This is it. The movie that will change everything. The film that will usher in a new era of filmmaking–if you believe the filmmakers’ hype, which has been excessive to say the least. "Avatar" is a movie so special they had to invent a camera advanced enough to film it (it mimics the human eye!). "Avatar" is a movie with a budget reportedly in the region of $500 million dollars (including marketing), and a script two decades in the making. And "Avatar" is the film that, according to its star Sam Worthington, will “kick everybody in the head” upon release. In short, a movie so hyped that this reviewer felt compelled to wash his eyes repeatedly and put in a new pair of contact lenses before going to see it–twice.
"Avatar" has been marketed as an ‘experience’ as much as it is a movie, and for the sake of fairness, it deserves two reviews.
If you’re going for the ‘experience,’ try to find a seat facing the center of the screen so you can feel like you’re ‘there,’ in the heat of the action. The 3D effect is both stunning and nauseating, depending on how fast the camera is moving, but the attention to detail is fascinating, and the film does have a few truly jaw-dropping moments, like the vertigo-inducing climb over a series of floating rocks, or the arrival of the tar-skinned Viperdogs. However, if the intention is to make things feel real then the film fails, mainly due to the fact that only people inflicted with short term memory loss or severe dementia could ever be convinced that the movie they’re watching is real. Especially with a story as flimsy as this. Which brings us to "Avatar" the Film.
Content-wise, "Avatar" is "Pocahontas". White man (Jake Sully, played by Worthington) travels to a New World rich with valuable resources, and falls for a native (Zoe Saldana) who shows him the tree-hugging ways of her people. Gradually, he is accepted by the natives and finds happiness in their simple way of life. Things fall apart when our hero discovers that his people (in this case, a militaristic multi-billion-dollar drilling corporation) don’t really care about trees.
The supporting characters are also borrowed: there’s the insecure native male threatened by the arrival of the white man who’s flirting with his girl; the obsessively goal-oriented military bad guy who eventually loses his mind; and the slightly less evil bad guy with hints of a conscience. There’s even a tree possessed by the souls of the clan elders. Her name was Grandmother Willow in Pocahontas.
Of course, there are a few differences. For starters, the natives are blue, not brown. And instead of muskets, the humans have guns so big they need to ride around in robot suits to carry them. Also, the cute animal sidekicks have been replaced by the flying lizards from Star Wars – Episode II.
And then there’s the whole concept of Avatars which, quite frankly, is wasted. The idea is that in order for humans to exist in Pandora’s toxic atmosphere, they must genetically engineer alien bodies which can be controlled by human consciousness—avatars. Unfortunately, the filmmakers refused to expand on this intriguing concept. The psychological side-effects of traveling back and forth between two bodies of a different species are implied, but never really explored. Ultimately, the impression is that these avatars only exist as a clever way for the filmmakers to avoid too many scenes with awkward human-CGI-interaction.
The film is full of such conveniences, with the main characters regularly showing up at the last minute to save each others’ lives, and instantly being able to find one other in panicky crowds of thousands. Entire scenes are built upon exposition, with characters announcing to each other ‘THIS IS WHY WE’RE HERE,’ before going launching into an insultingly simplified explanation intended solely for the audience. This sadly doesn’t distract from the fact that the premise itself makes little sense: why would the natives welcome Sully into their midst and agree to teach him all their secrets when they know he’s really a human soldier? And why does everyone act so surprised when Bad Things happen? It’s hard to root for creatures this slow on the uptake, and as a result, the climactic final battle lacks any real emotional weight.
That’s exactly what’s so frustrating about "Avatar"—how average the whole thing is. The structure, the dialogue, the overambitious music—complete with a wailing Na’vi choir—they’re not necessarily bad, they’re just too familiar. Even the environmentally friendly message is delivered with "Ferngully" levels of sophistication. This movie is set in 2154 and it still has scenes with characters trying to protect their forest against bulldozers. Bulldozers!
The lack of imagination also applies to the aliens, who are simply too human. They may have blue skin and no nipples, but everything else about the Na’vi, from their music to their clothes, their weaponry to their logic to their humanoid shapes, is instantly recognizable. Writer-director James Cameron claims to have written several encyclopedias’ worth of background information documenting the various cultural identities of the Na’vi, yet this is barely evident in the film.
What could have been an interesting examination of alienation, schizophrenia, and cultural and religious intolerance ends up being typical Hollywood fare: a half-a-billion-dollar money-making beast spouting off an environmentally friendly message; an American movie where the characters make “This is OUR land!” type speeches; the latest technology resurrecting a story that’s been told to death.
Cameron said he had to wait over twenty years for technology to catch up with his vision. Ironically, his movie ended up being released the same year as "District 9," a low-budget, mostly improvised film that offered intelligent science fiction as well as thrilling action sequences while dealing with issues like racism.
Whether or not "Avatar" will revolutionize the film industry remains to be seen. The effects are impressive, but not as mind-blowing as say, that first brachiosaurus in "Jurassic Park," or even some of Cameron’s earlier features like "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2: Judgment Day," at their time.
Ultimately, "Avatar" is a disappointment because its makers promised something entirely original but instead delivered a 3D version of one of Disney’s lazier efforts.