Underwhelmed by Avatar

There are movies that simply fall into the category of “experience” movies. There’s nothing like seeing Jurrasic Park on the big screen and feeling the Brontosaurus land with the weight of THX surround sound rattling your ribcage. There’s nothing, NOTHING like seeing the Star Destroyer fill the screen in the theater in Star Wars. DVD simply can’t convey the scope, the sheer magnitude of the cinematography in these films. Avatar falls in line as a movie that if you didn’t see it in IMAX 3-D you just didn’t see it. James Cameron has made a movie that should remind filmmakers what they should be shooting for before they count DVD sales numbers. It’s epic. It’s visually stunning. It creates a world that should only be properly be viewed on a several story tall screen. Too bad the story lets down the visuals to create an easily forgettable experience.

First the good/great: While not the gigantic leap forward that Cameron promised the CGI in Avatar is at least a step forward in the right direction. Also Cameron has found a way to use modern 3-D in a way to enhance the movie experience. The biggest plus in the 3-D experience is that Cameron used it to convey depth not just “shock” audiences with things seemingly coming at them. It would appear that Cameron actually thought about how to use this added dimension in composing a shot, mostly deliberately having the “action” happen “in front” of the screen while the actual screen provided the backdrop and enhanced the audience’s participation in the shot. It is one thing to look at a corridor another to have a sense that you are actually INSIDE that corridor and James has pushed moviemaking in that direction. Also the CGI character work is the greatest MO-CAP to date. The faces of the Navi and especially the work done with the Avatars are the first to truly blur the CGI/human actor line. Future filmmakers (and I’m looking directly at you Zemeckis) should take some time and study what Cameron has done here. Not since Gollum have CGI characters conveyed the intent and expression of their human actors. That I would bring up a four year old movie I think marks the problem MO-CAP has had and that Avatar side steps. Zemeckis perhaps has gone the wrong route in trying to make CGI look too human. However modern audiences are used to CGI characters and in a sense are ready to lose some “unreality” for the sake of expression. In Avatar the Navi are just enough “unreal” to bridge the “I know I’m looking at CGI” gap. The world Cameron creates is immersive and feels real even with the “unreality” of a foreign planet. Again all this isn’t a giant leap forward but a taking of the tools available now and using them to craft something unique.

However the uniqueness of the visual presentation is completely undercut by the monumentally underwhelming story and plot. For all the technical innovation Avatar’s storyline and even its characters are all too familiar. If you’ve seen 1492, Dances with Wolves, or even Disney’s Pocahontas you’ve seen this movie. Coming out of the theater you realize that as stunning and immersive as the movie was it was equally emotionally unengaging based on the simple fact that you knew where the movie was going and that there was absolutely no dramatic tension. That coupled with the fact that the main character really doesn’t experience any personal loss or have to sacrifice anything to succeed makes the personal “triumph” hollow. The word that came to my mind was “hubris” when I began to reflect on the movie. Both the arrogance to preach tired “white man guilt” messages about supposed American imperialism to an audience that’s heard the same messages time and time again (we don’t respect all living things, blah, blah, we shoot first, blah, blah) but to also assume that you don’t need to tell a compelling story because your medium is “unique” smacks of a certain kind of pride. Now I’ve read a lot of reviews that encourage viewers to “take the movie for what it is”, in that case the movie is a two hour theme park ride heavy on effects light on concept. (look for Avatar the 4-D experience ride coming next year) Just like a park ride you don’t mind spending the money, standing in line, and having an experience, but this rollercoaster isn’t too different from others you’ve tried, you won’t want your money back but you’ll think twice about going on the ride again.

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2 Responses to “Underwhelmed by Avatar”

  1. Stephen Lackey Says:

    Great review Jason! I was afraid of that after watching the trailers. Why do the things I love (giant robots with guns, awesome looking gunships, etc.) are usually used only as bait to get me to listen to a liberal sermon asking me to repent of the sins of my fathers. I knew it would ultimately be a let down and I would leave unfulfilled and poorer and wondering where the time went. Didn’t this guy make “Aliens?” THAT was a great movie. Camaraderie in the face of evil and 10mm pulse rifles firing standard light armor piercing rounds with (icing on the cake) pump action grenade launchers!

  2. The sermon isn’t just preaching GUILT, either. I’ve been reading up on some academic thought on the film, and one rather pertinent criticism is that in Avatar–and unlike The Last Samurai and Dances With Wolves, notably–the white “convert” to the natives’ ways also becomes their Savior (or whatever the heck the name is of the “guy who rides the big orange dragon thing”). I mean, seriously, the marine gets a supposedly disinterested Deity to unleash all the creatures of Pandora to whallop the attacking humans.

    Anyway–in the end, the white guy proves to be a better Navi than the Navi themselves are. He’s completely foreign to their ways, yet there is just something about him that makes him special and gives him that leadership quality to lead the Navi to kick butt and kick the humans out, something the Navi just haven’t been able to accomplish for some reason–not advanced enough, maybe? In the end, while the Navi are put on a pedestal, it’s not just to observe but to shape them. And the compassionate white man is of course the perfect person for such a job.

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