Jan Karlsbjerg

A Great Dane in Vancouver

Movie Review: Avatar 3D (2009)

Avatar movie posterI watched Avatar. All 2 hours and 42 minutes of it. I didn’t like it. Here’s why

Story

Bah humbug. Do they want grownups to take this seriously?

I won’t spoil the whole plot, but there will be spoilers below… consider yourself warned.

Update 2010.01.03: The writing above caused some misunderstanding that turned into quite the discussion in the comments. My complaint about the movie’s story isn’t that it’s “unrealistic”. Rather I’m disappointed that the movie sets up a universe, a set of rules, and then plays out a story in that universe that’s simplistic, one-dimensional and has disturbing connotations.

Colliding World Views

The move presents the meeting between too species from different planets, yes. But more to the point it’s a meeting of two cultures. The White Man is a mining company and its army, The Blue Man is a native tribe assisted by Mother Nature.

The White Man has science and machines and big guns. He has tremendous strength, but is also very vulnerable, because he’s limited by the technology: If something screws up an impeller on his aircraft, he falls down and goes boom.

The Blue Man has nature and flexibility and wiry strength. He can travel vertically in the forest just as easily as horizontally and apparently can’t get hurt by anything “natural”, including mountains and gravity: If he flies into a cliff side while standing on top of a flying dragon, he doesn’t get a concussion or just get knocked off his mount; when he jumps off a high tree, giant leaves and soft branches far below break his fall gently.

Spirituality

I’ve had it with pantheism in Hollywood movies. Mother Gaia (under another name because the movie’s supposed to be taking place on a different planet, remember) connects everything and everyone, the spirit is in everything, hunters thank their prey for dying so that the tribe may live, etc. Meanwhile The White Man has neither spirit, compassion or conscience, but is reduced to a single concern, a single end goal (for the company men the goal is a good quarterly result, for the army guys it’s getting rid of “the hostiles”).

The White Savior

The White hero goes to live with The Blue People as a Blue Man. That’s his job, but he takes it further than his bosses would like and ends up helping The Blue Man against The White Man. But all The Blue People really have going for them is morale, spirit, etc. so in order to save the day, The White Hero has to become even bluer than The Blue People. By pure will The White Hero is able to do what only very few Blue Men ever do (domesticate the planet’s top predator). The struggle of domination and domestication isn’t even shown to the viewer… that’s the kind of superiority The White Hero has over nature when he sets his mind to it.

I almost booed loudly at this point in the movie. Others agree:

In a post for the science-fiction Web site io9.com, Annalee Newitz also sees in “Avatar” a theme that she says recurs in films from “District 9″ to “Dune” to “Dances With Wolves” — namely, “a fantasy about race told from the point of view of white people.”

In these movies, Ms. Newitz writes: “humans are the cause of alien oppression and distress. Then, a white man who was one of the oppressors switches sides at the last minute, assimilating into the alien culture and becoming its savior.” She adds that a film like “Avatar” is ultimately about “white guilt”:

Our main white characters realize that they are complicit in a system which is destroying aliens, AKA people of color — their cultures, their habitats, and their populations. The whites realize this when they begin to assimilate into the “alien” cultures and see things from a new perspective. To purge their overwhelming sense of guilt, they switch sides, become “race traitors,” and fight against their old comrades. But then they go beyond assimilation and become leaders of the people they once oppressed. This is the essence of the white guilt fantasy, laid bare. It’s not just a wish to be absolved of the crimes whites have committed against people of color; it’s not just a wish to join the side of moral justice in battle. It’s a wish to lead people of color from the inside rather than from the (oppressive, white) outside.

[“Opening Pandora’s Box: The Arguments Over ‘Avatar’”, New York Times, December 22, 2009]

Gender

James Cameron on the Avatar set
James Cameron on the Avatar set

I noticed that the avatar for the research leader (played by Sigourney Weaver) looked young. Too young. I’d assume that if you’re meeting a nature people like this that you’d want to appear “old and wise” (that is how their own elder leaders appear). But no, she’s a spry young woman. Again, others have said it better than I:

At the Vulture Web site of New York magazine, Emma Rosenblum looks at “Avatar” from a gender standpoint, noting that Mr. Cameron is often praised for populating his films with strong female characters. But in the case of “Avatar,” Ms. Rosenblum writes, the movie doesn’t seem to give an equal shake to Sigourney Weaver (a Cameron film alumna) when her character shuttles from her human body to her Na’vi form:

The male characters’ avatars are the strongest, most powerful versions of their current selves, but they share their respective human’s facial structure, general build and age. Leading man Jake Sully’s (Sam Worthington) blue doppelgänger can walk, run, fly, and mate — things his crippled human self is unable to do, and cowering science-geek Norm Spellman’s (Joel David Moore) avatar is a macho action man. But looking at them, you can see right away that they’re Sully and Spellman’s blue twins. But then look at the avatar for Weaver’s Dr. Augustine: When we’re introduced to her, the slinky alien is wearing a belly-baring Stanford T-Shirt and sporting beaded dreadlocks, a marked difference from her usual lab coat and fine lines. So Augustine transforms from a 60-year-old scientist into a college-age Outward Bound instructor?

[“Opening Pandora’s Box: The Arguments Over ‘Avatar’”, New York Times, December 22, 2009]

Update 2010.01.03: Also in the comments, Kaitlin Duck Sherwood points out that the avatar bodies are vat-grown, and as such would all be approximately the same age (mid-twenties apparent age).

Technology

The avatar technology (the technology in the movie) was interesting. Good extrapolation of yester-year’s VR helmets and 3D rooms and omnidirectional treadmills: Proper virtual reality will require a brain-machine interface.

The 3D recording (the technology of the movie) was unnecessary and pointless. It was tech for tech’s sake, it added almost nothing to the experience. In two or three scenes an object is “flying out of the screen” and that worked quite well, I thought. But the rest of the time the 3D effect is used to separate the foreground from the background: The actors in the foreground look like they’re much closer to the camera than whatever’s going on in the background. But most of the time it felt superfluous, slightly distracting or confusing. Maybe they made a mistake (unlikely considering the production time and budget) or I’m just not (yet) used to the effect or maybe I just turned my head and screwed up the alignment that the polarized glasses need to work?

Is this Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Interplanetary spaceflight, contact with an alien race, 3D displays everywhere, Avatar technology, etc. A scientific attempt to explain how the plants are connected and sending signals to each other, etc. A weak attempt to explain the different conditions on the planet (the tall humanoids and plants, the flying dragons, etc.) by the planet having a lower gravity than Earth. So far, this looks like science fiction… but then: flying mountains.

Flying mountains!!

Flying! Fucking! Mountains!

Argh…

Update 2010.01.03: I missed this in my viewing of the movie, but apparently there’s mention of a “vortex flux” phenomenon that should explain the floating mountains. It’s still weak, though.

9 Comments

  1. Jan — I agree with you on most things. However, it would have been strange for Grace/Weaver’s avatar to have looked old: the age of the avatar is unrelated to the age of the driver; presumably the avatars are all *roughly* the same age. As to the dreadlocks, well, she had to do something with all that hair; Jake’s avatar had a ponytail while Jake did not.

    And hell, if I suddenly had access to a young, lithe body, you bet I would be wearing clothes that showed it off!

    Jake taking on the pterodactyl was a stretch, but that one I can actually sort of get. I could imagine that Jake would have no fear of death because in some ways, he can’t die. If the avatar dies, his soul is still (relatively) safe back in his white body. Also, not being completely of the culture, doesn’t have the same cultural assumptions (i.e. that it’s not possible, that the critter must choose you vs. non-consensual bonding).

    I, like you, was somewhat offended that Jake ended up leading the show. I can imagine a way they could have played it where it would have made sense: if Jake had done military briefings. “Okay guys, this is what gunships look like, drop rocks into their rotors…” or something like that. But for his contribution to be only rah-rah speeches *in translation*?!?!?! I don’t think so.

    I also didn’t like how the Blue People treated their horses and banshees. If they really are in tune with nature, respectful of all creatures, etc etc then they shouldn’t be joyriding on critters that need the time to go find lunch. Or we should have seen them feeding the critters. Or something.

  2. So you realize that this is a science fiction movie, yet you ask the (stupid) rhetorical question “Do they want grownups to take this seriously?”.
    You might take a hint from the giant smurfs this movie is about. But let me help you – the answer is no.

    I don’t know if you dislike the entire science fiction/fantasy genre – if so, your criticism is valid, although it does extend to the entire genre. If that’s not the case, I would argue that you are holding “Avatar” to a different standard than all other scifi flicks.

    An example: In “Star Wars IV: A New Hope” (an apt comparison, I think – Avatar might very well be “the new Star Wars”), the planet Alderaan explodes as a result of the Death Star shooting at it. The amount of energy required for the entire planet to achieve escape velocity and explode at the speed shown in the movie is mindboggling. We’re talking the equivalent of the entire output of the sun…for 8000 years.

    On the subject of things that should fall down but didn’t, that’s a big deal. And you’re bitchin’ about a few floating mountains?!

    Go get off your high horse and enjoy “Avatar” for what it is. Or if you want “hard” scifi, watch 2001 again. But don’t bitch about a scifi flick being a scifi flick.

    • Boesvig » Ooh, grumpy, grumpy. I like scifi, I can usually enjoy fantasy. But I insist that a story must be internally consistent. It must make sense in its own universe; by the rules it itself sets out. If there’s magic in that universe, then so be it, make the story make sense with its particular version of magic (e.g. Harry Potter, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, etc.). If there’s stupendous technology in that universe (that defies the laws of nature as we now understand them) then so be it, make the story make sense with super tech (e.g. Star Wars, Star Trek, Stargate, etc.).

      I like Star Trek, I like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, I like a ton of scifi and some fantasy. It doesn’t have to be hard scifi (science fiction that tries to stick to realistic science). I know that faster-than-light travel and teleportation and Star Trek’s replicators and lots of other science fiction plot devices are “impossible” with our current understanding of science, and I don’t care. If everything was hard science, the stories would be as boring as the 2001 movie was.

      Back to my complaint about Avatar: There’s no mention of a special tech/magic anti-gravity device that can make things float, The Blue Man isn’t making use of such a device. Anti-gravity doesn’t occur in “the rules” as they’re set out by the movie. When The White Man’s machines enter the region, they don’t get affected by the anti-gravity. When The Blue Man climbs about on the vines hanging from the floating mountains, he’s not affected by the anti-gravity. The floating mountains are just a casual, disconnected plot element that we happen upon as part of the scenery.

      In short, I was bitching about the scifi movie being a fantasy movie.

      Maybe they were meant to be a three dimensional version of a jungle battlefield from the US-Vietnam war where The White Man is out of tune with nature? But surely that could have been achieved without resorting to this odd, disconnected fantasy element of floating mountains.

      • Jan said: There’s no mention of a special tech/magic anti-gravity device that can make things float.

        Actually, Grace (Sigourney Weaver) does mention a “flux vortex”, which supposedly explains the flying mountains. I readily admit that that’s rather weak (and I agree that it would make sense for this anti-grav to affect other stuff too), but it’s not like that’s the only thing you could nitpick about. The explanation for the Avatar interface is weak. The reason for the humans to be on Pandora is weak – “Unobtanium”…seriously?

        Etc., etc., etc.

        There’s tons of stuff to hate about this movie _if you want to_, just like there’s tons of stuff to hate about any other scifi/fantasy movie. Btw, I don’t see any clear cut distinction between the two, as you apparently do.

        And you start off your review by quoting Scrooge, and _I’m_ the one being “grumpy”?
        I was really just adressing your…ehm…”grumpiness”. You seem rather caught up in a negative state of mind, and I was just suggesting that you chill and enjoy the movie for what it is.

        Try watching this:
        http://www.slashfilm.com/2009/12/17/watch-this-70-minute-video-review-of-star-wars-the-phantom-menace/
        Got the link from John Gruber @ Daring Fireball. Believe me, it grows on you – I never thought I’d watch the entire 70 minutes, but when you’ve seen the first ten, you’re hooked. This guy is negative too, sure. But he’s also damn funny.

        …and compared to the clusterfuck that is “Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace”, “Avatar” is a shining star of cinematic excellence.

        • Boesvig » Hey, I figured out the disconnect: When I complained about the story, I didn’t mean its scifi aspects (the avatar technology, etc.) but the characters description and story arc within the scifi setting (how the hero becomes leader of The Blue Man, how one-sided all the army and business characters are, etc.). I realize of course that you had no way of guessing what I was thinking about when I wrote that!

          I’ll amend the post to make that clearer, and also include your comment about the vortex flux thingie (I missed that when I saw the movie) and Ducky’s comment about the avatars all being the same age; I recall something about “accelerated growth rate” to grow the avatars to be mid-20s in a matter of months on the ship, but they couldn’t be expected to let Grace’s avatar simmer in the vat twice as long as the other avatars.

  3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unobtainium

    “In engineering, fiction, or thought experiments, unobtainium is a HUMOROUS concept ”

    FYI

    • Narna » Yes, no doubt “unobtainium” was meant to be humorous in this context as well. But since it’s only mentioned in humorless tones by humorless characters, the joke falls flat.

      I saw a couple of tweets from Neil Gaiman where he was scrambling to change his own use of the term in an unpublished manuscript, afraid that Avatar had ruined the unobtainium joke for future stories.

  4. Too bad you didn’t like the film. I thought it was one of the best films to reach the cinema this decade. Although there is more than half a year left this decade so it could be usurped!

  5. Are u kidding me? I LOVED this movie. the technology used in the movie itself is a big motivation to watch and enjoy it.

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