A short review of Avatar in 10 parts

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.

  8 comments for “A short review of Avatar in 10 parts

  1. 30/12/2009 at 7:55 PM

    Nothing new about plot or characters (and deus ex machina – ughhhhhhh!).

    I just liked it because it was shiny, but nothing else stood out for me. Non-reading partner thought it was the most awesomest thing ever. I haven't the heart to burst his bubble 😛

  2. 30/12/2009 at 7:59 PM

    I would have appreciated the shiny more if it wasn't giving me a headache to watch it. And if it'd been an hour and a half shorter, I would have hailed this as the greatest trashy B-movie ever.

  3. Adam Hauldren
    30/12/2009 at 8:18 PM

    Peter – you gotta lower your caffeine intake 🙂

    Much as I found your review to be amusing, I kinda pre-empted the whole rant by telling you it was superficial and predictable but pretty when you said you were gonna go see it. That said, I did suspect your reaction would be this venomous 😉

    Did Avatar promise "Subtext and meaning"? Really? I missed that meeting – honestly, I only went to see it for the graphics, and that's 'cos I am a graphics dude from way back (the era of raytraced reflective balls and simnple fractal landscapes…)

    If you are not in the CGI industry, there's not a lot left to get excited about. If you are not into spectacle, I have to question why you even bothered going to see it, but I guess there would have been no reason to rant if you hadn't.

    Oh, and don't go see films in 3D if they give you headaches…I didn't, and managed to avoid killing the irritating teens behind us. Had I been in the 3D version I probably would have committed teen genocide with a used pair of 3D glasses 😉

    In summary (a re-hash of my quick, capsule review):

    Plot: Been there before (a friend called it "Dances with Smurfs")

    Acting: Seen better, even from "Ripley"

    Subtext: Non-existent (but shame on you for expecting any!)

    CGI: Very pretty to look at, and technically superb (but only if you understand such things and are in the CGI industry, which is not most cinema-goers)

    Length: even with the cool graphics, a tad too long for comfort

    Ultimately, the film is a 3 hour advertisement for the current ability to replace onscreen actor time with believable 3D CGI Avatars (oh, the irony!).

    Still, it was pretty (if you can handle a bit of spectacle!)

  4. 30/12/2009 at 8:49 PM

    "Evil corporations care nothing for basic humanity" and "everything is connected" are both subtexts, even if they're not terribly deep or well handled in the context of the film (and fucked up so badly that they become text in the final act, thus ruining any chance of this film being watchable).

    Cameron's never been subtle about these things, but occasionally he manages not to be blatently stupid.

  5. Jean
    31/12/2009 at 12:50 AM

    Loved the film. The film did work for me in few places the visual part rest it was all the way downhill.

  6. Luke (do I need to w
    31/12/2009 at 2:27 AM

    ok.

    I enjoyed Avatar…but not as much as I thought I would.

    I went in with some of the same concerns as you,Pete,but not expecting too much wasn't so/as disappointed.

    gonna go through yr points and (maybe) add some of my own.

    yeah.turn yr brain off.easier said then done(sometimes)

    hmmm…Giovanni Ribisi was cool…better than Reiser,and I gotta say he wasn't that bad in Aliens.I didn't notice any re-hash from Aliens…but some would have been good:getting stalked through confined spaces by unknown/unseen critters…

    solid opening,…but loses it somewhere in the middle…and got downright cheesy near the end.plus it was too long.make it sharp,or a make it a series.

    um…gonna skip some of yr points I think.

    Cameron's heart may have been in the right place with the subtexts/concepts…but if that's the case,shouldn't he have made more of them.plus it's kinda ironic to talk about the greed of corporations and the destruction of culture(s) and the environment,AND then go and make the most expensive movie ever…imagine how that money could have helped Earths nature-worshipping tribals.

    I touch on this on Facebook,but gonna talk about it again.I like monsters.and aliens.and giant friggin robots.I can overlook script faults and so-so acting if the alien/monster/robot design is awesome.I am also interested in evolution,and exo-biology…so I was a little disappointed by how "un-alien" everything was: green plants,fan worms,"dogs",blue-skinned cat people,etc.

    now,I know that perhaps it would be hard for audiences to identify,and empathise,with say,10ft tall,blue-skinned molluscs, but having creature,and an ecosystem, SO similar to our own pushes the film from Science Fiction towards Science Fantasy.I mean we are able to identify female Na'vi because they are the ones with boobs.

    boobs.

    on a planet where only the Na'vi appear to be mammalian (or analouges of).every other animal appears to be a combination of mollusc,(or annelid),amphibian,or reptile.most of the "vertebrate" creatures also appear to have six limbs …and four eyes…and "alien" throat/chest nostrils,so what happened to the Na'vi.why are they different? early designs for the Na'vi had them less feline,less hairy,with jellyfish-like tendrils instead of the beaded ponytails we see in the film

    I mean,I love the creatures…but I would have liked to have seen them,and the Na'vi,pushed towrds something stranger,and more alien…isn't part of the point of the film that Humans have a hard time dealing with someone whon isn';t like us??

  7. 01/01/2010 at 7:41 PM

    I totally agree on pretty much every point. Especially the naming thing. Unobtainium? Really? Even the Smurfs never smurfed anything that cheesy.

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