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Non-Review Review: Avatar

Yes, it is as visually stunning as you have heard. No, the special effects and 3D don’t combine to give you massive headaches. No, you’re never really dizzy or disorientated. Yes, it is the most technically impressive movie since… well, Titanic. But, with all that said, there’s really very little here. Cameron might be a master chef, and is an expert at serving up meals that look incredible, but here it seems that he spent more time on the decoration than on the ingredients. The movies is easily the most incredible technical accomplishment of the decade, but does that really matter when the plot is not only recycled (in fairness, that suits the green tone of the movie), but recycled poorly? Is watching two-and-a-half-hours of visually stunning work enough if it can’t generate any sort of emotional investment?

I wish I could say it blue (geddit?) me away...

Oddly enough, the only real barrier to emotional investment isn’t the CGI. This is perhaps one of the few effects-driven film which manages to connect to its audience better through what’s not really there than what is. Pandora is a stunning creation. Every single aspect of it, from the flowers to the insects to the topography to the animals. I mean it as a sincere compliment that the only way the audience knows that these things aren’t real is because they couldn’t be. It’s that good.

The Na’vi themselves are impressive creations, which manage to look so convincing that you might even believe that certain shots (mostly hands and feet) are only actors in make-up. Of course, the two lead Na’vi characters – Jake and Neytiri – look considerable more impressive than the rest, but the creations as a whole are so far ahead of anything Hollywood’s done recently that the slight difference in quality is barely noticeable. It is a technically magnificent film. Everyone involved deserves a pat on the back.

Opening Pandora's box...

It’s outside of that that the film runs into trouble. Those defending the film’s story-telling style may argue that it’s a fable or a myth – it’s told in broad strokes and without any political or moral complication. They’ll say it’s meant to be portrayed straight-up. The story is a straight-forward retelling of the original encounters between the European settlers and the Native Americans, though Cameron ensures – through use of quotes like “shock and awe” and “fight terror with terror” – that his audience isn’t oblivious to the modern parallels. The movie is as blunt and as simplistic as a bloody sledgehammer. Exploitation is bad seems to be the order of the day.

I had been hopeful at the start of the movie. When the corrupt CEO character (because that’s all they really are – they have names, but they are all pretty much plot functions) refers to the vital mineral inside Pandora as unobtanium, I assumed he was being ironic – that it was an acknowledgement by Cameron of how hokey his premise was. Turns out that it wasn’t; the mineral is actually called, in all seriousness, unobtainium. When the military badass character refers to the wars that Jake fought – Venezuela and Nigeria – I assumed this was a way of Cameron subtly addressing the movie’s historical frame of reference as wars over oil (both regions are rich in it, but aren’t as on-the-nose as the Middle East). Unfortunately, that’s as subtle as he gets.

A wing and a prayer...

The problem is that such things can’t really be explored in such a primitive black-and-white manner. There are certain unpleasant implications in the fact that the aliens are only really able to fend for themselves when there’s a human telling them what to do. Despite the fact that this is their planet, it takes a bloody blow-in who betrayed their culture to tell them how to fight back? That seems just as racist as the suggestion that they are “fly-bitten savages”. I half-expected a montage where Jake taught them to hit things really hard with rocks.

That’s not the only part of the production which made me feel more than a little uncomfortable. Take how the Na’vi select their ikran – a flying beast they ride on the back of – in a ritualised fashion. The Na’vi in question ambushes the beasts, finds one that they like, wrestles it to the ground, places an appendage which has been jokingly referred to as a sexual organ into the creature – and Jake even utters an exhausted “You’re mine”. Obviously these creatures love nature, whether nature consents or not. Part of me wonders if nobody pointed the less-than-subtle connotations of the scene out to Cameron during production.

Your blue world...

And the writing is terrible. When Jake is (understandably) abandoned by the tribe, how does he respond? With the observation that he will have to “take it to a whole other level” in order to win their trust and liberate Pandora. Seriously, who the hell talks like that? He’s not a contestant on The Real World. He might as well have said he had to push it to the limit or something similar. And Cameron just doesn’t get biology – twins have as much in common genetically as strangers. It’s a small thing, and it doesn’t really matter, but it’s something I feel the need to point out.

And the ending? (SPOILER – highlight to read) Seriously, what’s to stop mankind from orbitally bombarding the dragon-riding freedom fighters? The company invested enough money to keep a huge military presence on the planet, so I don’t think making the corrupt executive do “the walk of shame” is an adequate enough defense. And – let’s be honest – did James Cameron just make the death of humanity seem like a good thing?

Pardon my Na'vity...

As for the characters – they’re cardboard cutouts of the cast of Aliens, except they were better the first time. You have the cocky Latina and the corrupt CEO more interested in money than life itself. The movie offers us he blandest possible bad guy – I’m serious, he can’t really get us to feel one way or the other even when raining fire down on women and children. He’s a collection of descriptions that begin “he’s so badass that…” instead of a fully formed character:

  • he’s so badass that he doesn’t need an oxygen mask to wander around Pandora
  • he’s so badass that he doesn’t need reconstructive surgery for those scars on his face
  • he’s so badass that his callsign is “Poppa Dragon”
  • he’s so badass that he drinks coffee while ethnic cleansing

In fairness, the movie succeeds on two fronts from a narrative point of view. The first is the casting of Sigourney Weaver. The woman is a legend who doesn’t get enough respect. There’s a reason that she is one of the very few actors ever to receive two Oscar nominations at the same ceremony. Her character is a cardboard cut out – the scientist with a heart-of-gold but no people skills – but Weaver manages to make it work against all odds and against cliché after tired cliché.

He's so badass that I'm not goign to insert a lame pun beneath this picture...

The other is the fact that the human-Na’vi romance works very well. Primarily because it is based off movement and motion rather than dialogue or character, but let’s not complain. The two court and move and dance in a way that is incredibly impressive and expressive. In a way the romance between the two signifies the magic of the film’s imagery – it works despite the dialogue and character, not in tandem with.

I don’t know why the story seems to be outside Cameron’s grasp. Aliens was practically the same movie – a warning against cynicism and greed and an attempt to interfere with nature (albeit a much more malicious nature than in this film). Many of the characters and story ideas (and even the lead actress) are carried over. perhaps the difference is subtlety. Aliens was confident enough to allow moral shades of grey and to draw out complex characters from the stereotypes which made up its cast. Or maybe it’s complacency – James Cameron was looking for his really big break making Aliens, here he’s just cememnting his position as a populist director. I don’t know.

No mean feet...

I’ve been iterating my complaints for quite a while now, so I’ll rearticulate the key point. The visuals are stunning. This is a gamechanger, technology-wise. It is a massive technical accomplishment and Pandora is a fascinatingly visceral place. Cameron almost makes it actually exist. The problem is that the movie around it just doesn’t work.

I’ll accept I’m in the minority on this one, but it’ll be interesting to revisit critical opinion of this film when the dust settles. I miss James Cameron the storyteller.

6 Responses

  1. A good review but there’s one important consideration in any criticism of the film: it has to appeal to the broadest possible international audience in terms of narrative in order to recoup all of these CGI-spent dollars. Titanic was the same.

    I watched it yesterday and it struck me that the executives at the studios must be licking their corporate chops art the prospect of a proprietorial technology that can guarantee them lucrative returns on minimal talent investment. This is why Avatar is a game changer, not because it is Dances with Wolves, you know, for kids.

    • I appreciate the logic behind such an argument, but I disagree with the assumption that an audience-friendly narrative must be inherently hackneyed and flawed. The Dark Knight is an example of a blockbuster reaching a wide base while featuring a reasonably advanced plot (I’m not pretending that it is a genius film, just that it didn’t talk down to its audience).

      It isn’t so much the simplicity of the story that I had an issue with – it was the simplicity of the storytelling, if that makes sense. A good storyteller can make an old, worn out or simplistic story engage with their audience. Cameron simply didn’t do that here (and the tragedy is that we know he can).

  2. I also thought the death of mankind was strangely toned in this film.

  3. Great visuals, terrible script, OK acting. That about sums it up!

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