movie: Avatar

Movie: Avatar

A post over at Servant of Chaos asked “What was your best post of the year”, and in looking back, I wasn’t able to find one that I thought was really great. To this end, I’m aiming for one post each week this year where I go into a lot more detail about a particular topic. For this week, my topic is the movie Avatar, and the hype surrounding it. I’ve tried to bring together links to the various things I’ve read about Avatar in the lead-up to watching it, so that you can understand where my head is at in writing the review. You might find some interesting reading in the links that follow.

When I’m trying to watch a movie, I do my best to avoid spoilers wherever possible. For a film like Avatar, this has been really tough: many of the people whose blogs I read had seen it, or talked about it, or blogged about it already: here is some of the buzz.

At the time of writing, Avatar was scoring 84 on metacritic (a site that aggregates critical reviews), and the press was abuzz with the idea that for a film that had cost between $240M and $500M to make, by New Year’s Day 2010 it had grossed (world wide) over $700M (amounts in US dollars). Are people rushing out to the cinema to watch it because it may cost them $4k to watch at home (that’s the cost of upgrading the home system to 3D, by the way, not the cost of the DVD.

No-one seems sure how much the movie cost, as a large amount of the budget would have been spent on developing new technology. An interview with James Cameron and Peter Jackson sheds some light on where these two directors see the technology going. This short making-of movie (youtube) explains the new techniques of motion capture that help them bring the characters to life.

Tony Hollingsworth pointed me to this post discussing how did they do it and how would you use it, looking for further discussion on film-making and how it relates to and draws from the human condition. Jenny links to even more coverage of Avatar – other sci fi works that are referenced (more obscure ones), an instance of a long-running, but legitimate criticism (this is in sharp contrast to the Roger Ebert review).

Ebert says this of the film:

Cameron has told a story with comprehensible emotional motivation, physical events that make sense at least within the realities of his imaginary world, and an alien race that exists not as foils for ray guns but an indigenous people living in harmony with their environment. His movie has a Green message and an anti-war message, both effective and organic parts of the plot.

Another criticism comes from (a-list blogger) Jason Kottke:

The Na’vi are too capable and live in an environment that is far too pregnant with technological possibility to be stuck in the Stone Age. Plot-wise it’s convenient for them to be the way they are, but the Na’vi really should have been more technologically advanced than the Earthlings, not only capable of easily repelling any attack from Captain Ironpants but able to keep the mining company from landing on the moon in the first place.

Perhaps the most critical headline I read before seeing the movie was Avatar and the death of storytelling where Cameron is taken to task for spending 10 years on a movie with such a weak storyline.

No link festival would be complete without a reference to the Avatar wikipedia page and – once you consider the terribly named macguffin unobtainium (TV tropes site), you should also look at the TV tropes avatar movie page.

One of the first reviews I heard was that of Mark Kermode.

Mark cited a tweet that simply called the film “Smurfahontas” – a retelling of the film (I haven’t seen) Pocahontas with blue, smurf-like creatures. Update 6-1-10: Someone has made the comparison more explicit.

It is also worth pointing out the similarities between Avatar and Fern Gully (youtube), and who can go past the incredibly brief lolcat summary of Avatar?

At this point, you might like to consider the (massively spoiler-filled) official trailer for Avatar.

If you’re looking for some Christian critiques of the film, the best I saw was linked from the between two worlds blog – a NYT op-ed piece Heaven and Nature by Ross Douthat. Sorry to say dave, that the fervr review of Avatar doesn’t actually review the film: perhaps not being able to remember the film is condemnation enough, though. Update 5/1/10: AFES review of Avatar engages with the film some more.

Having sa
id all of this, what did I think of the film? I really enjoyed it. James Cameron has created a complete world – there are plants, animals, a native populace with their own weapons and mythology. The planet is especially spectacular at night. He’s created a human race that are credible (if one dimensional) in their motivation and actions, and made some characters that are sufficiently “everyman” that it’s possible to see yourself in some scenes, and not in other scenes.

Watching the start of the film, I was reminded of (another James Cameron film) Aliens – the ship design and layout of the crew in the ships. This was made more obvious by the return of what seemed to be an Aliens-identical robotic exoskeleton (“power loader”) for some of the foot-soldiers. There’s the presence of some kind of “corporation”, where any kind of morally questionable action can be justified if there’s money to be made for shareholders.

Watching the epic scenes where one race of people are hopelessly outclassed by the military technology of another, and then watching the underdog fight back has to be a reminder not just of current US foreign policy, but also the vietnam conflict, and of any relationship between a Western civilisation and the indigenous inhabitants of a country it was hoping to populate.

These messages are not terribly subtle, but – I found at least – could be cast into the back of your mind while watching the film. The best part of the film was losing yourself to the story and the world, and just watching it unfold. Yes, everything is very tidy, and the film could be much shorter if we didn’t spend so much time travelling from one point to another. Yes, much of the dialogue is exposition, and the storytelling is more of a conglomeration of epic movie cliches than something rich and original. Yes, the “inspirational speech” seems to have Sam Worthington channeling Mel Gibson in Braveheart.

And yet, it’s a really enjoyable movie. If you enjoy Hollywood blockbuster movies, you will find it worth your time.

What did you think? Was all the extra discussion helpful? Let me know in the comments.

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  1. Thumbs up for the expanded post, Dave.

    Yeah, I’m in the“ rel=”nofollow”>pro-Avatar camp too. Like you, I see its flaws, but, man, it’s a couple of hours of pure escapism that worked for me.

    It probably won’t age that well, as other movies embrace the new technology and take it further and into more strongly plotted movies, but, right now, it’s like nothing else I’ve seen.

  2. The 3D immersive experience was fantastic, so much so that when I watched Sherlock immediately after, I spent the first half hour or so trying to readjust to the “flatness” of 2D. On the other hand, the plot was a very simplified “by the numbers” piece and a rather old hat to be honest; it beat you over the head with a baseball bat…repeatedly.

    Looking forward to Burton’s Alice in Wonderland though.

  3. Nice post, Dave. It’s great to have your background ‘references’ as well as your own thoughts on the review.

    I really enjoyed the film despite the very predictable story (minor rant: unobtainium – WHAT?! 10 years and he couldn’t think up a better name? Sounded like the name they used in the first draft, thought “we’ll think of something better later” and then just got absorbed in the visuals and never went back to it). Loved getting lost in a beautiful, fully realised world. And even under the CGI, I thought Worthington and Saldana’s performances were pretty good; definitely got a sense of their connection.

    When I go to see a blockbuster type movie, all I’m really expecting is to be entertained, not necessarily challenged or to have my life changed, and Avatar delivered on that score.

  4. Thanks for all the extra material, Dave! The motion capture stuff was really interesting; I didn’t realize they were using it, right down to capturing facial expressions. I also didn’t realize that Neytiri was performed by Zoe Saldana, who I know best from Centre Stage and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest.

    I just found it impressive that Cameron managed to make a three-hour film that didn’t drag; there was always something to entertain, amuse or gawk at. Sure, the plot was predictable, and the dialogue and characterization poor and two-dimensional, but it was entertaining, I’ll give it that!

  5. lets face it – if you write it, im going to read it. i like that you’ve covered all sides of the ‘debate’ and added your thoughts at the end. knowing how other people think and the way they form their opinions always helps to form a greater understanding of the subject matter being discussed. so thanks!

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