Movies That Bug Me: Avatar

Blogger’s Note: This may become an infrequent recurring topic, like Book Breaks. Please note that this post is not about a bad movie, per se. Some bad movies I like, and I’m far more likely to be annoyed by a decent movie that should’ve been great. And passable but over-hyped/over-praised movies. Grrr.

Blogger’s Addendum: P.S. There might be spoilers.

After reading Starship Troopers and blogging about Heinlein’s great, grown-up sci-fi, I finally decided to get this off my chest.

Awhile back, well after all the hype died down, we borrowed and watched Avatar. I was underwhelmed. Here is a movie that could have been tremendous. It was called as much by so many gushing fans and critics that perhaps I expected too much.

No, come to think of it, I didn’t.

See, I read a lot of Roger Ebert. He and I don’t see eye-to-eye much of the time, but I can usually tell from what he says whether I’ll like a movie or not. Here’s his take on Avatar:

Watching “Avatar,” I felt sort of the same as when I saw “Star Wars” in 1977. That was another movie I walked into with uncertain expectations. …”Avatar” is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It’s a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message. It is predestined to launch a cult. It contains such visual detailing that it would reward repeating viewings. It invents a new language, Na’vi, as “Lord of the Rings” did, although mercifully I doubt this one can be spoken by humans, even teenage humans. It creates new movie stars. It is an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.

High praise. I could tell from the outset I wasn’t going to like it as much as he did. I watched it start-to-finish, and was struck by many things…but must of all, by its unrealized potential. Here’s what bugs me…

The Plot. I had hope I could come up with an original witticism to summarize how many times we’ve heard this story. “Dances With Smurfs” and “Dances With Blue Man Group” were taken. But the point is, we’ve seen this, in Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai, and to a different/lesser extent, Kingdom of Heaven and Pathfinder (another movie that bugs me). This just in: Hardened warrior has more in common with his enemy, undergoes spiritual conversion. Don’t get me wrong; I liked those movies. But it’s just one of many things about this movie that have been done before, like…

The Love Story. Holy Pocahontas! (Or maybe Aladdin?) This one’s right from the Disney Channel: a disandvantaged but tough outsider falls for a fiesty princess, who likes him despite their very different backgrounds. The captain of the football team (er, the tribe’s best warrior) is jealous…can their romance survive the tragic misunderstanding that costs her family everything? Can he win the respect of his rival and the hand of the girl he loves?

The Sci-Fi Hook. Sure, our hero’s a paraplegic Marine, which provides a different emotional twist, but while the idea of lying dormant while piloting another more capable body through a threatening world is super-cool, it’s not new by any means…enter The Matrix, among other films.

The Noble Savage. When George Lucas started cranking out the Star Wars prequels, people criticized him for using racial stereotypes to distinguish the looks and patterns of speech of various non-human aliens (go ahead; google it). Avatar does the same thing, with its bow- and spear-wielding, scantily clad, earth-loving, whooping and kaiyai-ing warriors. You can google this, too, and find criticism. A whole other planet so unlike our own, and this is the best we can do? Evil cavalry versus noble natives? Speaking of which…

The Evil Cavalry. Ebert said the movie is anti-war. At first, I didn’t see it so much anti-war as anti-corporate, for one, because the blue-skinned aliens are warriors to the core. But then I watched as the movie’s Marines increasingly devolved into greedy thugs and meathead killers, until finally only two soldiers were left with white hats. In which case, why not make them mercenaries instead of Marines? Why does the U.S. military have to be evil? (And yes, this bugged me about both “Dances With Samurai” movies, too.) Maybe not anti-war, but clearly anti-military…Starship Troopers (the book) was like a breath of fresh air.

The Special Effects. Wow, did people gush about the visuals! I will admit, the floating islands and waterfalls and such were cool. The aliens’ home city, however, was reminscent of Lothlorien in the Lord of the Rings movies. (Come to think of it, the Na’vi weren’t altogether dissimilar from the wood-elves in the old animated version of The Hobbit…except they drank less.) And those strange forest illuminations reminded me of glow sticks and those funky fiber-optic Christmas trees, set in Mario Cart’s Mushroom Gorge. The little floating fairy seed things? Sorry, they made me think of this clip from Finding Nemo. From the hype, I expected better. They could’ve been better, just like…

The Fauna. Avatar is a pro-science movie. So why, on a planet in which evolution has yielded multiple species with the strange ability to “jack” their neural network (or some such thing) into other creatures to form some sort of communication link or tail-to-tail bond, a planet with anti-gravity islands and air unbreathable to humans, why on Pandora does everything look like a big, blue version of something from Earth? Take the princess: easily the most attractive blue monkey woman I’ve ever seen, and though the Na’vi are less sexually dimorphic than humans, still you can tell she’s a she; the curves are in the right places, more or less. (A side note: I keep wanting to call the Na’vi “the Skinnies” after an alien race in Starship Troopers: “humanoid, eight or nine feet tall, much skinnier than we are and with a higher body temperature; they don’t wear any clothes…”) Similarly, the prehistoric rhino creatures, the hairless blue dogs, the Pandoran antelope…they look like critters here, which is good for our hero, because when he’s attacked, he knows what to do: avoid the teeth and claws; snap the neck, cut the throat, or shoot/spear behind the front shoulder, and they die. Ebert will occasionally make fun of the outlandishness of creatures in movies. (See paragraphs six and seven of this review for example; go on, read them, they’re great!) But why must extraterrestrials function the way creatures do on Earth? Shouldn’t they be different? And wasn’t that what was terrifying about The Blob? How do you stop ravenous, living ketchup? Even the dragons on Pandora look familiar (and somewhat less menacing than in Harry Potter).

And finally:

The Network. At the end of the flick, here’s where it fell flattest for me: the whole John Muir everything-is-connected idea that they began to discuss as though it were scientific turned into spiritual gobbledy-gook. Think about what they could’ve done with the idea that the strange tail/neural-organ-thing can be used to connect with or communicate with or subdue other living creatures (as our hero learns to do with the dragon). Oh man! The bad guys should’ve tried to use those connections to manipulate the Na’vi or other creatures to their own ends. The Na’vi totally should have jacked into the forest and the spirits of those who had gone before and caused a massive forest uprising to send the mercenaries packing! The whole connectivity thing should have been the movie! That was something I’d never seen before!

Instead we wind up with that weird waving-dance-seance thing, which looked like a religious ritual of some sort, except that…were they praying? To a god(dess)? To their ancestors or Mother Pandora? Why? Only the human hero seems to think he can actually make difference, through action and maybe through prayer…but even he is told their diety won’t listen. If their diety doesn’t take sides, why pray? If their diety only works to keep the balance, why fight? How can they be so connected and so clueless?

Ebert is right about one thing, however. I’m sure Avatar is predestined to spawn a cult.

3 thoughts on “Movies That Bug Me: Avatar

  1. I read your review and had to let the words simmer for a while. I went into this movie with low expectations, but ended up being pleasantly surprised. There was a broad stroke of everything–a shoot 'em up for the guys, a love story for the ladies, and an eco-friendly message that's all the rage today. But you are right, there wasn't a lot of depth and it was definitely predictable in a Disney sort of way. (It screamed Pocahontas right down to Grandmother Willow.) You are spot on, word-fu master.


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