Avatar

(artist's rendering)

You probably saw this in theatres last year, but I didn’t.  Whenever something gets that much hype, the thing in question usually turns out pretty crappy.  And even though this wasn’t quite the case with Avatar, I can say now that I don’t think it would have been worth the ever-growing expense of the ticket price just to get nauseated when the goddamn 3D glasses didn’t work. 

But that’s OK.  I saw it when it hit HBO, since I don’t even have Netflix and haven’t been to a blockbuster in some ten years.  Needless to say, this probably won’t be useful to anyone since I’m the last guy on the bus that watched this shit.  But I just don’t care anymore.  I’m so lazy and ambivalent that I’m not even including pictures in this review.

Let’s get one thing out of the way: the film isn’t as god awful terrible as some of the internet might want you to think.  But at the same time, it’s a long way off from living up to the unreasonable amounts of hype it received.  And to add contradiction to all of this, the film isn’t exactly mediocre or unremarkable, either.  It’s an oddly unbalanced hodge-podge of awesome and shit that probably only makes sense to those who have watched it and know what I’m talking about. 

One thing that helped its blockbuster sales at the time, from what I remember, was how new, fresh, and original it was supposed to have been.  Maybe that’s exaggerating a little, since a lot of its criticisms regarded its unoriginal narrative and clichéd caricatures of characters, but the setting, props, and overall world-building elements are certainly worthy of praise.  There are plenty of funky-looking animals that defy comparative anatomy, there are colorful fungal-esque plants that defy botany, there are huge floating mountains that defy gravity, there are huge hulking machines with exposed moving parts in swamplands that defy logistics—you get the idea.  But even if it makes no sense, that doesn’t matter because it looks cool.  And it really does.  If the movie had been nothing but all of this big mechanical shit moving around in alien swamps and forests filled with gunfire and napalm going off, this movie would have been even more of a blast—as it was, the portions of the film in which that was the focus were great.  It was the rest that was a mess.

Whether any of this was original or groundbreaking probably isn’t the point, since most of the mechanical shit looks identical—or at least conceptually related to—the stuff Cameron’s used in previous films, namely Aliens.  The overwhelmingly militaristic designs could just as well have been ripped prop-for-prop in the scenes that mattered, with broader layouts like the command centers, the huge bomber squadron, and the massive gunships all being logical extensions from the type of design showcased in the Cameron’s 1986 film.  Fortunately it all looked cool anyway, so Cameron doing all of this again isn’t such a big deal.  In fact, most of it looked better than it did back in 1986, but that’s what happens when you try to increase the scale of the narrative tenfold and require the sets & props to compensate.

Even the concept of controlling puppet bodies isn’t terribly new or original despite how it might come across, seeing as how it could just as well have been inspired by The Matrix or any one of literally dozens of Japanese cartoons.  But even I’ll admit that none of this matters in the face of how awesome Cameron makes it look—assuming, of course, you can even focus on how it looks through all of that nauseating camerawork that apparently exists to make things more intense.  All it did was give me a headache, and I didn’t even watch this shit on the big screen.  I can only imagine how it would look fifteen times larger and in three gloriously disgusting dimensions poking into my eyeballs.  It’s such a stupid method to use in order to manipulate tension, too, but it has become a staple in modern Hollywood filmmaking.  I can’t stand it.  What’s wrong with a tripod?  What’s wrong with letting the audience focus on what the filmmaker is choreographing?  It’s supposed to make our hearts race and our adrenaline pump because it’s oh-so-confusing-and-“realistic”, but it only succeeds in making my stomach churn and my eyes burn–not to mention it gives the impression that the choreography is complete crap and that the filmmaker is trying to cover for that by refusing to let us focus on it.  I suspect that’s part of the problem, but in Avatar it’s somewhat difficult to tell.  It’s nice that Cameron doesn’t pull this shit when he depicts the awesome battle sequences, but most of the chases and ground action might as well have been shot by coffee junkies with ADHD.

But I digress.

Speaking of awesome, some of the action is pretty fucking intense.  When Cameron pulls out the stops and focuses on just blowing shit up, he does it really really well.  Most of the epic-scale combat involving enormous flying vehicles bringing the mighty wrath of a technological god down upon the native savages looks absolutely gorgeous, and the broad, sweeping camera movements with a decent amount of time in between cuts actually allows audiences to see just what the fuck is going on.  Whether our heroic human counterparts are blasting the shit out of forests full of blue people or being ambushed by crazy pterodactyl-surfing natives, one thing is absolutely sure: Cameron delivers. 

The only downside is that there isn’t enough of this crap.  He bogs this movie down with so much laughable drama that it’s almost ridiculous to wonder why he even bothered.  Yeah, there’s that in-your-face environmentalist spiel, and yeah, there’s another in-your-face noble savage angle, and yeah, everyone’s right when they call it a fusion of Pocahontas and Fern Gully in space, but none of that would matter at all if the writing wasn’t so damn predictable or clichéd.  It’s possible to regurgitate narratives and still make the regurgitation interesting, and by that I mean that the audience isn’t sitting there comparing the shit he’s watching to all the other films that have done it in almost the exact same way.

Fortunately, Cameron throws in enough adventurous romps through the batshit world of Avatar that it’s reasonably easy to forget that you already know what’s coming next.  If you’re forgiving enough, anyway.  But then there are times where characters will do things like kicking open those huge airtight metal doors in bulkheads, and it makes me question just how serious this film was supposed to be.  And then, if one really wants to think about the plot itself, the whole ending of the film unravels anyway—after all, the humans never learned their lesson in the end; they were just beaten up.  Any fan of science fiction action movies can tell you that when human beings are beaten up, they just get angry.  I guess it’s a foregone conclusion that the Big Bad Corporate Military returned to the planet a few years later and turned the surface to cinders via orbital bombardment, but the upbeat dénouement certainly doesn’t give that impression.

I never thought Cameron was an amazing director, but I at least used to respect him.  I never frothed at the mouth in exuberance whenever a new film of his was announced, and to be honest I never even saw any of his films in a theatre—but then I don’t go to theatres that often, either.  But when I got around to them, I usually enjoyed his movies.  In each of them, he proved that he was always good at shooting action while simultaneously pushing the narrative forward.  Avatar has some great action, but its narrative has a tendency to just sit around until the next action sequence or next shoddily-written revelation slams the audience in the face with all the subtly of a sledgehammer.  I suppose this isn’t bad pacing per se, but I wouldn’t call it effective.  It’s more sloppy than anything else.

Ultimately, Avatar is a lesson in grandiosity.  It’s big.  Everything is big, everything is intense, everything is dramatic and powerful and hardcore and heavy-handed.  OK.  It looked cool, the action was great, but the rest was more like an empty impression of “big” without any of the substance that goes with it.  It’s not like Ran-big, or Lord of the Rings-big, where there are epic tales spun together in epic fashions combined with an epic flair for cinematography; Avatar‘s sense of epic is cast like a translucent shadow by its visual effects rather than any of its storytelling, which is why it comes off so lopsided.  It doesn’t present any of its themes in ways that provoke much thought, its pacing isn’t patient enough to make the climactic moments massive from a narrative standpoint (as their impressiveness relies wholly on how shit is shot rather than how well it’s built up), and its flat and unremarkable characters certainly don’t come off as heroic, dynamic, villainous, or developed in the slightest.  The closest Avatar gets to any of that is embodied in the Colonel, whose total villainy can be summed up with multitudes of clichéd remarks about savage bastards and “you went native, boy”.  I found him to be the most sympathetic character in the whole movie, actually, since the protagonist was so boring and Sigourney Weaver’s character was such a fucking hippie.

But again, I digress.

Avatar wasn’t complete shit, and I guess that counts for something.  But personally speaking, I’d rather just rewatch Lord of the Rings or Star Wars.

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About Merridian
Merri lives with his wife in the USA. He writes fiction and blog posts, plays music, and teaches CMA when he isn't working. He wrote for Forced Perspective while the project was active, and he is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of QNUW.

2 Responses to Avatar

  1. Stefan D. Byerley says:

    If course the Colonel is the more sympathetic character. He even got that epic hero shot after jumping out of his burning hover craft.

    I still think Sigourney Weaver did wonderful job in the movie, mainly because off of the character’s faults lie within the script. James Cameron didn’t allow her to play too much pf a character in as much as he just let her play the role of “scientist”. And she does it well. She spouts out all of the crap that James Cameron wrote for her to say as if she actually knew what she was talking about. But that’s about as far as it got. But she didn’t put any character in that role simply because Cameron didn’t give her anything to work with in that regard.

    • Mac Colestock says:

      Yeah, the Colonel deserved his own film.

      I agree with you about Weaver. My problem with her character is more a problem with the laughable writing that went into Avatar as a whole; her ultra-green science-hippie spiel is tied into the heavy-handed environmentalist & noble savage clichés that stink up the film’s narrative like beached whales, so it’s no fault of hers that the character came off so superfluous and naïve. When the film wasn’t fighting it out with flat mercenaries or corporate syndicates, it was frolicking around in the setting with its mostly uninteresting protagonist; that left Weaver’s character out there in the background as an awkward side-character, even though it tried to provide her more substance with that whole native school business and “I’ve worked with these people before yada yada” stuff. Problem was that none of that went anywhere, so she came off as a boring Samaritan out of her element that couldn’t sense danger in the den of wolves.

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