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I tried going in to Avatar with as few expectations as possible, knowing that it would be an inevitable letdown to have great hopes for the film, or to expect it to live up to its massive hype. And I was correct to do so as I was able to enjoy the film to a certain degree. I decided if I was going to do it I would go all in and plunked down the cash for the IMAX 3D version of the film, and I’m glad that I did so. Much of the 3D, though, is more annoying than inviting. At times I felt the film kept hitting me in the face with the leaves. I need to feel like the characters are in a real world, not me.

The majority of what is good about the film is in the visuals. The animation is lush and vibrant in very real way. The color scheme is brilliant, particularly during scenes at night when things glow. All of the planet Pandora is rendered beautifully, from its landscapes to its flora and fauna and, of course, its inhabitants, the Navi. In contrast all of the military bases are stark and rugged, built for utility and maximum efficiency. They are ugly slabs of metal, battle scarred and worn and caked with dirt. Whether digitally rendered or partially constructed and digitally finished, all of the humans’ equipment looks great and moves impressively.

However, of all of these perfectly rendered people and things, not a single one of them behaves in at all a logical manner. Some big issues are never addressed, such as why the Navi are even remotely accepting of the Avatar program. They have to know what people look like and the idea of cloning something so similar to themselves has to be at the very least unsettling to them if not insulting. Yet this raises barely even a suspicion. Jake Sully, the main character, is completely ignorant of the program but thrown in because his twin was killed. So eager are they to get started that the corporate interests running the program cannot be bothered to even see that he learns the language before tossing him into the nearest tribe. Conveniently, through some mystical intervention (not the last you’ll see of that in the film) he is chosen to be one of the Navi. What’s really lucky for Jake, though, is that even the dogs of Pandora don’t act logically. They surround him on his first night alone like a pack of dogs all right, but then they attack him one at a time like henchmen in kung fu movies. And everyone knows that dogs are smarter than kung fu cannon fodder.

So, Jake learns the ways of the tribe and reports back, eventually becoming more attached to his new family, particularly the female assigned to teach him, Neytiri. Of course, being as cartoonish as the heavies of this movie are, they attack the Navi anyway without even seriously attempting negotiations. When I say they are cartoonish let me tell you two things to emphasize this. Giovanni Ribisi’s character, Selfridge the corporate suit running the show, is introduced playing coffee cup golf and talking about loving his new putter. Col. Quaricth, played by Stephen Lang, is the character that R. Lee Ermey ruined for every other actor in Full Metal Jacket. The most depth he ever gets is revealing that he loves his scars for reminding him that Pandora is dangerous. He gets a lot of scenery to chew and Lang makes the most of every corny line. Ribisi is able to bring something to his character, thinly sketched though he may be. A lesser actor would have been likely far more over the top in bringing out his bottom line driven douchebaggery. Ribisi plays it casually aloof to the pending disaster.

The Navi tribe and their mythology are comprised of Native American movie cliché, New Age mysticism given a biological connection to make it real to the movie, and a healthy dose of the Noble Savage theory throw in to sweeten the concoction. They are comically innocent to humanity’s destructive capabilities and desires, even though they are introduced as mistrusting to the intentions of people toward their home world. Any ritual shown in the film has come before. Mating ritual, tribal induction, hunting and killing rituals, you name it and the movie shows it with a slight Navi twist, mostly centering around their braids. I won’t give away the secret but Avatar asks the audience to accept a lot about these things. A lot of these rituals pad out the movie in ways that are unnecessary. When drawing from such a deep well of old standbys it may be advisable to skip past the parts that are so obvious. The tribe themselves all fit perfectly into their one line summaries; Wise Old Chieftain, Wise Old Shaman Lady, Brash Young Tribal Heir, etc. Neytiri is just the Native American Princess character.

Jake Sully, for being the lead character, never rounds out much either. It did help me that his name was Jake, since every time he or another male Navi smiles they look exactly like Jake Busey. He’s largely tossed around in the plot, doing whatever the story calls for him to be doing to go forward. He’s usually the same gruff, quiet tough guy perfected by Clint Eastwood, though ignorant of his surroundings and kind of dopey for a while. He achieves manhood in the eyes of his tribe, seemingly finding a new home and family, all while perfectly cognizant that the interests backing his Avatar plan to destroy this way of life. He does absolutely nothing to warn or even prepare them of the coming danger either. Jake just waits around hoping everything will get better. Guess how that turns out for everyone?

The climactic battle scene is visually incredible even if it makes little to no sense. Jake rallies the others, sends them to gather neighboring tribes and then they pray for help from the Mother Planet. Prayer, which ends up being the key to victory, is their major fallback plan. The Ewoks had a better battle strategy than that, and a much more imposing foe. They had to face down Darth Vader’s best. Leading the human forces on Pandora is just a ‘roided up Sgt. Hulka. It was still the highlight of the film, though, watching the rallied men and beasts of the alien world unleash their fury on the unsuspecting invaders. The contrast between Quaricth and Jake in the final showdown is nicely handled, too. Jake, controlling his organic Avatar, goes hand-to-hand with Quaricth, controlling something of his own Avatar, being his Aliens style armor suit.

Overall I did find the film entertaining and well crafted outside the glaring story problems. The plot is half baked at best, the characters are barely fleshed archetypes and the political commentary laughably obvious, but it looked great showing those things. It’s overlong by a good thirty minutes, though this is only some of the bloat the film suffers. It isn’t remotely worth the hype behind it and once the spectacle dies down and the filmmaking technique becomes commonplace I doubt it will be especially memorable. But taken as what it is, Avatar is a decent action movie. 2 ½ stars

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2 Comments

  1. Are you sure Robert Zemeckis didn’t direct this, and use computers to make himself LOOK like James Cameron in the press photos?

  2. Now THAT is a conspiracy theory!


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