Avatar – Movie Review

(Originally posted on Republibot.com on 12-18-09)

Ok, so here goes – let’s just dive in and get the painful part of this review over with right up front and then spend some time on meaningless rambling and thoughts. Avatar, the movie, was much, much better than I expected – surprisingly so, but still not the masterpiece that you would expect or possibly hope based on the intense amount of effort and money that has been put into it. Why is that the painful part? Well… because I was hoping for a disaster of monumental proportions that I could make fun of endlessly and think back on in my old age fondly as the height of Hollywood overindulgence.

Don’t get me wrong, I still think there was a massive amount of overindulgence – I don’t know that in order to tell this particular story effectively that there had to be a quantum leap in available technology. I mean, really, the script is basically a copy and paste pastiche of an easy dozen other movies: Evil man comes to town and seeing something he wants, he first tries to reason with the locals and failing that he sets out to just take it, but the locals rise up and fight back. It is High Noon with 9 foot tall kitty cat people. But it wasn’t a horrible movie.

The hackneyed and overused plot wasn’t nearly as painful as I expected it to be. The acting wasn’t nearly as stiff as it could have been, especially considering the text book clichéd dialogue and the tremendous amount of green screen work that was required with a whole bunch of little sensors glued all over the actors’ faces. The two dimensional world building is disappointing but the realization of it approached gorgeous. The visuals were beautifully rendered, though with the quantum leap in technology that was required I don’t necessarily think that there was a quantum leap in presentation – certainly it looks better than the competition, but not $500M better, especially to the untrained eye.

For a movie that is basically the Seven Samurai in blue face and whiskers, it was amazingly affective. It did get your adrenaline elevated and drew you into the conflict that was being waged between the evil humans and the saintly Na’vi.

Sam Worthington was serviceable as Jake “Michael Biehn” Sully, Sigourney Weaver was excellent as Sigourney Weaver Senior, Stephen Lang was spot on as a compilation of every arrogant military commander that has ever been portrayed in a movie over the last 40 years, Michelle Rodriquez was decent as the token Cameron tough as nails Hispanic military female/pilot, Giovanni Ribisi was in way over his head as Paul Reiser, Zoe Saldana was alternately screechy and stoic as Neytiri, and everyone else were fine as set dressing.

The good things?

The military hardware was awesome – especially the mecha, though, I don’t care how advanced technology gets I will always and forevermore giggle at the visual of a mecha pulling a giant bowie knife from a leg sheath and spinning it in its giant industrial robot hands as it dances lightly on the balls of its massive mecha feetsies.

The planet building is beautiful – both the topography and the animal life, but as I alternately praise and damn this movie faintly, I think a true ecosystem hasn’t been thoroughly investigated here. It bothers me that some creatures are four limbed while other creatures are six limbed for no apparent reason, though my understanding of evolutionary theory would posit that the creatures all came from a common ancestor (at some point). But the flying beasties are four limbed (two wings and two leg-wings) and the ground beasties are six limbed (though they share common facial structure) and the Na’vi look like none of the other creatures, but they all have one common trait that would imply shared mutual genetic history.

I have to admit the way gravity on Pandora works was frustrating to figure out – for the most part they had the physics looking pretty good which is an incredibly difficult thing to pull off well in CG. To model things with actual mass that reacts as if they have mass is not easy. There were some points where it didn’t work as well – f’rinstance, the great floating mountains of Pandora , which were actual huge floating rocks that rose up above the surface of the planet, and the unreasonable necklace jewelry around Neytiri’s neck that hung solidly in place obscuring her Na’vi breast areas except in cases in which the natural lighting around her either threw her into silhouette or obscure them on their own.

The battle action is visceral and exciting, if more than familiar. It would be nice to see, on an alien world that has evolved completely separately from human influence to have a different basis for handheld weaponry – granted that a flint knife is pretty basic, but bows and arrows could have evolved differently? Couldn’t they? And then you could avoid being too much on the nose in your metaphors of white America colonizing the less industrialy blessed.

And now for my own enjoyment, I present a list of properties with similar themes or that might have acted as “inspiration” in one way or another for this movie:

Dune
Return of the Jedi
Dances with Wolves
Speaker for the Dead
Dragonriders of Pern
The Emerald Forest
Zardoz
Deliverance
Apocalypse Now
Tarzan
Postman
The Green Star by Lin Carter
Avatar: the Last Airbender
Apocalypto
An Inconvenient Truth

Don’t get me wrong here – even though I enjoyed it quite a bit, it is no masterpiece, regardless of the technical proficiency with which it was executed. Taken as great popcorn entertainment, it definitely delivers much more often than not. But it loses points for striving to be something deeper and more important than it really is.

So in the end, as much as I enjoyed it and will most likely see it again, I find it hard to appreciate as an important and serious work when the primary theme is designed to be a condemnation of Human (American) hubris, while it itself is just a massively budgeted remake of Ferngully: The Last Rainforest.

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