A pretentious English major’s view on why Avatar sucks

James Cameron, Avatar

“I just really like money.” (Photo by Steve Jurvetson)

I have been vehemently criticizing this film since the day it was released. Though I seem to stand oddly alone in this battle for the sake of quality storytelling, I shall soldier on, much like the characters in this movie, blindly and without feeling.

Goddamn does Avatar suck at being unique

I could go on at great length about the movie’s lack of originality, as it has none. Call it what you will:
  • Cosmic Pocahontas
  • Dances with Wolves in Space
  • The Last Cat Samurai
  • Dragonriders of Pern: Azure Edition
  • Romeo and Blue Juliet
  • …or the much more apt but overlooked Ferngully 2300.
While it pains me to leave such a sad and pathetic shortcoming criticism-free, I must point out that few stories are truly original when stripped down to their core elements. The hero journey, for example, can describe a good 30% of humanity’s literary oeuvre.

It is presentation that counts; good characters and good dialogue, for example.

Welcome to the shittiest characters in the universe

Cardboard

“Hey, we just got a new shipment of characters!” (Photo by Romy2702)

I am laughing already. If one were to spend a lifetime describing the main characters in this film (can you even remember their names?) one might come up with half a dozen personality traits for all of them put together. And many of these could be chalked up to the ability to ascribe random traits to blank characters without fear of reprisal, as lack of character nuance will neither contradict nor support such a description, and thus leave it safe from refutation. The dialogue is similarly pedestrian. I have heard more believable conversation between poorly trained parrots.

I am about to take away your precious toys

It is not the above qualities I wish to address, the ones that seem to enjoy universal disdain. Rather I would prefer to illustrate the enormous problems befalling the movie’s greatly lauded assets which seem to leave worshipers wide-eyed and heavily opiated. While most people agree the movie lacked in character and story, most agree the visuals were dazzling and the plot was well-constructed. These are the appreciations I will proceed to demolish.

It is incomprehensible to me that moviegoers lavished childlike accolades on the visual effects of this film. They were well done, of course. But to say that these were enormous strides in the world of computer animation when compared to previous achievements is kind of like saying one nuclear weapon is bigger than another. If you get hit by them you’d be lying if you said you could tell the difference.

Origami Yoda

See? It looks perfectly real already. (Photo by Ciro Duran)

Once we’ve seen fully developed CGI characters like Yoda and Gollum believably interacting with live actors in a way that makes you forget they’re fake, any further advancements are merely incremental. It baffles me that an enormous number of people could look at the Na’vi and claim they were vastly superior to creatures we had seen for years in the latest Star Wars films. Yes, I found the Na’vi more believable than Jar Jar Binks, but only slightly, and nearly as irritating.

For all of the visual magic achieved by the animators, I simply do not care. I was promised something new, something different, that had never been done before. Such was not the case. The ratio in this film of quality digital set design to awful characters and bad acting is comparable to those of the Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Yet Avatar is praised even by the toughest critics, merely because it looks really good.

Hiring CGI artists is not “creative”

While I have great appreciation for digital artistry, I have no appreciation whatsoever for a filmmaker’s ability to hire an army of digital artists with his hundreds of millions of dollars to produce a believable environment using the latest equipment. The fact Cameron “created an entire world” is not only completely false to begin with, but it also doesn’t matter. We have computers now. We should not be impressed when they behave as programmed.

People have stated this film should have won best picture, as it forever changed the way special effects will be used. This is entirely false. Only science fiction and fantasy movies will indulge significantly in these techniques anyway, and we give no such award to films that, for example, forever change the way costumes are manufactured. The best film should win best film, and Avatar won for special effects. A technical award was given for a technical achievement. Such was appropriate.

“But dude, have you seen it in IMAX?!?!”

iPod Nano

How to tell if a movie is good or not: Watch it on one of these. And these are the LARGER models. (photo by Andrew)

I have been told one can only appreciate this film if viewed in IMAX 3D, which is a tacit admission that its only value lies in its special effects. One should be able to appreciate a film on an iPod nano with a cracked screen. That is the acid test of a quality movie.

Allow me to introduce you to the creativity of pre-schoolers

And as for the “imagination” that was so fanboyishly praised, I have nothing but ferocious derision. There was not a single plant in this film that couldn’t have been found in the jungles of the Amazon, nor a single animal that was not an ordinary Earth creature with extra spikes and legs. There is more imagination in a classroom of 5 year olds than in all of James Cameron’s head. What passes for creativity these days was a spiky hyena, a spiky rhinoceros, and a spiky pterodactyl. Wow, an entire world!

For those who contemplated suicide because our own Earth is not as beautiful as Pandora, I respond with a mixture of sympathetic pity and perplexed condescension. Mostly the latter. Once again, there was nothing on that planet that did not resemble our own rainforests, which I assure you from personal experience are teeming with far more beautiful, far more interesting, and much weirder forms of life than the half dozen plants Cameron threw into the film. One ecosystem, six animals, six plants, all of which look similar to our own and thus easily accessible in our own world, and you guys want to kill yourselves? There is more biodiversity in your bathroom. Seriously, take a riverboat down the Amazon. Visit Death Valley. There are more indigenous native cultures living their traditional life in tribal villages throughout the world than you will ever be able to see in your lifetime. Go visit a few of them. You’ll be glad you did. I mean, check these out.

Tarsier

This is a real creature. It’s called a Tarsier. I want one. (photo by Jenny)

I will attempt to reiterate that everything on Pandora was inspired by slight modifications of existing flora and fauna to be found on our own Earth. Even the culture, again praised for its originality by ignorant fans and critics alike, is merely a rehash of Native American or other stereotypes we have been fed through cinema for a century. Communing with nature? Animal companions? The spirit of the earth? Sacred natural wonders? It is incomprehensible to me that so few people picked up on the familiarity.

“Um, how long is this movie?”

By this time I was completely detached from the film, and all further cinematic busywork merely exacerbated my intense boredom. I did not care about a single character, nor who reigned victorious at the end. I had no attachment whatsoever to the outcome of the plot, and no amount of unnecessarily long action sequences utterly devoid of tension due to the combination of effortless predictability and character indifference could sway me.

There were moments I enjoyed. The flight scene was allowed to breathe, to go on longer than it really needed to, and we were allowed to feel the exhilaration of flight instead of simply being shown a plot point and moving on. It was elegant, graceful, and humbling.

Unfortunately the following plot holes negated my ability to care.

1) The purpose of the Avatar program is never explained. If this is a profit-driven mining company, why bother spending billions on research and development, creation and maintenance of these blue hollow bodies when the aliens know who’s who anyway? When the Spaniards plundered all the gold out of South America, they didn’t even bother dressing differently. When oil giants suck the oil out of Africa they don’t even attempt any sort of cultural understanding. Can you imagine them developing a DNA-modification program that would make their employees darker-skinned, larger-lipped, curlier-haired and weller-endowed? What would be the point of spending that kind of money?

2) Giovanni Ribisi mentions (after telling us the plot of the movie, since expository dialogue is oh-so-compelling) that the gasoline, er, I mean petroleum, I mean gold, or whatever, is worth 20 million per kilo. A kilo is 2.2 pounds. Now imagine how much that little desktop paperweight of his might be worth. Perhaps several million. He then proceeds to leave it on his desk where anyone can take it while surrounded by thousands of mercenaries, who by definition are there only for the money. They come in and out of that command station all the time, and there was no indication of security, neither for the rock nor his office. This is like leaving the Hope Diamond lying around at an unemployment benefits office.

3) Mr. Ribisi informs us that the Smurf village sits upon the largest deposit of not-very-cleverly-named-ium within 200 clicks. A click is a kilometer. 200 clicks is about 125 miles, or about 10 minutes in a Boeing 767. That means they are willing to wage war instead of flying 10 minutes in any direction looking for more rocks.

Starcraft

FOR PANDORAAAAAA!

4) When they plan to destroy the magic tree they choose to do so by strapping grenades into a crate and dropping them from directly above the target. They are a mercenary warfare specialist organization with ships orbiting the planet and the best technology they can come up with does not involve missiles. World War 2 and the V2 rocket outclass this level of technology by several light years. I bet Blackwater could have come up with a much better plan.

5) After beating the most difficult level and entering the final boss battle, we inevitably witness the victory of blue over grey, um, I mean good over evil. Sergeant Slaughter is killed, and, after lingering for a moment, his robot falls down. This is perhaps a more subtle problem, that not only no one has noticed, but 100% of people defend. But why would the robot fall down? If it matches his movements and the legs follow the pilot’s legs, that means he would have to curl up his own legs to make the robot fall. He did not fall himself, as we can obviously see from the giant arrow penetrating his chest and pinning him to the back of the robot. He is in fact suspended, and motionless. The robot would do the same, unless the robot is specifically programmed to fall down when the pilot dies. This is ludicrous, of course. The robot fell down because it was more dramatic. It had that kind of programming.

Avatar sucks. Like a vacuum.

What’s sad is that not only are all the well-known flaws present and numerous, but even the most praised aspects of the film pitifully weak as well. The effects were well-done, but no visual spectacle is enough to carry a movie; the creativity was woefully deficient, and inferior to the imagination of the average daycare center attendant; the action sequences were overblown, and devoid of any emotional involvement; the message was too transparently childish, and thus entirely ineffective.

It will cause me insufferable pain to be further plagued with the planned sequels (plural) that I hope will be color-coded with red and green aliens accordingly. But I take comfort in the fact that Avatar’s subsequent rerelease has failed to do more than tank.

Get it? Tanks?

I hate Avatar. I hate it so very much.



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