Avatar – Review

Remember, I generally hate movies.

After watching Avatar, I’ve come to hate the form even more – it’s that bad.  This film is so invested in its own originality and grandeur that its complete lack of originality and grandeur become the only epic elements of what is supposed to be an epic film.

To begin with, the script is just awful.  If the worst lines that George Lucas ever wrote were to mate with the worst lines that Michael Bay ever wrote, the Avatar script would be their love-child.  It’s not quite Catwoman bad, but when that’s the best thing you can say for the writing then something’s seriously wrong.

The premise of the film is that humanity has discovered a planet rich in a valuable substance called “unobtainium.”  No, you didn’t read that wrong.  It’s called “unobtainium.”  The only trouble is that the natives, who are apparently one third cat, one third American Indian caricature, and one third giant Smurf, don’t want to let the humans mine for “unobtainium” (seriously, that really is its name – you can’t make this stuff up… unless you’re James Cameron) because doing so would ruin their sacred lands, especially their giant tree/home/temple.  Hoping (sort of) to get the natives to move to the next tree over through diplomacy rather than military force, the corporation sends a paraplegic ex-marine, Jake, into their midst in the form of an Avatar – a kind of biological machine that Jake operates through psychic remote-control – that looks like one of the natives.  Jake, though, quickly realizes that he’s on the wrong side of the conflict and eventually wants to protect the noble savages from the imperialistic company that hired him.

As you might have guessed by now, the film itself is nothing more than an avatar of sorts for the treatment of Native Americans at the hands of European settlers (although the film ocassionally mixes its metaphors with thinly-veiled references to Africa and Iraq).  And this is where the film starts to fall apart.  As a critique of imperialism the movie is incredibly simplistic, heavy-handed, and insulting to both its audience and its subject matter.

Cameron roots his depiction of the natives in just about every condescending, racist 18th century stereotype of the “noble savage” that he can find.  They are extremely devoted to their tribes, but suspicious of outsiders.  They have elaborate and physically dangerous rituals to mark the passage of young males into adulthood.  And, of course they’re deeply attuned to nature.  Literally.  The natives can actually plug their pony-tails into native species to form a kind of mind-meld.  No, I’m not kidding.  Rather than allowing any sort of cultural complexity in the native civilization, Cameron simply sets them up as a group of wise but simple primitives and, in doing so, demonstrates just how primitive the movie’s racial politics are.

Perhaps wanting to be fair, Cameron grounds his depictions of humans in equally simplistic sets of stereotypes.  The colony basically consists of three distinct groups.  First, there are the corporation’s representatives who worship the bottom line with as much devotion as the natives show for the trees.  Then there are the military types who only pause in their incessant blood-lust long enough to question each others’ manhood (except, of course, for the lone military woman, who realizes the error of her ways and joins the natives).  And, finally, there are the glorious scientists whose beneficent desire for knowledge eventually causes them to join the natives’ cause.  So, corporation/military = the bad guys, scientists/natives = the good guys.  It really is that simple.  Though Jake initially attempts to inhabit all three of these of groups, he eventually joins the scientists and commits himself to rescuing the natives.  Oh, and he mates with Pocahontas (or whatever the Chieftain’s daughter’s name happens to be).

The film’s investment in stereotype is, needless to say, a huge problem, and undermines any pseudo-progressive statements that the film might be trying to make.  But they also undermine the nuts and bolts of the film itself.  The film is, after all, supposed to be a sprawling three-hour-long “epic” full of originality and imagination.  But the stereotypes at its core are anything but original and imaginative so the film ends up feeling mired in a sense of tedious familiarity.

For instance, at one point Pocahontas (or whatever her name is) teaches Jake the ways of her people.  We’ve all seen this story before – he starts out clumsy, eventually learns to swing through the forest with ease, proves himself by mounting a wild beast, then makes out with Poca-what’s-her-name.  That’s it.  Sure, the “horses” have six legs and nostrils in their necks, the trees glow, and the native girl is blue, but ultimately this entire sequence could have been covered in a two-minute montage of familiar tropes.  Instead Cameron turns it into an hour-long repetition of old ideas hiding beneath new CGI techniques.

And so the movie goes.  Over and over again the film uses cutting-edge technology to rehash tired narratives and to put new skins on all-too-familiar stock characters.  The battle sequences are loud and full of giant explosions, but ultimately follow traditional patterns (bad guys attack, good guys retaliate and seem to be doing well, bad guys re-retaliate and all seems lost, some unexpected aid arrives and turns the tide culminating in a one-on-one showdown between the hero and antagonist).  Cameron could have told this entire story in about an hour (heck, I’ve basically told it in less than a thousand words).  Instead, he spreads it out over three of the most tedious hours that I’ve ever had to spend in a theater.

Sure, in the meantime, there are some impressive visuals.  Things glow, and whiz across the screen, and explode and stuff.  There are lots of colors and there’s lots of noise, too.  Sigourney Weaver’s performance is good, and most of the others are passable.  But none of this adds up to “epic.”  In fact, after a three hour movie and a large bottle of water the only epic experience I had at the theater involved a long trip to the bathroom when the movie was finally over.  And the time I spent in front of that urinal was far more satisfying than anything I saw on screen.

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2 Comments on “Avatar – Review”

  1. Mandy Says:

    this review totally turned the tide on my need to watch this film. I got a foreshadowing of it’s redundance from other reviewers, but everyone I came in contact with actually said it was “a great movie”. I guess they just got lost in the cinematography…Thanks Dave!


    • I’m glad to know that I’ve done my part. Now if only I could influence millions more people this movie might disappear into obscurity the way it should have in the first place.


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