Avatar: A Review

James Cameron's Avatar. One of the most expensive movies ever made, and certainly one of the most talked about. Even before it was released it was being praised and panned all over the internet by the usual geek squads, Cameron was raked over the coals, the story has been shredded and compared to Ferny Gully, Dances With Wolves, and Pocahontas by various people (btw, if you've seen it definitely check that Pocahontas link). And it made a Billion dollars. And it was awesome... mostly. Kinda.

Here's the thing. They're right. It IS Dances with Wolves, and Fern Gully, and even Pocahontas... and At Play In the Fields of The Lord, and Alien, and about a dozen other movies, and I think that's where it suffers.

Everyone is also right that it is a visually stunning movie, and a turning point in the way that movies are going to be created. There are points in this movie where even a trained eye will not be able to discern what is real and what isn't. I can honestly say that the created reality of this movie is so fully realized and so awesomely detailed that it astounded me. I'm pretty good at picking out the CGI from the soundstage stuff, and there were points here where I'd be hard pressed to even begin that. They are incredibly close to getting CGI humans right, they have finally began to emerge from the uncanny valley, and soon a mix of CGI and actor will be perfectly seamless (to me the hands are the failing here, they are still pretty stiff.) The animals are already past that point. The ability to create and integrate unreal species has been achieved here. This will be the new point of comparison for every visual movie going forward for quite a while.

The problem is the story. Those apt comparisons to Pocahontas and Fern Gully? WAY too apt. Don't get me wrong, the story was enjoyable, and held my interest, but it was not much above the level of a good young adult novel. It was so simple, and straight forward and incredibly black and white. Corporations=bad. Aboriginals=in touch with nature. Military=evil. Margaret Meade analog=caring. The evil guys act evil. The aboriginals are kind and giving and mystical under their gruff exteriors. The corporation sells out its PC research wing in search of greater profits. Everyone acts exactly the way you'd expect them to. The plot proceeds exactly the way you'd expect it to. There is no one and nothing in this movie that is in any way surprising. I mean... out of a thousand military troops only ONE felt that what they were doing was bad enough to fight against it? Other than the two scientists that went rogue and left the compound NONE of the scientific team made an effort to sabatoge the military, or contact the corporate higher ups, or speak to the media? Thousands of Na'Vi on the planet and the corporation hadn't figured out a way to corrupt a single one of them? (No "firewater" or $26 in trinkets on Pandora?) At no point during this movie was the outcome in doubt, it was all just a matter of watching how the cards got played out.

Formula movies are formula movies, and I guess they have a place in the entertainment culture, but for $500 Million... can't we have a few twists and moments of genuine storytelling rather than just some rearrangement of story cliches? Is Hollywood incapable of not making a remaking, even when they aren't trying to make a remake?

If I wanted to get really nit-picky I could start to question the whole premise of the movie... Why did they need the avatars? So they could breathe? Why couldn't they perform scientific research while wearing those breathing masks that the military used? Because the gravity was different? Obviously not so different as to prevent long term stays on the planet. Why were the humans on the surface at all? If they were all operating avatars from a space station, then sure... but everyone was planet side. If they were trying to blend into the native population unnoticed that would also be another thing, the way Next Generation used to portray their away teams, but again, they told the Na'Vi who they were, even to the point that the Na'Vi knew their real bodies were elsewhere "dreaming" of being with them, so what was the point?

In the end... I enjoyed it. I might even see it again, which is rare for me. But was it a slam dunk, best-movie-I-ever-saw, awesome? No. I have some serious questions about how watered down our entertainment has become. Is this like District 9 where (I'm told) I didn't get it because I wasn't the intended audience?

Oh! And my other question... are we so Puritanical a society that even made up cartoons of alien species who have no breasts and aren't even mammals have to wear bras?

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