Avatar is Visually Good, but Certainly not Without Its Faults
By Kristin Battestella
After seeing the 2009 science fiction epic Avatar, my husband promptly made me dinner and insisted I watch it with him that night. Although visually stunning, Avatar suffers from thin plotting, obvious twists, and too much politics.
Paralyzed ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) reluctantly agrees to take the place of his deceased twin brother on the distant moon of Pandora. Jake will be able to mentally link with his brother’s avatar- one of several hybrid bodies Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) and her science team use to integrate with Pandora’s local population, the Na’vi, for educational and diplomatic purposes. Unfortunately, the RDA mining operation lead by Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) wants the valuable deposits of unobtainium under the Omaticaya Na’vi’s Hometree. Jake becomes part of the Omaticaya, training to be a warrior with Chief Eytukan (Wes Studi) and Mo’at’s (CCH Pounder) daughter Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Jake soon sides with the Na’vi and will defend his newfound people against General Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and the destructive plans for Pandora.
Yes, I am probably the only person on the planet who didn’t come away from Avatar thinking it was the best thing since the invention of the wheel. Without a doubt, the effects and visual advancements are indeed the next step in the evolution of filmmaking-and I think this is why the box office records keep falling in Avatar’s wake. The treasured demographics repeatedly returned to see Avatar in all its 3D and IMAX glory, and most likely saw it again and again purely for those graphics. Despite his repeated mastery of the science fiction, action, and disaster blockbuster, James Cameron should not write his own films. Honestly, I felt the same way about Titanic. The romance is obvious and sappy, the villains are stock players, and the movie doesn’t get dang good until the iceberg hits.
Avatar follows the same pattern of stereotypical caricatures and obvious plot turns mixed with some silly and confusing stuff. I know the research is online and companion books and such are following Avatar, but I swear I never heard that Pandora was a moon of Alpha Centauri in the film proper. And even if it is a real scientific term, ‘unobtainium’ might just be the dumbest name for a metal that is, well...unobtainable. Whatever statements Cameron is trying to make about war, civilization, imperialism, race, destruction, Bob’s Uncle or anything dang else-it’s all so obvious its almost insulting. Why are all the Na’vi actors black or Native American? Should we applaud the casting of the brilliant Cherokee actor Wes Studi in apology for Manifest Destiny? I find it a little offensive that Studi (who was already in Dances with Wolves-déjà vu, anyone?) was digitally drawn over in a film that’s supposed to be about the destructive ills of industry and colonization. And to think, onscreen in Avatar there are a select few white folks who know the error of our ways. Cameron is being a little too high and mighty by pointing the finger instead of looking at the issues within his own film. It’s like an abuser who says he’ll never lay a hand on you again-and instead uses a baseball bat the next time.
I’m afraid to ask where we can go next thanks to Avatar. In some ways, I’d rather the picture have been a straight tale without big blue cat people who ride sea horse horses. We didn’t need the first uneven hour and a half of awe and alien spectacles if social injustice was meant to be at Avatar’s center. Why not really have Roman legions slaughtering Picts and Iceni? How about the British tramping over
India or Cortez setting his sights on South America? Do we really need such a fantastical representation of an all too earthly experience? Again, is Cameron shedding the light on our ways whilst sweeping them under the carpet at the same time? What are the African American descendants of slaves or the almost completely homogenized American Indian generations supposed to make of Avatar? No, conquered and captured people won’t see what’s coming in the last hour of this film, no not at all. Way to tell it like it is, without really telling it like it is.
It’s not as if Avatar isn’t like anything we’ve ever seen before. Visually, sure, but the idea of people living alternative lives while ‘jacked in’ and preferring the ‘dream’ to the real world is a little Matrix, don’t you think? And the bonding with your extra special bird lizard mount to save the day, climbing perilous cliffs to reach him-well that’s right out of Dinotopia. Some of the vehicles, the amplified mobility suit, and the casting of the wonderful Sigourney Weaver also reminded me a little too much of Aliens. I kept thinking pilot turned Na’vi supporter Trudy’s (an under utilized and unable to branch out Michelle Rodriguez, Resident Evil) plane was just a drop ship from the Nostromo, and I half expected ‘Get away from her you Bitch!’ to make an appearance whenever the AMP lit up. Maybe I watch Aliens too much and picked up on James Horner’s reuse of its score in Patriot Games, too- for his music was again reminiscent of his first collaboration with Cameron.
On a lighter note, I just had to laugh at the idea of an energy field created by all living things that surround us, penetrates us, binds the galaxy together-oh wait, wrong movie! Cuddly natives and their arrows taking down the evil imperial machine- in hindsight, this wasn’t the best way to go for Return of the Jedi, either. Even the idea of a unified and living planet capable of interconnecting with its life forms and fighting to defend itself is nothing new. Gaia, anyone? We should be so lucky to live in such harmony on a glorious planet as Pandora-oh wait, we do. Again, it would have been more meaningful if this were an earthbound tale. Avatar makes little mention of the chewed up and spit out earth that’s been left behind by RDA Mining Chief Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi). (Whose name isn’t an indication of where his ego’s at, no not at all). How many planets do we need to destroy already? Isn’t that a scary enough question-right up there with when BP is going to get its due for effing up the Gulf? Whose eyes is Avatar supposed to open? Good God, if we don’t already know the err of the lessons Avatar is seeking to learn, then we deserve to loose our planet.
Now that I’ve gotten a little high and mighty with my doom and gloom, there are some good things about Avatar. The aforementioned Sigourney Weaver (Working Girl, Gorillas in the Mist) and Wes Studi (The Last of the Mohicans, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee) are delightful inside and out, regardless of the blue cat people visuals. Despite some obviously ruthless dialogue and corruption, Giovanni Ribisi (Saving Private Ryan, Boiler Room) and Stephen Lang (Gods and Generals,
) also give all of themselves thematically. Sadly, CCH Pounder (The Shield, ER) isn’t given as much time as she deserves, and Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana (Star Trek, Drumline) did little to impress. Since we couldn’t actually see Saldana’s charm, her Neytiri merely becomes like every other hot chief’s daughter who loves our hero but is a perfectly capable and independent woman, too, thankyouverymuch! Likewise, Tombstone (Clash of the Titans, Terminator Salvation) has literally come out of nowhere to rival the equally wooden abilities of Channing Tatum and any other pretty boy from this new blonde surfer crop. His story arc as a paraplegic who finds he’d rather live in a beautiful alien world where he has a babe and working legs doesn’t give him much room to maneuver, I grant you. Unfortunately, I dare say Neytiri and Sully’s avatars could have been drawn as digital cartoons without any actor doing motion capture and no one would have noticed the difference. Worthington
There are some lovely moments in Avatar, but they are buried so far beneath the visuals that they are almost a none factor. My father was in the hospital recently, and he swears that the power of prayer from friends and family is what pulled him through. His words reminded me of Avatar, when all the Na’vi unite and chant together to bring life and knowledge to each other. It is a touching scene showing the power of the many can be a glorious thing indeed. So where is this moving and inspiration plot point underutilized in the film? Twice, actually, but very predictably in the final act. When I saw it, I didn’t think these scenes were touching at all. I was much more curious as to what Massive CGI software was used. Did I miss the point or did Avatar?
Avatar is an entertaining movie thanks to its stunning graphics, but I can see why the film didn’t come away with Best Picture and Director Oscars. For the older science fiction fan that has read the old pulp books and seen The Twilight Zone episodes that debate these very same issues with subtly and no effects, Avatar is an old hat, heavy handed, and obvious pill to swallow. Younger tween fans can be inspired, sure, but super young folks will probably miss the thickly themed forest for the blue cat people trees. I will say that Avatar must be seen on blu-ray and blu-ray alone-unless you plan on seeing it in the theater again. Though our rented disc was a little touchy and skipped, DVD cannot contain all that is Avatar. I’d like to think Avatar has not totally replaced its precursor in changing the face of film-The Lord of the Rings trilogy-but merely stands next to Rings as a companion piece. Take your pick if you prefer science fiction or fantasy! If you want in depth storytelling, pick Rings. For visuals masking themselves as story that’s really just conflicting politics and generalities, go for Avatar.
Science fiction should be an artsy allegorical mirror to our faults-just not so obviously played for the box office bottom dollar. Take the good of Avatar for what its worth-as if you can escape how it’s made cartoon alien sf for the masses the way Twilight has unfortunately made vampires cuddly to little girls. There’s no denying the re-releases, merchandising, and sequels in Avatar’s wake. I only hope a true writer is able to step in for Cameron’s ego-er screenplay with a red pencil for round two. Enjoy Avatar for a family night of friendly film-but perhaps take some time, too, for a real historical lesson or current events session. Teachers can also use the ups and downs here for a great classroom discussion. Enjoy the hullabaloo while it lasts, for beyond the visual spectacles, Avatar misses the mark.