Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Avatar: A Movie Review from Bowling in the Dark

WARNING: If you are one of the two people who hasn’t seen this movie yet, there may be some spoilers below. But mostly it’s just me wasting time.

James Cameron’s bajillion-dollar1 blockbuster film Avatar, much like the Toyota Prius, is an astounding technological marvel that quite possibly represents a dawning new age in its industry. Unfortunately, though, it also (like the Prius) doesn’t give you much in the way of performance, and sooner or later you’ll start desperately wishing it would come to a complete stop so you can get out and walk away.

That’s not to say, though, that the movie—much like any car that doesn’t kill you—doesn’t have its good parts, so let’s focus on those for a while:

First, Avatar should keep action-movie fans very entertained (this is not a particularly bold statement on my part, given that the movie has earned approximately eight trillion dollars at the time of this writing). James Cameron has proven time and again that he knows how to direct an exciting, well-paced, satisfying action movie—whether he’s working with big spaceships, smaller spaceships, regular-sized people carrying huge guns, super-sized blue aliens carrying bigger guns, or guys wearing robot suits and carrying giant knives, Cameron delivers the goods, with only the rare misstep when something meant to be badass turns out to be accidentally ridiculous.2

Second, the movie looks fantastic. Avatar’s budget comes in at around $237 million, with much of that clearly spent on its groundbreaking special effects. Widely believed to be the first-ever movie to have its effects created by computer rather than by more traditional methods—George Lucas's massive Star Destroyers were built from Legos, and Stanley Kubrick’s Discovery starship from 2001: A Space Odyssey was nothing more than an Easton hockey stick spray-painted white—Avatar’s eerily luminescent landscapes, inexplicably floating mountains, and rampaging rhinoceros/Panzer monsters are beautifully rendered and stunningly detailed. One can only imagine the staggering computing power needed to make this film a reality.

Third, with Sam Worthington, James Cameron has very nearly perfected the Acting Robot he’s been developing since 1984’s Terminator. Possessing far more agility and coordination than the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101, and with nearly three times the facial expressions available to George Lucas’s late-model C-3PO, the technical marvel that is Worthington is only slightly less believable as a human than he is as a remote-controlled, ten-foot-tall, half-naked half-man/half-catSmurf from the distant future.

Sadly, though, it’s partly Avatar’s undeniable triumphs that make its failures—or weaknesses, at least—all the more glaring and disappointing. It’s hard to believe—or it would be, if I hadn’t seen Titanic—that the imagination that gave us such astounding and effective visuals could (or would) give such short shrift to the film’s dialogue, characterization, and message. (Military bad! Industry bad! Western civilization clumsily disguised as militaristic future corporation bad!)

The Na’vi, for all their flying lizards, glowing black-light flora, and AC-adapter ponytails, are basically stand-ins for your more run-of-the-mill movie’s native Americans. And while it could be argued that, as stereotypes go, “noble savage” is a wee step up from “savage savage,” to call Cameron’s broad-brush depiction of his warlike but wise, nature-loving tribal culture “ham-fisted” would be kind of demeaning to ham.3 And I won’t even go into the notion that what the primitive tribe really needs is a white guy to come along and to become the mighty all-star badass they’ve all been waiting for.4

Avatar's characters are not people so much as they are mostly-interchangeable vehicles for delivering exposition and plot points. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the man in charge of the unobtanium mining/native-oppression operations on Pandora, is first seen standing on a scrap of Astroturf5 tapping a golf ball into a coffee mug—essentially a lazy movie shorthand way of saying “self-absorbed prick executive type” without actually have to waste good Action Time developing human characters.

The eventual antagonist, Colonel Quaritch, is so seethingly and obviously the bad guy from his first scene that viewers doesn’t see the turn coming so much as wonder if it hadn’t already happened and they’d missed it.

And the versatile Sigourney Weaver is given little to do other than warm over a role she played thirty years ago. The following transcript comes courtesy of a highly-placed Bowling in the Dark operative, who was fortunate enough to observe the casting process:

James Cameron: James Cameron has written a great role for you, and it’s a total reversal from the one you played in Aliens, which was awesomely directed by me, James Cameron.
Sigourney Weaver: (reading aloud) Dr. Grace Augustine is a dedicated, no-nonsense, tough-minded and independent woman, critical of the soulless and militaristic mega-corporation for which she works, and pressured on all sides by events beyond her control. She’s hard-edged and abrasive, but has a soft maternal side that doesn’t reveal itself at first.
JC: Awesome, huh?
SW: Uh, how is she any different from Ellen Ripley?
JC: Ripley killed aliens in James Cameron’s Aliens. But in Avatar—directed by me, James Cameron—she doesn’t kill aliens. (Pregnant pause) Get it?
[Long silence]
SW: (Sighs) Whatever. I guess it’s better than waiting around for another Ghostbusters sequel to come along.
JC: Oh, and James Cameron is in talks with Carrie Henn, too. We want her to become a blue catSmurf girl.
SW: Carrie’s going to be in the movie too?
JC: (Momentarily confused) Right . . . yeah . . . for the movie.

Perhaps most disappointing of all, Avatar’s humans (with the obvious exception of Jake Sully, Grace, and their nerdish buddies) are so uniformly greedy, violent, cruel, and naughty that Jake’s “going native” seems not like a wrenching or momentous decision (for him) or a profound or moving one (for the audience), but little more than a point at which the movie shifts back into CGI scenery. One might think that a man abandoning not only his entire civilization but also his body would be, if not a momentous occasion, at least a notable one, but somehow, in Avatar, the scene barely has time to land with a thud before we're off to somewhere else at top speed.

It’s possible that I’m asking too much of a guy who, in the past, has proven that his great strengths lie primarily in blowing shit up in the awesomest way possible. But it’s a shame that James Cameron, one of the most imaginative guys in the business when it comes to action, visuals, guns, and explosions, can be so unimaginative when it comes to putting words together or creating compelling characters. While I don’t necessarily agree with Avatar’s “Humans bad!” theme, I don’t mind that it’s what Cameron chose to say with his movie—but I’m disappointed that he sucked so badly at delivering his own message. It’s a shame that with a great idea in mind, unmatched special-effects capability, an apparently infinite budget, and all the time he could have possibly needed to polish this movie’s every facet and sharpen its every nuance, Cameron could make such a technical and visual marvel as Avatar seem like something we’ve seen a dozen times before.6

1. 1 jillion = 1,000 zillion.
2. In the final, obligatory hand-to-hand battle, Colonel Quaritch reaches into his Giant Fightin’ Robot utility belt and pulls out a laughably huge knife in a first-class example of unintentional comedy.
3. Suddenly I’m hungry for ham.
4. Or the fact that The Last Samurai did it years earlier.
5. Of course, it’s Astroturf from the distant future, and it’s out in deep space, where the locals just call it “Turf.”
6. Damn it all, I made it all the way to the end of this thing without making a single joke about Cheetara from Thundercats. Shit. Oh well. I hereby authorize you to make up your own joke, and if it's really funny and not too dirty, feel free to give me credit for it. And don't think that I don't know that it's going to be very, very dirty.


  1. hhhmmmmm not sure what type. Loved the review, and sorry to add, the movie too. Would beg to differ on Note 4 though. Maybe you ment Dances with wolves? or one of the other 10's of movies that has "whitie mc whitie" saving the day. Cause you know no one else can lead like whitie. (do they make movies like that cause whities have small peepee's?)

  2. Well, actually, I said that The Last Samurai did it earlier, I didn't say they did it first. (Although Dances with Wolves is a good example too, of course.)

    I'm afraid I'm not enough of an authority on white guys' peepee statistics to offer up any sort of comment on the subject.The only one I'm particularly familiar with is my own, and I'm not going to discuss it here either. I prefer to maintain an air of mystery about myself, and if I'm not going to post my real name here, I'm sure as hell not going to discuss my weenis!

  3. I did, and I'm not afraid to say it again: weenis!

  4. Random fact about Avatar: The Na'vi don't have mammary glands.... which means they're not mammals. so wtf are they?