1) I’m going to find every mother-fucker who tried to convince me I’d like this film and I’m going to punch them in the arm. If they trotted out the “you just have to turn your brain off” logic, I’m going to punch them twice. I turned my brain off, as advised. It was still too stupid for me to actually like it.
2) To be fair, there were some good bits. Many of them recycled from Aliens, the last film James Cameron made that I actually liked. I liked Giovanni Ribbisi’s evil corporate guy far more than I liked Paul Reiser’s evil corporate guy. And Michelle Rodriguez in an ornithopter makes up for a variety of ills.
3) At the end of the first hour, I hoped that this might not be an utter disappointment. The opening is solid, the characters get onstage pretty quickly, the set-up is full of bad naming conventions but otherwise okay. Conflict is established: the marine among the field researchers; the humans against the world; Ripley versus Paul Rieser; that second Avatar pilot getting jealous of Jake’s success with the Navi. Sure, most of that conflict disappears once Sully is inside the Avatar, but maybe it’ll come back.
4) At the end of the second hour, I decided there really should be some Disney song about A Whole New World playing over the top of the long sequences where we learn that the world is magical and interconnected for the ninth or tenth time. Said sequences do a great job of showing of the technology and creating spectacle, but also eliminates every character arc but one. Most of the more interesting arcs are blatantly written out via voice-over.
4b) I’ll be honest here – Avatar is primarily about spectacle. I don’t do spectacle. My first response to the Grand Canyon was “It’s a hole in the ground; lets go do something else.” Couple this with being an SF fan from way back and most of Avatar is really just well-rendered vistas of standard SF/Fantasy landscapes. If they wanted to do that, they should have just made a computer game.
5) At the end of the third hour, the movie had tried to perk me up by saying “Dragon’s versus Ornithopter’s, dude. Come on, this is cool.” For the most part, it was too late – I was bored and irritable and just wanted the fucking film over. Still, it was a cool fight scene. It lured me in. Then things got really stupid. Deus ex Machina stupid. And it tacked on a hand-to-hand fight scene it didn’t need, and tried to play out the character arc I would have been interested in if they’d actually bothered to build it at some point.
5b) The worst line in this film – and there are some contenders among the rather generic dialogue – comes in the finale twenty minutes when the hard-arsed marine captain squares off against our hero Sully and asks “how does it feel to betray your own race?” and you’re left thinking “you know what, it’d be nice if someone actually put some thought into that before this point in the script.”
6) Okay, the turning off my brain thing mentioned in point one? I can do it. Honestly, I can. I own copies of The Chronicles of Riddick. And Desperado. Heck, I own a copy of the Core. And I really, really liked Aliens. The thing is, most films where I turn off my brain basically say “look, if we have subtext it’s primarily accidental. We’re just chasing after the next cool thing.” They know that Subtext is a two-way street – you can’t promise it and walk away just because you have pretty visuals and nice action sequences. Avatar promised subtext and meaning. I paid attention. It decided I wasn’t getting it, despite the fact that the subtext is relatively shallow, and proceeded to beat me around the head with said subtext for the final hour of the film.
7) Seriously, the best thing in this film is Michelle Rodriguez flying a gunship.
8) Pandora? Sully? Grace? UNOB-FRICKEN-TANIUM? Worst naming conventions since the Chronicles of Riddick. And at least the Chronicles of Riddick knew it was an unrelenting sequence of cheese and action-sequences with all the depth of a wading pool.
9) 3D movies give me a headache.
10) Good things about this movie: Michelle Rodriguez; Sam Worthington; Paul Reiser Giovanni Ribisi; Ripley; the ability to endlessly snark about its failings; ornithopters. If someone would just take these elements and, say, remake Dune or put out a new Alien movie (without Predators), I’d be a happy man. ‘Cause there’s potential there for something awesome, especially now that Avatar’s gotten the obligatory “new film technology’s endlessly wanky film that’s really about how awesome said new film technology is” out of the way.
End Note: All of this leaves off the original objection to the film I posted on facebook a while back – that it’s going to be the same tired replay of white post-colonial guilt we’ve seen in shit like the The Power of One and Dances with Wolves and every other story where a white block from the conquering nation saves the tribe by becoming one of them. Needless to say, that objection remains, but I’m saddened to discover that there’s really no attempt to complicate the the narrative beyond that. Here’s one of those hints to take home – you can write a gritty story about the evils of corporations, or you can write a fairy tale. It’s fucking hard to do both in the same story, and Avatar falls apart about the point that it tries.