Sigourney WeaverGiovanni RibisiMichelle RodriguezJames Cameron
Medium: film
Year: 2009
Writer/director: James Cameron
Keywords: Oscar-winning, SF
Country: USA, UK
Actor: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, Laz Alonso, Dileep Rao, Matt Gerald, Sean Anthony Moran
Format: 162 minutes
Website category: SF
Review date: 28 December 2011
I've seen Avatar at last. I found it kind of boring, as I'd half-expected, but you've got to admire it.
Just to set the scene though, on this one I'm wrong. Avatar, like Titanic before it, proved that James Cameron can do monstrously long, emotionally powerful blockbusters like no one else in the history of the movie industry. If you don't like it, you're outvoted. Both of those became the highest-grossing films of all time and you can't explain it away just by citing the special effects.
Those special effects, by the way, are revolutionary. When I was looking for a new TV, almost the only things I'd see being shown on high-definition TVs in the shops would be: (a) CGI animated movies like Monsters vs. Aliens, or overwhelmingly (b) Avatar. Nothing else comes even close to selling high definition that well. Cameron had his story ready to shoot in 1999, but then spent a decade waiting for technology to catch up with him. It really does look that good, but what's more it's still going to look that good even in twenty years when we've seen further technological leaps. (Similarly but to a much lesser extent, Terminator 2's T-1000 still looks impressive twenty years later, despite the fact that its CGI by modern standards is practically Stone Age. Like Spielberg, Cameron understands how to use special effects.)
The negative stuff that bored me about it is:
(a) the slow, simple story with no surprises and arguably less plot complexity than an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The storytelling allows itself so much time that one doesn't get the impression that there could be anything more to discover on repeat viewings, although to believe this might be to undersell the themes. Cameron's laying things out so deliberately and clearly that he's making his big ideas almost idiot-proof, although reading the reviews and critical commentary about this film shows that there's always a bigger idiot out there than you can imagine.
(b) the underwhelming humans, especially Sam Worthington. I'm now worried about Terminator Salvation, although there's force to the counter-argument that Worthington's character is as described, an "empty vessel" who never really thinks throughout the film and instead is just a warrior. Even Sigourney Weaver (whom I normally love) wasn't setting me on fire, although I liked Giovanni Ribisi. The film didn't come to life for me if there weren't Na'vi on screen.
(c) I think I'd been expecting too much from the final battle. Cameron stages it well, but at the end of the day it's still a battle. These are fundamentally a high-energy kind of boring.
I wasn't wild about "unobtanium" either, although I've since learned that it's a real term used (for humour value) by, among others, the aerospace industry. This isn't its first appearance in SF movies.
What's good about the movie though is its depth. It's simple, yes, but not simple-minded. Its world-building is as flamboyant as Star Wars, but focused on one detailed, well thought out SF environment that reminded me of Harry Harrison's Deathworld. You get the impression that if Pandora really existed, it would be like that. It takes Gaianism literally and it's commenting fiercely both on environmental issues and on the USA's impersonal, businesslike attitude to modern war. It's political. People from all kinds of cultures, from Native Americans to a number of nations today facing real problems like this (e.g. displacement of Amazon tribes), have identified with what it's saying about commercialism and imperialism. It's also inspired by Hinduism, not just on the obvious level of a holistic spirituality that believes in the interconnectedness of everything, but even down to nuts-and-bolts stuff like the title being a Sanskrit holy word and the fact that the Na'vis are blue.
In case you're still unconvinced, by the way, let me cite morons. This has both been called: (a) "cinema for the hate America crowd" and (b) "the most neo-con movie ever made" for its "deeply conservative, pro-American message". If this film is getting bashed by both ends of the idiot spectrum, it must be doing something right.
There's enough in this film that it can speak in different ways to almost everyone, even if you don't like it. My Dad loved it best when it was being Dances With Wolves. I admired its sincerity and the richness of its SF worldbuilding. It's screaming its lungs out both on political and environmental issues. (I find it interesting that it's Cameron's first SF movie with no nuclear weapons, incidentally.) On a surface level, many people will be seeking it out for its industry-redefining special effects and its battle scenes. It's passionate about what it's saying and it has lots of blue alien side boob shots. These are all good things.
For me it feels slow, predictable and let down by its characterisation, that's all.