Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Another View of Avatar

I’m back - from Winnipeg! Sorry to those of you who wold like to read more reviews on this blog. I plan to write at least a dozen mini-reviews this week as well as list my top ten films of 2009 and of the last decade.

So let’s talk Avatar. Based on the box office receipts, I must be one of the last people in the western world to see this film. Was it worth the wait? Heavy sigh! Not really. Would my experience have been different if I had not known about the incredible popularity of the film or seen Walter and Roger give it four stars? Maybe, but probably not much.

Walter, your review is excellent and I agree with almost all of it. The biggest difference between us is that the ride just wasn’t fun enough for me to give it four stars or to forgive the same old same old redemptive violence ending. Talk about boring! Just like District 9, the first half of Avatar provides so much potential for greatness before the film dissolves into a silly action flick. Roger (Ebert) thinks this is forgivable in Avatar because the characters have been so well established and it means something to us to see exactly how the battle is fought and won. Sorry, Roger - I disagree. If these well-established characters had truly understood the futility/insanity of violence and war (Roger and others have called this an anti-war film - sorry again, Roger, this is most definitely not an anti-war film), they would have found a way to reach out to the soldiers in such a way that not just one but the majority of them (the soldiers) would have stood up to the colonel and refused to destroy the Hometree (let alone take part in the second bombing raid). James, what were you thinking? How can you so brilliantly allude to the way the U.S. invades countries like Iraq and Afghanistan to secure minerals (oil) for its own people and future, and so brilliantly help us see the wisdom in literally stepping into the moccasins of another (whether NaVi or Muslim), and so brilliantly portray the life of Pandora’s natural world to show us how we are not appreciating our own world (indeed are ruthlessly destroying it in order to take whatever we want), and yet not see how your failure to think outside of the box when it comes to the redemptive violence required to conclude the story (another cardboard evil character we have been taught to hate snuffs it at the end - can you hear my yawn?) leaves the way of violence and war largely unchallenged and ultimately leaves the world in the hands of the military-industrial complex you are apparently trying to condemn?

Okay, with that tirade behind us, let’s get back to my review of Avatar.

Avatar is a BIG movie. Cameron likes to make BIG films and that’s just fine with me. I enjoy seeing filmmakers push the boundaries of what can be done with film (my favourite film of the past decade is a wonderful example; what? No, of course I won’t tell you now; you’ll have to wait for the countdown when I’m ready). Star Wars was a BIG film and it remains my second-favourite film of all time. Like Star Wars, Avatar features largely unknown actors and lots of dumned-down dialogue, but remains very watchable nonetheless. Avatar is in many ways more beautiful than Star Wars; this is a gorgeous film to watch. BUT! Yeah, sorry, there is a big BUT here. BUT it felt to me like I was watching an animated film with the occasional live action thrown in. Don’t get me wrong - I love animated films, but Star Wars (especially the original 1977 version) wowed me much more than Avatar because it did NOT feel like an animated film. As for 3D? What can I say? I have never been a fan of 3D and consider the current obsession with 3D a huge downward trend in filmmaking (Tim Burton, are you listening?). The 3D in Avatar did almost nothing for me and I can’t wait to see it again in 2D. Basically, I view 3D as a distraction from the film (similar to handheld camera work). To be honest, I am increasingly distracted by special effects in film and long for the days of pre-green-screen filming. In the end, the action scenes in Avatar were as boring to me as the action scenes in most other films. So, yes, Avatar was beautiful to watch and a fun ride, but it did not impress me as the great technological breakthrough I had heard so much about. Take me back to Casablanca anytime.

Having said that, I was awed time and again by individual scenes of profound spirituality and subtle beauty, particularly all the scenes involving the Tree of Souls and its seeds. Eywa, the Goddess, is a fascinating character in the film and the idea has much to contribute to our understanding of God. Wonderful stuff. If only, in the end, Eywa wasn’t portrayed as possessing the same lack of wisdom as humans when she sends the forces of nature to destroy the evil interloper - yup, I’m yawning again. What a wasted opportunity to view God as something more than human (i.e. not confined to humanly narrowing the options available in responding to a conflict situation).

Probably the thing that impressed me most about Avatar was the fearless way Cameron challenges the American military (Anti-war? No. Anti-American-invasions? Yes). At one point, Jake Scully says: “When people sit on shit that you want, you make them your enemy and you take it” Wow! Great stuff. And hardly subtle. So is the most popular film of all time going to open the eyes of the American people to the way its military mindset is destroying our planet? I wish I could say yes, but I fear too many people just won’t get it. And the violent ending won’t help. It also doesn’t help that the two primary “evil” characters are so poorly developed, as Walter has pointed out. Also not helping is the fact that if we draw the parallels out far enough, Avatar seems to be endorsing a violent Muslim uprising against the U.S. military. Obviously no one wants to promote that, but think, James, think! (Even Scully says, “I was a warrior who dreamed he could bring peace. Sooner or later though, you always have to wake up” - a profound quote that requires unpacking).

Walter, I particularly liked your comments about the way Pandora’s inherent hostility, mixed with the warrior NaVi, distracts from an appreciation of the planet and its people. It reminds me of various attempts made this past century to glorify the warrior culture of Native Americans, etc. (think klingons as an example). Does NOT work for me. Compare that to a film that Avatar immediately reminded me of: Disney’s Pocahontas. Only Pocahontas really was an anti-war film.

So, insofar as Avatar presents a beautifully-rendered world/culture and promotes humanization of the Other and an appreciation for the environment, and gives us Jake Scully, whose childlike cup is empty (another excellent point, Walter), it is a very worthy endeavour and worth watching at least twice. But insofar as the film concentrates too much on its technological wizardry and action and violence, it disappoints and is unworthy of its popularity and acclaim (and Golden Globe) and so cannot get four stars from me. ***+ for the ride. My mug is up but I need stronger stuff.


  1. All well said. I just wanted to point out that a good part of me didn't want to like the 3D. I am quite concerned about what this will do to the future of movies (and TV apparently). But darn, I loved it. When I saw Holmes the next week, it literally looked flat (especially since the Holmes movie made London look deliberately out of focus (was the world actually fuzzier back in the 19th century?)

  2. Haha! Agreed Walter. I had never seen a 3D movie before this one, and I absolutely loved it (the 3D). I may not love it in all movies, but something about feeling transported to the stunning scenery in Pandora grabbed me. Now, if they made BBC's Planet Earth in 3D, that would be something...