James Cameron, 2009
Miscellaneous review
Avatar
Pretty--exceedingly pretty. 3D is the only way to see this and one of the first implementations that isn't actively gimmicky.
Acting is at best functional. Threadbare storyline that you've seen before, done better, with better writers.
Playing the "what movie did Jim Cameron steal this from?" game. The 4chan planet. Borderline insulting plot.
3

Topline summary: go see it, while it's still in theatres.

Review (spoilers, none plotrending I hope):

I'm willing to be proven wrong, but I think that Avatar is probably not going to be a very good movie, and I'd like to be on record as coining Ishvatar to describe it as a massive money sink with the primary purpose of wasting perfectly good actors.

— Alex Osaki


I'm pleased to say that I was wrong.

Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver, Giovanni Ribisi and Zoe Saldana are not especially good actors and therefore cannot be said to be wasted in this, a movie that, to its credit, never manages to be boring despite lasting two and a half hours. It does not, however, manage to be very good either.

Sam Worthington, who apparently has yet to recover the heart he gave up in Terminator, enters this movie having lost his legs as well. He is set to play Perseus in Clash of the Titans which, if this pattern holds true, will likely see him losing the use of his arms in that movie.

The overarching plot of the movie is that Worthington (and Sigourney Weaver, playing Sigourney Weaver) are capable of jacking in to the Metav--Matri--Avatar Program, where they are given corporeal bodies that take the forms of the indigenous creatures on the planet where Weyland Yutani is mining valuable resources. Proving that, in the next hundred and fifty years, humanity will become significantly more enlightened, Worthington lasts for two or three months in Second Life before having sex with anyone.

None of the characters are compelling in any way, and boil down to ridiculous stereotypes at one end of the continuum or another. They elicit no sympathy for their actions, and we never become invested because they're so obviously made of cardboard. It's somewhat ironic, for a movie that so heavily plays up its 3D elements, that the characters are so completely one-dimensional.

You know the plot of the movie from the beginning, for two primary reasons. Firstly, all of the actors in it are essentially playing themselves and none of them do anything surprising. Secondly, the hackneyed, ridiculous plot, which is a straight "find and replace" on several other movies/television shows/books, should be immediately apparent to anyone who has ever been in a movie theatre before.

The blue indigenous people, who wear skimpy clothes, hunt with bows and arrows, and worship Enya would essentially be a parody of every Native American culture in film, ever, except that they are played straight--from the tribal ceremonies to the whispering to vanquished prey to the "scooping up the earth and sniffing it to tell where the animals are" to the "this is a sacred place" to the "the Force binds all living creatures together and we must respect that".

It's the kind of condescending portrayal that borders on insulting and might be thought to be obsolete in a post-Sherman Alexie world, but Cameron sails on blithely anyway. This movie has apparently been in development since 1994, which probably explains the scene where Pocahontas-smurf saves John Smith (sorry, Jake Sully)-smurf from Kocoum-smurf and Powhatan-smurf.

This story, in which White Man Worthington is shown the error of his ways and the beauty of walking as one with nature, culminates in a climactic showdown between the forces of Civilisation and the forces of Nature. Because the movie does not feel any great love for mundane concepts like "originality" and because Cameron is not a good enough storyteller to pull off a Last Samurai ending, I'll award no points for how this showdown winds up going.

So. Don't see the movie for the plot or the acting. This is fine, because the film is essentially a vehicle for Cameron's special graphics macguffin. How does this work?

It works damn fine, people. Essentially, imagine the pretty parts of Skull Island in Jackson's King Kong, except in 3D. It falls flat only rarely, and forgiveably at those times. There is no point at which the CGI falls flat, and no point at which the uncanny valley makes itself known (this may be partly because the aliens are essentially human).

The planet is gorgeous in only the way that a turn-your-brain-off fantasy epic can be. It has massive, massive trees and huge leave and floating mountains and the mountains have waterfalls for some reason and the trees glow. Oh--yes. Everything glows. At some point, somebody got Cameron one of those fibre-optic rotating balls you get from Spencer's Gifts, and he loved it so much he decided it would be best if his magic planet was wired for FIOS.

It looks cool, though. It's best if you don't think about why the mountains float, or how the aliens are able to jack in through the fibre-optic in their hair (at least, unlike the Cylon cousins, they do not have to cut open their wrists to do so). The world has achieved a level of interoperability that boggles the imagination; the same glowing hair worms that connect you to the Internet also connect you to dragons and six-legged horses. It's pretty freaking awesome, and I do mean that, even if--as others have said--Pandora appears to be the site of the next Yes album.

That the planet is wired for Ethernet becomes a plot point when the Misguided Greedy White Men decide to cut the cord and the people of planet rise up in a sea of not particularly effective but very noisy and vitriolic Recreational Outrage. It's essentially like 4chan, except without the memes.

So. The plot is in a persistent vegetative state, but the vegetables glow--where does that leave us?

Avatar is a movie that, nominally, you see for the pretty. As with computer games, I'm not really sold on the graphics, and while it is technically gorgeous I'm not sure it's up to par with less technically-impressive but more artistic work like Miyazaki or even, in parts, Disney. Pixar realised a long time ago that the pretty wasn't enough--there has to be substance to back it up, or you become a flash in the pan.

Unfortunately, one gets the distinct impression that there was a point at which somebody burst into Cameron's office with the disturbing revelation that the entire budget had been spent on the scenery and the world, and there was nothing left for the storyline.

At this, though, Cameron simply smiled, lifting up a thick stack of papers. "Don't worry," he said. "I've planned for this."

"This is... this is like ten or twenty different movies, Jim."

Then James Cameron produced a pair of scissors and, with an eerie grin, began cutting the screenplays up. Every thematic and storytelling element of Avatar has been taken from something else. You can point to scenes and understand the influence, and it plays like a "greatest hits" album of a bunch of other films, some of them by Cameron himself (though Sigourney Weaver doesn't get to pilot one of the mechs, despite having a Class 2 Rating, and the character of Vasquez has been merged with Cpl. Ferro, the dropship pilot).

There are individual scenes that are cool, but they're tied together with such a tenuous thread that they feel disjointed and nearly always worked better in the movie they were taken from. It would be possible to "watch" Avatar simply by watching a bunch of other movies (Aliens, The Last Samurai, Braveheart and Nausicaa would be a good start).

But should you?

It's a tough call. It's graphically very impressive, and the world is beautiful--in 3d, the only way to see it, you find yourself turning your eyes up as though you were actually looking up the trunk of a massive, kilometre-high tree. On the other hand, you have to put up with two and a half hours of Dances With Catgirls.

The movie plays like an homage to--or a parody of--all the genres and films it liberally adopts, except you never get a wink. There's never a moment, like in Ocean's 12 or The Core, where you get the sense that the actors are in on the joke and enjoying their roles in the pastiche. Despite the sheer silliness, it--incredibly--appears to be taking itself more or less seriously.

Unlike 2012, there's never really a point where you get the sense that the movie has shot its visual wad, and it's definitely possible to keep watching. As such, it's something like a trip to the Louvre--a chain of impossibly beautiful but lifeless works of art linked by nothing other than the labour of love that birthed them.

On the other hand, unless you're good at turning your brain off, there are points where the plot is stupid enough to pull you out of the flow of the movie, and I'd say while it's definitely worth seeing, it's probably only worth seeing in theatres, on as huge a screen as you possibly can. Unless you have a million dollars to drop on your home theatre, Avatar is not a movie where it's worth holding out for the DVD.

Bottom line: I don't think my money was wasted, and I enjoyed the movie. I'm not sure I'd see it again on my own.
Comrade Alex
23.12.2009 - 10h00
Chevreau
25.12.2009 - 11h45
Comrade Alex
26.12.2009 - 12h12
Vulpecula
26.12.2009 - 12h26
Comrade Alex
26.12.2009 - 1h30
La Chevre!
26.12.2009 - 3h58
Comrade Alex
27.12.2009 - 9h16
La Chevre!
27.12.2009 - 6h39
Comrade Alex
27.12.2009 - 6h48
La Chevre!
28.12.2009 - 10h46

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