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James Cameron's epic sci-fi fantasy film released in 2009.

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Avatar: Making You Feel as Blue as the N'avi

  • May 15, 2010
Pros: Well directed, scenery is beautiful, a 40-minute climax where James Cameron blows stuff up

Cons: The preceding two hours - dead disbelief suspension and moral-whipping

The Bottom Line: Avatar's acclaim keeps my faith in humanity from getting too high.

You know, it's usually actors who are associated with chewing the scenery. James Cameron's highly acclaimed, 12-years-in-the-making spectacle Avatar is a breathtaking example of what happens when the director leans on the very scenery he's responsible for creating. This is doubly so when the director happens to be talented. It certainly isn't the first time a director has leaned on his own scenery. The whole idea can probably be traced through John Ford (The Searchers), David Lean (Dr. Zhivago), and Ridley Scott (Blade Runner). But the difference between Cameron and the directors and movies I just mentioned was that those movies and directors all had decent stories to tell. James Cameron's created world, Pandora, is pretty much the full movie. 

Pandora really does look fantastic. But for this intrepid reviewer, the visuals just weren't enough to make him forget that the story lacks any substance or any semblance of subtlety. Avatar has been compared to Dances with Wolves, the classic Kevin Costner movie about a Civil War General who moves to the frontier, befriends the local Sioux, and goes native. This is a perfectly valid comparison. But once Avatar had taken me through the Pandora nickel tour, my immediate thought was "Holy crap, James Cameron is making me watch The Last Samurai all over again!" The parallels between Avatar and the 2005 Tom Cruise movie are quite striking: Both involve a member of an evil, destructive army going native and ultimately changing sides. Both involve falling in love with a beautiful member of the native tribe, both include members of the native tribe not accepting the main character until it's way too late. In both movies, the native culture is a proud warrior culture with a strict code of honor which lives in peaceful harmony with nature. Both movies climax with a large-scale technological clash between the stick and stone nature warriors and the evil gizmo gang. The movies even have similar lengths, which means even the pacing is synonymous.

And oh yes, they both annoyed me for the very same reason. I can't sum up my annoyance in a sentence, so please keep reading.

The story of Avatar is your standard-issue outsider messiah tale, in which the good guy infiltrates a simpler culture which eventually rises up against their technologically superior attackers. Now, this tale in itself doesn't bother me. One of my favorite books is Dune, and one of my favorite movies is Lawrence of Arabia. Both of these tales are unrepentantly messianic. Dune revolved around Paul Atriedes becoming the great prophet Muad'dib and leading the desert Fremen people against the evil Harkonen clan. Lawrence of Arabia was the true story of British officer TE Lawrence uniting the tribes of the Arabian peninsula so they could give the Ottoman Turks the boot.

Avatar's messiah is Jake Sully. Sully is a career military grunt who takes a six-year journey to the flora and fauna planet Pandora, where a corporation is digging up a valuable rock known as unobtainium. Unfortunately, this corporation is meeting hostile resistance from the native keepers of Pandora's fantastical jungle, the N'avi. These suckers are nine feet tall and very, very tough to kill. So the corporation is creating a more diplomatic solution known as the Avatar program, which basically transfers the senses of its participants into N'avi bodies which were coded from N'avi DNA. This allows the humans to effectively become N'avi, thus allowing them to bargain and reason with them. Sully has additional motivation because he can't walk, and his own participation in the Avatar program is guaranteeing him a pair of replacement legs upon his return to Earth.

Sully is sent by the evil Colonel Quaritch to gather information on the N'avi, and from everything I said above, it should be easy to guess what happens. Falling in love with the daughter of a N'avi high priestess, the culture, and the natural beauty of Pandora. Getting too far in and turning against his employers. I could probably run down the rest of this review using bullet points, but that's just not my style. 

The first problem is that the characters aren't really characters so much as they are genre stereotypes. The only halfway decent character in Avatar is Grace, who begins as a cold scientist but later shows a genuine warmth and concern for the well-being of both the N'avi and the corporation's best interests. The CEO of the corporation doesn't come off as the great money-loving evildoer either, but he's barely in the movie. But characters like the tough-as-nails helicopter chick Trudy, evil Colonel Quaritch, and love interest Neytiri have no depth. Every part is poorly written. If you're wondering about the personal motivations which fuel the characters in Avatar, well, that makes two of us. The movie clocks in at 160 minutes. Surely that could have been enough time to explain why Quaritch has such a maddening disdain for the Avatar program, why the N'avi tribe Sully befriends doesn't trust him at first (not knowing he's one of the sky people in a N'avi body), or why Trudy suddenly turns against the corporation! Quaritch's lack of development is especially bad, as his part leaves us to believe his actions are a result of some kind of penis envy. He just hates the N'avi, and that's that.

Problem the second is the story itself. James Cameron's writing has never been his strength. But the chain suspending my disbelief was snapping at intervals, and it looks like Cameron was regularly stuck for conflict solutions and just tossed them in as he moved along. Conflict: Neytiri is suspicious of Jake when they first meet for no apparent reason. Solution: Cover Jake in floating flowers, call it a sign from the local god! Conflict: A N'avi test involves the taming of wild animals which try to kill Jake. Solution: Every animal on Pandora, including the N'avi, has apparently evolved little mind jacks which they can use to hook up and communicate. Conflict: Trudy is a good guy doing a bad thing when she destroys the N'avi home. Solution: Just make her fly off for no reason, citing that she didn't sign up for this (s-word), and no one reprimands her or even brings it up. The final conflict is the climactic action sequence, with human high tech going up against the latest in N'avi weapons tech: The bow and arrow. This isn't even addressed. The N'avi somehow win their world anyway and it's obvious that Cameron just stopped caring at this point.

The final battle is a grand spectacle, 40 unrelenting minutes of James Cameron doing what he does best: Blowing stuff up. This is the scene in which Cameron shines, and it's the thing his fans expect of him. But the whole sticks and stones fighting the vicious technology thugs idea flashes back to the Endor sequence from Return of the Jedi. Now, I was able to buy into the Ewoks because they were at least using a lot of clever traps and heavy rocks which would have made things a pain for the Stormtroopers had it been for real. And the Imperials were mostly on foot, wearing body armor which would not have prevented a giant headache from a falling rock. The N'avi are using arrows and knives almost strictly against a flying metal fleet, with weapons of much greater range and power. I don't care how tough your people are and I don't care how good a bow shot you are. The N'avi are almost literally bringing a knife to a gunfight, and the human vehicles are shown earlier to be close to immune to their weaponry. Yes, fantasy and greatness of nature and the sympathetic underdog and all that, but this was too much. The whole idea is even addressed in a cleverly subtle fashion when the N'avi gain the upper hand through what is implied to be divine intervention. The only character who played out this scenario in a remotely believable fashion was Quaritch, and that's only because he has more lives than a cat. He escapes the Reaper's boney clutches at least three times, all of which are well past the plausibility line even by Hollywood standards.

It is, however, the third problem which really throws Avatar over the edge. More than any other movie (or book) I've mentioned in this review, Avatar is grounded wholesale in the noble savage fallacy. If you've so much as set foot inside a Starbucks anytime since the Clinton administration, you damn well know what I'm talking about. The noble savage fallacy is the idea that technological inferiority is a sign of inherent virtue and natural harmony. Noble savage adherents believe using technology to make life easier automatically makes you a bad person. Avatar's entire storyline is rooted like a tree in this idea, to the point where the N'avi have wire jacks in their anatomy which allows them to communicate with certain plants and animals. The movie feels like it was written and directed by James Cameron's western guilt, and so it plays out less like science fiction and more like fantastical erotica for the intelligentsia.

It is in this respect that the messianic story of Avatar diverges from everything else I've mentioned. Dune's Fremen and Lawrence's Arabs are shown to be different from the main character's culture, but not virtuous. The Sioux from Dances with Wolves are clearly shown to be better than the settlers, but the way the main character fights for acceptance among his neighbors is drawn out and realistic, and Dances with Wolves ends not with a violent "Our ways are better!!!" shout from bow-tech to firearm-tech, but with a somber and resigned acceptance of the changing times. Even The Last Samurai - by far the most offensive movie I've mentioned in this context - explores the fact that the Japanese were divided on the acceptance of new technology. Avatar has no such nuances. From the very beginning, it's clear this is going to be a black and white - actually blue and white given the circumstances - fight to the finish, and that you're supposed to be on the side of big blue.

The other reviewers who have noticed this have called Avatar a deliberate piece of tree hugger propaganda. While I certainly understand that assessment, I'm not really sure if that was Cameron's intention. The symbolism for this argument goes right down to the name of the element the humans are digging up (unobtainium), the name of the planet (Pandora, which I actually think is a clever nod to the ancient myth naming system we use for real planets), and the apparent WASP origins of every major villain in the movie. But the more I thought about it, the more confused Cameron seemed to be: When the N'avi meet Jake, they have no idea that he is a human in N'avi skin, but they still treat him like Arizona treats immigrants. A few of the tribesmen who stand pretty high in the N'avi patriarchy appear to simply be xenophobic and are actively rooting for him to fail. Yes, they have every right to attack the invaders of their homeland, but it's also made very clear that the corporation has exhausted every attempt at diplomacy. They've started schools and bartered with and outright given to the N'avi. We are also informed that the corporation is there strictly for this unobtainium element and it is clear they're not going home without it. I repeat, they've made serious attempts to negotiate with the N'avi. What is never explained is any use the N'avi have for the unobtainium, which also means they have no reason to resent the corporation's diplomacy. The fact that the corporation tried negotiation before firepower holds the implication that it was the N'avi who drew first blood against a group that didn't know they were there until it was too late. Yet, the viewer is clearly supposed to be in the N'avi corner. There's something seriously wrong with this picture, but Cameron tries to excuse it all with a single phrase: "We have nothing they want."

That's not to say the corporation doesn't take extreme measures of its own, some of which aren't embodied through lead baddy Quaritch. My point, however, isn't to prove that the corporation isn't free of any wrongdoing, but to explain why I don't believe the N'avi are worthy of the free pass Cameron tries to bestow on them. Objectively neither side is in the clear.

My inner supernaturalist also scoffed at one scene in which Grace - you know, the scientist who always follows hard evidence to her conclusions - tries to use a supernatural explanation without any evidence to talk the corporation out of its worst action in the movie. This is another disbelief suspension snapping point. I could go off into a whole other tangent about it, as well as the spiritual and supernatural implications in Avatar, but aside from Grace's slip there, it isn't bad enough to be worth ranting about.

You know now why Avatar racked up a billion Oscar nominations. It has less to do with the story and more to do with the fact that the basic theme is western guilt in an industry which is famously drenched in it. Otherwise, that's it. That's Avatar, the new biggest grossing movie of all time. (And don't even think about getting me started on THAT.) Pretty scenery and brilliant direction and a 40-minute spectacle which forces you through two hours of cardboard caricatures, an exhausted story built on a popular fallacy, writing which supasses the depths reached by the Titanic (yes, that's an intentional pun, but you're free to take it any way you wish), a few floating mountains, and disbelief suspension which breaks down repeatedly. If you really want to see Avatar, do yourself a favor and rent the SyFy channel version of Dune, which tells the same story in a far better and more believable manner.


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November 25, 2010
wow! Quite an in-depth review for a blockbuster. I have to say I liked this film (yes, I agree it wasn't original and flawed) but it is refreshing to see a rating that is different from the majority. I have to admit that the more I saw it, the more I could see its mistakes, but the director's cut did give me more characterization. Thanks for sharing!
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Avatar is a 2009 American science fiction epic film written and directed by James Cameron and starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez and Stephen Lang. The film is set in the year 2154, when humans are mining a precious mineral called unobtanium on Pandora, a lush moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the continued existence of a local tribe of Na'vi—a sentient humanoid species indigenous to Pandora. The film's title refers to the genetically engineered Na'vi and human hybrid bodies used by several human characters to interact with the natives of Pandora.

Development on Avatar began in 1994, when Cameron wrote an 80-page scriptment for the film. Filming was supposed to take place after the completion of Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, for a planned release in 1999, but according to Cameron, the necessary technology was not yet available to achieve his vision of the film. Work on the language for the film's extraterrestrial beings began in summer 2005, and Cameron began developing the screenplay and fictional universe in early 2006.

Avatar was officially budgeted at US$237 million. Other estimates put the cost between $280 million and $310 million for production, and at $150 million for promotion. The film was released for traditional two-dimensional projectors, as well as in 3-D, using the RealD 3D, Dolby 3D, XpanD 3D and IMAX 3D formats, and also in ...

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Director: James Cameron
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Release Date: December 18, 2009
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Screen Writer: James Cameron
Runtime: 162 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
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