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Posted by Cantankerous Panda on December 28, 2009

Craziest thing– apparently preparing applications takes time, and I’m STILL not done! Sigh.

OK, here goes a basic post of my look at James Cameron’s baby, Avatar (2009). Yes, this is a format change. I’m back, for the moment!


I’m not in love with it, but it WAS rather beautiful and spectacular to watch (saw it in 3-D, of course). Get ready for some heavy-duty spoilers, folks!

The story is a very basic one. A marine “grunt” is tapped to get his consciousness plugged into a human-Na’ vi (otherwise known as the “bluefolk”) hybrid body called an “avatar”, which is used to safely wander the world of Pandora (so clever!) and infiltrate the bluefolk. The point of this operation is to get the bluefolk to move to a different location, because their main village is on top of a bunch of unobtainium (I shit you not–they basically named it “plot device”), and goddamnit the humans want that metal for money! The options are to convince these “savages” to move by the end of three months or else take the land by military force. Our main man, Sam Worthington (or Jake Sully, in the film), is totally game to be the military butt-boy and do some recon as he infiltrates the bluefolk, but as he learns the ways of these so-called “savages”, will he realize that the true savages are the humans, and that he is more like the people he is meant to destroy? Could there be a love interest in one of the bluefolk? Could that love interest, who happens to be the one who randomly stumbled upon him and introduced him to the tribe, possibly be the daughter of the tribe’s leaders? Does she have to reluctantly teach him their ways? Find these answers in every other film that has a similar storyline. Ever.

Here’s the thing about conventional plot devices and clichés: They don’t necessarily mean the movie/script is bad. If you can utilize those concepts well, they can be very helpful and even serve as strong structural supports for your story. However, what I saw in this movie didn’t work that way. Being glaringly obvious in every way with every plot contrivance, to me, is not good storytelling. The moment something was explained in the film, the blueprints for where it was leading were right in front of us. Scenes like the rhinos charging the humans out of nowhere completely lost their edge for me because I was waiting for when that would happen, since the set-up was clear. While the beauty of the world was truly mesmerizing, it’s really hard for me to sit through a movie like that when the story itself–not the exposition bits that make up the majority of the movie– is seriously lacking depth. The movie felt like a supercharged blend of three films: Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, and Ferngully.

It also led me to ask far too many questions about motivation and execution. I get that “humans” (or Americans, really) are bad in this, but even though there was a not-so-subtle dig at the whole Iraq war situation (thank you, liberal Hollywood!), I just don’t fucking buy half of what happened with the big bad corporation. It’s a serious pet peeve of mine when films show the “evil money-hungry/military” guys v. the scientists, and the evil guys always spit in the face of evidence and mock the scientists as “crazies”. If someone discovered a world where all living things were literally connected like brain synapses, and they could all communicate with one another, I highly doubt that a single man could make the decision to completely eradicate the major parts of the system just because he wants to haul back some “important metal” for profit. I get that the Americans are all about destruction, combat, and trampling other cultures, but the last one is something we at least try to be a little more careful about (as in, we would probably NOT make it a primary goal to totally destroy their major religious symbol and gathering place). I, personally, can’t foresee a future that allows for another Native American takeover (yeah, that was blatantly obvious, too), and I don’t think that world destruction of that sort would just be left in the hands of the American military and an American corporation. It’s political-statement-overkill to me, and it reeked of pretentious liberalism that was beyond smarmy and heavy-handed. I’m sure some people can see this sort of thing happening with the “arrogant Americans”, but I really feel the combination of circumstances in this film puts us beyond our typical “generic evil”. I’m also getting annoyed at the stereotypical military man hellbent on violence and destruction, and dammit nothing is going to stop him from killing women and children!!

I felt that the movie could have been an hour shorter, but what made it easier to sit through really was the gorgeousness of it all. I will give Cameron props for that– it was awesome to watch and the 3-D effect really helped. I wasn’t thrilled with the look of the bluefolk, though, because while I could easily see Sigourney Weaver in her avatar, the others just felt too plastic to me. It was hard for me to connect with them because I feel a lot got lost in translation when they played with their eyes. That being said, it was still likely the most amazing instance of CGI “people” I have ever seen, and I will not begrudge Cameron the credit for creating new technology for film-making of this sort. It really could revolutionize high-budget CGI films in a major way, and that’s something extraordinary, regardless of whether or not you consider that kind of film-making to be a “good thing”.

Credit also must be paid to the actors, who did a spectacular job working in bizarre filming situations. I heard about the contraptions they wore on their heads as avatars so that they could get a sense of what would be happening on-screen during their scenes. I didn’t have a problem with any performance in the film, and Sigourney Weaver rocks out as usual. Stephen Lang did a great job as a military badass, Giovanni Ribisi pulled off the corporate asshole flawlessly (I wonder whether or not that’s telling), and even Michelle Rodriguez was likable–she played a tough military chick (shocker!) with a soft spot for native peoples. Zoe Saldana did a good job as a warrior woman/romantic lead. I liked her throaty screams. I was a little disturbed by the implications of the tribes speaking with what I consider “Africanized accents”, but I don’t know if I want to read too much into that right now.

Do I recommend this film? Yes. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy watching it– I did AND I didn’t– but I don’t think this is going down as one of my favourite movies of all time, or as an example of stellar storytelling. However, the visuals are pretty stellar, so I think it’s probably worth seeing it at least once just for that. And if you’re going to go out and buy a ticket to this thing, at least see it in 3-D.

As a side note, I just watched Terminator Salvation last night, also with Sam Worthington, and I feel that the poor boy might be getting typecast! He plays a human hybrid-turned-defector for the “wrong side” so damn well, and in both films the love interest tells him that he has a “strong heart”. My sister and I cracked up in the theatre tonight during Avatar when his girlfriend said that line to him. Unreal.

Let me know if you’d prefer my old format (the few of you who actually read this), and I’ll think about going back to it. Perhaps once I get over applications I’ll get back into the hang of this.


18 Responses to “Avatar”

  1. Alex said

    Woo, Avatar review. Good stuff love, keep it up.

    P.S. forgot it was Sam Worthington who played the role, and now i’m guessing its just special effects that make his legs look like BONES? freaky.

  2. Harry Limon said

    Good call on Pocahontas. I hadn’t seen that movie referenced as part
    of Avatar’s cultural baggage, but it fits every bit as well as the
    meretricious Dances with Wolves and the hippy-dippy Ferngully. I’m
    still unlikely to see Avatar, but then again, I skipped those other
    movies, too.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      I think others have probably referenced Pocahontas, as well, but I can’t recall any reviews off the top of my head. And I won’t fault you for not watching the two animated films, though. I know you’re not into that sort of fare :P.

      I still think it’s worth seeing for the technology and the beauty. I don’t know how this is going to translate into DVD, really.

  3. That girl that you know said

    I pretty much agree with what you said. As you know, I was really excited for this film from the beginning, just because it was a new James Cameron sci-fi film. When I actually found out what it was about, I was less enthused. When hearing about the plot, I definitely got a Pocahontas/Ferngully vibe from it, which was spot on. It was pretty and the special effects were great, but I found that a lot of it was contrived and overly-cliche. It also relied too heavily on stereotypical characters and had some horrible and laughable dialogue.

  4. Tentacles said

    Despite watching this film in 2D, I was still stunned by the beautiful CGI. I didn’t really notice much about the film while watching it, although the whole Pocahontas/Native American thing seemed quite obvious. After reading your review, I realise that I completely agree with just about everything you’ve said. So yeah, great review :).

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Aw, thanks! Yeah, a lot of people apparently missed out on some of the references, but I just saw a lot of similarities that I couldn’t ignore. Doesn’t necessarily mean I’m right, of course, but I think I am in this case :P.

  5. Serryl said

    Geez…I just..,.I just agree so much. I was literally thinking the same thing on the way home. Great plot…when I saw it the first time at age 7. I pretty much had ever single plot development figured out within the first 15 minutes or so–very sad. Like you however, I think Cameron excuted it well, and I appreciated his reserved use of 3D. I think he even admitted to the blandness of the plot in a radio interview on NPR, pointing out that while it wasn’t necessarily new or unique, it was well-fleshed-out.

    As for the actors, I thought they performed wonderfully. I agree that Zoe Saldana did an amazing job creating tribal calls. I too noticed the africanized accents on some characters, e.g. the village Shaman, but felt that the actors were genuinely trying to make something unique. This was not a repeat of Jar-Jar Binks in my opinion. Two mentions. First, I really enjoyed Stephen Lang’s performance. I had never seen him in anything before this movie, and I thought he was great. Something about an older guy that can maintain a great physique appeals to me (*cough* Mickey Rourke *cough*). Second, I felt somewhat sad to see Michelle Rodriguez in what appears to be the only role she will ever play.

    All in all, I really enjoyed it. My only issues were with, as you point out, how unrealistic some of the human decisions were. Clearly the writers wanted the Na’vi attacked and weren’t going to let common sense stand in their way.

    My last comment is about the metal itself. In his radio interview, Cameron took pride in the amount of time that was spent giving names to all the plant and animal life. They really put some effort into creating a believable world…and then they decided to call the metal “Unobtainium.”


    Really? Is this a comic book now? I assume it was some kind of joke, but I think it fell flat.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      See, I could feel Cameron’s ego dripping off the screen. I felt it with the Unobtanium joke because it seemed so “Haha, I’m so clever” of him. I agree that Stephen Lang was impressive, but his role was hardly anything new. It’s fun to watch an older man kick some ass, of course (like Gibbs in NCIS). I really don’t like that Cameron didn’t seem to give a damn about the plot, either.

      Thanks for the comment!

  6. Harry Limon said

    Because Cameron just can’t help himself, he tried to defend Avatar against a bluenosed NYT op-ed that tut-tutted about it glorifying smoking by claiming this was an artistic choice about Sigourney Weaver’s character: “She’s rude, she swears, she drinks, she smokes. […] From a character perspective, we were showing that Grace doesn’t care about her human body, only her avatar body, which again is a negative comment about people in our real world living too much in their avatars, meaning online and in video games.”

    Let me see if I follow, Jimmy, you made a $250M+ CGI-filled movie about a wholly imaginary natural world – with a video game tie-in that includes online multiplayer – but you’re including a cautionary message about not getting outside enough for fresh air?

  7. Kame said

    I agree with most of your observations, although I connected much more with the Na’vi. Toward the end of the film, especially, the Na’vi looked much more natural and beautiful than human beings did.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Well beautiful, yes. But I don’t know about “natural”. Perhaps you had just adjusted to them? I still thought they seemed pretty heavily CGI. Something about their faces from the nose-up, as I said. Just odd.

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