Movie Review: Avatar

Whoo…two movies in four days. This review comes after discussing and dissecting the movie with my family, but before reading friends’ or professional reviews.

Possibly the most anticipated movie of the year, James Cameron’s James Cameron’s Avatar was a visually stunning display of modern technology to present a classic anti-colonialism, environmentalist message. Because there was so much hype surrounding this movie, I’m going to break it down into sections.

This review is ridiculously long (3,000 words!), so skim or pick the sections you’re more interested in. For the short version, just read the bolded bits in each paragraph.

The first half of this review has no spoilers (or at least no significant ones), but if you really don’t want to know anything about the movie, or just don’t want to read it, I’d say go see it, in IMAX 3D if you can and regular 3D if you can’t. Just for the visual appeal. The story isn’t bad—you’ve just seen it before—and the graphics are stunning.

Story

Everything you’ve heard is true. This is Dances with Wolves, or Pocahontas, or to a lesser extent FernGully. (None of which I have seen in their entirety.) Even the bit about a paralyzed man in an alien body has been done, in a rather good book by Timothy Zhan called Manta’s Gift. It’s not that Cameron didn’t come up with any of the plot on his own, but there is nothing in it that hasn’t been done before, just a mix of several different ideas. Man joins natives and betrays own side when they start killing and destroying the environment. The ex-military protagonist, the paralysis, the friends on the inside, the fact that the natives are aliens, the body-driving, the corporate bad guys, and some details about the planet and environment that would be spoilers are mixed in.

In some way, it’s the mix that’s original, even if the skeleton of the plot and the pieces of the story aren’t. And I’ve been known to say that “there are no new stories”, as an exaggeration of an interesting idea that I might be happy to talk about some other time. Regardless, there was no real original plot or story in Avatar, and so I’m not going to review it.

As a postscript to that, though: just because the story is not original doesn’t mean it is bad. Like I said, I haven’t really seen Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, or FernGully, but they’re all still around. This is another incarnation of the story, and not a bad one—the fact that the story is tried-and-true does not and should not reflect poorly on the movie.

EDIT: It took a while, but the fact that the story is always a Western savior of an indigenous civilization does reflect poorly on the movie, for choosing to do that story.

Environment

Pandora is pretty well set up, and the kind of planet humans would explore and exploit—similar atmospheric pressure, only slightly lower gravity, and, well, valuable resources. The intro sort of implies that this is not the first planet humans have found, and that the corporation didn’t just get here—there’s been a several-year transit period, plus time spent developing the avatar technology and learning Na’vi-the-language. That timeline certainly gives the Na’vi enough time to surreptitiously learn English, but it’s a long time for a corporation to wait. Still, it’s possible the discovery of the mineral didn’t happen right away, or that the management changed some time in the interval, or that the transit delay kept any expansion from happening until now.

Human technology, besides the genetics and biotech needed to create avatars, certainly seems reasonable for 150 years from now. I liked the consoles and displays, the touch interfaces, and the interactive use of a hologram (read: Jake sticking his arm into it). If anything, it was below expectations for over a century away. They’re still using plain old bullet-guns. Their glass (well, some of it) can be shattered by arrows (still not as bad, I guess, as the Battle of Endor). Jake doesn’t even have prosthetic legs, though that would make the story a lot weaker.

Moving on to the biology of Pandora, it’s very interesting. The ecosystem seems…reasonable, if only briefly described. As for the creatures themselves…well, first off, there’s no reason I can think of for any of the animals to have six legs, but once one does, it makes evolutionary sense for all of them to. So, why don’t the Na’vi? (Not to mention the doubled eyes and throat breathing slits everything else also has.) Overall, they are far too human for Pandora, but then, that’s all part of the “mainstream movie” compromise—they have to be human for the avatar program to work, and to get our sympathy (and for performance capture to give them that authenticity).

Oh, and the hovering mountains don’t make any sense, or at least are never really explained (nothing else in the region is antigravitated), but are so awesome that they can be excused. Even if it’s been done before.

Music

Avatar has rather unmemorable music. It’s not bad, just never distinctive or something you concentrate on. It works perfectly well with what’s going on. The use of “tribal” drums and “jungle” flutes for various tracks concerning the Na’vi and the world of Pandora are very nice, if almost obligatory.

Graphics

First of all, I loved the landscapes of Pandora. I didn’t realize how much I liked them until they showed shots of them again under the beginning of the credits. They were no different from sweeping landscape shots on Earth, except they got to pick the most photogenic weather. (Also, Earth has no floating mountains.) So I guess I’d love similar amazing shots of Earth.

The wildlife looked completely real. The plants looked completely real—weird, but plausible. There was nothing there that even muttered “CGI”, let alone screamed it.

As for the Na’vi, they were very good. They moved perfectly (which makes sense, since they were basically performance-captured). They had facial expressions (ditto). The ear movement in particular, and to a lesser extent the tail movement, were great touches that had to be entirely computer-generated, and that was probably what kept the avatars and Na’vi from seeming plastic. I have to say, though, when humans and avatars are in the same scene, the humans look just a bit more real. Maybe that’s just bias against blue hairless skin, but I think we still have a little farther to go in CGI technology.

In short, CGI graphics have basically reached the point where they’re invisible: if you’re used to sci-fi, you don’t notice it’s there. My brother states it as thus: we have no idea which parts of a shot were real and which were digital. It’s hard to strive for better than this. And on top of that, it’s a stunning movie anyway.

3D

This is what the movie is selling, and what everyone’s excited about. Using technology basically developed for this movie (the Pace-Fusion, or Pace-Cameron, 3D camera system), Avatar is best seen in 3D, and perhaps even IMAX 3D if you can make it. This isn’t the red-blue 3D of the 90s; the 3D effect is so real (and in true-color) that you want to swat things out of your face. Seriously. The preview for this looked amazing.

Is it all it’s cracked up to be? Well, kinda yeah. The movie would still work in 2D, sure. It would still be visually stunning, even. But watching a 3D movie feels a lot more natural than watching a 2D movie. Between the 3D and the amazing graphics, you really are missing out if you’re watching a bootleg copy on your computer.

Avatar is nice in that it doesn’t use the 3D as a gimmick, partly because they do show it in 2D, and partly because if there’s one thing we learned from Spy Kids 3D, it’s that 3D gimmicks can’t carry a movie. The best way to put this is something my brother said (pulled from a review, I think): “Most movies so far have used 3D to make things jump out at you. Avatar uses it to put things in the background.” And it’s true; very few times are there scene elements closer than the main action, which is at the normal distance away.

The 3D technology is not perfect. Because it’s based on polarization, tilting your head makes the two images not merge perfectly. (At least in IMAX; Wikipedia suggests that the non-IMAX projectors use clockwise/counter-clockwise polarization, which I don’t really understand but which wouldn’t have this effect.) I never realized how much I slouch and move my head around during a movie until now.

There were still some things which moved rather oddly. I don’t know why. I can say that the best use of 3D was when it was subtle; an example from my dad is when they are walking through the control room and people are very definitely behind the screens they are looking at. And it makes depth-of-field shots a lot more natural.

Finally, though, the problem is that I don’t always want to focus my eyes on the same thing as Cameron does. With a traditional movie, it’s very clear you don’t have a choice; everything looks flat, and the focus is where the filmmaker wants it to be. Here, control of the focus is still in the filmmaker’s hands, but you feel like you should be able refocus your eyes on what’s drifting by in front or behind, and of course you can’t.

Spoiler Warning

From here on out there are spoilers. Stop reading now if you mind, though honestly even if I told you the entire movie you maybe still should go see it just so the graphics can BLOW YOUR MIND.

Characters

Again, the characters are rather simplistic. All of the Na’vi are entirely one-dimensional and predictable, with the exception of Neyteri who has the “before she’s the love interest” and the “after she’s assigned to him” modes (no better). The security chief is entirely the character you’d expect him to be. The corporate head is a bit better, staying in a character but not adding anything to himself or the story. And most of the scientists are just there, even Max (the other defector).

The four remaining human characters are a little more interesting. Trudy, the pilot who joins the scientists’ side, starts out as a fun helicopter pilot character, but because she’s identified as a person, you don’t want her to be on the bad guys’ side. And lo and behold, she flies home in the middle of the first attack. Okay, so she’s kind of sympathetic now. …Then she busts them out of jail, steals a ship, and flies off into the sunset jungle range of hovering mountains. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like a big jump from “refusing to fire on innocents” to “aiding and abetting prisoners”. Passive vs. active resistance. But maybe I’m just being cynical…after all, she did The Right Thing. Right?

Dr. Augustine (or just “Grace”) is the typical gruff senior expert, made a little more modern by being female. But Cameron writes it well and Sigourney Weaver plays it well. When Jake is unexpectedly brought into the Omaticaya village, she suddenly values him—because that’s how scientists work. And later on, she feels responsible for him, as director of the program, and enough sympathy for the Na’vi to side with them. All of this makes a casually realistic character, even if she is there to play a part. A bonus tidbit, though, is that her avatar is only a little older than Jake’s or Norm’s. It makes total scientific sense, but it’s also kind of interesting for an older woman to get a younger body again—a lighter version of Jake’s situation.

Norm is probably my favorite character, though that’s more a casual affection than full sympathy. Maybe it’s cause he’s not in every version of this story. Like Grace, his character has real responses all throughout: enjoying being a mentor in the beginning, then jealous of an untrained colleague’s success, and finally choosing to be a kid martyr. He’s not such an important guy, but I like him. And it was a nice touch how when his avatar is shot, he stumbles out of the link machine clutching his chest.

Finally, there’s Jake Sully, the main character. Everything he does is playing the role he has to play, so there’s not much to like or dislike. Because this is a grown-up movie, Jake maintains his attitude even through his conversion (particularly when taking the toruk (leonopteryx)). There are some nice details, such as how he enjoys his avatar’s ability to run, and how he comes back into a paralyzed body and has to drag himself into the wheelchair. My brother pointed out that his legs were thin and weak, which of course is totally necessary for anyone who’s wheelchair-bound.

Jake’s schedule is pretty ridiculous: he has to be in the link whenever he wants his avatar to wake up, but he still needs to eat and sleep and video-log in human form. His not shaving and not showering, and even having to be pressed to eat, were all nice touches. Well done.

Culture and Language

The Na’vi culture seems very well developed, as in “I wouldn’t be surprised if someone wrote Lord-of-the-Rings-esque appendices about Na’vi history while making this movie”. The mythology (backed up by biology), the rite of passage, everything seems very reasonable and consistent. Not that I know that much about this class of societies (“tribal”?), but it at least matches my limited knowledge…and my stereotypes.

Now, language I do know something about, and I spent a lot of the movie trying to figure out basic facts about the Na’vi language (mainly word order). The language was actually developed by Professor Frommer of USC to be the next Klingon or Elvish—a fully-developed artificial language that could really serve all purposes of communication. There’s a site up for learning Na’vi (not really the name of the language), which is mostly based on material from Frommer himself. Turns out the word order is officially mostly free, with adpositions indicating subject or object, kind of like Latin or (sort of) Russian.

There are nice little touches, like “Na’vi” actually meaning “people” (common to cultures and languages on Earth as well), or the use of “I see you” as a greeting (ditto). The list of known vocabulary kind of kills the latter by mentioning there is a separate word for physical seeing, but I guess that’s the sort of change that happens over time. (Did you know that “bead” probably comes from the word for “prayer” because of rosaries, or that “an apron” used to be “a napron”?) And “dreamwalkers” is a perfect way to describe the avatars from the perspective of those they walk among.

There were a few things I was unhappy about, but they weren’t really problems, just things I didn’t like. The main thing was the fact that a male still chooses a female, but given all the evidence on Earth, it’s not uncommon for cultures to treat the different genders differently. Another one is when Neyteri rejects Jake’s calling the toruk a leonopteryx. (“It is toruk.”) Come on. It’s just a word; the toruk doesn’t care what you call it. This does fit her role, though, and you’ll notice I’ve been using the Na’vi names for most things in this review. So this was in-universe dislike, not poking holes in the fourth wall.

Environment, with spoilers

Neural link, together with the Tree of Souls, makes me think a lot of Orson Scott Card’s Lusitania, the world of the pequeninos in Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind. It’s not really the same, but I think it’s a reasonable connection to make. I can’t think of an evolutionary reason for this odd USB port directly into a creature’s upper nervous system, but like the legs, it’s reasonable for all of the large animals to share this trait. It is a little weird that the Na’vi only have one such link, when all other animals have paired “neural queues”, but evolution does that sometimes. My pet theory is that a Xel’naga-like race actually designed the Na’vi, and modified the other higher life on the world, a combination of Card’s stories with StarCraft. Wait, that means the Na’vi are the Protoss…and Protoss have nerve cords too!

For more StarCraft / Avatar parallels, see my friend Kyle’s comparison

Story, with spoilers

How could it have been different? This is a rich enough world that maybe an entirely different story could have been told, but a story that didn’t involve contact between humans and Na’vi would have only highlighted how the Na’vi are similar to humans—too similar to be plausible. So most other stories wouldn’t have gained so much from this wonderful universe.

What about changing this story? Yeah, that could have helped. My grandma suggested having everybody die at the end—a much more serious and stunning ending that would leave people thinking a lot more than this one did. I didn’t think that would work so well, cause it is a mainstream movie out to make money, but still thought the ending scene was ridiculous. You knew it was going to happen from the moment they tried it with Grace, and they still overdid it, with the dramatic face shot and eye-opening.

Because they basically won. They lost a lot, yes, and knowing human nature this isn’t the last time they’ll have to drive humans away from Pandora. (I hope, but doubt, that there won’t be a sequel about that! Or at all.) But the movie ends with a happy scene and no imminent problems, making you forget that Hometree and the Tree of Voices were both destroyed and the previous Omaticaya chieftain killed.

I think my chosen ending would have had Jake die. He collapses out of the tank, gets to touch Neytiri, and says the über-meaningful “I see you…” …then dies. It’s still cheesy, but at least it’s not saccharine. It’s not really enough change to call the story original, though.

Oh well. I enjoyed the ikran flight, the symbolism of the paralysis, the giant battle at the end, the technology, Norm, and basically the whole movie.

Terminator

Graphics are a problem. For some reason, good graphics in the movie industry seem to be able to carry the movie a lot more than good graphics in a video game, but it’s still a problem when the special effects start driving the story, rather than the characters or even the plot. The best stories are those that unfold because of how the characters interact, and Avatar only has that in the sense that each character is specifically set up like a domino to participate in certain ways.

Over twenty years ago, James Cameron made a small-cast, low-budget movie called The Terminator. I didn’t see Terminator for a long time, because it sounds a little silly: Arnold Schwarzenegger comes back in time to hunt down one woman, with lots of collateral damage. I didn’t think I needed to see that. But it turns out Terminator (IMHO) is one of the best sci-fi movies ever made. Why? Because even though the setup could be considered contrived and the characters don’t have much depth (it’s a bit better in T2), you’re on the edge of your seat the whole time. They’re never safe, they never manage to really beat the Terminator. They just barely get away. (Whenever I said “oh, that’ll never work”, it didn’t.) It all seems very realistic, in that you don’t see it as a story.

Avatar, by contrast, is so preachy it might as well have ended with “I’m James Cameron, and I approve this message.” It was so clearly not just a story but a parable. Which, again, didn’t make it bad, but it doesn’t get the viewer nearly as involved. Using impressive graphics tends to make people forget about the other things that make a movie good, and overall Terminator was definitely a much better movie.

Odds and Ends

  • There are nice little touches, like how the video cam comes on pointing to the side, and Jake has to adjust it, or how Jake’s wheelchair has “Sully” written on it in sloppy Sharpie.
  • “Unobtainium” is a real term, BUT it doesn’t seem to be used that way, BUT it’s only used once, and by a corporate guy. Let’s say that’s not the real name of the mineral.
  • While I don’t have the allergic reaction to the font some people have…Papyrus? Seriously? A budget in the hundred millions, and you have to use one of the most-abused fonts on Windows or Mac OS? And not just for the movie title, but for the subtitles as well. I’d almost say that’s demeaning to the Na’vi.
  • When you get right down to it, “Avatar” isn’t that great of a title. Not that I have a real alternative, but I think even “Pandora” might have been better. Of course, then I probably would have complained that it wasn’t really a Pandora’s Box story at all.

Summary

Again, the story and plot were almost completely unoriginal. Few of the characters were sympathetic or even faceted. The graphics were amazing, though, and the environment, culture, and language were all very well-developed.

A second for the preachy bit. More than the “destruction of native culture and homeland and the environment” part, there was a small piece of another message. “We have nothing they want,” Jake says in a video log. Which culture is more happy? What does that say about our culture now?

It wasn’t a bad movie. I can’t quite say it was a “good movie”, because my criteria for a “good” movie require certain things about the story and the characters. But it was a good movie in the sense that it was solid and entertaining pretty much the whole way through, and that I would encourage almost anyone to go see it.

I can hear the old-timey cash registers going off from here.

Credit for doubling the “James Cameron’s” in the first paragraph goes to Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw’s Zero Punctuation video game reviews.

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