Avatar (2009)

Posted: 26th May 2010 by Mister Critic in Random
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Social pressure has made me ashamed to admit this, but for a long time, I was a Na’virgin. Yes, it is true. I was one of the last people in the known universe who had not yet seen that Avatar movie that is talked about so much on the Internets.

If thirty years ago, you had told me that in the not-so-distant future there was going to be this movie that breaks box office records, people love it so much they get depressed when they have to leave the theater, they call it the newStar Wars, and it is about a village of blue people, my first response would have been, “Cool, I love the Smurfs,” because at that time I would have been a little kid. But then when you told me, “No, no, it is not about the Smurfs, but about this group of big, blue people and they have this ponytail that connects into animals, and…” I would have laughed at you before you could finish the rest of that sentence.

And thirty years later, here I am, trying to keep an open mind . . . for the sake of science.

For the handful of you who have not yet seen Avatar, or like my wife, will never see this movie, I’ll give you a little background so we can all be on the same page as I do this review.  So it’s the future and humans have found this new planet called Pandora. I like to think they named it after the website. Apparently, the human race has messed up Earth. They never show us what happened, but I figure it was a Wall-E style trashing, so the humans have moved onto destroying a new world.  Pandora has an Earth-like feel, except it is low on atmosphere, the people are blue and the landscape sometimes glows like a midnight bowling alley.  The humans have set up a mining operation on the planet because they are looking for this new resource discovered only on Pandora, which has been creatively named “unobtainium.” Perhaps the name “howaboutwebemorefreakingobvious-ium” was taken. Anyway, all we know is this rock goes for a grip-load of money back home on Earth, and the humans, led by Giovanni Ribisi, want it.

In the mining camp, there is also a group of scientists trying to study the indigenous people, the Na’vi (the really big, really blue people who run around the forest, use bows and arrows, ride horse-like creatures, and are really in touch with nature. Other than the blue part, does all this sound vaguely familiar? It should.) And turns out, of course, this new resource just so happens to be right under the Na’vi, under the great big tree they live in, also very creatively called “home tree.”

The movie plays out like I’m watching someone play a great big video game with awesome graphics. We are brought up to speed mostly by the main character’s internal monologue, and then by the clunky dialogue delivered by cliché characters. The main villain is the embodiment of how cliché this movie was with regards to its characters. He is the head of security at the human’s base, an ex-marine, and of course every time we see him, he is doing something we’ve seen in every military movie ever made. I was waiting for him to say how much he loves the smell of roasted blue people in the morning.  He is introduced to us as he is giving a drill sergeant-esque speech explaining the dangers of Pandora, which if you are too lazy to listen to, is visualized for us through the scars he has received on his face from something dangerous on Pandora. He had no character development, no arc, only one purpose…to be a grade A, evil douche bag.

On the flip side of that coin is our good guy, an ex-marine, who has been paralyzed from the waist down and has been allowed to take part in the avatar program. See the humans are so advanced that they have figured out a way to clone the aliens with a mix of DNA from a human so that once these cloned creatures are full grown, the person who donated the DNA can use some sort of virtual reality machine to enter into the mind of the clone to control it. It is about the only original concept in the movie, but is never really explored or explained. How does it work? Why did they decide to use this program and not just talk with Na’vi face to face?  What are the ethical implications of the avatar program? I mean, come on, you are breeding living beings to be puppets, to dance at a whim. Don’t those creatures have rights? A soul?  Where is the public outcry? The media? PETA? Or what about when the Na’vi find out about it, why weren’t they a little more disturbed over these experiments. I thought it would have made for an interesting angle to at least explore.

Anyway, the main character controls his very own avatar and he can walk again. Long story short, he ends up being allowed to hang with the Na’vi, learning their ways, winning their trust, falling in love with a girl Na’vi and all the while is supposed to be trying to get them to move out of home tree so the humans can get at that sweet, sweet, unobtainium.

The plot is essentially a re-tread of Pocahontas, less singing, more violence. On the one hand I wouldn’t be that bothered by that since I do think that history repeats itself, and it is not outside the realm of possibility that if we do find life on other planets that will we crush it to take their resources. In fact, I would expect if that life form found us first and wanted our resources, they would do that to us. On the other hand, if you are going to retell a story, bring something new to the table. And mainly, something that is believable. I know you want ‘splosions and stuff, but I just didn’t buy that the native Na’vi, running with bows and arrows and flying creatures, could go head-to-head with tanks, helicopters, missiles, etc.. The humans have enough firepower to wipe the planet clean. In the real history version, the conflict was interesting because each side had strengths and weaknesses, not one side with sticks and the other with automatic weapons, napalm, gas or whatever.

When I first saw the trailer, for some reason I thought all of the humans were going to be in avatars because maybe there was no atmosphere or they needed to be just like the aliens in order actually be able to harm them in a fight or something. Something like that would make the fighting more interesting at least. Or maybe the aliens would have acid for blood and jump out of people’s chests. No, that would never work. Well, (spoiler alert) whatever you chose to do, filmmakers, don’t make it so the planet’s spirit/goddess has to help out the Na’vi people during the fight by sending in other animals to get the job done because the natives can’t do it themselves. This is the very definition, almost literally, of a deus ex machina (God in the machine), and in my opinion, a cop out and bad story telling.

So had JCameron focused more on the character development and less on having cool, 3-D action, Avatar would have received higher marks from me. And I know it is possible. A great example how good the rest of the movie could have been was when the female lead Na’vi character learns of the male lead’s betrayal, she has a wonderful emotional reaction scene. It has an impact because just with the little development of the relationship between the characters we saw, we care about them. Imagine what it would be like with more. I believe it is one of the first times I have actually seen a decent emotional scene come from a generated character, and it is because of a combination of the new technology, combined with great voice acting, with a dash of character development.

Did I love the visuals? Absolutely. And for that alone, because I am nerd, that is where the high marks for this movie come from. But don’t just visually take us somewhere we haven’t been. How about writing a story that explores a subject in a light we haven’t seen? Otherwise we could have just watched IMAX presents: Pandora.

Will you have fun? If you can shut off your mind and just go with it, of course you can have fun. Of course, that’s true for just about anything you do in life, and perhaps happens more often than it should. I think we can, and should, ask more from our movies because otherwise we get a bunch of neat special effects and 3-D images galore, but we lose the great art of story telling in the process.