Avatar: Old story, new dimension

It’s terrible, but it’s terribly innovative. That’s gotta count for something.

Avatar-Teaser-PosterAbout an hour before viewing James Cameron’s Avatar, I was driving across the snowy James River and thought about how in school they’d show us a clip of Young Mr. Lincoln (John Ford, 1939), in which an icy river shot dissolved into a flowing river shot, in order to show the changing of the seasons. We’d blankly stare at something that seemed like no big deal to us and then blink up at the professor, who would roll his eyes at our inability to recognize that we take a lot of film devices for granted. Young Mr. Lincoln doesn’t exactly quicken the pulse in 2009, but in 1939, it did things that had never been done before, things that would quickly become par for the course.

Four million hours later, when Avatar‘s closing credits began to roll, I was still in the theater. And the reason that I hadn’t stomped out prematurely is because, ladies and gentlemen, 3D in the James Cameron manner is the new ice-river-turning-into-spring-river. So, just like the suspendered, tweed-suited, fedora-wearing moviegoer said back then when the river MAGICALLY MELTED BEFORE HIS EYES….I have never seen anything like it before.*

If you’re like me and you’re worried that the 3D experience was going to be arrows shot at your eyes so that you humiliate yourself with embarrassing and reflexive flinches, banish thy concerns. It’s not so much that things come out of the screen, it’s that things go in. Basically, you throw on your glasses and suddenly you are in danger of falling right into Cameron’s impeccably detailed setting. This world has layers and depth, and as a result these very, very imaginary creatures and landscapes seem more real than anything we’ve seen on the silver screen before. Semi-animated humans with a digital skin are most likely pretty neat to watch with just your regular glasses, but in 3D, I’m half-convinced those things are really out there in space, in spite of myself.

Without 3D, you just saw a big dumb blockbuster with some above-average special effects.

It goes like this: the Na’vi folk on planet Pandora are hella mad that the Sky People (er, that’s us, I’m sorry to admit) are destroying their precious planet for a mineral. Get this, we are trying to get them to move out of their homeland and relocate (we’ll call that process, I don’t know, the “Trail of Tears”), so we send in a disenchanted Marine named Jake in a sort of remote-controlled Na’vi body. It’s a complicated process, and they thankfully don’t bore us with any of the mind-bending details, don’t worry. The Na’vi are super in tune with nature, so when daughter of the chief, Neytiri (you can call her “Pocahontas,” if that’s easier), gets the job of teaching Jake the way of the Na’vi (or “colors of the wind”), she is simultaneously amused, enraged, and turned on by his blundering colonizer ignorance.

Jake (that’s the Marine, but if his name is too forgettable, you can call him “Kevin Costner”) starts to think Pocahontas/Neyriti is pretty cute, loyalties flip around, and suddenly the natives and the conquerors are engaged in a war, and…WHO KNOWS WHAT WILL HAPPEN? If this were, in fact, Dances with Wolves, you might get a really poignant, thoughtful ending, but the artistry in this movie lies in its visual composition and not its writing or directing. And when you’re trying to just use an old story as a vehicle for your immense visual stunner, it’s safer to just end it satisfyingly.

Safer and dumber. This movie took our colonizer’s guilt, flung it into the future, and assured us that everything is going to be OK. One day we will realize the error of our ways, it says. A white man will set them free, the good among us will be chosen to live in a verdant paradise, and everybody else will just have to deal. Also, there will be some giant explosions and possibly some dragons you can ride if you are cool enough. It’s a little too neatly resolved for a messy, realistic, and recurring chain of events – it’s our fantasy for how we would do things differently if, indeed, we would truly value natural resources and indigenous populations over money. It sure is a nice thought.

I don’t like Titanic much (Cameron’s last Oscar-winner),** but valued just for its content, Avatar can’t quite measure up to even that low bar.*** Perhaps I need to adjust my thinking, though, just like Jake, along with his trusty wolf Two Socks, has helped me adjust my thinking about our treatment of indigenous people. Maybe I need to appreciate Avatar for its deep connection with the colors of the third dimension and for its place in the cinematic innovation canon.

Guys, I really would, but the elusive mineral cash crop on Pandora is called “unobtainium.” Throw me a bone, here, Cameron. One star for what I imagine the standard version would look like, and an extra one for 3D. And I’m not budging.

*He probably said something more like “Dadgum! Some wizard just cast a spell on the picture-screen! This was definitely worth the ha’penny I spent on my double-feature admission! Pass the brickle!”
**This is sort of a lie. 17-year-old me saw it thrice in theaters.
***”Mating underneath the Tree of Voices” doesn’t hold a candle to “steaming up a jalopy in steerage.”

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson is managing editor for this very website. She writes THE BEST bios.

Notice: Comments that are not conducive to an interesting and thoughtful conversation may be removed at the editor’s discretion.

  1. You Suck on said:

    Terrible, terrible review. We all know that movies are over dramatized and are over the top with special effects, which for me was what made it good. Just because the film ended as a fairytale might, doesn’t mean this movie is worth 2 stars by any means. The unbelievability of this film is what caught so many movie goers’ eye and pulled so many of their heart strings as it was well written and well acted out. Yes, Titanic sucked but just because James Cameron had directed a sappy story with many special effects towards the end doesn’t mean that he can’t make a great sci-fi movie with the same attributes as another that you didn’t like.

    Yes, corny… Yes, sappy… Yes, way too palpable of what’s going on down here on Earth… But it still makes a good point about the human race and what we do best… destroy. It’s true as well as a great action/adventure/ sci-fi movie.

    Just like when the director of Wall-E had proclaimed that he wasn’t trying to preach about how humans are becoming lazy and wasteful… We all know that’s how it all began. And still, that was also a great movie.

    With all silly notions set aside that Avatar was directed by James Cameron and it was obviously concerning our environmental problems, it was still an amazing movie.

  2. EricT on said:

    “‘unobtainium.’ Throw me a bone, here, Cameron.”

    He DID throw you a bone! ‘Unobtanium’ is an old-school science fiction reference, most notably used in Larry Niven’s Ringworld (another outlandish science fiction fantasy/adventure). Cameron has said that Avatar was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Pandora is his Barsoom. It’s escapism about escapism, where a crippled man closes his eyes and wakes up in a realm where he can fly on a dragon and win the love of a beautiful princess, and you wanna nitpick it’s trite politics? Really? Let’s hope your 17-year-old self was less jaded.

  3. Dylan on said:

    Folks, don’t mind him. Avatar is magical. I haven’t genuinely loved a movie in a long time, but I loved this one.

  4. Unfair characterization of a great movie with a great story, 3-D effects apart. I love that Avatar is not another dumb Hollywood story that assumes good old stories that end well should not be shown anymore, you are wrong with this review Valerie Catrow… many of us actually love classic stories!!! And there is no shortage of creativity in Avatar either.

    Frankly, I just read a “a big dumb REVIEW with some BELOW-average WORDING effects”

  5. KO – don’t blame Val, it was actually me who wrote the review. I will meet you at the old mill at 7pm to duke it out!!

  6. I fixed it. Please continue tossing the blame on Susan.

  7. Guys, I’m going to need some more convincing arguments. “This movie was so pretty and you are so dumb!” isn’t cutting it, but I am always willing to be persuaded. (“This movie was so dumb and you are so pretty!” – now THAT would convince me!)

    For the record, I knew about unobtainium and I had it linked originally to the wiki entry, but it fell off at some point. What I meant was, it seemed weird to have a joke in there when we were supposed to be taking things seriously.

    This was awesome though: “Frankly, I just read a “a big dumb REVIEW with some BELOW-average WORDING effects”” – KO is my new favorite.

  8. i enjoyed avatar.

    it was nice to go to a movie and enjoy it without the depressing let-down most movies leave. i agree with KO; i’m sick of sad & awful as requisite endings for any movie. who cares that it’s more “realistic”

    i didn’t pay $10.50 to escape a stressful world by watching a movie that will make me want to kill myself.

    sure the script is weak, and the movie relies on spectacular visual effects. we knew that going into it. i’d push it to 3 stars.

    thank for the review Susan.

  9. Will I need a unobtainium-fueled DVD player to watch “Avatar” at home?

    P.S. This review was MAJESTIC. Really fun to read. And the photo of that cat with dreadlocks made me LOL.

  10. T-bone on said:

    Cynical, angry people should not write movie reviews.

  11. This reviewer tries to be clever I guess, but She comes across and petty and pretentious.

    Get over yourself, Susan Howeson. I’m sorry you were unable to enjoy the move because the theme is similar to other works. Most of us understand that a good story can be retold in several ways. Cameron’s retelling of this story was done superbly.

  12. I’m not sure I understand all the misguided Avatar worship. Did James Cameron fund everyone’s College Tuition or something? Was T2 really THAT good that you’d stick up for the guy come hell or high water?

    Let’s be fair, there are filmmakers who have the skill to tell a good story and dazzle with visual effects. I’d say The Dark Knight is the most recent example of a film that did a great job with this: Decent acting, good story and a beautiful style. Sure you can nitpick certain aspects of the film (Bales growl was obviously discussed to death on Internet message boards much like this one) but at the end of the film, you’re left with a complete movie experience.

    After watching Avatar, I fully agree with Susan, I felt cheated. Why does something get a free pass in certain aspects of filmmaking, just because it’s a Blockbuster? Sure, maybe with the proper tone and genre, certain aspects of a film have less of an emphasis, but to hold Avatar up as a great film just due to it’s cutting edge effects does the craft a disservice. The lack of creativity in so many aspects of the film really struck a blow for me. Besides the ones Susan highlights, how about the animals: Cameron’s go to schtick for creating Pandora animals was to throw an extra pair of legs on there and give them blow holes. For a movie that took ten years to plan, I woulda hoped they coulda gone back to the creature creator with those.

  13. RedBarron on said:

    Love the comments and reviews of them. But really, any thinking adult who’s been around since the 60’s will experience the same guilt trip. That said, this movie achieved what GOOD movies are supposed to achieve: safe escapism. The theme & story were familiar, so that freed me to revel in the visual overload, the epic flying sequences (what boy hasn’t dreamed of being Peter Pan?), and the feelings that something extraordinarily special was being protected. Our first comments leaving the theater were, “well that was a fun retelling of DWW and Pocahontas” but who cares? It was excellent 3D movies goodness.

  14. Here’s what I wrote to a friend yesterday:

    Don’t get me wrong, I REALLY liked a lot of it – but I felt like there were some really unusual holes (did no one in the Avatar pods ever need to use the bathroom?) and choices (Unobtanium? For $400 million they have the word “unobtanium” unironically laying there? Sci-fi reference or not, it’s not like the rest of the movie was high-brow references so this just looked weak). It really is more about the script than the general plot, I guess.

    Acting wise it was fine, although I felt the villain/military-meat-head was handed such a cartoonish character it hurt his scenes. I kept thinking, “anyone in the military will have to overcome some obstacles to endorse or like this film” — there was a lot in there that didn’t try and convince perspectives but rather wrote them off. Having the only sympathetic military character be Michelle Rodriquez (the only memorable female militant) was unfortunate.

    Anyway, I liked it, despite the fact that all the media was telling me to, which usually makes me predisposed to cynicism. I’m excited to see the DVD extras to hopefully see even more of the world fleshed out.

    I still think Cameron should have released the movie at Thanksgiving to really piss people off. I’m all for rattling cages. :)

    To add just a comment in reaction to those here:

    The movie is magical and transformative in the way it presents visuals. It is an escapist, big, blockbuster movie. But please stop trying to tell everyone that every movie has to be this way and that people can’t have different script standards. I love the original Star Wars movies but the scripts were horrible. Meanwhile, I also love My Dinner With Andre but it doesn’t have much in the way of special effects.

    It’s okay. No one has to die for the love or hate of Avatar*.

    * Except for the use of the Papyrus font.

  15. review reviwer on said:

    you got it wrong!

  16. “‘unobtainium.’ Throw me a bone, here, Cameron.” I would have used the name “neverenoughium.” Nice name for the cancer of materialism.

  17. It’s so very strange to see the almost demeaning way fans of this movie sing it’s praises. Visuals this, visuals that, with a whole sloppy mess of “so what” slathered on top in regard to the plot and dialogue. If my memory serves, movies are supposed to both exhibit a story visually and give breadth to a convincing plot as well. One doesn’t work without the other, maybe it does on a surface-level appeal but this reviewer has every right to criticize it’s insufficient, tired old plot as movies have entail one no matter what.

    Think about it, $500 spent on ridiculously detailed blue people, an entirely alien landscape, innovative technology, overpaid voiceactors, and they couldn’t hire someone to write a decent screenplay? This movie is the classic tabula rasa, you give into the gimmick for what momentary value it has and then before you know it you’ve forgot nearly everything about it. Good movies are ones you’d care to re-watch, not something that’s a complete chore with no value outside a multi-million dollar budget that could just as easily support a small country. Not to mention, while we’re on the trail of tears, how much energy do you suppose it took to run this dog & pony show?

    I’m in an artistic proffession, I understand wanting things to look pretty but as soon as you can see past that there just has to be something more. This is the work of a director. Quentin Tarantino creates stylized films but he also couples it with damn good dialogue and plots.

  18. Brando on said:

    True story: My friend and whomever she was with walked out of this movie before it was over.

  19. Wow, did this review get voted up on Digg or what? Where did all these haters come from? HURF DURF SPECIALFX!

    Thank you, Susan, for writing an honest (and clever!) review of what is obviously a CGI spectacle draped on a hackneyed story. You said a lot of positive things about the movie too, but I guess your critics here were too blinded by ‘roid rage to read those parts.

    And thanks to RVANews for publishing insightful reviews that inform their readers and challenge their assumptions. Too bad so many people here just want to read reviews that validate their own opinions instead of opening them up to new ideas and ways of thinking about pop culture.

  20. OldeWorldeMe on said:

    Two Stars…really? Either a jaded movie reviewer or a sad attempt at shock-jock movie reviewing, but either way this review is NOT a fair review of the movie “Avatar”. The facial expression cgi alone sets an entirely new bar in realism. The scenic views are 70s Roger Dean visions come alive. This is an entirely new dimension in total world immersion. If you can dismiss this movie as mere eye-candy, you should possibly stick to audio books my friends.

    Just my two cents…

  21. Lest anyone misunderstand me, I panned this movie because it is stupid, but I encourage everyone to see it because it is an incredible spectacle that you will not be able to replicate at home with a DVD!

    T-Bone: Do you really want a movie reviewer who loves everything? And do you expect to agree with every critic’s review of every movie?

    Dan: Give me a little credit, here. I understand that you can tell stories in different ways, is it really necessary to attempt to hurt my feelings because I disliked a movie about which I was paid to form my own opinion? I’m not an idiot just because I disagree with you. I have no problem with using the same theme, I’m just pointing out that it’s not done as well as it has in the past. I’m a big fan of well-done blockbusters, make no mistake.

  22. Review is right on! Thank you

  23. My suggestion:


  24. Wren Lanier: Yeah here I was worrying that I had too much of a hard-on for the amazing special effects!! What with all my “this movie will make it into the western film canon.” I mean that’s the best compliment I can think of to give!

  25. Looks like the debate is between:

    Camp 1: We want to stay in our world of escape! We don’t want any connection to reality, nor do we want to be reminded that it’s our responsibility to fix it (reality). It’s all about the fun, baby!!

    Camp 2: We are looking for movies (or anything, really) with more insight into dealing with or solving real world issues, and we would prefer if this movie gave us some substance that we could actually use after the movie ended. Hence, our dissatisfaction with it.

    The fact that this movie appeals to both camps, perhaps, is evidence that Cameron is not firmly committed to either.

    Off the mark? Right on?

  26. Iloo: Yeah, I really tried to hit both of those, but maybe I failed miserably.

    Here is a thing: I am seriously into escapism. It’s why I love movies in the first place (and why I embarrass my spouse over and over again by enthusiastically referring to all the fantasy novels I read when we’re in public). I don’t really need my movies to necessarily touch on anything deep and meaningful. I loved both Tropic Thunder and Stardust, after all. I just want a movie to make me feel something. With Wall-E, I felt things. With this movie, I was unable to stop picturing guys around a table, discussing their script.

    I honestly felt like my review was generally pretty lenient! It’s a beautiful, beautiful work of visual art that I’m really glad I saw. I will never watch it again.

  27. I enjoyed the movie. It wasn’t the best movie ever. But I had a good time. This was my first IMAX 3D movie, and I thought that part of it was awesome. More so was the NASA preview in 3D. But if this is the future of movies it will probably be my last it was not $30 bucks good (1 adult, 1 child ticket).


  29. No, it seems like there are these two camps of people:

    Camp 1: Fanboys. “OMG U R SO EVUL 4GIFING AVATAR 2*!!!!1!1!1!1!one”

    Camp 2: Everyone that knows how to read a critic’s review and/or leave a constructive, civil comment.

    Am I right?


  31. jim bob racist face on said:

    I agree mostly with that review but I will add the fact that it is clearly white people vs indigenous people with strong black and native american facial features… Except for Michelle Rodriguez there to look good with tits in a tank top there wasn’t one main minority marine character. Maybe cause they used all the black people for the locals? Also I have issues with the audio, in some scenes it was quite clear they were filming on a sound stage, they added color (audio) to try and blend the audio into the natural environment but in a jungle most voices would be absorbed and not to mention there would be a ton of ambient noise. I will say there was some quality acting in it, I scrutinize people playing paraplegics but I must admit he did a very good job and seemed very comfortable in a wheelchair and handled his legs well. Don’t go see this movie if you like great dialogue or writing but go see it if you want to see something that has never been done before and will definitely change the game and face of film making… Have you ever met a marine that didn’t say Hoorah at least once every 25 minutes? Considering he did Aliens I expected to hear much more authentic marine chatter… Plus it takes 5 years to travel to Pandora which is definitely nowhere near Earth so that must mean they have advanced technology to travel light years but they still use concrete and metal and not some sort of nano fiber or plasma technology for construction material? Some things didn’t add up and maybe it was supposed to be a stark comparison between mechanics and biology but if Humans can travel that far they sure as shit are not going to be using such old building materials or weapons technologies… we can fix spinal injuries, travel light years away, have avatars and hibernation systems that allow you not to age for 5 years but yeah that’s right we still use good old 20th century ammunition. Go see it for visuals NOTHING ELSE!

  32. Justin on said:

    Hey losers: if you can’t handle a negative review of a thing you like, then you’ve got a problem with yourself, not with Susan.

    I loved Avatar and happily gave it 5 stars in netflix, but that doesn’t mean that if Susan doesn’t like it I will fight her to the death. We could more productively spend our time doing other things, like, say, rewriting Colors Of the Wind to showcase the proud tradition of the Na’vi people.

  33. Great moviemaking but the story was — eh.

    Too similar to the story of America taking everything from the American Indians as well as the Indian culture (“savages” on horseback, bow & arrows, spiritual connection with the planet, loincloths) At least in this version of the old story we didn’t give the natives smallpox or rape the women.

    They could have given the locals a better angle. At least changed up the culture a little.

    Or they could have gone all-in and given Clint Eastwood/the ghost of John Wayne a cameo.

  34. This has got to be the most commented thread I’ve ever seen on RVANews!

    You stirred up the sleeping sci fi hornets nest Susan.

  35. I think you hit the nail on the head. It’s like one night stand…certain parts feel great, but in the end you’re left feeling pretty empty.

  36. With all due respect I think that you are missing the point. This movie is not about reality or constrained fantasies and certainly not about proselytizing. It is about a simple feel good fantasy. I bet that when you conjure up a fantasy you do not conjure up the world of “Apocalypse Now”. In the age of reality shows James Cameron has returned us if only for a moment to the golden age of Cinema. And that is worth every penny of the $14.00 I paid.

  37. Dust bunny on said:

    Dude your review of this movie is way off…This movie is probably one of the best movies I’ve seen of all time and I’ve seen a lot of movies.

  38. I watched avatar, throughout the movie I could not help thinking about “The Last Samurai”. To me Avatar combines the storyline of “The last Samurai” with a new world something like we saw in the “Lord of the Rings” with some handy characters from “Jurassic park” series. The biggest compliment I can pay the movie is, it has great special effects but two and a half hours of wearing 3D glasses give some people headache. I had to take off my glasses several times during the movie.

  39. I think it’s really kind of aewsome how emotionally attached we get to movies. All day I’ve been like “Jeez calm down, world,” but as someone who may or may not have commented above can tell you, I got really and truly upset this weekend when I thought he was trying to tell me that The Princess Bride had any flaws whatsoever.

    I dunno, it’s neat. Movies are cool. James Cameron! Look at how strongly people debate this thing you did! I’d say that’s a mark of success.

  40. RewindItBack on said:

    Way to go Susan, they’re sharpening pitchforks over this one!

  41. lindsey on said:

    this movie looked horrible to me and i have no intention whatsoever of seeing it, but whoa! this controversy kind of tempts me to shell out the money. i’m pretty sure i will still not like it because i’m not a big fan of obvious cgi, but if someone buys me a ticket i’ll pay for the popcorn and soda!

    also, if you’re gonna hate: don’t hate the reviewer, hate the review. susan’s reviews are always witty and a great read. i don’t always agree with her (most of the time i do, but i loved pineapple express and she wasn’t a fan) but i read her blog regularly because she’s pretty much hilarious.

    in other news, whoever that male lead is in this film is super hot.

  42. I’m with Lindsey… I’ve been saying for months how stupid this movie looked… I don’t think visuals will get me to pay to see it. But, if someone wants to convince me otherwise, I’d gladly pay for popcorn and soda!

  43. If fantasy (another flavor of fun, imho) is truly the point, then why pollute the fantasy with so many real-world issues of today’s political climate or American history? I suppose those things make the story easier to understand, and hence, more accessible to a wider audience. If you say that I’m a nerd or a party-pooper cuz I’m making associations as I watch the film, or if you try to declare authoritatively what the film is about, I’d say, perhaps, you’re embracing the status quo because, perhaps, you can’t imagine it otherwise.

    I believe that the movie could have been more satisfyingly fantastic and liberating if they kept the military out of Pandora and the Nu’vi had some other kind of story. This could have been done; after all, they’re so beautiful, and the place is SO captivating. It would have been so easy to have them fly around for some other reason. Our connection to the action could have been maintained via some other device, and conflict, if necessary, could have been introduced via some other issue.

    Movies don’t have to be ineffective hybrids that do nothing perfectly. They can be more fantastic than this one, connect to deeper parts of us we might have forgotten about, or call us to higher aspects of our potential that we may have difficulty embracing. It’s not necessary to throw up one’s hands and say “What do you expect? It’s just a movie”. We as human beings are capable of much more than that.

  44. Liberty on said:

    i didnt see the movie and i hate it too

  45. All of this just reminds me of the flawless genius of Cabin Boy.

  46. Justin on said:

    As I said earlier, I loved it and will happily see it again. What are you doing next week, Lindsay?

  47. roomie on said:

    two points of advice for the critics posting here: if you’re going to diss the reviewer, at least have the courtesy to get her gender correct, and spell her name right.

    also: remember that most reviewers aren’t just handed jobs overnight. most of them have studied the history of film to some degree, and just because you have “seen a lot of movies” doesn’t mean that you know more than they do. susan’s been writing these for years. read and process the entire review before leaving lazy one-line detractions that simply make you look silly.

  48. El Burritoh on said:

    The sad truth is that the people like either form OR content these days, and very few can appreciate or critique both form AND content.

    Avatar is one of those that will polarize the arguments perfectly.

    The people who say Content is more important will have a good leg to stand on, because Avatar’s content is really not all that. I don’t actually have to explain that any further because those who say Form is more important aren’t going to say anything besides “you’re wrong and you suck,” so no point wasting my breath. And those who value Content are going to know exactly what I’m talking about.

    But those who value Form over Content also have a great leg to stand on, because Cameron and his army of digital artists have created what is quite possibly the most mesmerizing, engrossing, and charming cinematic experience yet. The craftsmanship of FX houses like Weta, ILM, and Blur (to name but three) is top notch in Avatar. There is some solid art being created here, fully excellent in its own right.

    I remain torn over this film. I graduated from college with a B.A in English, but I’m a 3D modeler and surface artist in a computer animation studio. If need be, I could hold my own in any civilized critique of Avatar’s content. I could also hold my own defending its form as well. I hate that we’ve reached a point where it’s okay to lay aside one for the other (form for content, or vice versa, that is). Where are the filmmakers who can create mature content as well as beautiful form? Or beautiful form as well as mature content? Where are the artists who can make a mature point with skill and beauty in their technique? They are few and far between. It’s either shock-value to make a point, or it’s fancy cinema to say nothing at all. What a shame. No wonder Hollywood is only doing remakes these days. (Say, if they’re remaking things, why don’t they remake recent movies that sucked, like Matrix 2 and 3? Those should have been great.)

    And as a final rabbit trail, I think an argument could be made for the responsibility of filmmakers to their audiences. The prevailing idea is that since film is art, you can pretty much show and say whatever you like. Hey, it’s art! A convenient back door. But I still think that it’s not appropriate, or at the very least in poor taste, for a professional filmmaker to insert such overt and tactless political commentary, especially taken out of context, as Cameron did in Avatar. I personally don’t think it makes good art, no matter how tight the CG integration is, but I know many will disagree with me.

  49. First, Doug I don’t want to hear about your one night stand recolections.

    Second, the job of a critic, is to be critical, on a “movie” level it probably is a solid 3.5 stars. In terms of how it is a “film” it probably matches up with the critics opinions

    Third, I learned in high school english that some teachers want to find symbolism in everything, and if it doesn’t have enough, then it isn’t good.

    Fourth, I couldn’t disagree more. I see movies as an experience, and if I walk away happy, then that’s all that matters. Overthinkers prod me. Thinking is not a bad thing, but suspension of disbelief is something all critics could us a bit more of.

  50. Anyway, the movie is awsome. you should watch it and enjoy

  51. M DILIP KUMAR on said:

    I will comment on this film after i watch it on 26th Dec.
    I heard from my friends that the movie is superb….you will almost forget your 2 hrs watching the film.
    A good one i suppose.

  52. CarlyHoo on said:

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but I would like to comment on the idea that this is a retelling of DWW or Pocahontas. Remember, the are only 7 basic plots around which authors write stories: 1. Man v (Wo)man, 2. Man v Nature, 3. Man v Environment, 4. Man v Machine, 5. Man v The Supernatural, 6. Man v Self, and 7. Man v God. While I agree with the comments that grand visual effects don’t excuse poor writing or character development (hello George Lucas, I’m talking @ you), you can’t can’t count as a negative the retreading of old plots. How many books and movies have been made compared to the 7 basic plots? There’s a whole lot o’ retelling of tales going on. Thanks for the review and I’ve prepared myself to watch a visually stunning picture and with Star Wars’ dialogue.

  53. Matt Moore on said:

    Avatar, you took the 3D glasses off my cereal box and put them in my heart. I enjoyed the movie as a big dumb blockbuster, probably because I’m a big dummy, but this review is excellent. awimaweh.

  54. @Carlyhoo – I agree – one shouldn’t expect complete plot innovation. I just felt that others told this story better and with more heart. Well, I also have issues with the “conquering hero” image because I (and a whole lot of smarter, more qualified literary theorists) feel that it just allows us to breathe easier about the questionable role we take in world events, especially when it has a nicely wrapped up ending. In other words, I’m not criticizing the movie for retelling Dances with Wolves/Pocahontas/Dune, I’m criticizing it for doing a bad job, or at least I meant to, anyway. It just doesn’t feel right.

    @yellowstoneguy – Movies are certainly an experience. This one made me feel annoyed/amazed, and that’s what I tried to express. In no way would I expect you to have the same reaction that I did. In defense of English teachers (or anyone with a love of literary analysis) people look for symbolism because it IS always there, whether or not the author/director intends it to be. Even if I didn’t disagree with the movie’s subtext, I’d still have an issue with what I thought was flat storytelling.

    @roomie – It’s OK! I’m thrilled people are even reading. When I read some critic’s pan of a movie I loved, I always have that moment of “ARE YOU CALLING ME STUPID, ASSHOLE?” too. …….(also if you really are my roomie, please don’t forget to grab my winter coat when packing the car to go to your mom’s tonight)

  55. @matt moore – I SEE YOU!!!! It is so rad of you to stop by.

  56. Julia on said:

    “And the photo of that cat with dreadlocks made me LOL.”


  57. Did anyone else notice how much the Na’vi looked like Wildberry Pop Tarts?

  58. Melanie on said:

    I was very very nervous about this movie before this review and fully expected that it would be a cliche with amazing special effects. I didn’t think the “form” would be worth it to be because Im a “substance” girl, but this review made me change my mind. Give me my damn 3D glasses James Cameron! I’m ready to marvel at your world. I’m curious to hear this language you’ve invented too.

  59. Susan,

    Thank you for stirring up this bee’s nest and your tenacious defense of your review. I smelled this movie coming ever since I saw the first reviews. The plot and themes are so overdone and unoriginal.

    Glad you have a sense of humor about all of this.

    Happy Holiday,


  60. Patti on said:

    I liked your review. Cameron does not make great original movies, but he does well creating a story and people that absolutely propels you into another place. I enjoy his movies. I do think his source material is not “Dances with Wolves” but rather a short story by Gordon R. Dickson called “Twig” that has the same use-all-the-resources-to-hell-with-the-natives plot line. It also has the idea of all life interconnected with one another, even after life as well as the mother tree linked to all. It’s worth looking up.

  61. I am surprised at the criticism of the plot. Did you people stay for the whole movie? (Spoiler alert) In no other movie I know of does it turn out that the primitives’ religion turn out to be literally true, that the entire planetary ecosystem is a symbiotic meta-organism.
    The creatures were plausible. Their similarity to familiar Earth animals is excusable because even on Earth, many forms have evolved several times, including dolphins, saber toothed cats, and others. There was a marsupial tiger in Australia. If anything I would guess some of the creatures were too strange. But elephants are strange, and nothing on Pandora was that weird.
    Unobtainium is dumb, but I can imagine that if we found some mineral like that, someone might jokingly name it that. A brief joke in the script might have addressed that. “You’re kidding, right?” “This stuff is worth $20M a kilo, and you have to go 10 light years to get it. You got a better name for it?” Worse were the floating mountains, with no mention of how that could be. One line could have fixed that. “The flux lines of the magnetic field are concentrated here, and they interact with the iron ore in these mountains.” or whatever.
    Materials? We have carbon fiber here now, but we still build houses out of wood. Cheap and local is still an option.
    Reviewers are paid to find the good and bad in films. So I have no complaints. In the end the only thing that matters is whether it is worth paying to see it. For me it was, and I may go back again. Every scene is like a classic science fiction painting, in 3D. There is subtle detail that makes it seem more real, like the “insects” in the jungle, and the jellyfish-like seeds floating everywhere.
    I was entertained. That is the reason they made it.

  62. Finally saw this film. It was pretty silly. It looked amazing, but the problem for me was that I didn’t feel any emotions. Characters show up and die, and there’s been no development, so I felt weird seeing someone get blown up and having no reaction.

    I guess it is funny that this 3D movie has only one-dimensional characters.

  63. Melanie on said:

    Just saw it – this review nailed it. It was visually stunning and mentally stupifying. I would have liked it better if they had just done away with the plot and walked us around the world National Geographic style. I wanted to see more plants and animals.

  64. Frank on said:

    I actually chose to see this movie because ‘Up In The Air’ had already started and I just wanted to see a movie – I like the 3-D thing too, so I went.

    I noticed the 3-D part tended to get less and less as the movie went on; towards the end , it relies more upon ‘war scene’ action.

    That said, I think the above review was perhaps unfair. Sure, these are familiar themes, but what makes a story is how themes are re-worked and given fresh symbols in a new story and a new setting. Avatar does this splendidly in my opinion.

    Seeing this movie made me want to immediately come home and google to see where the Avatar story came from. I’m still googling.

    I do wish movie reviewers (and I’m not necessarily referring to this review), would realize that cynicism and intelligence are 2 separate things. Being cynical can sound really intelligent, so it’s kind of an easy way to appear smart without working for it.

  65. Well, I think a lot of film critic cynicism (and any critic cynicism) (hey maybe cynicism entirely!) stems from the fact that you see and learn about so many movies, that the tired old tropes and the cop out crowd-pleasers start to become infuriating. In the same way that you might go from trendy restaurant to trendy restaurant and think, “Seriously? The same old truffle fries? Get off your ass and be innovative, chefs!” and then turn the table over and storm out in a fit of rage.

    But I think you’re absolutely right, sometimes you just want to go into a place and eat truffle fries because they taste good and they’re filling, especially if you don’t get paid to try all the fries in the city.* Surely if you, Frank, translate that sort of complete saturation to whatever you’re paid to do/thinkabout/articulate, you can understand the cynicism. And because cynicism involves that level of familiarity, doesn’t it involve a little intelligence? Everybody hates being condescended to, and I completely know from experience the resentment that starts to fester when someone calls something that you like “big and dumb” (I have three older siblings), but I just can’t place Avatar up there among the greats where it doesn’t belong. Perhaps my greats aren’t your greats, but does it really matter? It certainly doesn’t mean that anyone is stupid who enjoyed the movie, just like I hope that I’m not stupid for enjoying truffle fries wherever I go simply because they are ubiquitous.

    I do disagree that Avatar reworked any themes freshly or used any new symbols whatsoever. Had it done so, had there been any genuine heart and feeling in the movie, and had those symbols and emotions matched the visuals, it would be the best film in the universe.

    This story ran on NPR a couple of days ago, and I sputtered something like, “SEE! I DIDNT JUST MAKE UP ‘COLONIAL FANTASY’ IN MY HEAD! IT’S A REAL THING.” to the guy stopped at the light next to me. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122261912 . Listen to the audio, it’s funnier.

    My last and final point, because we have all spent way too much time (me more than any of you, times a thousand, which I think means James Cameron wins in the end) on this movie, is that no matter what you think, jokes about blue people who plug into the earth are endlessly fun to make.

    *I love truffle fries, Balliceaux. I’m not a restaurant critic. Keep it up for the plebes!!

  66. Early on I sensed a similarity to Dances With Wolves as I watched Avitar. To me the beauty of the storyline is that this version of Dances With Wolves brings to our attention a future assisted by space age technology versus an industrial revolution. And, we need to prepare our minds & hearts for THAT future. Our current world humanity is not as humane as it should be after thousands of years of trial and error. That is why we need continued reminders of the message in many stories similar to this one. The high road will never be greed and aggression. There are innumerable treasures far beyond money and power if we can become enlightened enough to appreciate them. Thanks to James Cameron for a beautiful futuristic presentation of cultural awareness and sensitivity, albiet the brutal reminiscence of past inhumanities to mankind.

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