Avatar (2009)

avatar

“They’ve sent us a message… that they can take whatever they want. Well we will send them a message. That this… this is our land!”

Justin’s rating: One big hollow gobstopper

Justin’s review: In Avatar, one of the Big Bad Meanie Humans describes the indigenous population of an alien planet as “tree hugging hippies”.  I guess we, as the audience, were supposed to be repulsed by the brash and brusque nature of this ignorant soul, but as the neverending running time of Avatar wore on, I ended up agreeing whole-heartedly.

This entire movie is one great big literal tree-hugging hippie.  And I’m not rooting for the hippie, folks.

I really, really missed director James Cameron over the last decade.  The man helmed some of the hands-down best movies of all time — Terminator 2 and Aliens among them.  But ever since crowning himself as King of the World in the late ’90s, he more or less disappeared from regular moviemaking to embark on documentaries and pseudo-documentaries that were less than thrilling, to say the least.  I heard someone say that Cameron went through the same phase that George Lucas did, where he became more enraptured with movie-making technology than movie-making itself, which culminated in a mind-bogglingly expensive remake of Dances With Wolves… in space.

Now, Avatar is not a bad movie if you look at it in certain ways.  It is boasting a lot of visual muscle, although not of the “breathless” and “stunning” variety that the advertisements promised.  If you stick it out to the end, there’s a pretty groovy action sequence that is fully worth the price of a cinema ticket.  And the antagonist of the whole deal is one of the toughest pieces of villain leather that’s erupted from Hollywood since Alan Rickman in Prince of Thieves.  But Avatar is most certainly not a good movie, and deserves a bit of tsk-tsking for blowing planetfuls of money on  a budget to do what, if you’re honest about it, is basically an animated movie with a little bit of live action here and there.

The story even feels pretty limp compared to Cameron’s past endeavors.  A disabled Marine ships out to an alien planet where he is simultaneously tasked with piloting an alien body (an “avatar”) to make peace with the locals and also to spy on them for a future attack.  The scientists (AKA “the only good humans in this entire movie”) ask the former, the corporation/military the latter.  Said marine should be pulled back and forth between the two, but he barely emotes anything to give you the impression that he’s torn between loyalties.  He simply supports the military at first, then flips a switch at one point and starts helping out the scientists.  The guy is blander than generic pizza sauce, but he’s all we got, so I guess we try to imbue him with a bit of pretend personality to make it to the end credits.

As I said, this really is a beat-for-beat remake of the much better Dances With Wolves.  Both have a lonely military man who makes contact with the natives, learns their customs, becomes “one of them”, marries into the clan, then finds himself at odds with his former unit because of it.  The difference here is that, political correctness aside, Dances With Wolves had a lead character who was smart, actually did good things to help the tribe, and his fitting in made sense.  Avatar?  The marine doesn’t get into the tribe on his talents and good graces — he does so because (sigh) sacred tree seeds choose him.  Yes.  If Avatar can get you to swallow that bit of stellar storytelling, then the future is wide open for whatever else they want to shove down your throat.

Now, I’m not looking to make this a political rant, but the problem here is that James Cameron uses this entire movie as a blunt instrument to hammer in a two-prong message for environmentalism and against imperialism.  It’s not subtle, to say the least, and I lose a lot of respect for message movies that don’t even try to pretend that there’s a great deal of complicated issues, misunderstandings and wrong-doings on all sides.  No, here it’s a three-hour message of how stupid and uncaring 99% of planet-destroying, space smurf-killing humans are, and why we should all hug trees because they will suck the souls out of our bodies if given half the chance.

This isn’t even Dances With Wolves, that dealt with a real historical event — this is a pretend space fantasy where they’re trying to convince me to care that this is just as much a horrible act, because you just know we’d do it if given half the chance anyway, so we might as well start crying about it now.  It’s basic, dumb propaganda that weighs down the story — overwhelms the story, as a matter of fact.

Ahem.

Sorry.

As you can tell, Avatar got under my skin in a bad way, and agendas aside, there’s no great depth here.  It’s neon eye candy and technological achievements out the wazoo, but it’s also a half-baked story that’s trying to sell me on something with the tact of an infomercial spokesperson.

Al’s rating: This. I like this.

Al’s review: It took me about ten minutes to fall in love with The Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t the titanic battle sequences (neat, though they were) or the haunting history of the Ring, recited by Galadriel.  It was the next scene, where we follow Gandalf’s arrival in the Shire.  He banters with Frodo near a grove of trees and then guides his cart through the countryside, past flourishing fields of crops and happy hobbit children.  Finally, he crosses an old stone bridge and the camera pans up into our first view of Hobbiton.  And it’s perfect.  The lushness of the grass.  The hobbit holes burrowed into the hillsides.  The great, green door at Bag End with the knob in the middle (and when it opens—Bilbo Baggins, exactly the way I’d always known he would look).  It filled me with a sense of wonder like I don’t think I’ve had since I was very small.

Now, you may be asking yourself if I’ve posted this under the wrong review page, but understand that I felt the need to explain myself a little.  See, I’ve told you all this so you’ll take my meaning when I tell you that when I saw Avatar, I got the same feeling of awe I had the first time I watched The Lord of the Rings.

Now, I’m not saying Avatar is a perfect movie.  I won’t even simply say it’s a flawed movie.  In fact, let me go ahead and say I don’t disagree with any particular point of Justin’s review above: The plot is tired.  The characters are thin.  The message is heavy-handed—I’ll concede all of this and more.  But I loved it.  James Cameron created a vibrant, beautiful world that I couldn’t get enough of.  Every new locale we visited held me spellbound and every new creature made me crave a pause button, just so I could examine them a little closer.  Each nuance of the ecosystem felt like something I had never seen before, and, more importantly, it felt real.  Evolved.  Maybe sometimes a little ridiculous, as in the case of the giant hammerhead rhinos, but never fake or manufactured.  It always felt like something that could very well be out there.

I feel like I could (and possibly should) say a whole lot more in this review, but I don’t think I want to.  I could talk about the performances or the action or the astonishing 3D, but it’s all been covered ad nauseum by the rest of the world (and, hey, the movie has already made over two-and-a-half BILLION dollars, so I don’t see my opinion really tipping the scales).  I think I’m just comfortable saying that, for me, Avatar was a terrific movie with an extraordinary style and it easily ranks as my favorite viewing experience of 2009.  I don’t blame those who choose to gripe about what it got wrong or what it should have had, but I think I’d rather just excuse myself and go have a good time over here with the giant, blue cat-people.

“Let’s defect to the human side! They have Starbucks!”

Intermission!

  • Sigourney Weaver’s Avatar looks too much like her… definitely uncanny valley material, there
  • So did they ever explain why those mountains floated?  Is this the one planet in the galaxy that defies physics?
  • Worst inspirational speech ever.  “This is OUR land!”  Okay…
  • Be honest here: aren’t battle mechs, rocket helicopters and giant bombers way more cool than bows & arrows and giant butterflies?
  • It’s an alien race — quick, shove an apostrophe in their name!
  • The movie is 40% live action and 60% photo-realistic CGI. A lot of motion capture technology was used for the CGI scenes.
  • As of December 2009, with an alleged budget of US $280,000,000 (estimated), this is one of the most expensive movies ever made.
  • Avatars have five fingers or toes on their hand or foot, whereas the Na’vi only have four.

Groovy Quotes

Jake Sully: They’ve sent us a message… that they can take whatever they want. Well we will send them a message. That this… this is our land!

Jake Sully: Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream.

Col. Quaritch: That is one big damn tree.

Dr. Patel: Grace, this is Jake Sully.
Jake: Ma’am.
Dr. Augustine: Yeah, yeah, I know who you are and I don’t need you. I need your brother. You know, the PHD who trained for 3 years for this mission.
Jake Sully: He’s dead. I know it’s a big inconvenience for everyone.
Dr. Augustine: How much lab training have you had?
Jake: I dissected a frog once.

Jake Sully: They’re not going to give up their home. They’re not going to make a deal. Pff for what? A light beer and blue jeans? There’s nothing that we have that they want. Everything they sent me out here to do is a waste of time.

Col. Quaritch: It’s my job to keep you alive. I will not succeed. Not with all of you.

Selfridge: You walk like them, you talk like them. We build them a school, teach them English, but after how many years the relations with the indigenous are only getting worse.
Dr. Augustine: Yeah, well that tends to happen when you use machine guns on them.

If You Liked This Movie, Try These

  • Dances With Wolves
  • Ferngully: The Last Rainforest
  • Aliens

19 comments

  1. It’s Alien Pocahontas! I liked it, though, especially the little lizard with the spiral wing. It’s blood must be gravol for all the spinning it does.

    Col. Quaritch is great. Stephen Lang is such a nasty looking guy. He’s basically the same guy in Public Enemies, and I’d want him with me in a fight anyday!

  2. I agree with you. Great tech, bad story. It’s also hard to root for the Na’vi because they would have killed Jake if the flying space seeds didn’t choose him, and a lot of the problems are possibly because they refuse to meet the humans. When you have to construct Na’vi Avatars just to get them to listen to you, and the ending of the film is that they don’t accept Jake as human, but transform him into a Na’vi, well…

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