When I came out of AVATAR I had a nice free feeling that I wasn’t even gonna write a review of it. I figured what it excels at is self-evident and what it fails at isn’t really worth dwelling on, and every motherfucker with a computer already wrote way too much about this thing anyway so what’s the point? I wouldn’t have much to say.
Then a couple days later I had written this behemoth. Hopefully there are one or two things here that haven’t been said before.
Obvious question first: yes I liked it, was pretty blown away on a technical level but just average in the heart and/or balls. It’s a genuine event movie like there hasn’t been in a little while, something I think everybody should go out and see just for the unprecedented spectacle of it. It’s amazing in the way a fancy bridge is, not in the way your favorite novel is. It’s something in between what would be made by the visionary director of ALIENS and the cornball crowdpleaser of TITANIC. Which averages out to not too shabby.
If I could get political for a second here, it is a shame that Congress so monumentally fucked over our country in trying to stop us from ever getting health insurance. Clearly there are many nerds on the internet who need new glasses judging by this bullshit they were saying about AVATAR looking the same as their video games. I thought they were ridiculous when they were talking about the trailer, but when you see the movie those complaints become hilariously asinine. AVATAR effects naysayers, please report to the conference room for a pep talk by the people who signed the petition against Daniel Craig playing James Bond.
The Onion AV Club review said, “As the film’s technical marvels grow commonplace, it will look like a clunky old theme-park attraction, a Captain EO for our time.” To which I say: you got a fucking problem with CAPTAIN EO? Because I don’t.
The cat-eyed blue giants who are the main characters in AVATAR look absolutely real – you just know they’re digital because how the fuck else would it be done? What’s kind of more astounding to me is that this planet they’re on is digital too. There’s nobody who will watch this movie thinking of it as a cartoon or a SKY CAPTAIN type fakey green screen experiment, and yet long sections of it are 100% digital. And it’s all integrated well – I never noticed any of the usual problems like animated characters not looking like they’re really in the same place as the live action, or those BEOWULF crowd scenes where you can tell it was some cut and pasting going on, not a real crowd of people reacting to the same thing at the same time. For the first time it’s all that but it doesn’t look like a collage, it looks like a world.
But do me a favor, don’t call it “world building.” I’m ready to retire that one and “game-changer.” I don’t know if James Cameron said “game-changer” in one interview a long time ago or if it’s seriously something he’s repeated, but either way I’m skipping the internet-wide debate about AVATAR’s level of game changeability. In fact I don’t even know what the game is or what’s supposed to change about it or why I would be disappointed if the changing of the game did not in fact take place.
Whoever this person is who thought the movie was gonna be projected through angel feathers and feature the resurrection of Jesus in HD as a post-credits bonus… I never fucking met the guy and don’t really care if he really exists on the internet somewhere. Supposedly there were people obsessed with AVATAR before it came out, unfortunately I only experienced the people who were obsessed with the idea that there were allegedly the other people obsessed with AVATAR. And I would’ve preferred to deal with the other group, I think.
Wait a minute, maybe it did change the game, because for me there was some adjusting, some getting used to that had to be done. For a minute the 3-D looked exactly like old school HOUSE OF WAX/Viewmaster 3-D and seemed to shrink the Imax screen to a little diorama floating in front of me, but as my eyes adjusted it became a huge, dimensional world pulling me in and surrounding me. And the blue people looked a little goofy at first. You got Sigourney Weaver with her eyes farther apart – how does this change her facial expressions? When she has sad eyes but the eyes are in a different part of her head does it still look sad? I’m not sure how it works. Also, it’s weird to see an alien wearing a Stanford t-shirt. And I’m surprised that they make them in her size.
Is that what game changing is? Was I in the original game when it seemed weird at first and then when I got into it that means I had moved on to the second, changed game? I’m not sure.
Anyway you get into it and it feels hugely epic without being long and tiring. I never got bored, and I was excited for the inevitable conflicts that must take place when the human military wants the magic mineral that’s beneath the natives’ giant tree. After years of trilogies, back-to-back sequels, comic book sequels and HARRY POTTERs I realized I was bracing myself for a cliffhanger, like it was gonna stop before it really got to the big battle. And then I remembered no, this is gonna be resolved in this movie. A nice feeling.
The story is compelling enough. Sam Worthington controlling a blue person body is sent into the Pandoran jungle as an envoy and spy. He becomes their chosen one, falls in love, switches to their side, leads them in battle. I like that they know he’s human (they call him a “dreamwalker”) so it doesn’t have to be an undercover type of movie. I like that he actually falls in love and gets himself some tail-having tail. But admittedly the love story is pretty routine, it hits the usual notes, it’s not all that convincing. I mean even if it was two humans it would be pretty rushed, but it really could’ve been more interesting if it spent time dealing with how the fuck a human gets past the mental barriers of falling in love with a 9 foot tall glowing blue cat lady. To be fair this does take place in a world where people grew up hearing stories about Pandora, so maybe it’s some exotic thing that’s considered sexy, I don’t know. But it still seems like there’d be challenges.
I guess it deals briefly with the interracial aspect. There’s a really sweet moment where they come face to face with their real bodies. Come to think of it, wouldn’t it be more romantic if they stayed different? At the end of BEAUTY AND THE BEAST they’re both human, end of the new frog cartoon they’re both human, end of the farting ogre movie it’s supposed to be a twist because they’re both ogres. King Kong – well, that one doesn’t end well. I asked around and the only thing anybody could think of that goes the other route is Kermit and Miss Piggy, but personally I think that’s an abusive relationship so I wish we could have other examples. I’m saying maybe becoming a Pandoran isn’t the most romantic way, maybe it should be this Pandoran carrying her little pink human guy around on her back saying yeah, I love him, you pricks got a problem with that? Maybe that would be sweeter.
Although come to think of it there’s probly a fetish for that and Cameron didn’t want to be associated with those freakos for the rest of his life. Fair enough.
The Pandoran religion is a little obvious too. I know it’s in the tradition of old sci-fi stories to make them basically Native Americans, but I do think it would be more interesting if they were more, you know, alien. Their reverance for life and nature reminded me of ol’ Miyazaki over there in Japan, but without the same knack for strangeness. The earthiness is a little to earthlike, I think.
There are some cool ideas though, like the way they organically plug themselves into the animals they ride and share a consciousness. Here he is plugged into a machine controlling a body that’s itself plugged into a giant bird monster. It’s a daisy chain.
The villain is this scar-faced general who’s as one-dimensional as Billy Zane in TITANIC, but I guess it makes more sense for a guy in charge of invading a planet for minerals to be a huge asshole. At least he doesn’t say “This Space-Picasso will never amount to anything – you mark my words!” He’s actually a good macho villain with some badass moves you’d cheer for under different circumstance, like when he runs out into the atmosphere, holding his breath because he doesn’t have his oxygen mask, firing off shots at our fleeing heroes.
I like Sam Worthington, but I think they could’ve given him a little more personality. He gets a couple funny reactions and it’s cool to see how much he enjoys walking again, but he’s not gonna be a character you remember like Ripley or Sarah Connor. Speaking of Ripley, I really liked Sigourney Weaver as Grace, a botanist who seems like a bitch in the lab but when she gets out in her avatar she’s like a really nice, well-meaning missionary lady. Trying to teach them English and walking around in her Earth clothes and everything she seems naive about what she’s doing to their culture, but you know she’s genuinely trying to help them and is learning from them. So I think she has a little more dimension than the other characters.
Also I love that there’s a scene where their human bodies are all running and Grace runs like a sissy. It’s funny because of course Sigourney is Ripley, we know she knows how to run. But she’s an actress, she runs in character, and this is her scientist run.
I didn’t get too much out of the Pandoran love interest, in one viewing at least. Just the standard plot devices – she doesn’t like him at first, she starts to like him, she feels betrayed by him, she forgives him for some reason, etc. To be honest I don’t even remember the character’s name. I’ll call her Princess Avatar.
Thankfully it’s light on TITANIC type groaners. The only one that threw me was the rock they’re trying to get being called “unobtanium.” It didn’t seem like it was a slang term, either. Last week somebody told me he read that was what it was called, and I didn’t believe him. I said no, I think that’s some sci-fi writers shop talk lingo, a storytelling term like “mcmuffin.” But he was right. That was a little silly. Otherwise it’s all fine, nothing embarrassing, it’s just that I enjoy excellence so I would’ve liked some more excelling in the story area.
I feel like some defenders of this movie (and also critics of Cameron) are selling his earlier movies short. Yes, he’s always been a science and technology nerd, always trying to show off with effects and push them to the next level, and yes he’s very good at form so if you want to you can ignore the content and still enjoy it. (Note: there are zero occurrences of disorienting shakycam, quick edits or any of the other stylistical problems you normally have to put up with to watch a modern action movie.)
But that’s not all there is to those movies. We love the characters, we feel the emotions. Ripley’s disgust at The Company and the Colonial Marines for not listening to her and risking so many lives. Or her motherly feelings toward Newt. Sarah Connor’s anger at the world for not understanding what she’s sacrificed in its name. John Connor’s pain of knowing his responsibility to the future but just wanting to be a kid with a stable mom. Bud’s horror at seeing his ex-wife laying there dead and his refusal to let that be the end of it. Even corny Jack Dawson and his instinct to pretend he’s going to survive so that Rose will get off the boat and save herself. Or Rose’s spontaneous decision to get back on the boat because she knows she’ll regret abandoning him. Or in TRUE LIES when he, you know, the part where he’s… isn’t there a part where…? I don’t know man, I got nothing for TRUE LIES. But the rest of those, those are all things that stimulate my humanity glands, it’s not all whiz bang and zap and pow and morph, like people keep claiming. I don’t think AVATAR is completely empty, but for me it didn’t punch me in the emotions like those other ones did.
But I do think there are some interesting things going on here, some things to be interpreted. Why are they putting themselves in someone else’s body, I mean besides that it’s cool? I think it could symbolize a couple different things. First is the way we extend ourselves with technology, for example right here in this national treasure of a websight (SOURCE: Guillermo Del Toro). We all kind of know each other here, and we kind of don’t. We have a persona that’s maybe kind of bullshit, trying to look cool or trying to be funny or mysterious or something. But also we’re writing about things we’re passionate about so it’s our real personalities. In some sense it’s the true version of ourselves. We judge each other on ideas and on how we treat each other. We only imagine each other’s faces. It’s kind of intimate – we talk about our lives, we get mad at each other – but it’s kind of distant, because we could always unplug and do something else. But we usually don’t.
And while this technology is not really natural – it keeps us indoors staring at screens, or outdoors staring at handheld toys – it really has brought together cultures, promoted understanding. I’m not a world traveler, but over the past 10 years I’ve talked with people all over the fucking place. Checking Google Analytics right now I see that people from 118 countries have visited my websight in the past month. That includes 21 visits from Botswana, 2 from Kazakhstan, 3 from Iran, 6 from Iraq, 1 from Mongolia. I mean I can’t be sure how many of these are mistakes, but if somebody in the Congo is checking out my review of NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER then this is a pretty worthwhile technology, in my opinion.
I mean in my day kids had penpals, but this increased communication is a good thing. Studies show that people are more likely to support gay rights if they actually know somebody who’s gay (surprising, I know). Using that same theory I figure that if kids grow up talking to kids in other countries about the stupid bands they like, or they change the time on their Twitter to Tehran time to help the protesters in Iran, then maybe world relations will be a little less fucked up as time goes on.
The Avatars also symbolize that concept: walking in somebody else’s shoes. It could almost be literal, if Pandorans weren’t such hippies they’re always running around the forest barefoot. By physically becoming a Pandoran, literally seeing their world through their eyes, Sully begins to sympathize with them more. And he’s a soldier living in his scientist brother’s body. His warrior body is broken, he can’t fight in it anymore. In the scientist’s body he starts over and forms a whole new persona, combining the warrior’s skills with a new perspective he gets from 9 feet up.
And that’s another theme to look into here… adopting cultures like Steven Seagal. Everybody compares it to DANCES WITH WOLVES, but in that movie did Kevin Costner actually become a Native American? AVATAR goes further than THE LAST SAMURAI or the white ninja movies, because he doesn’t just learn their culture and wear their clothes – he wears their skin. And as the story progresses he’s talking about us, about they want what belongs to us. And he calls the people he came with “the aliens.” Seems a little presumptuous, but kind of sweet also. To him maybe “they” means any greedy assholes who plunder the planets and “us” means anyone who doesn’t want to see that happen. That’s why he can say “us,” because what meaning does race have anyway in a world where you can grow yourself a new body?
I was thinking recently about Michael Jackson, and how some of my liberal friends would be completely accepting of a man having his sex changed because he feels he’s a woman inside, but for some reason they wouldn’t extend that same understanding to what Michael did to himself. I wonder what they would think of Jake becoming a catman? Michael would’ve had it easier with this technology, people would respect his choice. Jake chooses to be a Pandoran, because he must feel more in common with them than with “the aliens.” He’s Pandoran on the inside, and the outside can be fixed.
(Man, I really hope he thought this through though. It could get ugly if he changes his mind later.)
The real Pandorans, the ones born on Pandora, would have every right to resent Jake for his alien privilege, but then he did get chosen by magic seeds to save the planet from humans. He betrayed his people to join the underdogs and lead them to victory, like if the Rebels never showed up on Endor but one of the stormtroopers put on Ewok fur and helped them defeat the Empire. So I’d say he’s earned his tree-cred. You can see why they’d accept him. He’s like Eminem.
What I’m saying is the story of AVATAR is as old as the hills’s grandparents, but maybe under the surface it’s a story of today: a depiction of a time when corporations plunder our precious natural resources, and military powers go into places and kill people they make little effort to understand. But also a time when technology brings people together and bridges cultural gaps for those willing to make the effort. A time when you can be who you want, no matter what body you were born in. That’s what this movie is about.
Or maybe it’s just a corny movie with amazing scenes of big blue creatures flying around on pterodactyls shooting arrows at helicopters and robosuits. Either way I think I’m gonna hafta see this one again.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.