FILM: Review: Avatar

Written by Jordan Petersen on . Posted in Film

Avatar

In an interview with the LA Times, James Cameron had this to say about his new film, Avatar:

It’s been a while since something…took us on a journey…grabbed us by the lapels and dragged us out the door and took us on a journey of surprise.

Jimmy considers Avatar’s greatest strength to be that it isn’t another Star Wars, Star Trek, Harry Potter, or Batman movie. It’s its own thing entirely, which excites him a whole lot.

And why not? I think there’s an indisputably strong case for new material — untrodden ground, so to speak. We ought to demand more often from our filmmakers stories that haven’t yet been told. I wish there were more blockbuster-sized films that pushed the envelope that way.

I have to proceed carefully, I think, for fear of alienating some close friends. But I have to be honest, Avatar has but one strength: its beauty.

It is the most impressively dazzling film ever created. Brother James managed to fit all of the hundreds of millions of dollars (reports say between $300 million and $500 million, “specifically”) into the frame. This is gorgeous, gorgeous stuff — and nobody knows how to direct the crucial kinesis of action and spectacle like James Cameron. When something needs to be exciting, he makes sure it is. The flight sequences — of which there were many – were particularly astounding. And the 3D thing actually gave me vertigo a couple of times, which was wonderful.

And emotionally, Pandora exists by the end of the film. The lush, rich, painstakingly detailed environments were so impressively, thoroughly composed that my experience with the environment was totally immersive.

That is what I paid to see ($10 for a 3D IMAX matinee). My expectations for this film were met exactly and, for once, I’m grateful the distributors managed to give the entire story away in the trailers before the film was released. I knew long before paying for the ticket, entering the IMAX cavern and donning my uncomfortable goggles that the story would be, well, Pocahontas in space.

There is not a significant character, event or dramatic beat in this film that has not been used before, often, and better by others. If it feels familiar, it’s because you’ve heard this story a hundred times.

It’s not a terrible story, but it’s certainly nothing new — and the way it plays out here is painfully frustrating. The film touts cumbersome anti-war, pro-environment, anti-industrialism themes that are weakened to impotence by both their didacticism and obvious hypocrisy. James is biting the hand that feeds him, considering this was the most expensive film ever made, and demanded not only the most advanced technology available, but technologies that had to be invented specifically for the film.

There’s also an inherent condescension in this story. The message of this film is that the Na’vi (Pandora’s indigenous humanoids) are physically, morally, and environmentally superior to us war-mongering humans. The Na’vi are, of course, strongly reminiscent of idealized Native American cultures, and the humans represent Western culture. The strokes are broad. But of course, as superior as the Na’vi are, it is the enlightened human who becomes the saving hero, unites all the primitive tribes, and leads them in an epic battle against the offenders. The fundamental understanding of socio-cultural politics behind this whole mess is astonishingly childish.

Here’s my dream: that someone with such an expansive gift for creating dynamic, beautiful worlds would get together with someone who is equally talented as a storyteller. There are a tiny handful of people out there who are both dramatically and visually talented. One of them is Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight fame. But there aren’t enough of those guys to go around. We need our James Camerons and George Lucases to work with our severely under-appreciated, narrative geniuses.

Until then, we’ll have to be satisfied with what we pay for.

Jordan Petersen is a film correspondent for Rhombus.

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