Saturday, January 2, 2010

James Cameron jumps the (glowing, blue, four-eyed) shark

I saw James Cameron's Avatar yesterday, and it was a huge disappointment. I certainly didn't expect it to be able to live up to the over-the-top, "best-thing-since-Star Wars" hype, but I also didn't expect it to suck as thoroughly as it did. Fail, fail, fail.

I would give it three stars *** (worthwhile), but only barely. If the novelty wears off as I suspect it to, I'll drop it to two stars ** (tolerable). In any case, I would recommend waiting for video. ("But wait," you say, "don't I need to see it in 3D?" You don't need to see anything in 3D!)

On the plus side, the special effects were good and some of the action scenes were very well done. I like Sam Worthington as an actor, too, and he did a good job in this movie despite the thin script.

The CGI was good - better than anything previous - but it's not the tremendous leap forward that it was hyped to be. At the end of the day, it still looks like a glorified video game. The motion capture thing has been done before, and I thought Who Framed Roger Rabbit was a bigger technical leap forward in marrying live action and animation.

Maybe I would feel different if the story were worth watching, but that is where this movie really falls apart. It is a three-dimensional movie with one-dimensional characters and a a one-dimensional plot. Here are my complaints (SPOILERS!):
  • Have you seen Dances with Wolves and Braveheart? Then you're familiar with this plot. Have you seen any of Cameron's previous movies? Then you've heard this dialogue. Cameron recycled so much of Aliens that he should sue himself for copyright infringement: space marines, an evil all-powerful corporation represented by a sleazy corporate executive, mechanical robot suits... he even used Sigourney Weaver! That familiarity alone wouldn't necessarily be such a bad thing, but Cameron's style is so heavy-handed and clichéd that it was painful.
  • The physiology of the main alien species, the Na'vi, is completely incompatible with that of the rest of the fauna on Pandora. All of the other alien species have six legs, four eyes, feathery antennae and no hair. The Na'vi have bodies that look like ours. Sure, that makes them more personable, but it also makes them look out of place.
  • All of the animal species on Pandora look and behave like glowing blue, six-legged versions of Earth species. There are Pandoran dogs and horses and pterodactyls and jungle cats. I saw a great 2005 Discovery Channel special called Alien Planet that had more interesting life forms. If the Discovery Channel could do something like that on a shoestring, why couldn't Cameron do the same with his billion-dollar production budget? Also, with only a few exceptions, the plants and trees look like Earth plants and trees.
  • Unobtainium? Please. Yes, it's a real word, but it's cutesy. Just like naming the planet Pandora. (roll eyes)
  • The Na'vi physically bond with animals on Pandora using biological, fiber optic-like tentacles that emerge from the end of their ponytails. Wait... what? I can't believe I just typed that.
  • In the movie's most dramatic moment, the humans destroy the giant tree where the Na'vi live. The allusion to the 9-11 attack on the Twin Towers was not appreciated, especially since Cameron has Americans committing this act of horror. In scene after scene, he depicts the vast majority of these humans as insensitive and eager to spill Na'vi blood. I not only found this unbelievable, I also found it despicable. Shame on you, James Cameron.
  • There was a lot of pointless potty talk. My seven-year-old would have really liked a lot of things in this movie, but there's no way I'll let him watch it until he's older. There's no reason Cameron couldn't have made this movie more family-friendly. And to be honest, it would have worked much better that way: if you have a ridiculous and cliché-filled plot, why not add a touch of wonder and whimsy, so those deficiencies aren't so glaring?
So here is my movie review quote (for the back of the Blu-ray packaging): "best-thing-since-Star Wars... I would recommend... very well done... technical leap forward... unbelievable."

And here is the Crazy People quote: "A huge disappointment... fail, fail fail... one-dimensional... heavy-handed and clichéd... painful... despicable... shame on you, James Cameron."

P.S. - Want a second opinion? Click here for a rant from Red Letter Media.


  1. I think that you forgot that there were people riding dragons, too!

    Did you read the Wired article(s) about James Cameron and his drive to make this movie? It is interesting. It could actually be that Aliens is a rip-off of Avatar.

    I agree with the swearing. It would have been better for kids without that.

    I liked the panoramic scenery - it was one of the better aspects of the movie. But I agree with the criticism of the flora and critters. It is sort of amazing that he brought in a linguist to make a new language for the Na'vi, but probably didn't bring in a biologist to figure out how animals and plants would possibly look like and behave. It seemed like there were a lot more predators than prey.

    Even with those flaws, I liked it. Look at pretty much all of the Star Wars movies. In many ways, those movies sucked. They had lots of incorrect physics (WTF is a light saber?) and the dialog sucked donkey balls.

    From the Wired article, James Cameron actually forced the creation of the new 3D movie making (your favorite medium! :-) to create Avatar. So, he did push the envelope....

    So, I agree with the criticisms, but enjoyed it anyways....

  2. The alien fauna was made to resemble Earth's for the same reasons it's made to do so in all movies. Because filmmakers are writers and designers, not scientists, and to make the creatures relatable and reminiscient of earth wildlife.

    Same goes for the Na'vi themselves. This is a conscious design choice that's repeated in most popular sci fi, including the Star Wars you keep bringing up, and bringing it up as an example of failure frankly does not fly.

    If you were to depict "realistic" alien life, what you'd end up seeing would likely be so alien that it would gross out a large portion of the audience, since that's almost universally the response we have to that which is alien and different from what we know.

    And "Unobtanium" is a commonly used name for hypothetical materials which are valuable but physically impossible to obtain. It's not something Cameron invented, and it's deeply amusing that you believe it is.