Avatar Review

January 19, 2010

'Avatar' is a film unlike anything ever seen before.... Sort of.

Over the past few days, a bunch of my friends asked me what I thought of the new movie Avatar. Given that my stance has been contrary to what most people have said about it, I have found myself explaining my opinions over and over again. To finally purge myself of all my feelings and educate others about an unheard opinion, I finally decided to write this review (yes, this one that you are reading right now). This review is not an outlet for me to be smug or controversial, but ultimately to educate. I’m aware that I am of a vast minority — extremely vast, almost infinitesimal — and it is for that reason that I am writing this review.

Hello, my name is Boone… and I didn’t like the movie Avatar.

Now before you pick up your pitchforks and torches and chase me into a rickety windmill, give me a chance to explain myself. Perhaps in doing so, you will walk away a richer, more enlightened person for listening to a contrary position. Or perhaps you’ll be even angrier at me, cementing your opinion that I am a royal doucheface. Either way, this will be quite an adventure!

To get in your good graces, I’ll start by saying the things that I enjoyed about the film. Avatar, from a technical standpoint, is fantastic. The special effects, editing and sound design are solid, and the final action setpiece is frenetic and well-done….

And thus concludes the positive portion of this review.

The visuals for 'Avatar' are a delight -- creative and wholly original.

One of the biggest problems that I have with Avatar is that it’s been done before. Not only that, but it’s been done better many times before. You’ve probably already heard/read about how the film borrows plot points wholesale from other films, and everyone knows that when it comes to storytelling, it’s not what you tell, but how you tell it. However, Avatar does absolutely nothing revolutionary other than ramp up the special effects to 11. That’s it. If you aren’t wowed by visual splendor alone, then you can’t help but leave the theater wanting.

To make my point more clearly, let’s look at the film from a point of view that in no way focuses on the special effects. Imagine the film is a made-for-TV movie on the SyFy channel, where bringing attention to its special effects will end in tears. (“The filmmakers are doing the best they can! Leave ’em alone!”) Better yet, simply imagine that the film wasn’t made by James Cameron, it didn’t have a budget of $300 million, it didn’t have 15 years worth of preparation to make and that it certainly was not the result of the two largest and most adept visual effects houses on the planet (WETA and ILM) working together. It’s simply a movie with a story to tell.

'Avatar' tells the tale of a wounded, journal-writing soldier who goes to a remote outpost and ingratiates himself with the "primitive" indigenious people.

First, Avatar uses the same stark, condescending liberal guilt message that so many other movies have used before. Yes, we get it: Corporations and the military industrial complex are bad and people who love nature are good. Not only were those ideas played out years ago, but Avatar presents them with the subtlety of an exploding dumptruck filled with howler monkeys, all without nuance to the characters or their motivations. There are the evil people and the good people and they are presented in black and white with no shades of grey.

Let’s say, off the top of my head, the movie-going public was told that “unobtanium” — the precious mystery ore that brought the humans’ mining corporations and military to the alien planet of Pandora in the first place — could cure cancer, AIDS and all other Earthly diseases. It would’ve perhaps made the audience question the necessity of suffering and sacrifice and given an iota of complexity to the characters’ actions. Whose needs are more important: An entire planet of dying humans or a couple hundred aliens who are unwilling to move from their sacred patch of land? How can diplomacy be reached with an alien tribe who have nothing to gain by leaving and can’t understand the consequences in their refusal? You know, ideas that give both sides of a story and provoke thought.

But nope, we don’t get that. Instead, we get a clichéd, careless corporate CEO putting golf balls in his office and military brass sipping coffee as they all watch an entire race unnecessarily get wiped out by fire bombing and deforestation. You know, SUBTLETY!

James Cameron's 'Avatar' should be commended for mixing a heartfelt, pro-environment message with an original, fantasy setting that is easy for people to digest.

That brings me to another thing: the clichés. Most of the characters are one-dimensional archetypes at their best and shop-worn stock characters at their worst. A lot of the time, however, they can’t help being stereotypes given that they have lines like, “You’re not in Kansas anymore,” a line so clichéd that you’ll spit out cobwebs if you say it out loud. But that’s not the only example — not by a long shot. The filmmaker, in his infinite wisdom, settled on naming the MacGuffin in the film “unobtanium,” a name that sci-fi nerds, engineers and cinephiles literally laugh at while jokingly naming stupid mystical metals in theoretical thought experiments. Cameron could’ve taken 10 minutes out of his day to think of any other name so that we could take his not-even-thinly-veiled analogy on The War on Terror seriously. How about cantfindium? Or lostite? Or behindthatbushium?

I guess now is as good of a time as any to mention why I didn’t like the fact that James Cameron decided to use Avatar as a mouth piece for his thoughts on The War on Terror. And in case the analogy wasn’t obvious to the audience, Cameron again decided to kick subtlety in the face and had the marine colonel mention making a “preemptive strike” on the aliens and that they will “fight terror with terror,” which might have made sense had the nature-loving, life-respecting Na’vi forced suicide bombers to rush into military encampments at some point in the movie. Honestly, what sort of “terror” were the aliens responsible for? How can that reference make any sense at all in the context of this movie? This having an Iraqi/oil subtext feels tacked on and out of place, especially considering that it comes at the end of the movie. I was content to accept Avatar simply as a metaphor for the Colonial expansion on the Native Americans, but hey, why stop at just one obvious, clichéd, out-of-date analogy, right?

This all goes back to what I’ve said before that the whole movie has no voice of its own. It takes well-known, over-used ideas and throws in some special effects razzle dazzle so that you forget that you’ve already seen this film many, many times before.

'Avatar' is refreshing by being a family-friendly, interplanetary, 3D sci-fi film that denounces the industrial military complex and its encroachment on.... You get the picture.

The plot is derivative and unoriginal, the dialog is hokey as all hell and plotting is far from revolutionary. (“Gee, there’s the skull of that winged creature that has only been tamed 5 times in the history of the Na’vi. I wonder if that’ll come into play at some point in the movie.”) Some of the actors give competent performances in the film, but most of them are either wooden and bored or over-the-top scenery chewers. Although, to be fair, picking on a sci-fi film for having wooden or hammy acting is like picking on a SyFy original movie for its special effects. (“I said to leave ’em alone, jerk!”)

Cameron had $300 million dollars and 15+ years of development and this is the final result? The whole thing just feels like wasted potential…. Well, I guess misguided potential might be more accurate.

Look, if you enjoyed the movie for its spectacle and special effects, then more power to you. Go nuts and buy it ten times over when it comes out on DVD. All I ask is that you allow those of us that weren’t impressed to have our opinions and not bash us for them. We may be a minority now, but think about this: When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace first came out, it was overwhelmingly enjoyed by both critic and fan alike, and the people who disliked it were in the minority…. Now look at it.

I haven’t seen better special effects,
but I’ve definitely seen better movies.

P.S. As a professional graphic designer, I take personal umbrage with the fact that they wrote the subtitles in Papyrus font. That shit’s fucking clownshoes.