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Tonight's Feature Presentation

AVATAR (2009)

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Wes Studi

Written and Directed By: James Cameron

The Short Version

Avatar is just as amazing as you’ve heard, visually, but nothing’s reinvented here.

You can definitely see where the money went, and it wasn’t to the story.

Avatar is way shallower than it should be.

The visuals are multi dimensional, but the human characters are not.

Avatar is one of those movies that the collective peer pressure of the world demands you see at least once.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


Using the commercialized American spelling, which somehow seems appropriate.  You pour it on thick to make something that’s really quite ordinary fare feel like it has some zing.

Pairs Well With...


Two parts pineapple juice, one part each light rum, blue curacao, and cream of coconut.  Often garnished with enough tropical fruit to look like part of this movie’s jungle.

“The Sky People have sent us a message that they can take whatever they want.  That no one can stop them. Well, we will send them a message.  You ride out as fast as the wind can carry you.  You tell the other clans to come.  Tell them Toruk Macto calls to them!  You fly now, with me!  My brothers!  Sisters! And we will show the Sky People that they cannot take whatever they want!  And that this – this is our land!”

Amazingly enough, the hype machine for Avatar wasn’t the biggest one I’ve ever run across, but it was enough to make me dubious.  Anything that tries to make a claim at being “the next Star Wars” always does.  As had been the case every time before, Avatar didn’t live up to that particular bit of hype, but it did live up to some of the rest.  Specifically, though it was not by any means the first film to participate in the “Great 3D Reboot of 2009” [and just to get it out of the way, it’s 4D: flat pictures, even stills, have 3: width, height, and time, which makes adding depth number four; everyone forgets time], what Avatar did was to assure that the gimmick wouldn’t quickly go away like it did in the early 1980s as the trick of a few horror flicks and nothing more.  That is the film’s enduring legacy.

For indeed, as had been promised, the “3D” was pretty, and even managed to avoid the “we’re going to throw stuff at the audience because we can” feel that generically typifies the gimmick.  That in turn is set atop a vibrant, beautiful world that is rich in color, with gorgeous vistas at every turn that are a true feast for the eyes.

I’m going to pause here for a moment.

Almost entirely on the strength of what I just described above, Avatar grossed roughly two and three quarter billion dollars at the box office.  That’s especially impressive for a film that asks its audience to sit still for close to three hours, and there can be no question that yes, on the big screen, Avatar was a truly excellent visual experience.

This is where we remind ourselves that medium is important.

Avatar loses a lot – and I do mean a lot – of its punch when brought down to the scale of home viewing.

Without the gigantic canvas provided by a real movie screen, the grandiosity of Avatar no longer has the power to be all-encompassing, no matter how good your home theatre setup may be.  Indeed, in some ways, a good high definition screen showing a blu ray quality picture can actually contribute to the betrayal.  For on this scale, that beautiful world is visible for what it is: a special effect.  It’s a very nicely rendered special effect, to be sure, but really, you know that you’re watching a high end cartoon world at this point.

In fact, if you’ve done any high end gaming at all during the past decade, it’s not even an innovative one.  The same world that people who confine themselves to the realm of movies marveled at with flying islands that spill waterfalls into the sky has been done before, as have the multicolored plants and neo-dinosaurs and so on.  The worlds of the “Final Fantasy” and “Myst” franchises are here, and so is “World of Warcraft.”  When the movie is put on a home scale, it’s just impossible to miss, because you’ve see it on the same size screen before.

Does it make the world less beautiful to look at?  No.  But “groundbreaking” and “reinventing the movies”?  Not a chance.

And this special effects world is populated by special effects characters.  They look better than they are because they tend to be set against that ‘otherworldly’ special effects backdrop that’s tailor made for them; as soon as you put one of the Na’vi in a human building, you’re retreating back to Jar Jar Binks territory, and perhaps not even that.  Again, they’re no less pretty, but they’re not groundbreaking, either.  They’re doe-eyed, high end cartoons.

Hold that thought.

What the Na’vi do have going for them is a richly defined culture, and the time taken to explore it represents the one and only strong point of this film’s screenplay.  One never feels that the Na’vi do a thing or respond a certain way “just because.”  The workings of their society are clearly explained, not just through words but through real moments of understanding.  That’s something most movies don’t bother to do with their alien cultures, instead assuming that the viewer will just accept whatever happens.  In the case of Avatar, you really do always know why.

As for the rest of the story… that’s not so rich.

If you’re over ten years old, you’ve seen it at least a hundred times before.  Indeed, in the weeks surrounding the release of Avatar, the most popular jab leveled against it was that in the end, it amounts to being a really, really expensive remake of Pocahontas, and frankly, I can’t and won’t argue against that claim, because that is exactly what Avatar is.  If you’re not immediately drawing parallels between the Na’vi and Native American tribespeople, you’re just not paying attention.  Of course Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek) is Pocahontas.  Of course the humans in this film are the greedy honkies from across the sea (space, whatever) who pretend to make nice just long enough to load their guns and take what they want by force, just like the Europeans did to everyone they ran across in the New World.  James Cameron’s idea of originality is to update the European invaders into the modern American military industrial complex.  Again, I’m just not seeing “reinventing the movies” here.  I’m just seeing “remaking one which in turn was already a stock story.”  [If you want to explore this further, there are some brilliant plot-point-for-plot-point comparisons online if you use Avatar and Pocahontas as your search terms.]

And it’s not even remade well.  Once you’re past the pretty colors, this story is so flat that it could be used as an airstrip.  There isn’t one thing you can’t predict here well before it happens.  Not one.  Even after taking the time to develop the Na’vi culture, Avatar still reduces them to stock.

Instead of making the movie himself, James Cameron could have turned the concept over to a Japanese director, who in turn could very likely have delivered something just as visually pretty with a much richer script and stronger characters for far less than one-tenth the price.  After a quick script polish, all that Japanese director would have had to do was eliminate the photographed humans altogether and admit that Avatar is actually the anime flick that its doe-eyed animated characters stepped out of to begin with.

Because honestly, the photo real humans are pretty much a waste.

Our hero is played by Sam Worthington (Sabotage), but frankly, he could have been played by anyone.  His human performance barely registers when set against the “avatar” form he spends most of his time in, and once there, neither he nor anyone else delivers anything really distinctive.  They don’t suck; they’re just “there,” rather like most of the voice cast in any average animated film.  Occasionally one will stand out in such a picture – Robin Williams in Aladdin, Antonio Banderas in Puss in Boots, et.al. – but usually, you don’t remember or care who was who.  (Quick!  You know Robin Williams was the Genie, but who was Aladdin?)  The same holds true right here on down the line; it’s the visual of the blue people you remember, and not the souls behind them.  All of them are, in fact, exactly what the “real Na’vi” in the film accuse the avatars used by humans of being.

The characters are just part of the set, folks.

The only person who memorably survives “being blue” is Sigourney Weaver (Ghostbusters), whom I am thoroughly convinced could stand in a corner reading TV listings and have a memorable presence while doing so.  Weaver aside, the only other human actor who remains memorable at all after a week is Stephen Lang (Conan the Barbarian), whose performance proves to be something of a double edged sword.  Lang plays a one-dimensional, off-the-rack a-hole American military type for whom a gun is a substitute for something else and for whom anyone not part of his team is a savage that needs to be destroyed.  You know the type; you’ve seen him often.  Professionally speaking, Lang plays the role to absolute perfection, nailing every aspect flawlessly.  On the minus side, you may end up hating his character so much that you may in turn end up having a backlash against the actor himself.  (I know a few people who did, most notably avoiding a certain television show after he was cast in it specifically because they couldn’t get the image of Lang in Avatar out of their heads.)

At the end of the day, though, even Lang’s evil performance doesn’t matter, because all Avatar was ever really about was the visual experience.  That story is flat because it doesn’t need to be anything else.  The performances fade into the background because it’s the background that you were supposed to be gawking at anyway.  Realistically, Avatar is not so much a movie as it is a very expensive screen saver.

Does that make it bad?  No.  While Avatar was on the big screen, it was exactly what it needed to be, and now in its life in the home theatre, it’s fair enough background noise that the demands of cultural peer pressure essentially require you to watch at least once, and there are plenty of worse movies out there.  But the greatest thing since sound and color?  Not a chance.  And while I’d rather watch Avatar than Pocahontas, that doesn’t change the fact that Avatar actually is Pocahontas.  Otherwise, the anime section of your local video outlet is full of better versions of the same story that take about half the time.  (And come to think of it, isn’t it funny that a movie whose underlying message is unquestionably anti-commercial is itself so heavily commercialized in its presentation and with its surrounding hype machine?  Just sayin’.)

Bottom line, despite the hype, Avatar is not “the movie that reinvents the movies,” nor is it “the next Star Wars.”  It’s reached the point where you have to see it once to stay in the loop, but beyond that, it’s pretty hollow eye candy that lost a lot of its luster coming down from the silver screen. 

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011

More From The Bar! | John Carter | Dune (2000) | The Last Starfighter |

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