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Awkward Movie Review: Avatar

December 21, 2009 By: Category: Greatest Hits, Movie Reviews, Movies

avatarUntil last week, I had absolutely no interest in Avatar. I’m not a James Cameron hater. I still think Aliens is one of the best action-adventure movies ever made. The first two Terminator movies were cool. I even thought Titanic was just fine. It did not make a huge lifelong impression on me, but for the 12 1/2 hours I was in the theater, I remember being interested in what was happening. Spoiler alert: the boat sinks.

That being said, Avatar just did not look good to me. Three words: blue cat people. I’m all for computer animation if it involves adorable Pixar characters, but I have yet to see anyone convincingly combine CGI characters and people characters. I mean, I guess that’s why people were so pumped about this in the first place, because Cameron was assumed to be the first person who was able to do it properly. But then the previews came out, and the blue cat people looked like bad video game animation. So I wrote it off as a movie I would not be attending. Until the rave reviews started coming in, and I decided that I didn’t want to be left out of the conversation at the water cooler. Even though I am the only one in my office right now and the only person who would try to talk to me about Avatar at the water cooler was me. Also, someone else bought tickets for me.

So I saw it. First things first: go see it. I mean, you have to. I am not the kind of person who gives a rat’s ass about special effects. But this is truly a new thing. After awhile you forget that the blue cat people are cartoons. Their lips still look kind of weird sometimes. But the 3D is absolutely amazing. It is very beautiful and very something new. As a work of visual wonderfulness, it meets its goal. You don’t even mind that it’s 3 hours long, because you just want to keep seeing shit fly around in the air in front of you.

As a movie, though, let’s be honest with each other–it’s pretty ridiculous. The story, as I’m sure you know by now, is that in the future, we’ll be able to grow these avatar bodies and zap into them with brain teleportation machines. That part’s just a given; of course we’ll be able to do that. And so our hero Jake Sully zaps into one of the bodies and falls in love with a blue cat lady and becomes super into being a blue cat person (in fact: he becomes the BEST blue cat person) and decides to fight the humans who are trying to destroy the blue cat planet. The blue cat people are called the Na’vi, because it’s more futuristic to put apostrophes in the middle of names. They look like a bunch of 10 foot tall golems, especially when they all get together at their tribal parties where they all golem around and snarl at each other. Also of note is that the main guy is white but all the Na’vi people appear to be black. That did my head in a little. Why was I still able to identify who was white and who was black, even though they were all blue cats?

In the end it doesn’t matter, because the white guy blue cat is kind enough to come in and save all the black guy blue cats from the white guy white guys who are trying to destroy their planet to get at their minerals. It’s exactly like how we’re destroying Iraq to get all their oil even though they’re actually a dignified people who love the land and ride dragons. Or anyplace else we’ve destroyed; really, there are countless examples, and the Na’vi are a pretty good stand-in for all of them, because war and politics are simple.

Here are my main problems with Avatar. #1–For all the time they spent fleshing out the Na’vi universe, they never bothered to explain who in the Hell the Earth people were. Some of the Earth people were from a corporation. Some of the Earth people were from the military. Some of the Earth people were scientists. And they all seemed to be living in the same camp, but with radically different goals. The corporation people wanted to get the minerals. The scientists wanted to do science and play basketball in blue cat bodies. And the military people wanted to, I guess, just destroy shit. Which, okay, clearly there is intermingling of corporate and military interests in the real world right now–that part’s not completely unbelievable. But there was no indication in the movie of who was supposed to be taking orders from whom, and that made it very confusing. All of the separate elements seemed to be doing whatever the fuck they wanted to do, yet they were working together, yet they were constantly running away from each other … very confusing.

#2–There is no military leader in the world who has ever acted the way the bad-guy colonel acts in this movie. Imagine General Ripper from Dr. Strangelove crossed with the Predator. He is rabidly insane. And I found that surprising coming from Cameron, because I think Aliens paints a pretty nuanced portrait of military life. The colonel in this movie is more cartoonish than the actual cartoons.

#3–Most of the Na’vi speak English, even though they appear to have no interaction with the humans other than shooting at them with arrows. I do not know why.

#4–A big part of the plot hinges on something you will not see in any preview: the Na’vi have magical hair.

#5–In the beginning, the bad guy says the blue cat planet is worse than Hell. But the blue cat planet is beautiful! They have floating mountains! They have some pretty ugly dinosaurs. But it sure didn’t seem worse than Hell to me. Hell is pretty bad.

#6–One scene featured Sigourney Weaver saying, “yoooooou muurrrrddderrreeerrsss” in slow motion while new age music played in the background and futuristic helicopters shot at a tree.

#7–I never knew the name of the blue cat female love interest. She was the main character in the movie, and I think they said her name once.

I could go on, but none of this really matters. It’s a stunning film and one you should see regardless of the ridiculousness of the script. But as a writer, it will never fail to annoy me that these movies could be so much better if they took $200,000 out of the $300 million budget and threw it my way. It doesn’t matter that it’s a story I’ve seen a million times before. Every story has already been told. You can still tell it with finesse. I mean, good on Cameron for showing us something we’ve never seen before. But really, if you’re going to all that trouble to make your masterpiece, you might want to take a day or two to run your script through the plausibility machine. Thankfully, there’s so much going on in the background of this film that you can get a worthwhile viewing experience without paying a lick of attention to the action happening in the foreground.

Oh, and the other thing, which isn’t Cameron’s fault … those glasses suck. They’re heavy, they hurt my nose, and they’re impossible to clean. And the digital displays are unusually bright … it’s like staring intently at a computer monitor for 3 hours. So 3D is cool and all, but until they figure out how to make the viewing experience better, I don’t think it’s going to revolutionize film-making just yet. Of course, I’m still somewhat skeptical of talkies, so what do I know?

9 Comments to “Awkward Movie Review: Avatar”


  1. The military people were ex-military mercenaries (Black Water), working for the corporation. Cory from My Two Dads was in charge of everything, but psycho colonel took over when the Na’vi pissed him off (he had the guns and robot suits, so Cory didn’t stop him). Sully explained that in the opening monologue. The scientists also worked for the corporation, most likely originally looking for other things that could make the corporation money, and then refocused on diplomacy once the avatars were developed (which presumably the humans were able to do in this case since the creatures they were working on already had networking capabilities; they didn’t indicate that there were any avatars of anything other than Na’vi).

    Sigourney Weaver had a school to teach the Na’vi English (we see pictures of several of them at the school, including a slightly younger Neytiri), but it got shut down when there was a falling out between the cats and the humans (due to shooting at one another, presumably because, like in the real world, their corporate military is led by a psychopath). Just as humans who had never met the Na’vi were learning the Na’vi language, presumably Na’vi were teaching English to one another.

    Those were the easy ones. I expected the critique everyone’s focusing on: that Cameron made his $230 million technological marvel all anti-technology. ‘Cuz, ya know, biological robots with built-in USB cables aren’t technology; guns, helicopters, and robot suits that are ever-so-slightly more advanced than what we already have are technology.

    I don’t mean to get all worked up, but I think it’s super simple to see this movie as super simple. I think the same people who couldn’t see that the emperor had no clothes for crap like There Will Be Blood and Babel can’t see the complexity in Cameron’s story.

    PS: I hate the whole alien apostrophe thing, too.

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  2. Sounds good, but they were all running around like they were in a bedroom farce. It wasn’t in the slightest bit nuanced. I’m sure Cameron had explanations for everything, but that doesn’t mean his explanations made a lick of sense or that anyone in the film behaved in the way humans actually behave.

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  3. Also, that is an unusually bold stance to take on There Will Be Blood. I did not like that movie, but I’m not convinced that everyone I respect who liked it is an idiot.

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  4. On There Will Be Blood: It could be because I don’t personally know anyone who liked it (at least not as far as I know), so the only good things I heard about a movie I found unenjoyable and uninteresting were things I read in reviews; it seemed like people were saying it was good because they heard it was good and didn’t want to seem stupid.

    You say bedroom farce, I say epic. Epic characters don’t exactly act like people, they act like archetypes. And, well, when you miss basic things about the story (like that the military on the base were ex-military gung-ho mercs brought there by the promise of a “substantial” paycheck and removed from any real oversight by a 6-year trip, rather than people serving their country), I’m not sure it’s Cameron’s fault if you don’t see any believability in the characters.

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  5. Good on you for listening closely to the endless exposition, but I still found it silly.

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  6. BTW, I think we can agree that, regardless, everyone should see this movie in the theater, right? I mean, good god. I’m not even sure what it is that makes the animation in this seem so much realler than, say, Lord of the Rings. Did they learn a new shading technique or something? The scenes where Na’vi and humans interact with one another are what really blows me away. Did they figure out a trick for combining the two without artifacts, or were the humans in those scenes animated? I love that I don’t know!

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  7. Agreed. This is exactly the kind of movie that should be seen in the theater.

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  8. Hi Jeffrey!

    John and I saw this last night at Arclight? Were you there (at the 11:15 show????)

    I, like you, am not that impressed with special effects in general. I never see a movie based on CGI alone. Dragged to Avatar, I was expecting a slightly upgraded version of the Polar Express, but with Celine Dion songs. I was pleasantly surprised. It was really neat.

    But as others attending with me mentioned, almost every plot point and much of the conceptual elements were lifted from other films – especially Miyazaki’s catalog of animated films – Totoro and Nausicaa being obvious “inspiration” in terms of plot AND visual elements.

    But that’s okay, Avatar managed to steal from more artsy sources and still stand on its own. It came together nicely. I cared about the Tree of Souls and wanted the bad guys to get it at the end. And I liked Sigourney Weaver.

    But Linda Hamilton should’ve had a cameo.

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  9. This is my favorite review ever.

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