Movie review: “Avatar”

I’m going to check out “Avatar” in 3D in a little less than an hour; reserving this space for my review of the movie later tonight. Trying to go in with midrange expectations, and I expect the visuals to completely overpower the actual story. We’ll see how it turns out.

UPDATE: The Review. I was tempted to post something last night after I had returned from the movie and everything was still fresh in my mind, but I decided to sleep on it. I’m glad I did. My general feelings on the film haven’t changed since my immediate out-of-the-theater reaction, but as I’ve thought more about it this morning I came up with some things to add to my take on the film.

To start, visually “Avatar” is everything it’s hyped up to be. It’s an astonishing spectacle to sit back and soak up. The world of Pandora created for this movie is lush and alive, and there were times I had to remind myself I was watching computer-generated imagery. The creature design is fantastic. With a few exceptions (and one very notable exception), the human technology looks real enough to touch. There were times where the 3D imagery had me wanting to swat something away from in front of my eyes; it was used to perfection. The 3D added depth to the scenes and was used less for “hey, he’s putting that spear RIGHT IN YOUR FACE,” a temptation 3D films typically seem wholly unable to avoid.

It’s an amazing movie to watch, and I’m thrilled that I got a chance to see it in a decent theater in 3D. The pure spectacle was worth the price of admission all on its own.

Which is good, because story-wise “Avatar” is a transparent, overly-preachy, cliche-filled disaster. In the voice of South Park’s Mr. Garrison, the plot of this movie can be summed up thusly: “White people are bad, mmm’kay?” There’s one non-white human obviously in the movie, and you can guess right now what side she eventually takes. Natives live on top of something Powerful Corporation wants. Powerful Corporation makes a half-assed effort to ask them nicely to move so it can come and get it. Natives don’t move. Powerful Corporation decides to kick their asses and take it. White Guy infiltrates natives, earns their trust, comes to love them, and helps them repel Powerful Corporation. All of this takes place within the most thinly-veiled cowboys and Indians parallel you’ve ever seen, with references to pretty much anything going on in the world right now thrown into the Plot Blender.

The humans’ final assault against the Na’vi is called a “Shock and Awe” campaign, right down to the use of two “Mother of All Bombs” bombs to blow them up real good. Plenty of references to insurgency and counterinsurgency. A statement in the introduction about being “in this economy.” It’s all just a mess.

To top it off, none of the characters are remotely interesting. The good guys are all purely good; the bad guys are all purely bad; the love interest is the chief’s daughter; the characters who change whatever position they start the movie with all do so in entirely predictable ways. You know immediately when X character meets Y character, they’re going to fall in love and save the world, so you don’t care when it actually happens. You know the minute you see X set that the humans are eventually going to blow the shit out of it, so you don’t care when it actually happens. You know that when one of the natives tells character X that something has only happened five previous times in recorded history, it’ll happen again within the next 45 minutes. You know immediately that X character is going to kill Z character at the end of the movie, so you don’t care when it actually happens.

This morning, as I’ve thought more about the movie, the more the completely ham-fisted parallel between the Na’vi and native Americans bothers me. For as much effort as James Cameron and the film’s production team put into creating this amazing visual world of the Na’vi, there was equally as little effort put into developing the society. The only halfway interesting thing in the entire movie was the acutal physical symbiotic relationship between the Na’vi and the animals of the world (which was made wholly bizarre by the fact that the connection was in their damn hair and not their tails). Otherwise, the Na’vi were just blue humans who talked funny. They were tall, skinny and athletic, upright opposable-thumb bipeds. The females had curves where they should’ve had curves and boobs where they should’ve had boobs; of course he fell in love with her, because she was hot.

Wouldn’t the movie have been a lot more interesting had the Na’vi been some sort of non-humanoid rock monsters? I would think you could better sell the concept of a human becoming so completely engrossed in an alien culture to the point that he’s willing not only to rebel against humanity to defend it, but to quite likely lay down his life in the process, if that culture isn’t so blatantly beautiful and obviously worth defending to begin with.

Another difficulty in the way “Avatar” is laid out is that you are *never* on the side of the corporation or the military, so there’s no switch; they’re just the solid-black bad guys from start to finish in the film. Set the movie on a lava planet, show how what is being harvested from the planet is something of tremendous social value to humanity – like a serum that can cure most known diseases, instead of just some preposterously-named ore that’s making some fat-ass filthy rich. Then have the planet’s population accidentally uncovered during a strip-mining operation and viciously assault the miners. Then send the Avatars in to learn more about them. If the planet’s natives are initially illustrated as evil, then the audience gets to make the switch with the main character and the movie becomes far more interesting. But when you start with, “oh, those poor innocent folks are going to get jacked by the bad guys with the big machines,” your movie loses any ability to make me care about what’s going to happen – because you’ve already laid out the brilliantly-lit yellow brick road for me to follow, and I know right away that nothing I am supposed to see or think will deviate from that path.

Talking to some friends immediately after seeing the film last night, I described “Avatar” as “an astonishingly beautiful terrible movie.” That description sticks; visually, it’s remarkable and unlike anything you’ve ever seen in a movie theater before. But the story is such an outright disaster that at the end of the day the movie has little value beyond that of a really pretty light show.

Andy Bartlett

By day, I am the executive director of communications and marketing at Bemidji State University. The rest of the time, I'm a husband, father of three, and proponent of super heroes, lasers, space ships and explosions.

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3 Responses

  1. Tony Escobales says:

    Well, it’s been a few years since Tom Cruise: White Samurai came out; we were about due for a new reinterpretation of Dances With Wolves.

  1. December 22, 2009

    Upcoming bloggage: #Avatar review. Showtime in 57 minutes.

  2. December 23, 2009

    Andy Reviews "Avatar": An absolutely beautiful terrible movie.

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