Avatar ★★½

I heard about this movie for years, from its theatrical release in 2009 to when it was released on DVD and Blu Ray, til now where it still maintains a high reputation. I always heard you have to see it, but when I enquired on seeing it after it left theaters I was cautioned that it wasn't worth it on a small screen. This viewing was a result of my girlfriend's affirmation that it was great, but upon watching I'm not convinced. When it was released it became the most financially successful movie ever. Now? Seemingly a footnote in western popular culture.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a quadroplegic former marine with little to live for. When he's called by the RDA Corporation to volunteer his services, he leaps at the chance to leave the bleak Earth and journey to the lush rainforest paradise that is the alien planet Pandora. There, with the help of Norm (Joel David Moore) and Dr Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) he becomes part of the avatar program, a computer connection that allows him to enter the body of a Na'vi, the gigantic catlike alien beings of the planet. Using this simulation interface, Jake is commanded by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) and corporation head Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) to infiltrate the Na'vi and gather intel to mine the precious expensive metal the planet has below its surface, unobtanium. But over time Jake becomes sympathetic to the tribe, and falls in love with one of the Na'vi (Zoe Saldana), and when the military commanders begin to take violent action Jake must choose whose side he will fight on in the coming battle.

James Cameron is treading on ground he's already covered. The love story between a man and woman of different social or ethnic classes is from “Titanic,” the highly mechanized futuristic war machines are reminiscent of “Aliens” and the “Terminator” films, and the need to preserve mythical gentle creatures is like “The Abyss.” In regards to the same basic plot it’s already been done in “Pocahontas,” and “Dances With Wolves,” and roughly every other “romance that cannot be” film ever.

Once Jake infiltrates the natives the movie’s pace grinds to a halt as we’re subjected to his series of video logs he sends to headquarters. This stretches out the already long run time and makes the middle of the movie absolutely boring. Half of the film feels like exposition of the world, and while the film does show a decent amount with the sweeping shots of the forests and natives, it still doesn't do enough to show characters motivations and emotions in exchange of Jake explaining what he's doing in near constant voice over. Even in the end when the action picks up I’m still not invested in these characters enough to care.

Speaking of which, the characters are either blank slates like Jake, or bland stereotypes like Colonel Miles, and the head of the corporation, Parker Selfridge. James Cameron is usually pretty good at overall storytelling but not always great with dialogue, and that rears its ugly head here. When you have the Colonel saying things like “let’s get this operation done before dinner” and the head of the corporation Parker saying “This is why we're here. Because this little gray rock sells for $20 million a kilo. That's the only reason,” it takes you out of the movie when characters are saying things that on the nose and two dimensional. It's overly simplistic, and the film could have benefited from greater nuance in the characters.

I also have trouble getting invested in the action scenes involving Jake's avatar doing dangerous stunts. There's no tension of Jake dying when he's in his avatar body because whatever happens to the avatar doesn't have any effect on him. It's also confusing as to how he actually gets any rest, since he embodies his real body when he makes his video logs, and embodies the avatar when he apparently sleeps. That confusion is never resolved and makes some of the proceedings hard to follow.

The theme of Jake trying to escape his real life by journeying to an alien planet and occupying the body of essentially a superhuman could have been effective. It is a wish fulfillment most people could relate to, but the fact that it is used as a tool of imitating an alien race makes unfortunate implications, and almost was reminiscent of blackface. The exploitation of the natives in the film is equal to the exploitation James Cameron takes of generic non white peoples of Earth and feels like a disingenuous attempt to give them a voice.

It's also extremely unnerving how oversexualized the Na'vi are. Every one of them is clad in only a loincloth, and all have chiseled perfect bodies with long arms and torsos to show off their athletic abs. Saldana's character in particular, as Jake's love interest, is shown in high detail with uncomfortable lingering closeups. It makes Jake's romantic infatuation with her a little disturbing and caused me to question if he really loved her as a being, or as an object of fetish materialized into reality.

The effects themselves are great, as the Na’vi creatures and the jungles of Pandora they live in look so good it’s like they’re real. Unfortunately there is something off about it all, and so much of the movie takes place in these environments that before long you feel very detached since everything you see is essentially fake.

I can get behind an environmentally friendly film, or even an allegorical film on the US war in Iraq, or a commentary on colonialism in general. I want the environment to be respected more, and I believe global warming is human caused. I am also anti war. I support the messages the film is trying to push. The problem, like before, is that it’s been done, and this doesn’t bring anything new to the table. The obviousness in the motivations, and actions the characters take, combined with some of the worst naming ever in a motion picture makes an audience member like me feel that my intelligence is being insulted. The metal they want is UNOBTAINium? The alien world is Pandora? The head of the self absorbed corporation is named SELFridge? Really?

That goes for the alien Na'vi as well. The story is a transparent allegory for our world's colonial past of conquering native non-white peoples, or in defined terms, aliens. These are aliens in both sense, an alien race and alien to our ways in culture. In spite of them being a completely original alien race with a culture that is developed out and a language made up specifically for the movie, it says a lot that I can't identify any of them by name or face. Was it deliberate to make them seem as one unit, that it's easy to discriminate against a group that looks the same? If that were the case, that was something that actually needed to be made apparent in the dialogue and theming.

Overlong and infatuated with its own self proclaimed profoundness, “Avatar” collapses in on itself due to a bloated scale, overemphasis on computer effects, and lack of characters with depth. Just about the only appeal is in the visual spectacle, which probably is a let down on a typical home television. For all those millions of dollars spent on making you feel like you’re there on Pandora, it’s too bad Cameron couldn’t spend more time making you feel. It raked in billions yet it’s mediocre. And I’m not encouraged to tune in for the four sequels apparently in the works. Two and a half stars.

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