity machine, has made a great claim on originality.  Yet in spite of its technological wonder, there is not really all that much original to be found in the 2 hours and 40 minutes of action.

Well, then again, lets think about that.  If you are looking for ‘meaning’ then perhaps Avatar might indeed offer you something original to chew on.   Hollywood directors these days have a particular fondness for the parable – overweening attempts to convey moral or religious viewpoints through story line.

If so, then Avatar is parable city:  Corporate greed; man’s degradation of the environment; the evils of Western colonialism; the despoilation of native populations; American avariciousness in the search for mineral wealth; and, of course, the power of love to conquer all differences (even, apparently, when your beloved is ten feet tall, blue and has a tail) – are all included as statements on our current and past malaise.

But is that original? Perhaps – if you buy all these liberal tropes.   Yet not if you have been watching mainstream movies for the past twenty years and witnessed the descent of Hollywood blockbusters like this into an embrace of anti-Americanism, anti-capitalism and denial of human exceptionalism.

Oh well.   Then what about the plot?

It lumbers along in its hodgepodge vein, a colorful quilt, stiched together from material that has been lying around Hollywood for decades. The tailoring is fairly apparent : Take a central thread from Pocohantos, weave it through  Dances With Wolves, lace in scenes from Platoon, sew on a rather large patch  of Fern Gully, dye it all in the colors of The Emerald Forest and there you have it – your Avatar comforter, as tattered, as commonplace, yet as snug, as anything you could purchase in a second hand store.

Character development and continuity is also not the film’s strong suit. Neytiri, the female lead, transforms, over the course of two hours, from snarling, feral feline, into a latter day Bambi, whose loving gazes at her blue betailed beloved are only missing those fluttering red hearts we have come to associate with Bugs Bunny cartoons.

The leader of the American mercenaries, Col. Miles Quaritch, played by Stephen Lang, is the swaggering blowhard commander dredged up from movies as distant as Beau Geste, (remember Sergeant Lejaune?) whose uni-dimensional character has not changed one iota in all those years and still has no redeeming quality.  Like all those bad guys in old Westerns, his malice leaves us nothing with which to sympathize, and it is easy enough to cheer his rather gruesome end.

If you are looking for romance to heat up your theater seat then you will also be sadly disappointed. The love affair between the two lead characters has all the passion of a rotting tree stump and since they mate off camera, one can only wonder about the acrobatics necessary to squirm out of  the body hugging spandex forest suits that pass as their native clothing.

And I’m not done yet.

The “treasure” the humans are seeking (which remains buried beneath the jungle canopy) is called “Unobtainium,” a substance apparently unobtainable on earth, whose value to humans is never fully explained.   You have to wonder if the script department was out to lunch when the decision was made to employ this clumsy title.  ” Kryptonite,” at least, sounds alien. But “Unobtanium?” I would think that such an original film would deserve a more originally named centerpiece.

Then there is the language thing. The inhabitants of the Pandoran jungle are the Na’vi and they speak an impenetrable native tongue that some of the humans, led by Sigourney Weaver, have only just begun to learn.  Yet several of the natives speak rather good English – or at least are quite capable of understanding the lead characters when they explain themselves.  Since the denizens of the deep jungle seem completely oblivious to human ways, how and where then, did they learn English? No one bothers to explain.

OK, I have savaged the film. That is because as a film it is nothing special. Yet as an entertainment vehicle….well that’s something different. The Pandoran jungle (the true star of the show) and the creatures that inhabit it, are astounding.  The computer graphics which are capable of summoning up extraordinary floating islands ( inspired, no doubt, by Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki), raptor-like birds of prey, humanoid fighting machines and cascading waterfalls are a feast for the senses, dazzling in their complexity and scintillating in their eye for detail. The motion caputure used for the creation of the ten feet tall Na’vi and their movements, is of a sophistication that could only be dreamed about ten years ago (apparently the reason Cameron waited so long to make his film) and provides some of  the true wonder of the spectacle.  Here we finally have a sci-fi epic where the alien nature of the content is matched by the alien nature of the technology used to create it.

But it’s a funny thing. When I think back on the film, several days after viewing it, I can barely envision its florid scenes. All that pops up for me is a cartoon – animation and no soul. Perhaps that is because a movie that relies so heavily on technology to stir its audience’s emotions yet remains fundamentally empty at is core, will leave little impression on our consciousness.

James Cameron doesn’t have to worry about any of that. His film will inevitably become the highest grossing motion picture in history and he might even carry home this year’s Oscar.  But back here on earth, we have other things to worry about and while Avatar might be a pleasant enough distraction, it adds nothing, despite its earnest attempts, to an understanding of our own world and how to grapple with our problems. It seems to complain about a lot of things, but offers no solutions.    Such an effort might have given Avatar the spark of originality.   It was an opportunity sadly wasted.

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3 Responses to Avatar: A Review

  1. Chooch says:

    Fabulously written review..if highly cynical.
    Can’t magical be enough of a reach for a film to achieve? What about art for arts sake?
    Must every movie enhance our understanding of our complex world?
    Still, I haven’t read a wittier review or enjoyed one this much in a while.

    • avidavis says:

      Well magical is fine, if a movie doesn’t take itself too seriously. But Avatar takes itself quite seriously and should be judged as much on what it is trying to convey as on how it presents.

      As for art, I don’t think there is too much artistry involved in either the script , the story line or even the acting. Its all transparent artifice with very little soul.

      Where there is true craftsmanship is inthe direction, camera work and high tech wizardry – and these are the things that account for the film’s true magnificence as a spectacle.

      Avi

  2. Chooch says:

    Avitar indeed borrows many cliched storylines and messages, which I agree, cheapens the plot.
    And it is simplistic to think that love can conquer all. Like you, I am a true cynic in that department.

    Still, the messages of connectivity with our earth and the spiritual realm does come through beautifully. As you said in your review, this is a parable, but the message that is loudest to this viewer is the exploration of the meaning of progress and how it can be examined and redefined.

    The delivery of Avitar sets it apart from any past cinematic experience by miles.
    Art is, after all, in the eye of the beholder.

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