Review of Avatar

This isn’t my most current review. This movie has been out long enough everyone’s probably already formed an opinion. Which means, read on! See if you disagree, and then debate it with me in the comments! From the enormous hype machine to the months of sold-out performances, I came out of that movie having seen exactly what I expected. Which is good, mostly.

Stunning, well-designed visuals? Check. A critical view our need as a race to strip everything around us for resources? Check. Action scenes that will no doubt inspire hordes of video games? Check.

Strange as it may sound, with all the fervour around this movie, giving us this sort of relatively simple story is the safest bet, with the best chance for success. Everything that could be counted as a surprise was in the visuals, in the design.

The polish is apparent in this kind of a movie; you can see that every creature and item has been sketched and discussed and re-sketched and discussed so that it attempts to simulate a whole world. The writing generally steers clear from heavy exposition; it lets you see all the big ideas in action. The reason or McGuffin of the story involves an aptly named ore,  unobtainium, but we aren’t told much about it or what it can do. It’s enough for this kind of story for us to know that it’s valuable, and the indigenous people are sitting on top of it.

(As a side note, unobtainium is a meta-textual concept often used to describe non-existent metals in science-fiction, particularly when it carries important. The name feels like a placeholder, something Cameron meant to go back and change, and then forgot. It stands as the only major problem I had with the film; other than a hokey name, what makes this metal so valuable? Based on the lack of depth with the rest of the movie; I can’t expect that Cameron is trying to be especially clever or metatextual..)

Those indiginous people are definitely in touch with the natural world; huge effort has gone into showcasing just how much they care for everything living. Which creates a nice simple dichotomy of technology versus nature. Guess which side we’re supposed to go for?

As we watch that conflict play out, we feast our eyes on cool technology and strange alien creatures, some beautiful, others monstrous. We get lost in the detail of the mind-swap device, and how it is wrapped around our human hero to allow him access to his alien body; in how the robot armour-suits duplicate the motions of their human pilot, and in how the alien bow is strung and how it holds the arrow.

There’s not a story moment of this movie that surprised me, though not in a way I minded. Most of the later victories and tragedies are set up beforehand, in the tradition of skilled storytellers. The relationship between the Jake Sully and his Naa’vi (the name of the indiginous people) contact is exactly what we expect. To be honest, it’s what we came for.

Some have compared this movie to Pocahontas, or Dances With Wolves, seeing the similarity as proof of a lack of imagination. Though I agree there wasn’t innovation given to the narrative, it was fully inside the design. The reason for the film is not to give you a story you’ve never heard, it to give you one you’ve never seen, and that’s an important differece.

I perfer my stories a bit more complicated, but I can also appreciate the goal of the storytellers, which as I’ve said, isn’t focusing on impressing us with wordplay. So as a ride, as an exploration into a world that shows phenomenal effort on the part of it’s creators, this movie succeeded.

(After having originally written the review, I saw some speculation in the newspaper about a summer re-release, with more footage. In keeping with how I enjoyed the movie, this lost footage would have to be of more robots and more aliens to keep me interested. If it’s a clumsily written heart-to-heart between Jake and the hard-bitten researcher Sigourney Weaver plays, well, maybe not…)

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2 thoughts on “Review of Avatar

  1. I liked your review, and am more or less of the same mind. I agree that the story held no particular surprises (although their take on ‘Gaia’ was novel, at least in my experience), but I was 100% okay with that. While it may not have been especially original, I felt that it was satisfyingly executed.

    The strength of the film, and the reason that I’m such a big fan, is that, to me, it’s an experiential film. I felt, like in no other film, that I had been plunged into another world. And I’m perfectly content to spend 2 or 3 hours in someone else’s world if they make it worthwhile.

    1. I don’t know if I’d say it was experimental as a film, so much as it was experimental in design. (And in that case, mostly with the Naa’vi. The marines seem like an extrapolation of the characters we met in Aliens.)

      But it works the same way Star Wars works. There’s so much detail packed in there, that you enjoy looking over the character’s shoulder to a sense of the world…

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