Yeah, I know. It’s pretty strong, and I can feel the ire of those reading even as I type this. (Please note, this isn’t our official review, you can find that here, as written by Gary). Believe me though, it was never supposed to be like this. I’ve known about Avatar for a long time. I’ve been aware of the great time and effort (and money) that have been spent on this project. And those of you that read my article Could Avatar be a Cutting-Edge White Elephant know that I was desperate to get tickets to see it at the Imax.
I wanted to love it, I really did. And whilst I have a reputation for being cynical about movies, I want to like them all. If I didn’t, why would I spend so much of my time writing about them? It’s important to point out that when the film ended, 90% of the audience around me applauded. So i’m well aware, it’s my problem and not theirs.
This meant that though i’d decided to post my thoughts on the movie before i’d seen it, once I had, I felt that I should probably keep my opinion quiet, in order to avoid the vitriol that would inevitably be pointed in my direction. I thought again, however, and decided it might be cathartic to explore why a movie that had united the industry in praise had left me so very cold.
The first issue, which I was already expecting, was the storyline. What I wasn’t expecting, though, was just how simplistic and predictable it would turn out to be. I had only watched the first proper trailer, and had in my mind the general direction the story would take. The direction, it turned out, was exactly as expected, with no deviation whatsoever. The story of the human race trying to move on an indigenous population in order to make use of localised natural resources is nothing new, and has been explored more fully in an episode of Stargate SG1, amongst numerous other places. Along with that, it takes a particular talent to turn the serious issue of mass genocide into a poorly executed love story.
Which brings me to my next issue with Avatar. Give or take a couple of plot devices, it feels very much like a ‘greatest hits of Star Wars’ homage, glued together with Starship Troopers. Much of the environment of Pandora brings to mind the locale of Naboo, replete with the ‘there’s always a bigger fish’ philosophy. The robots shooting aliens theme echoes the finale of Phantom Menace, with a bit of the moon of Endor also fit in. The mostly CGI environment, along with the PG13 family friendly action throughout most of the film firmly gave it that undeniable Lucas feel. The fish out of water story of Sully learning the ways of the natives also had a very Disney-esque feel.
And maybe for me that’s a large part of the problem. I can no longer stomach family-friendly movies. The attempt to appeal to such a diverse demographic tends to give family movies an ‘everybody gets what no-one wants’ atmosphere. Whilst as a kid I lapped that up, nowadays, with much less time available to watch a two and a half hour movie, i just crave something more. Adult issues explored in a thorough and thought provoking way. In a climate of adults paying to see Harry Potter and The Twilight Saga, i find myself in the minority.
It’s not necessarily that the story of an intergalactic war fought on alien turf can’t address real issues. If instead Cameron had chosen to adapt Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, for example, we could have had a classic on our hands. Instead the filmmaker opts for black and white. The evil human race attempts to wipe out the unknown enemy it doesn’t understand. With right on their side, the beleaguered, peaceful beings must triumph in the end.
With a great cast committed to bringing the script to life, there could have been a saving grace. Unfortunately, this is Avatar’s lowest point. There honestly isn’t a good performance on display. Weaver, et al are all terribly wooden, not at all helped by poor dialogue and contrived exposition devices. Also not helped by a chronic lack of depth to the characters. Neytiri never says one word that speaks to her personality, and all we ever find out about Sully is that his twin brother died, and he used to be a marine. Tell me something, anything else we know about him? What’s the point of creating a fully 3D environment and then filling it with woefully two dimensional characters?
The gruff Colonel Quaritch (HeyUGuys interview with Stephen Lang here), obsessed with the annihilation of a species, would have been the most shallow character in any other movie, but here at least he has the courage of his convictions. What about the abrupt mid-mission turn by Michelle Rodriguez’ Trudy? Where did that come from? Even Sully himself turns on a dime. We all knew it was coming except him. In his Avatar he was having the time of his life, yet in the lab showed no conflict over the mission he was carrying out, the double life he was leading, until he made the sudden u-turn in just one short scene.
This flaw may not have been purely a fault of the script. After praise for his turn in Terminator: Salvation Worthington has been hailed as the latest in a long line of ‘next big things’. On this evidence, that’s an extremely premature assertion. He managed to display no on-screen presence whatsoever. Until, in fact, being transplanted into his Avatar. When a computer generated version of you shows more charisma and likeability than the real deal, you have a bit of a problem.
Which nicely leads me onto the positive, the reason we are all here. Avatar is visually stunning. There can be no argument. The vista of Pandora is a sight to behold, the aliens beautifully realised. And yes, much of the 3D is awe-inspiring, particularly in the beginning. It’s not the stuff that pops out of the screen that’s the most impressive, but the more subtle yet astonishing sense of depth that is created. This is displayed at it’s best in the opening scenes of stasis pods being opened, and their inhabitants floating not just across the screen, but towards and away from it. The water and fire effects are also phenomenal. And i’ll also concede that the finale is action packed and surprisingly brutal at times.
For me, though, however great the visuals were, it didn’t stop me becoming bored throughout the overlong middle part of the movie. Avatar is being nominated for awards, and is a likely contender for the expanded best picture category at the Oscars. It clearly deserves it, as the myriad of great review scores attests. But it baffles me. If great CGI and a weak and plodding storyline is enough for an academy award, presumably we can also expect Transformers 2 and GI-JOE to appear on the list of ten?
The test for Avatar comes when it finds release on DVD and Blu-Ray, when the limits of those technologies hamper the 3D experience. Will Avatar then be shown to be the emperors new clothes? I don’t believe so. I believe i’ll be shown to be the one that’s wrong. And I believe James Cameron’s opus will be the movie that makes Blu-Ray in the home no longer the exception, but the rule. A fitting legacy for the product of over a decade of commitment, and the hundreds of millions of dollars spent bringing it to fruition.