Wednesday, January 13, 2010


Friday Movie Review--Avatar

Let me start off by saying I really enjoyed this kick-ass James Cameron, soft-sci fi action movie and would see it again (that is, a third time) anytime. However, I did not love it, and despite the skill the writer/director showed with the superior 3D and the excellent, seamless CGI, it is not a turning point in movie making, although there will undoubtedly be a new series of "serious" sci fi adventure movies seeking to ride the generous coat-tails of this big money maker. And if I had to boil down my dissatisfaction to a short phrase, I would have to say the problem was a lack of imagination. I'm aware that my criticism of the movie is not what is generally being criticized about the movie, but bear with me. Maybe I can convince you.

There is a decided lack of imagination regarding the animals on the moon, Pandora. There appear to be no feathered fliers (so you wonder where the fletching on the Na'vi arrows come from) but everything in the air is dragon like--exactly like our popular ideas of dragons, absent the flame throwing. Some fliers have six limbs, some only four. (Why?) On the ground there are, in order of appearance, lemurs, rhinos (actually more like Brontotheriums), a lion, dogs, horsies, monkeys, lizards designed by Da Vinci, and a deer. I can see the others are possible, but what is the chance of horsies living on a different planet? All of the terrestrials have six limbs (and most have four eyes) although the double front legs seem to give their owners absolutely no advantage as they are not spaced properly. Oh, the Na'vi don't have an extra set of arms or eyes, not even a vestige, but are comfortably humanoid (with three fingers and a thumb--the avatars have four and a thumb). Why aren't the Na'vi like centaurs with four eyes? It's a mystery. The stone age blue natives indeed seem to have the inexplicable sensing tendril jacks in a long braided quoit, like American Indians, apparently from birth, as the undecanted avatars have braids in the birth tanks, where no human has been. So the aliens look just like us (albeit Native American like) and all the animals are recognizable. Not my idea of sci fi imagination.

Compare that rather pedestrian list of animals to some of the creatures in the bar scene of Star Wars and Avatar comes off the loser. Its not much better regarding the flora, which is basically trees. Oh, there are some vines, epiphites and giant fiddle head ferns thrown in. Cameron installs in the pedestrian plants of his moon some exotic deep sea features, such as the giant Christmas Tree Worms, which disappear with a plumbing noise when touched, and the plant bioluminescence. Wow, what an imagination. Let's talk more about the junction boxes for Na'vi tendril jacks. The dogs, horsies and dragons have them but nothing else. Why? Are the dogs domesticated? Are the horsies? Pretty convenient evolutionary set up you got there, Mr. Cameron. Talking to the trees, actually makes more sense to me.

There is a simplistic and totally unrealistic monochomaticism of humans on Pandora, as there are apparently no black men or women there (unless you count the actors and actresses playing Na'vi). There are plenty of former Marines (sorry, members of the Jarhead Clan) there, serving as private security for the evil, big unobtanium mining cartel, but they are all white. What's up with that? Among the scientists there are no visible East Asians. Yeah, right--that's possible. Now let's look at the rebels. There is white Jake Sully, the cripple; Dr. Grace Augustine, a woman (whose name represents Christian tradition, right?); IT guy Max Patel, a Western Asian; beautiful pilot Trudy Chacon, a Chicana; and researcher Spellman (played by the guy from Dodgeball), who is kind of a wimp, not that there's anything wrong with that. Kind of a rainbow coalition there. Hollywood political correctness by the numbers.

That simplistic and totally unrealistic paring is echoed in the shopworn plot, kind of a Dances with Wolves meets Pocahontas in space. I'm complaining of the lack of imagination and nuance there too, but it is wrong to take from my complaints that the plot doesn't work, that is, deliver an emotional hook to the CGI wonderment. It is a rousing good tale for 5 year olds. I need only refer to three people in the film to establish the grade school Manicheanism of the plot. Ribisi, Lang and the well built former Marine (Matt Gerald) who keeps repeating a blood lust phrase from the Viet Nam war, "Get some!" (I mean it's 2154 in the film and he's using slang from 1968. Are there Brit soldiers today using phrases popular from the First Anglo-Burmese War (1824-26)?) Of the three, perhaps Ribisi is the most cravenly evil. His name, Selfridge, is cognate with "selfish." He's the worst sort of bigoted bureaucrat, but he survives. On the other hand, I really like Lang's character, a scarred, former Marine Colonel, just for his never say die attitude. He rushed outside and holds his breath in the often conveniently visible, toxic atmosphere to take some full auto and then pistol shots at the fleeing rebels. (That scene made we want to say, "Get some!") Lang's character is a doer, a warrior on stilts and steroids (literally) to the bitter end. Against those venal, one dimensional, corporate characters we have the expanded, rather soft humanity of the rebels and then the infinitely politically correct blue stone age savages. It's not much of a contest who gets rooted for. And Cameron certainly pays off those whom he has manipulated into cheering for his side.

I feel sorry for the corporate humans. As Jake Sully narrates, they come from a brown planet a planet where they have killed their mother (yet Lang described the Venezuelan jungle where Jake Sully fought as 'mean bush'--it must have gone down hill since that fight). Yet all the while the beautiful moon Pandora is described as a hell hole by Sully and Lang, indeed the latter of the two suggests R and R in Hell as a pleasant respite. They make a big deal about the soul tree area interfering with electronics and instruments, but communication between Jake and the stay-on-the-base race traitor is unaffected, as is the wi fi connection Jake, Grace and wimp have with the avatars right next to the soul tree. If contradiction were genius, Cameron would be king of the world here.

Still. See this movie. If you can get through Jake Sully's stupid speech to rouse the natives and Lang's even stupider speech (with jarring anti-Bush references) to rouse the Blackwater types to bomb the Na'vi's holiest site, it is mostly good stuff, thrilling, beautiful stuff. And such a hopeful ending! Hopeful, that is, until the evil (all American) empire returns to nuke the Na'vi from orbit to clear Pandora for strip mining, as you know they will.


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