Friday, September 10, 2010


Avatar is possibly the biggest film ever. It's long, it's expensive, it pushes the boundaries of what's visually possible, it's a technological tour de force and single handedly justified the push for 3D visuals in absolutely everything. It also made a simply preposterous amount of money.

It's also not that great.

This isn't to say it's bad, necessarily. It's highly polished, tightly plotted - it's to its credit that it's almost three hours long and also rarely boring - and comes with those visuals. The visuals are a celebration of the power of CGI, creating landscapes and geography that is completely impossible but nonetheless breathtaking. From floating mountains to detailed phosphorescent landscapes, the film is a fountain of visual imagination. The closest one can get to criticizing the view is that they are quite reminiscent of more than a few JRPGs - I'm sure I visited every location in FFXII - but they're so vividly realized that it doesn't matter.

Unfortunately, the visuals contain the only imagination. The story itself is a clich├ęd environmental allegory. The story's center is Jake Sully - Sam Worthington, who cannot maintain an American accent and show emotion at the same time - a former Marine who can't use his legs. With the death of his twin brother, he's directed to become part of the Avatar program, where he controls a big blue dude to interact with the Na'Vi, the indigenous population which has a connection with nature - literally, with some sort of hair USB cable - and is a not very subtle lift of magical Native Americans who show up in these kind of things. He's directed by trigger happy space marine Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and weaselly corporate guy Norm Spellman (Joel Moore) to get intelligence about the place the Na'vi live, so they can blow it up and mine some stupidly named "unobtanium". Unfortunately, he falls in love, with the Na'vi culture but mostly with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and decides that he's got to protect them forever. Also present are Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), the gruff scientist with a heart of gold, and Michelle Rodriguez, playing a Michelle Rodriguez role. Guess what happens to her!

The characters are a grab bag of old ideas we've seen before a million times. The plot develops predictably, every plot development is predictable from the moment the film starts, and not one surprise happens in the three hour running time. The sole unique factor for the big battles is the switch between avatar and human, and how it affects the characters' reactions. The big bad just wants oi...I mean "unobtanium" - was there seriously no better names? - and that concern overrides. There are some less than subtle digs about colonialism and US foreign policy, the army guy just wants to blow stuff up and looks for flimsy excuses to do so, and in spite of the vibrant visuals the film is stock black and white - there is good, there is bad, and nothing in between.

It's a case where it's possibly the best film of the type possible - sorry, Fern Gully, you've been eclipsed - and it is so pretty it's tempting to just ignore the number of flaws in the picture. It's such a technological tour de force that it's easy to ignore that it has nothing unique or interesting to say. It's all visual, and while they're good visuals, there's more to film than that.

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