Avatar Review: the blue one, not the anime one

In my head, I have a list of film professionals (writers, directors, actors, composers, etc) whose involvement in a project triggers my automatic ticket purchase reflex. It won’t surprise you to learn that Avatar warranted a reflex purchase, but you might raise an eyebrow if I told you it was Sam Worthington’s name, not James Cameron’s, that triggered it. (If you’ve ever seen True Lies you know why James Cameron is not on the list).

I wanted to love Avatar. I went into the theater hoping to come out feeling the way I felt when I saw Star Wars for the first time – awestruck and excited. When it was over, I was forced to admit to myself that I was neither, though I couldn’t shake the feeling that if I maybe went to see it again, it would be better, just because I wanted it to so bad. So I did, but it wasn’t.

I can blame some of my disappointment on the hype. I tried to stay away from it. It was pretty easy in Cape Breton (the theater wasn’t even full on opening night) but impossible on the internet, which was teeming with pictures and videos and articles on James Cameron and his blue people. With so much anticipation built up, if Avatar was anything other than the most amazing and moving film ever made it was going to be a disappointment.

For those of you who are cave dwellers and STILL haven’t heard of it even though it’s made over a billion dollars, here are the cliff’s notes:

Avatar, a movie James Cameron has been working on for something like 15 years, is a full 3D film that blends live action with motion-captured CGI to create lush jungle planet called Pandora and the a race of blue natives that inhabit it.

The story follows Jake Sully, a wheelchair bound ex-marine who is recruited by a ruthless mining company to take over his dead twin’s avatar and finds himself caring more about the clan of natives he’s infiltrating than the interests of the company he works for.

Sounds amazing, right? And it is, sort of. Is it an amazing accomplishment? Yes. Should James Cameron quit now to rest on his laurels/money? No.

Those of you who know me, even if just through this blog, know that in my world, story is king. The most amazing 3D CGI environment in the world can’t save a movie if the characters who are running around in it do things that make no sense. Thankfully, though Avatar‘s story was simple, it wasn’t bad enough to trigger my auto-scorn reflex (I have a lot of reflexes).

and the CGI is really, really spectacular

The scope of the story is huge, encompassing Jake’s gradual transition from human to Na’vi (as the natives are called) the struggle between scientists, security officers and corporate bigwigs within the company, and the two species clashing for control of the world. Oddly enough though, I found that the scope wasn’t broad enough. Humans bad, Na’vi good, was about what it boiled down to, with precious few exceptions.

and now that we’ve got that out of the way: RAAARG HUGE BATTLE!!

I was relieved to find out that despite what the trailers and promotional materials had led me to believe, Jake wasn’t the only person with a scrap of a conscience among the humans. Dr. Grace Augustine (played by the queen of sci-fi actresses, Sigourney Weaver) was against the aggressive approach all along, and the two of them pick up a few other non-military types along the way.

though at five members, the Good Human Club isn’t exactly huge

But my hopes for a little complexity were dashed, especially by the ending, which makes the whole thing seem like just the beginning of a larger conflict. You could argue that at 2 hours and 40 minutes, there wasn’t room for anything more, but Battle for Terra, which deals with the same subject, actually manages to cover more ground with more complexity than Avatar, and does it in only 1 hour and 20 minutes.

there’s no contest in the the CGI department, though

With rumors of an Avatar 2 in the works these failings can be overlooked, as most of them could be fixed by a sequel. However, the magic sequel bullet can’t retroactively fix the failings in the character development department (unless it involves time travel…)

The movie deserves a big pat on the back for rehabilitating Michelle Rodriguez, who is usually relegated to “bitch” roles (see The Fast and the Furious, Blue Crush) but is actually likeable in Avatar as helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon…

kicking ass and taking names… with a conscience

…and for giving what could be a breakout role to Joel Moore, one of my favorite nerdy interns from Bones. But we hardly learn anything at all about any of the Na’vi characters, even Jake’s girlfriend Neytiri (played by Zoe Saldana and a cloud of 1s and 0s), except for how they feel about Jake and that they don’t like humans being on their planet.

Jake, I want to kill you–no! I want to bone you!

Jake himself is pretty easy to understand, at least on the surface, and we find out a lot of his back story through his video log voice-overs. He wants his legs back, and he wants his life to matter.

Oh boy, legs! my favorite!

But he’s little too poetic for a self-described “dumb grunt.” He’s meant to be a warrior poet type I guess, but it comes off too much like schizophrenia, especially in his voice overs. He alternates between waxing poetic about his dreams of bringing peace and making rough-edged quips about how much he loves to kick ass.

“I became a marine for the hardship, to be hammered on the anvil of life…
I was a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace… THAT’S WHAT I’M TALKIN’ ABOUT, BITCH!”

We also don’t get any glimpses of what Jake was like before the company found him (apart from what’s spelled out for us in voice-over) which would have helped us decide what sort of person he was.

though if the existence of this image is anything to go by,
they did film those parts of the script, they just cut them out

The movie is about Jake’s journey more than anything else, so it’s crucial that we relate to him right off the bat. Voice over is used to try and fill some of the gaps, but it’s Sam Worthington who lets us in, managing to tell us Jake’s thoughts and feelings without saying anything at all.

lonely tough guy in over his head, with a dash of adventurousness thrown in for good measure

The biggest character failing though is the unfortunate one-dimensionality of the villains. Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang do their best with what they have, but considering the story’s limitations, it’s no surprise that they come off sounding like cartoons. Ribisi’s corporate bigwig Parker Selfridge is all “money money money”…

watch me play golf in my office and ignore your valid arguments

…and Lang’s security forces Colonel Miles Quaritch is all “kill kill kill” …

My name is General Biggus Dickus, and I’ll be your bigot for this evening.

…and we’re just left to believe they’re like that for no reason. We could have used the information that Earth is pretty much wrecked to understand why they need this “unobtanium” stuff so bad…

Unobtanium: the miracle rock named after mountain biking slang

… but we don’t find out that Earth is dying until about three quarters of the way through the film.

Despite the story’s insistence that Jake is the main character, it’s really the world of Pandora that gets top billing. The attention to detail, particularly in the jungle-y plant life, is staggering. I don’t even want to think about how many people must have been working on one blue leaf for like six straight months to pull this off.

i don’t know if a million monkeys on computer graphics engines could do this, even given infinite time

There’s color and bioluminescence everywhere, plants that suck into a tube with a hilarious “foonk” sound (which, incidentally, the same noise my brother’s potato cannon makes), plants that fly, little floating dandelion seeds that move like squid…

easily one of the coolest looking things in the movie

… and then there’s the military hardware. James Cameron was at best inspired by and at worst ripping off his own work on Aliens when he included the giant robot suits…

look familiar?

…but the four-fanned rotating helicopter gunships are SO AWESOME…

Sorry. Helicopters trigger my “awesome” reflex.

… the computer interfaces made me extremely disappointed to go home to my supposed state of the art laptop that doesn’t even project things in 3D…

it’s like planning the attack on the death star except not in dot matrix

… and visuals like this one are why I loved Defying Gravity so much.

It’s only once we start getting into the really critical bits of CGI – the Na’vi – that we run into problems. Although I was very impressed by how much of the actors, particularly Sam Worthington, the special effects wizards were able to incorporate into the blue avatar forms using motion capture…

note the similarities around his mouth, and the way he holds his body

… they were still ultimately crippled by the fact that the eyes had been replaced. Actors do a lot of their best emoting with their eyes (what with them being windows to the soul and whatnot) so plucking them out and replacing them with big yellow mirrors just made the blue people noticeably “off”. It wouldn’t have been such a problem if the film was entirely CGI, but having the avatars interact with live humans just highlighted their limitations.

compare these eyes

with these

But these limitations needn’t have prevented the audience from connecting emotionally with them. That gap could easily have been bridged by a memorable musical theme (think of how integral the music is to great sci-fi films like Star Wars and 2001) but unfortunately James Horner’s score is so utterly generic that you barely notice there’s any music at all.

The irony is that Horner is capable of composing the kind of music that Avatar needed. He did it in The Perfect Storm, Titanic, and Apollo 13, among other movies. So what happened here? Did he just run out of ideas or did he purposely tone it down in an effort to let the visuals take the forefront?

when I see this, I do not think “generic string music”

They placed so much emphasis is on the visuals that I found myself wanting to read a novelization, thinking it would help me relate to the characters better. I desperately wanted to care, but I was strangely emotionally distant from everything that was going on. During the official “moment of sadness” at the end of the second act, I felt nothing. The moment that got the biggest emotional response from me was a small one, unadorned by fabulous computer generated imagery – when an exhausted Jake fell asleep in front of his video log, and he was put, very kindly, to bed by his gruff boss.

it’s no coincidence that both of these people are great actors

So in short, there are problems, but as you know if you’ve read my Terminator Salvation review that sometimes these little imperfections don’t keep me from loving a movie. So what held Avatar back from joining Terminator Salvation on my short list of much-loved movies? Immersion. A good movie draws you in and holds you, sometimes long after it’s over. Characters you can care about are one way to do this, and world building (a sci-fi hallmark) is another.

oh look, here’s a world to build on

Great sci-fi walks a fine line between familiarity and innovation, and Avatar came down too close to the former. Na’vi culture, beliefs, weapons, adornments, and even their accents are lifted wholesale from Earthbound aboriginal cultures, particularly Native American ones.

One second I’d be marveling at how amazing and creative the glowing plants or floating mountains were…


…but then a Na’vi, a supposedly brand new form of alien life, would pull out something recognizably human and I’d remember that it’s just a story someone cobbled together from the bits and pieces floating around in his head.

hey wait, isn’t that an ancient Egyptian arm band?

Even most of the animal life is too familiar. Not so much in the way they look but in the way they act. There are ugly horse things, ugly rhino things, ugly monkey things, ugly coyote things…

… an ugly panther thing.

The only real nod to innovation is their plug-in hairstyles that allow them to commune with nature, effectively taking existing religious beliefs and grounding them in a new form of science.

this season’s hottest hairstyles let you control dinosaurs

That was so cool and inventive that it left me wondering why James Cameron hadn’t given the Na’vi more traits to call their own. The answer, of course, is that Cameron meant Avatar to be a allegorical condemnation of the way various groups of Europeans have treated various groups of indigenous peoples and the ecosystem itself (i.e. badly).

I’m all for the dissemination of this message. We were (and in many cases still are) huge jerks to the people who were here before us and we’re steadily rendering the planet uninhabitable. But we’re not so stupid that we couldn’t have understood the message if it was packaged a little less obviously. It also doesn’t help much that Cameron stops at condemnation without offering any solutions to how we might improve the situation. Humans = bad. The end.

Being me sucks. If only I could be someone else…

By having the film end the way it does, the message James Cameron sends us, while we’re struggling to find a way to save ourselves and our planet, is that humanity sucks, so we should just give up and become something else. Forgive me if I am less than inspired.

Buy Avatar on DVD

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