Ten things I think I think about Avatar

Last night, Cyn and I went to see Avatar in 3D (Real 3D, that is). Part of me was a littler resistant to see the movie, mostly because I think James Cameron is an ass. It’s not like I’ve ever met the man, but everything I’ve read about him (like this New Yorker profile) and his outburst at the Academy Awards just makes me disinclined to like him.

But, I’d heard great things about the movie and decided I should see it. So, we went last night and I’ve not stopped thinking about it since. In fact, here are 10 things I think I think about the film:

  1. Artistry: Let me say it up front, this is a beautiful movie. I mean that literally: it’s actually beautiful. That’s different from “good.” I don’t know that the film is all that good. I found the story rather predictable and character development utterly lacking (more on this later), but as a piece of visual art, it’s quite stunning. The colors, the richness, the use of 3D – it all comes together to form scene after scene of beauty. I also loved the thought that went into the various forms of technology. From the military aircraft to the computers, it had a Minority Report-like confidence in future technology different from what we do today. And this art appears in virtually every scene throughout the film. Quite spectacular. Even the fake Navi language is quite beautiful. But, beauty should still be believable, and I had a big problem with some of the science, including…
  2. Tidal forces: Pandora, the celestial object where the movie takes place, appears to be a moon of a much larger planet. Sort of as if Earth orbited Jupiter. From all appearances, Pandora is close enough to the much larger planet that there should be extreme gravitational effects on Pandora. I mean, Pandora should be experiencing the sort of tidal forces that make Titan and Europa such interesting moons in our solar system. Yeah, geeky, I know. But still, it seemed such an obvious problem to me. Another obvious problem was the…
  3. Stereotyping: I couldn’t help but find the oversimplification and stereotyping of characters obnoxiously annoying. From the military commander who is a blood-thirsty cowboy to the chain-smoking anti-social scientist who hates her own kind, to the naturalistic Navi. The Navi seemed to be modeled on American Indian/African people, from the hair, lips and noses, to the clothing, mysticism and clan-like tribes. This bothers me because it seemed so simplistic. It’s as if indigenous people are always the mystical and technologically simple (and fairly helpless) people, while the white Americans (with a modicum of minorities thrown in) are cruel, technologically and militarily superior, and careless. Meanwhile, the Navi were unable to do anything until the hero, who is actually a good-guy white American, saves them. That all leads to…
  4. Lack of character development: This might be the biggest problem I have with Avatar. There was virtually no character development throughout this entire film. Now, one might argue that Jake Sully developed from a jarhead to a Navi, or that other Navi developed into a force that could fight back, but that’s being awfully generous. The truth is, none of the secondary characters developed at all, and that Jake was a complete blank slate at the beginning of the film. He didn’t move from one place to another, he just showed up. For example, he seems to have no problem suddenly turning on his fellow Marines and killing them. (I have a feeling this will be something that many people will have a problem with.) I would expect this to be a torturous issue for him. There’s also almost no character development for the main Navi characters. How they were at the end of the film wasn’t too different from how they were at the beginning of the film. Speaking of the Navi, I found them…
  5. Insufficiently alien: Why did the Navi have to look so human? Not only the Navi, but all the other alien creatures look like monstrous versions of present or past Earth life. For a film that was so fantastical and animated, it seems to me Cameron missed a wonderful creative opportunity to imagine completely new forms of life. And not just imagining new forms of life, but new ways of making life, which leads me to…
  6. Sex: Let’s face it, the main Navi girl is smoking hot. She’s got perky little breasts, a tight flat tummy, a small hard butt and skimpy clothes. You knew at some point she and Jake (who’s quite a catch himself, in both human and Navi form) were going to get it one, and they did. But what’s with the human form of copulation? Kissing? Woman on top? I was really hoping to see some funky alien lovemaking going on. Maybe their pony tails would link up, at least. Once again, this could have been an opportunity for more creativity, though perhaps with everything else, Cameron’s creative juices were exhausted. At least he didn’t use Navi sex as a cheap opportunity to employ more…
  7. 3D: This is the first non-IMAX 3D movie I’ve seen and, well, wow. I thought 3D was just a gimmick, but I’m converted now. Avatar didn’t do anything flagrant with 3D, which I thought was appropriate. One of the trailers, though, was for Tim Burton‘s Alice in Wonderland and that looked amazing. I’ve often found Tim Burton’s films to be beautiful in their artistry and terrible in their execution, and the same might be true for Alice. But, I’ll say this: based on the trailer, it looks like Burton uses 3D the way a cinematographer uses light and shadows. As for Avatar, the 3D added to the film in a very pleasant way. One funny moment for me, though, was that at one point I thought the person sitting in front of me had gotten up. I was about to ask him to sit down when I realized it was a character in the film. Freaky. Oddly, despite the incredible detail to the artistry of the scenes and the 3D, there were more than a few…
  8. Odd oversights: Given how much time and money went in to making this film, I was surprised by what appeared to be numerous technical flaws in the film. On more than a few occasions, I was surprised by incredibly awkward camera movements (jerky zooms, etc.) that looked like mistakes. There was a time when the humans were in an open helicopter without masks. And when, at the end, Jake and his Navi babe are together, she was suddenly, and obviously, a human in makeup. The size difference evaporated and it just seemed weird. It shook me out of the moment. This reminds me of Alien when the monster at the end of the film was obviously a guy in a rubber suit. It just felt wrong. Another thing that felt wrong was the…
  9. Lack of science: For a science fiction film, this movie was almost completely devoid of science. Why???? What’s so wrong with science. I already discussed my problem with the tidal forces, but what about the science of the avatars themselves? Or the floating mountains? It just seems like there were opportunities to explore more of the science of the moment, much like the latest Star Trek movie did so well. Science wasn’t the only thing lacking in Avatar. Another was a…
  10. Lack of subtlety: I’m guessing that just as fuck and shit are bad words in most houses, subtle is a bad word in Cameron’s (and shit and fuck are not). There is nothing in Avatar that even remotely qualifies as subtle. The message of environmentalism, the disdain for militarism, the love story — it’s all so in your face. I probably mostly agree with the message of the movie, but it’s so flagrant, so over the top, that I can’t help but feel a bit repelled by it. It’s kind of like…
  11. Cameron’s taste in music: So, this is a bonus entry because it’s not what I think I think, but rather what I know: James Cameron has terrible taste in music, at least as far as film scores go. During the credits was another Celine Dion-like screamer who made me flee from the theater. Who calls this shit music? It’s awful.

I’m sure there’s plenty more to say about Avatar, and given a few more minutes I’ll probably think of them. Maybe you will, too. Please pick apart my arguments, point out things I’ve missed, or add to what I’ve put here. I’d love to hear some different opinions.

2 Replies to “Ten things I think I think about Avatar”

  1. Alright, I’ll weigh in here, too.

    2: Regarding tidal forces, I got the impression that Pandora was the largest celestial object around, and that the other objects seen from the ground of Pandora, while large, were still not the largest. And I recall one character commenting at one point about the lower gravity on the planet, which could’ve been perceived as lower due to the attractive forces of the neighboring objects.

    3 & 4: While obnoxious, I put aside my gripes with those aspects of the film, as I felt like Cameron was going for sheer technical demonstration. He created a fantastical new world, and deployed some absolutely top-notch graphics and animation, but he clearly skimped on the story and character development.

    5: Agreed. This did bother me that he didn’t push them further. That said, I could understand if he made them look more identifiable with forms of life we’re familiar with so as to not create an additional element that the audience would have to buy into and become familiar with. For people like you and I who would nitpick, it’s an issue, but I would bet the casual audience member didn’t take issue with it, which is what I’d care to wager Cameron was going for.

    8: I’m 100% those sudden zooms were purposeful. That’s a style that’s been utilized frequently lately, especially in sci-fi, notably in Battlestar Galatica and last summer’s Star Trek. That effect is often used to give a film a more handheld, documentary-style feel, which considering how polished the rest of the camera work was in this film, wasn’t an appropriate effect to use here. But I guess when you’re Cameron and you’ve got nearly 300 million dollars, you can do things like that — and cast Michelle Rodriguez.

    9: If he’d actually fleshed this out more, the film would’ve gone well beyond 3 hours. Do you want that? (But agreed, I’d like to hear more on it, too. We’re science geeks, and things like “flux vortex” don’t cut it.)

    11: Agreed, and why the atrocious Papyrus subtitles, even quirkier title card at the end of the film, and then a nice, clean sans-serif for the end credits?!



  2. There was definitely a larger planet in the background. You could see it in the sky. And the racial thing was really bothersome to me. Oh, poor native peoples. Helpless until the white man saves them from destruction!


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