Avatar is an absolutely superb visual CGI-fest, long and entertaining, but with a screenplay (script) totally lacking in orginality, good dialogue or decent characterisation. The lush jungle moon Pandora is very nicely realized (pictures and posters below). Avatar stars Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana and Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez and Giovanni Ribisi. I’ll tell you right at the start that I’m giving it 7/10, mainly for the CGI and the professional way the film was constructed – it was after all very entertaining – but with a properly developed, true sci-fi script, it could have been much better. If the trailer below won’t play, you can probably watch it on my alphatucana youtube channel instead.
I watched it on TV, not on a huge Imax cinema-screen, and not in 3D. I know if I had seen it that way, I would have enjoyed it immensely, but it would still have the same weaknesses preventing a higher score.
The film is set in a future when spacefaring humans have destroyed the ecology on Earth, but have discovered a beautiful world, Pandora, which has Native-American-style blue-skinned humanoid aliens known as the Na’vi (pronounced nahvi – the apostrophe does nothing), and a valuable mineral, “unobtainium” (for God’s sake), positioned right under the native’s home village, which the evil corporation is intent on getting, either by negotiation (for which they don’t leave enough time, and machine-gunning the natives doesn’t help anyway), or by force. Sam Worthington’s character, Jake Sully, is recruited to mentally inhabit an ‘avatar’ – a vat-grown Na’vi body based on a mixture of genes from a native and Jake’s dead brother, who he is replacing on this mission. His job is to infiltrate the Na’vi society and earn their trust, and try to persuade them to leave their home in the three months before giant diggers arrive there. He is also recruited by badass Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) to provide military intelligence on the side, should force be necessary. Of course, the plot is 100% predictable and Sully falls in love with Na’vi Princess (chief’s daughter) Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) and has to decide which side he is on when the bad guys (white men, basically) attack. Sigourney Weaver plays the chief scientist, Grace, and Giovanni Ribisi plays the corporate scumbag Parker Selfridge (with a name like that, I’d expect his character to be British, and perhaps that was intended originally, but on screen he seems more like a New Yorker).
The film is rightly famous for its CGI (Computer Graphics Imagery). The world of Pandora is realized very beautifully, with thick verdant jungle, exotic plants and animals, bioluminescence and more: a paradise. Except that the majority of animals we meet happen to be extremely vicious predators, or angry giant hammerhead rhino-like creatures that you wouldn’t want stampeding around your back garden any time soon. The CGI is beautiful, and if you are by now absorbed in the film so you have suspended your disbelief, convincing. The CGI movements are still not technically up to being 100% realistic, but it is pretty good. The animals are a little too fast, a little too flexible, a little too shiny and perfect, a lot too indestructable, show no effort in moving, and so on, but still, it all looks great. There are no insect-like creatures and no bird-like creatures, unless you count some little flying dragon-like and lizard-like reptiloid creatures, and the large flying dragon-things the Na’vi like to ride on. There are some rather unconvincing horse-like creatures that the Na’vi ride too: it would have been much better if these could have been designed to look less like horses, I think. Despite these caveats, I think the film is worth watching just for the beautiful renditions of the Pandoran environment, and clearly, this film is pro-environmentalist propaganda. But perhaps we need that, these days. We probably do have to find some way of avoiding the complete destruction of our planet, after all. The answer probably lies in reforming our economic systems but the film doesn’t address any of that: it just makes the point, very strongly, that Nature is beautiful and valuable and we should not destroy it just for money. What the alternative may be I don’t think they or anyone else knows as yet.
Unobtainium. Oh dear. When greedy corporate-type Parker called the valuable mineral ‘unobtainium’ I was jolted out of my suspended disbelief for a bit, to ponder whether that was really its name, or whether he was just being New-Yorky sarcastic about it. Well, in the end, it turns out that that really is its name, and a stupid one it is too, if it jolts its audience out of the trance state to consider what a stupid name it is. The film doesn’t explain what is so important about it, but it is shown suspended in mid-air, probably electro-magnetically, so it may be a superconductor, or it may account for the floating mountains on Pandora, or both. No explanation is given for these either. Anyway, it is an excuse for the company to be invading Pandora; a metaphor for oil or something similar in today’s world no doubt.
As with the plot, the characters were rather empty or stereotyped too. In fact, I don’t think there was a single character who had any lines who wasn’t a flat, two-dimensional stereotype (and the film was released in 3D but obviously this didn’t apply to the characters). James Cameron, the director, spent just three weeks writing the screenplay and then spent nearly half a billion dollars on making and marketing the film. OK, it has been a huge financial success, bringing in some 2.7 billion dollars so far, but with such huge sums at stake, surely Hollywood might spend, say, a couple of months preparing a decent script? There is a legal dispute over the Avatar script, mind you – someone is claiming he took the idea from elsewhere. This whole system is so hit-and-miss that many major productions seem to fail due largely to dire scripts (John Carter seems to be a recent example, according to many), so it doesn’t seem too much insurance for the studios to take a little care over the basics. It seems that the people vetting the scripts don’t have any expertise. Why not reduce the risk for really quite a small expense and make the film even better?
As an example, it struck me as peculiar that Jake Sully, an uneducated marine ‘jarhead’ (to use his own words) had to infiltrate the Na’vi and become accepted by them so he could negotiate with them (do they teach marines to do this?), when it turned out that chief scientist Grace (Sigourney Weaver) was already in with them with her own avatar, or at least arrived at the same time. Why couldn’t she do it? She was significantly better qualified. As an aside, Grace just didn’t look right as a Na’vi, but in any case she didn’t behave consistently with her human character either. As a human she was in charge of her department: a dominant alpha female, negative about Jake’s chances and abilities; but as a Na’vi she was a background character with no dress sense (she dressed like a 14-year-old schoolgirl in a purple tee-shirt that didn’t go with her blue skin colour, and some khaki shorts), and suddenly became totally admiring of Jake once he got taken in by the Na’vi, and accepting of him or better when they were both in their human bodies again. Is this character development? It looked more like inconsistency to me. And Colonel Quaritch was so much of a stereotype tough guy (as bad as John Wayne, really) as to look really quite stupid by the time of the big battle (of course there is one – I don’t think I’m giving anything away here). During the battle he spent much of his time standing behind the pilot in the ‘copter with a mug of coffee in his hand (I didn’t notice any vapour coming from it though) and issuing stupid colloquial-language orders to demonstrate how manly he was.
And what happened to Jake’s colleague, Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), who was with him when he first saw his avatar floating in its tank, and who landed in the jungle with him and Grace? Why couldn’t he negotiate? Again, he had more experience. But no, he faded into the background for no obvious reason. Maybe because he was a scientist too and not a marine. It is vaguely justifiable, I suppose. Marines are obviously good negotiators. Especially those with no experience of it.
So anyway, he was with the Na’vi for three months and the diggers arrived, and they asked him, incredulously, since he had known what was going to happen, why hadn’t he mentioned it? Well, indeed! All his negotiating was done with the Princess Neytiri behind the bushes somewhere, it seems (and we did see a little of this). Well, enough of this stupidity.
What is the film actually about, I mean, other than simply spectacular entertainment? Well, I have already mentioned its ecological message, and I suppose that is basically it. The Na’vi are clearly Native American analogues – Na’vi even sounds like Navaho, one of the famous tribes (and I spell it with an ‘h’ and not a ‘j’ since they are clearly not Spanish). They have a shamanistic tribal culture, heavily influenced by their spiritual connection to Nature. This connection is literal in the film: they physically connect to trees and animals with a tentacle which all the major plants and animals have, so their neurons can share data (talk). They also apologise to animals they kill, explaining that their spirit will now go to Ai’wa (pronounced Aywa) as they put the knife in, something some of the Native Americans used to do as well. They believe, with good reason in the film, that everything is part of Ai’wa (the Great Spirit, in effect) (that link is a good read, by the way, if you want to find out a bit about nondual philosophy).
So, the obvious analogy is with the conquest of the Americas by the white men from Europe – both in the North, for colonisation (not happening at this stage in the film), and for gold by the Spanish (very like what is happening in the film). However, what’s past is past. We should look to ourselves. The film is even more like the vast logging and slash & burn farming industries in the Amazon, Indonesia and elsewhere, where vast areas of irreplaceable jungle are being destroyed, in many cases legally, and stone-age peoples and the protestors supporting them are being displaced and even murdered for profit as you read this. In the film there was a happy ending, but what of real life? It is also somewhat like the Western and particularly US attempts to dominate the oil-producing countries of the Middle-East in support of our unsustainable economic system: power first; selfishness first; everything else ultimately doesn’t matter and there is no god other than wealth and power. And that, of course, is another way of looking at Nature: not as holy and spiritual, but red in tooth and claw.
The acting. Well, with a script like that, what chance did the actors have, really? On the whole I think they did a very good job with the material they were given. Zoe Saldana was a very effective feline Neytiri; Sam Worthington was suitably bland as the not very thoughtful but basically good-hearted marine; Sigourney Weaver did what she could with the rather limited role the script left her with. Stephen Lang managed to make Colonel Quaritch repulsively macho and a very effective if stupid hate figure in the film, and indeed Giovanni Ribisi as Parker was also very effective at depicting a pig with his snout in the trough.
Overall, as I said at the beginning, I give this movie 7 out of 10, mainly for its spectacular entertainment value but not for its empty script and lack of proper characters. Incidentally, if you like the wallpaper pictures, you can get more from here: Avatar Wallpapers.