January 5, 2010

Avatar -- Movie Review -- Attack of the Blue Na-Na

Avatar presents the interesting juxtaposition where I want desperately to defend something I found deeply hollow and unsatisfying, just because it looked so damn pretty up on the big screen.   Since I'm pretty much stuck in the Charlie Brown wishy-washy role, I might as well go pros and cons.


  • Every penny spent making this movie, all $237 million dollars, is all up there to marvel at.  The CGI, which appeared to be 4/5th of everything, including characters, sets, backgrounds, foregrounds, incidental scenery, title sequences, lighting, and I'm guessing craft services ("My sandwich is luminescent....."), is spectacular.  Everything looks HD-Real.   From the noble savage Na'vi to the pterodactyl/dragon things to the glow-in-the-dark jellyfish/seeds to the the military hardware.  Disbelief suspended.

  • Very good 'splosions.   James Cameron blows stuff up real good. 

  • The acting was okay, never too hammy, but not particularly compelling either.   The lead character seemed to pick up and drop an Australian accent haphazardly.  (Or is that an American accent.)  Giovanni Ribisi seems to have inherited Paul Reiser's "corporate douchenozzle" mantle, and Cameron has always had a fetish for gung ho marine speak (while simultaneously setting them up as trigger-happy morons who underestimate their opposition).

  • Jesus, was this movie long.   Blood had collected in my ankles and my ass was asleep before the third act.  I understand a film-maker not wanting to alter their vision one iota, but almost three hours is unbearable, both from a bladder fullness perspective and from a visual energy standpoint.  That's what Extended Director's-Cut DVDs are for.   So I can hit pause when nature and common sense tells me to.  As it was, I left the theater feeling overstimulated, malnourished (movie theater non-popcorn-derived food is horrific -- I continue to pass on the $8 egg rolls, frozen pizzas, and nachos, because god knows what those will feel like sitting in my belly for nearly three hours), and slightly sore. 
  • Noble Savage Formula 401.  Cameron hamfistedly took the Dances With Wolves "going native saves the wounded soul" meme to its predictable conclusion -- "The indigenous culture is so wonderfully deep and complex -- and only immersion can expose that.  'Civilized' man is brutish, exploitative, and over-the-top destructive."   To know the Na'vi, is to love the Na'vi.  If that wasn't enough, there's also a blaring Mother Gaia message (forget about subtext) where the whole sum of biodiversity on the planet is completely symbiotic and inter-connected.  Chopping down trees causes physical pain to blue children, animals and other living things.  Nice environmental allegory, but it's been done umpteen times before.  It really doesn't say much for your narrative if you're blatantly cribbing from the mediocre 1992 cartoon Ferngully: The Last Rainforest (on the other hand, at least there's no Robin Williams appearance or voicework whatsoever in Avatar -- that belongs solidly in the Pro column).  
  • And that leads to the killer criticism of Avatar....you just lose interest and stop caring after awhile.   When the ending is so completely forecast from the first ten minutes, when you know who the bad guy is, how he's probably going to go tits-up, what ultimately happens to the main character, and every plot development is foreshadowed and repeated several times, then the movie loses its dramatic bite.  In making the movie accessible and facile, Cameron sacrificed substance for form.  That doesn't make it any less entertaining from an eye-candy perspective, but story-wise you leave going, "okay, simple fairy tale with simple ending."  It's like eating an incredibly delicious puff-pastry, albeit hollowed out with air in the middle.   You're left hungry for something less rich, but ultimately more satisfying.      


  1. I'd really like to see it on the big screen - it sounds like we'll need to book a babysitter for 5 hours.

    I'm not counting on much of a story - I assume I'll just look at the visuals etc... I've heard that it's difficult to get emotionally attached. People have criticized Cameron for that quite often - but I feel that both the original Terminator, Aliens and the Abyss all had sufficient emotional resonance.

  2. Thanks for commenting, Scott.

    Avatar IS entertaining. There might be emotional resonance for you, that definitely falls into the subjective. I probably was too aware of the cliched nature of the narrative to move past it, and that clouded my overall enjoyment somewhat. But I'm not a Cameron-basher, by any means. I'm glad he put it out there. It's better than the vast majority of "big event" pictures in any case.