Oscarpalooza: Avatar: Different Planet, Same Story

In honor of Oscar weekend, NPI is rerunning its reviews of the Best Picture nominees. Here, John S doesn’t buy into the Avatar hype:

The first 20-30 minutes of Avatar are unlike anything I’ve ever seen in a movie theater. The entire movie takes place on a planet, Pandora, that James Cameron essentially built from scratch and special effects. The closest analog I can come up with for this type of visual creation is the island part of King Kong, but Merian C. Cooper was working with slightly less technology. And even in Peter Jackson’s recent remake, with its gripping use of CGI, we were still dealing with large gorillas and dinosaurs… you know, things that are real.

Pandora’s not like that. Everything is made up, from the plant life to the small animals to the large predators to the indigenous population of humanoids, called the Na’vi. This also doesn’t include the human technologies portrayed in the film, which run from typical “this-is-taking-place-in-the-future” signifiers like extensive use of holograms and things that hover, to more extreme modifications of aircrafts and weaponry. In short, Cameron has done an excellent job creating an entire world. The visual elements of this world, thanks both to their natural richness and the 3-D enhancements, are stunning, and the first act’s introduction of Pandora and its inhabitants is engrossing.

After that, though, you might as well walk out, because there isn’t much story to speak of. Cameron, in his first film since the overwhelmingly successful Titanic, showcases his juvenile sense of dialogue, character, and story over and over again.

Avatar is the kind of film that an eight-year-old kid dreams up. It’s stunningly beautiful, it takes place on a new planet, and it features a plethora of action sequences, ranging from bow-and-arrow hunts in the air and military shootouts to robot-on-alien fight scenes; the story and its characters, though, are plucked directly off the rack.

The film takes place over the summer in 2154, when a paraplegic, ex-marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) finds out that his twin brother, Tommy, has died. Tommy Sully was the smart one, a scientist who was working with Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) to develop the avatars, with DNA combined from humans and Na’vi, in order to establish diplomatic relations with the natives of Pandora.

With Tommy dead, Jake, as the only one with identical DNA, needs to take his place. Grace and Jake are going to clash, see, because one is intellectual and the other is inexperienced. How do we know this? Well, because Grace scoffs when she finds out that Jake has no training (we are also supposed to laugh when Jake characterizes his lab experience as “I dissected a frog once.”), and she wears a Stanford T-shirt (get it? She’s smart!), and she calls Jake “Marine.” Ultimately, though, Jake’s can-do attitude and Grace’s eagerness to learn about the Na’vi help them to establish an important bond.

Also on Pandora, though, is a group of armed human mercenaries employed by a greedy corporate stooge (played by Giovanni Ribisi). Pandora evidently sits on rich deposits of the cleverly named“unobtanium,” so if diplomacy fails, then these mercenaries are prepared to move the Na’vi by force. Stephen Lang plays the colonel in charge of these mercenaries, and was apparently cast for his deep, commanding voice and his ability to utter his lines–such as, “If there is a Hell, maybe you can go there for a little R&R when you’re done on Pandora”–without laughing.

Like the action, most of the dialogue seems like it comes from the mind of an eight-year-old. Cameron is fond of having characters speak mainly in bad jokes and broad, declarative clichés.* The colonel gets the worst of it, having to say things like the aforementioned Hell line, as well as grave blanket statements like “My job is to keep you alive; I will not succeed” and “There is an indigenous people called the Na’vi. They are very hard to kill” (a statement that, as it will turn out, is not really true).

*Maybe one day Cameron and George Lucas can have a contest to see who can write the most wooden, stale dialogue!

What ensues, predictably enough, is a plot taken from Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, Dances with Wolves, and dozens of other movies: Jake, in his Na’vi body, gets close to the natives, particularly with a young female named Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña). He realizes the value of being in touch with nature, the beauty of Eywa—a deity known as “energy that connects all living things”*—and the virtues of the Omaticaya’s (Neytiri’s tribe) simple social structure. Despite Jake’s initial obligation to the human forces, Jake’s loyalty to the Na’vi ultimatey wins out. It’s all very saccharine and sweet; it’s also predictable and very, very dull.

*I don’t know why they didn’t just call it “the Force” either.

There is not one scene, character, plot point, or line of dialogue that doesn’t feel worn and hollow. Even the early scenes that offer a glimpse of Cameron’s new world feel like a standard sketch filled in with more vibrant colors.

Some people, surely, will latch on to certain “subtexts” of the film: There is, for example, a strain of environmentalism that runs through everything. The Na’vi are a very environmentally conscious race: The ends of their pony-tale haircuts can link up to various plants and animals, connecting their consciousness to that entity. In other words, they are, quite literally, at one with nature. But this subtext is presented so literally that it actually undermines the message: These aspects feel like a rote presentation of a generic “civilization vs. nature” theme.

Similarly, the movie has a thinly veiled Iraq allegory going for it at times: an invasion of a foreign land for its mineral resources, against an indigenous population that is technologically destitute but able to defend itself through knowledge of the terrain and superior willpower. In fact, the military inAvatar actually refer to their mission as a “Shock and Awe campaign” and the colonel orders his troops to “fight terror with terror.” Once again, the “subtext” is presented so overtly that it kills any message the film might have.

The truth is that there is nothing really original or innovative about the substance of the movie—it is a technical achievement and nothing more. Even the technical aspect’s payoff is diminished, though, by the lack of anything to support it. The movie drags on so long, with virtually no suspense for the last hour or so, that the impact of the 3-D and the visual effects wane as the film goes on. By the time the film gets to its action-packed climax, the stunning effects employed in the last showdown seem almost mundane.

Ultimately, I don’t think Avatar is really the “future of movies” that we’ve been hearing about. The special effects are very impressive, but until they can be used to tell a compelling, original, and emotionally rich story, they are just a gimmick. Cameron claims that this film took 12 years to develop because “technology needed to catch up,” and it is completely understandable, looking at the entire world Cameron has built, why he had to wait so long. I just wish he had used all that extra time to come up with a better story.

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