Jan 23, 2010

Review Post 62: Avatar

I said I wasn’t going to do this, but during January a lot of people have been asking me when I was going to review Avatar (one friend, jokingly I think, accused me of dereliction of duty). So I went yesterday. I did this for YOU. You’re welcome.

DIR: James Cameron
CAST: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana,
Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang

The review of Avatar in British film review magazine Total Film begins with this sentence: “First, let’s be clear… Avatar is much more than a film.” Well, that’s just bollocks. Avatar isn’t more than a film, Avatar isn’t even a film.

Yes, I know it cost $300million, I know it’s a giant sized cinema experience; in IMAX, in 3D, that doesn’t change the fact that what I spent 161 minutes watching was not a film. Avatar is in fact a pair of lectures (one on why war is bad, the other on why trees are good). These lectures are presented in the form of a computer game that you can’t play, with occasional live action cut scenes to fill in some exposition, and I’m sorry but that, for me, isn’t a movie. If I want to be lectured I’ll go and listen to a lecture, when I go to Avatar I want to see a balls to the wall entertaining sci-fi movie. Cameron can deliver those, remember the first two Terminator films? With Avatar though he’s so bound up in his visuals and in his chosen lecture topics that everything else falls away.

It’s not that I don’t agree with Cameron. War is definitely, generally, bad, as was the way that Native Americans were treated by European settlers (an inescapable undertone to the way the mercenaries in this film treat the Pandoran natives the Na’vi). Trees are a good thing, and deforestation encroaching on the way that ancient tribes living in the rainforest live is, again, definitely bad. I know these things, I don’t need a glow in the dark lecture in 3D to tell me. For much of its running time watching Avatar is like someone screaming left wing propaganda at you while smacking you in the face with a baseball bat. During the scenes at the military compound, especially those featuring Stephen Lang as the film’s cartoon GI JOE style villain the bat-wielding maniac bellows “the war on terror is bad, we’re making things worse”. When we see the corporate side of the Pandora operation (personified by Giovanni Ribisi) discussing the need to extract the… I swear this is really what they call it… Unobtainium on which the Na’vi’s home sits the endless refrain is “we went to war for oil”. Once we’re out in Pandora the tone shifts, as Cameron embraces environmentalism. The Na’vi are exactly what the right talk about when they denigrate ‘tree huggers’ and in their rather vaguely defined earth mother religion Cameron finds only the most naked and most obvious message of how, hey, we should all love the planet cause it, like [toke], loves us, man. Again, I’ve got sympathy for the message, politically I’m on board, but I’m not at a fucking political rally, I’m supposed to be at a movie.

Even if Avatar were a movie, it wouldn’t be an especially good one. It is, it has to be said, visually stunning. The 3D works almost perfectly, the CGI is for the most part absolutely convincing and the Na’vi don’t have those dead soulless eyes that so undermine other motion captured characters. Cameron is also a past master at action scenes and though the ones in Avatar are few, and far between, they are all well executed and cut together in a manner that (shaky-cam aficionados take note) makes sense geographically and has a real sense of movement generated not by cuts but by camera and character motion. The problem is that the thrill of the visuals dies down very quickly, and by the time the wow factor is gone you’ve still got 150 minutes of movie to fill. Its then that all of the film's problems, visual and dramatic, start to become clear.

The 3D is technically strong, though there is still a softness to the image, especially when the screen is crowded with characters, or on foreground motion, that I find very off putting, and which isn’t a problem for 2D films. The larger issue with the 3D is simply that, despite Cameron’s repeated claims that it is a process that utterly changes how we see cinema, it is utterly, utterly pointless. It’s not immersive by any means, because the shots in which the technology is fully exploited all shout ‘look at me, I’m in 3D’, instantly lifting us out of the ‘film’. 3D is not, and never will be, a storytelling device, everything that this film says and does will be exactly the same in 2D, it may well be better actually, because something won’t pop up and announce itself every few minutes as being part of a cinematic process. While the effects generally work brilliantly there are issues with the CGI on the Na’vi. Their texture is often a little strange, they look a little like figures made of blue playdoh at times, and that issue is magnified when they are seen in long shot, in which they lack weight and presence.

James Cameron has always been a less interesting and less talented writer than he is a director; even in the brilliant Terminator 2 much of the dialogue clunks like the gears in Arnie’s endoskeleton. Actually, Cameron’s writing skills seem to have regressed even since Titanic (whose screenplay is a minefield of mind bogglingly awful lines). The bludgeoning obviousness that Cameron brings to Avatar’s ‘subtext’ is also present in its second hand storytelling (it’s Dances With Big Blue Aliens), portentous dialogue, ham handed character development and overwrought emotion. The battle lines are drawn in stark black and white: Lang’s military commander is basically two small horns and a forked tail short of being Satan himself, while the Na’vi are depicted as almost entirely perfect pure beings, their only anger coming from our encroachment. Cameron’s never been a subtle filmmaker (look at True Lies), but at least the emotion of T2’s ending felt earned, and was something you shared in. I was never emotionally engaged by Avatar. I’d say that that could be due to how little of this film is real at any level, but that’s a cop out; Up may be the single most emotionally devastating film of the past decade, and not a frame of that contains any real elements. The fact is that Avatar is more interested in seducing you with flashy images and then battering you with its message than engaging your heart or your brain.

Among the actors, adequacy is the order of the day. Sigourney Weaver, Joel Moore, Giovanni Ribisi, Michelle Rocriguez, Wes Studi, CCH Pounder and Laz Alonso all do perfectly well with what they are given (a one note stereotype each). Only a few cast members distinguish themselves. Sam Worthington’s lunkheaded performance in Terminator: Salvation made for an underwhelming debut from a man tipped to be the great action star of the next decade, and Avatar does nothing to enhance his reputation. Once again, the Australian actor contributes a rote, largely emotionless and only intermittently American accented performance, a void at the centre of a film in desperate need of a strong anchor. That’s nothing though, compared to the monumentally terrible performance given by Stephen Lang. Lang is one of my least favourite actors. In movie after movie I’ve watched him give performances hammy enough to keep me in sandwiches for a year, Avatar is no exception, he plays every line as if he’s the moustache-twirling villain of an expensive panto (oh, right).

One of the few things I genuinely enjoyed in Avatar was Zoe Saldana’s performance as Na’vi warrior woman Neyteri; another in Cameron’s long line of battle hardened heroines. Saldana’s performance has a conviction, both physically and in her dialogue scenes (sadly her partner is Worthington) that is missing from the rest of the film. The Na’vi seem to have some animalistic qualities, especially when they fight, and Saldana brings these out beautifully (when Worthington does it it’s like watching Cameron give him an acting exercise “be a cat”). Thanks to Saldana’s performance, deftly combining heart and ferocity, Neyteri emerges as the only memorable thing in Avatar.

Writing this review feels odd for me, because I honestly can’t see Avatar as a movie, and that means that it feels out of place on this site. I may as well write a review of my shoes (which started out very comfortable, but now I’ve walked in them so much that the padding’s just about gone, three stars). Here’s the bottom line. Avatar looks spectacular, and if that's enough for you; if you don’t mind spending the best part of three hours watching someone play a pretty 3D computer game as they lecture you, well, enjoy. Me? I’m going to watch a film instead.

Well, there you are, I reviewed it. Incredulity and death threats in the comments or by email. Thanks


  1. Stephen Lang (i looked him up) was the best thing about it! In such a film where you can't take anything seriously, he was the only one that got it. Also, he looked like the leader in Small Soldiers.

  2. I hadn't thought of that Small Soldiers thing, but yyou're right. I really like that movie, but then I would; it's by Joe Dante

  3. Finally, someone who isn't masturbating over this film! Refreshing to see a different opinion, hot damn could have used you on the podcast for the Avatar ep lol

  4. I think you actually completely missed the point on this film. Now I'm by no means saying its the best thing ever, but maybe you should watch it as a film.

    Sure I can see your point about its message being a bit heavy-handed, but just ignore that, take it as it is. It's ace! It's fun and silly and hammy.

  5. A BIT heaavy handed?! How can I ignore the message when that's all there is (besides a glow in the dark Dances With Wolves with shitty acting and unnessecary 3D bells and whistles).

  6. So what if it's a recycled story? It's how it's told! It's fun!