Moving Pictures
Dec 22, 2009, 05:29AM

Avatar Skimps on Story for Spectacle

(Grade: C+)

Photo 28 hires.jpg?ixlib=rails 2.1

Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

I’m a lenient grader. I tend to evaluate films on their own terms. I watched Transformers II and managed to keep my lunch down. I even defended The Women, Lord help me. I'm not a snob.

I didn’t hate Avatar. I liked it. Avatar is a great cinematic experience. Everything you've heard is true: the visuals are spectacular and immersive. Many times I completely forgot I was watching computer-generated images. Even now I think of Avatar not so much as digitally rendered as impressively filmed and created.

But I didn't love it, and that's a problem. I feel the need to counteract a lot of the raves I've been hearing and reading. A film is more than visuals, I don't care how sleek they are and how many innovations it pioneered. A great film needs a good story, and here I found Avatar ultimately lacking.

I wasn't expecting 2001: A Space Odyssey. I went into Avatar knowing the story would be fairly predictable—the good guys would win. You don't spend $500 million making and marketing a movie to take chances with the narrative. You hew to convention.

The problem is, Avatar left me cold—and I wasn't the only one. Sure, the fanboys at the midnight screening I saw loved it. But they also laughed through every sentimental moment: the "blue people lovemaking" scene elicited pure guffaws. This was more than a case of immature college boys with low emotional IQs. Unlike the similarly conventional Titanic, James Cameron does not lay a strong enough emotional foundation for his story. The lead Jake Scully is a blank canvas. Sure, we hear about his thoughts through his video diaries—a plot device, by the way, usually tossed aside for being too expository—but we never get a sense of who he is. We don't know his thoughts about the planet before he arrives, only that he wants to escape Earth. He's a willing solider, but he's open to new experiences. This is all we know. His eventual transformation, then, has no emotional heft. His love for Neytiri is empty. This character oversight calls into question the entire premise of plot. No one seems to be talking about this.
Let's move on. How about the much-ballyhooed environmentalist narrative? It's true that Avatar is a green film in a fairly inventive way. The idea is: everything on Pandora, planet of the blue people, is literally interconnected and pregnant with history, like nerves in the brain. Destroying one tree harms all living things. Nice message. Yet for me the film's exotica of Pandora means this message doesn't hit home. Pandora is so unlike Earth we cannot link the two conceptually.

What about the anti-corporate and anti-colonialism message? These are solid themes, but again, the whole thing feels so stale, so 19th century, and something I've seen in films before. Indeed, in a critique a little harsher than I would give, sci-fi blog io9 lays out the problem with Avatar's take on colonialism:

These are movies about white guilt. Our main white characters realize they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color - their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the "alien" cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become "race traitors," and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed.

That's more blunt than I would put it. Still, I would agree Avatar doesn't really care about the Na'vi, the blue people. They are simple and stereotypical: connected to the Earth, pure, the noble savage. It's not the worst stereotype, but it makes for pretty uninteresting cinema. Is Avatar is "racist"? No. First, the blue people are racially ambiguous enough to deflect criticism. Good move, Cameron. What I'm saying is we've seen this before, and it's getting old. It's Pocahontas all over again, or, as io9 points out, Dances with Wolves, Dune, The Last Samurai, Enemy Mine and, most acutely for me, District 9. That's right, they made this same movie a few months ago!

All this would be fine if Avatar was just another $100 million sci-fi flick looking to get fanboys excited and buying more video games. But this film is supposed to "change cinema" and they spent a good half billion making sure it does. So why not shell out a few extra thousand and get a good writer to thicken the story a bit? How about giving the viewer some tiny innovation? Like maybe the natives of Pandora are divided over what their planet means and how their environment works? Or maybe our protagonist isn't a man but a woman who falls for a native blue male? Or maybe the big bad corporation isn't all white but instead more multicultural—maybe the evil general's a black dude (or a black woman!)? Maybe Neytiri isn't a religious icon (a voodoo warrior?) but a scientist like Sigourney Weaver's character?

When a movie has pretensions of cultural worth, I expect it to be creative—and not just visually. I want something emotionally deep—even Titanic brought audiences close to crying—not a carbon-copy of a dozen movies I've seen before and ruled out as dull or problematic.

Should you see Avatar? Sure. You will enjoy it. It's a sight to see. You, of course, must see it in 3D, and, after seeing it in a regular theater, I'm pretty sure you need to see it in IMAX (which brings up a whole other set of issues). But I expected more, because I was promised more—over 10 years in the making!—and, no, I don't think it will change cinema.

  • when I was reading this, I had this guy's voice reading it in my head: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h06WKYFYdlo. your review sounds about right, avatar doesn't look like anything more than a 3D light eye candy show.

    Responses to this comment
  • "Avatar" is more than eye candy, but, if it is art, I do question its quality. It's just a question, not a definitive judgment, yet.

    Responses to this comment
  • I saw this movie today and it sucked!! All action no plot! James Cameron knows how to make a pretty looking movie but he doesn't know how to make an emotionally engaging or charged film, with real characters and real drama. Titanic was Citizen Kane compared to this hunk of junk.

    Responses to this comment
  • Avatar was amazing. The story wasn't Shakespeare or anything but it was engaging enough to support the amazing visuals. Every little detail was accounted for and the 3D was perfect, no gimmicks at all, if any movie was meant for 3D it was this one. I think that you, Spongeluke, are one of those people who only go to art house theatres and loves any French movie with subtitles. Enjoy your overpriced Criterion Collection DVDs. Merry Christmas SpliceToday!

    Responses to this comment
  • Avatar=Best Picture Oscar I've seen a lot of the oscar movies this season and so far, this is the best one. Up in the Air was all right, but really the only movie that rivals this is The Hurt Locker. What a great movie!

    Responses to this comment
  • Get me some of that weed you're toking, Feathers. Avatar was a complete waste of time (although have to say, my gf loved it) and nakedly politically correct as an add-on. On the other hand, my multi-plumed friend, "The Hurt Locker" was the best film of the year, hands-down, even though it'll probably loses out to the disappointingly sanctimonious "Invictus."

    Responses to this comment
  • Although it will most likely be culturally irrelevant in ten years or so, I have to give the Oscar nod to Up in the Air. As far as I've seen, no other movie better captures the latter half of the 00's than this movie: the relationships built and destroyed by text messages, the go-go corporate world, the effects and challenges of the internet changing the way businesses operate, and the personal tragedies of the recession (which more than anything will lead the Oscar idiots to toss a golden statue its way). Although I'd like to see Inglourious Basterds get some credit, part of me would die knowing that Tarantino got his gold from that film rather than Pulp Fiction.

    Responses to this comment

Register or Login to leave a comment