“Avatar,” A Movie Review

I recently went to see “Avatar.”  I give it an “A” for special effects (with reservations) and a “D-” for plot.

Here are my random comments about the movie:

  1. The plot of the movie is as old as the hills.  Boy meets girl under dishonest circumstances.  Boy falls for girl.  Girl finds out about subterfuge and dumps boy.  Boy wins back girl.  At least by using an avatar, the director was able to dance around the issue of inter-species lovemaking.
  2. The back story involves ruthless miners (a surrogate for modern society) against nature-loving primitives.  Anthropologists and historians have long railed against comparing the reality of one culture against an idealistic version of another.  In “Avatar” the comparison is even worse, you have the worst of western society contrasted to a perfect eco-friendly tribe.  The comparison lacks subtlety, and the plot of the movie is deeply compromised as a result.  The more you think about the plot, the shallower it gets.  One side is too good/perfect and the other side too bad/evil.  The result is a movie that plays like farce.
  3. Annalee Newitz, writing in late December 2009 (on her science blog io9), critized “Avatar” for depicting “yet another white man as a hero in the liberation struggles of oppressed people of color (think “District 9,” “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last Samurai”).”  Why couldn’t the leader of the natives during the final battle been one of their own?  The avatar (Jake Sully character) could have just as easily been an advisor, if in fact he had to be in the final battle at all.  The “Avatar” race issue has been widely discussed on the Internet.  At least this national discussion has been good.
  4. I’m tired of “transformer” endings.  I didn’t like the one in “District 9,” and I didn’t like the one in “Avatar.”  The finale, a battle scene, is too long.  And the ending is vapid.
  5. The floating mountains on Pandora are silly for any number of reasons.  The bioluminescent and phosphorescent rainforest shown in muted 3-D is eye-poppingly stunning.  The various outdoor scenes are moving works of art.  The cat people are magical and fit nicely into their lush ecosystem.
  6. A friend of mine would like to know how the avatar pods are able to communicate with the avatar bodies?  A reasonable question.

I saw “Avatar” in a regular theater in 3D and enjoyed it, but it was too long.  The fanciful and stunning visuals are betrayed by the plot and character development.  One reviewer referred to this movie as “Dances with Smurfs.”  Maybe someday someone will figure out what to do the incredible potential of today’s movie technologies.

Recommendation:  See it!

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14 Responses to “Avatar,” A Movie Review

  1. Brian Wilson says:

    I largely agree, but I was so entertained by the visuals that I’ll give it a C- instead.

    The boy meets girl plot didn’t bother me much, but I did feel like the Jake human and JakeSulley cat dude were too different. The blue cat guy acted like a teenager instead of a marine.

    The heavy contrast between the two sides was probably my number one complaint. It was silly to paint them so starkly black and white.

  2. Bret Berger says:

    My son and I traveled from Saint George (Utah) to Las Vegas to catch the Cameron act at the Palms IMAX. The 3D aspect of the movie was a pleasant bonus. Not used as a gimmick and not intrusive. Seemed to enhance the experience.

    Check out the comments of an astrophysicist on the movie’s science:

    http://www.aintitcool.com/talkback_display/43440?q=node/43440

    He also complained about the floating mountains but seems to take most of it back after hearing from some readers of his article.

    “Levitating mountains: As dozens of people have pointed out, the
    mountains supposedly contain unobtainium, a room-temperature
    superconductor. Superconductors expel magnetic field lines, and as a
    result magnets can levitate above a superconductor. Here
    superconducting mountains are apparently levitating over the strong
    magnetic field of the moon or planet, or both. I had thought about
    some kind of mechanism like that but dismissed it for two reasons:
    (1) how could mountains form, stay in place, be weathered and shaped,
    etc. (2) if there is unobtanium in the floating mountains, why not get
    it there so as not disrupt the Na’vi. But I think I was just
    short-sighted. In the case of (1), the intention is that the
    mountains started out attached, but broke off and floated upwards at a
    certain point, and now they sort of float around. I buy that, at
    least enough for a cool movie scene. And for (2), maybe the
    unobtanium in the mountains isn’t the right kind, or isn’t pure, or is
    hard to mine. Interestingly, a geologist emailed me with another
    sighting indicating the strong magnetic field of the planet: the stone
    arches seen at the climax seem to be from mineral growth along
    magnetic field lines. Awesome.”

  3. Roger Hansen says:

    Bret, how about the ridiculous water falls coming from the floating mountains?

  4. Bret Berger says:

    Uhmmm, diurnal cycles of heavy mist saturating the highly fractured rock followed by heavy runoff?

  5. Roger Hansen says:

    “Copernicus,” an astrophysicist writing on aintitcool.com wrote the following:

    “The dream of interstellar travel will only become a reality far beyound our lifetimes. But I love the fact that today I can be deeply immersed in not just a plausible, but a compelling alien world just by putting on a pair of 3D glasses and visiting my local theater. Even if I have to drive 100 miles to see it in IMAX, that is nothing compared to interstellar distances! And I love that there is a filmmaker that pays more than lip service to the science in his films, stimulating discussion and thought about distant worlds among geeks everywhere. I was inspired to do astronomy after seeing STAR WARS as a kid. I’m willing to bet that a fair fraction of tomorrow’s astronomers will have decided to devote their life to the discovery of new worlds because of AVATAR.”

  6. Susan says:

    Overall, I enjoyed the movie. The special effects: A. The story/plot line: C. About a month ago I asked my 20-year-old son if he was going to see it and his reply, “it’s just a science fiction version of Dances with Wolves”. I happened to like Dances with Wolves, so his bit of a put down didn’t deter me. A good friend wanted to see it in 3-D at the Imax, but acquiesed and we saw it in 3-D, no Imax. It was also too long (why are so many recent movies moving to 2-1/2 hours or more, vs. the more traditional 2 hours or less?). Oh well, I digress.

    I enjoyed the story, but at times was a bit confused. This is probably due in fact that I apparently have a limited imagination. I can honestly say that I have never really grasped the whole “Star Trek/Star Wars/Lord of the Rings” genre. In fact, I never even got Harry Potter. I remember taking my kids and nieces and nephews to the first Harry Potter that came out and I said to my then about 13-year-old daughter that I just didn’t get this whole Harry Potter thing. Her comment? “Well, that’s interesting since this book is read by millions of children, with the average age of about 10”. LOL, do you think she was trying to tell me something? Again, I digress.

    The special effects were wonderful. I was confused a bit with the Sigourney Weaver character. A bitch as a human, but a great friend to the people? I thought the contrast in her character was a bit too flawed. I did enjoy her passion, however, and by the end of the movie I cared about her. Jake Skully, on the other hand, had a similar personality whether human or one of the people. But even then, I thought it strange that when his girlfriend saved him near the end of the movie, by giving him the oxygen which he needed to stay alive, he was as a human (“I see you”) and she one of the people.

    How have I survived in an engineering organization where I am employed, where people (engineers for the most part) obviously think outside the box, and really get into this stuff? I think I’ll stick with a good love story (no, not chick flick). A little more realistic and pleasing to the palate.

  7. Roger Hansen says:

    Another on-line comment referred to it as an ode to pantheism.

  8. Roger Hansen says:

    According to Alessandra Rizzo of the AP in SLTrib (Jan 12, 2010):

    “The Vatican newspaper and radio station have called the film “Avatar” simplistic, and criticized it for flirting with modern doctrines that promote the worship of nature as a substitute for religion.

    L’Osservatoire Romano said the film “gets bogged down by a spiritualism linked to the worship of nature. Similarly, Vatican Radio said it “cleverly winks at all those pseudo-doctrines that turn ecology into the religion of the millennium.”

    “Nature is no longer a creation to defend, but a divinity to worship,” the radio said.

    Vatican spokesman the Rev. Federico Lombardi said that while the movie reviews are just that — film criticism, with no theological weight — they do reflect Pope Benedict XVI’s views on the dangers of turning nature into a “new divinity.”

    In a recent World Day of Peace, the pontiff warned against any notions that equate human person and other living things. He said such notions “open the way to a new pantheism tinged with neo-paganism, which would see the source of man’s salvation in nature alone.”

  9. Roger Hansen says:

    According to Trini Tran of the AP (SLTrib Jan 20, 2010):

    “China is pulling the 2D version of “Avatar” from screens across the country amid claims the plot mirrors forced land evictions in the country. Authorities insist that the decision was a commercial one, . . . Critics claim the firm’s plot parallels the removal of millions of residents to make way for property developers. . . .”

    “There is sensitivity to the movie’s plot, which revolves around the forced evictions of the alien Na’vi race by humans — a story line that some have said draws unflattering comparisons to China’s own, often brutal removal of millions of residents to make way for property developers.”

  10. Roger Hansen says:

    The following interesting comment was made in Time Magazine (February 8th, 2010) by Richard Corliss:

    “. . . Audiences are just beguiled by Pandora’s humanish tribe, the Na’vi–the lean, 10-ft-till, blue striped people with yellow eyes. They are what humans might have been if they had evolved in harmony with, not in opposition to, the Edenic environment that gave them birth.”

    And another important point that is worth making came from the same article. It has to do with have the strong female character:

    ” . . . Avatar’s closest kin among current hits may be The Blind Side, the female-skewing sports film. Both tell stories of strong women who find rootless young men and give them a purpose around which they build their lives.”

    But Corliss gets a little carried away in the conclusion when he opines:

    ” . . . Avatar (is) a throwback to ancient movie days, when films about men and women seduced the mass audience. And because it works spendidly as spectacle and love story. Cameron’s picture is worthy of comparison to the great old epics. The world beater is also a heartbreaker, if you just open your eyes.”

    For me the movie works as spectacle, but not as love story.

  11. Roger Hansen says:

    Richard Corliss commenting on Avatars chances for a Best Picture Oscar (Time Magazine 15 Feb 2010, p. 61):

    ” . . . Hollywood may also prefere a film that celebrates America’s fighting men (The Hurt Locker) to one that casts many U.S. troops as criminal invaders. . . .”

  12. Roger Hansen says:

    Question to James Cameron in Time Magazine (15 Mar 2010, p. 4):

    “Is Avatar a Native American story?”

    Answer: “Not exclusively. I think Americans locate the story there most quickly. But Avatar’s now the No. 1 movie in Brazil, and Brazil has a lot of issues with the displacement of indigenous populations and deforestation. There’s a tribe in India that is getting pushed off its sacred mountain for a bauxite mine. The film is hugely popular in China and people there are getting displaced by the govenment to build dams. So people are relating to it from all these different perspectives.”

  13. rogerdhansen says:

    Here is what the director Werner Herzog thought of the movie “Avatar.”

    “Let’s not talk about the message! It makes me cringe, this kind of New Age sort of thing! I’m allergic against New Age, like I’m allergic against group sessions of yoga. [Avatar] makes me cringe, but it doesn’t matter if that’s the message of the film. Let’s only talk about the 3-D. [Avatar] has great accomplishments but sometimes, as I said, I took off the glasses because it made me dizzy.”

    Herzog complaining that “Avatar” is too New Agey is like “the pot calling the kettle black.” Herzog’s recent “Cave” has so much BS in it that he is in no position to judge Cameron.

  14. Pingback: Elysium: A Short Movie Review | Tired Road Warrior

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