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Given all the buzz about Avatar, I really wanted to see this in the theater. Of course, thanks to that same buzz, I had a pretty good idea what to expect: beautiful effects coupled with a relatively unoriginal story.

There’s been a lot of criticism about this one.  Over at i09, Annalee Newitz  criticizes it as a white man’s guilt movie. Others describe it as a mutant love child of Ferngully, Dances with Wolves, Pocahontas, and the Smurfs.

Valid points, but they miss one very important question: All those mind-blowing special effects, and your subtitles are in Papyrus font?  Really?

Moving on to more serious (and spoilery) thoughts, in no particular order…

Terrorism.  Colonel Scar comments late in the movie, “We’ll fight terrorism with terror,” or something to that effect.  Implying that the Na’vi are the terrorists.  (We do see evidence that the Na’vi have been attacking the equipment, and Neytiri was ready to put an arrow through Jake.)  So in this movie, the terrorists are the good guys?  Fascinating … and it makes me wish the movie had the courage to explore this more directly.  Instead, the Na’vi’s terrorist acts are off-screen.  The humans move into the terrorist role, blowing up the tower tree, and Jake leads the Na’vi in a more “honorable” battle.  (See David Forbes’ review here for more on the terrorism theme.)

Aliens. I wanted to see some. The USB port is a nifty idea, but these people laugh, smile, cry, and kiss. They hunt with bow and arrow.  They’re heterosexual (as far as we see, at least) and monogamous for life. Okay, that last is a bit alien.  But basically, they’re big blue CGI humans.  I’ve had coworkers who were more alien.

Story. Predictable.  “Oh, that must be how they’re going to transfer Jake into his Na’vi body at the end.”  “Oh, so Jake’s going to have to level up to master dragonrider to redeem himself.”  The latter piece bugged me.  Only five Na’vi — and the chosen one, Jake Sully — have ever figured out that all you have to do is fly higher?  Sorry, but that was way too easy.

The Chosen One. I don’t mean Jake Sully. Sure, Jake rode the dragon and rallied the troops (half of whom promptly got mowed down by machine guns).  But Grace was the one who merged with the tree of souls.  Depending on how you interpret Jake’s prayer scene near the end, Grace is the one who shared that direct knowledge with the hivemind.  When Pandora wakes up and starts trashing bozos, I see Grace as the key character, and I wish the movie had done more with that.

Unobtanium.  Really?1

White Man’s Guilt.  Blatant parallels to North American colonization history here.  Blue stand-ins for Native Americans?  Check.  Technologically advanced civilization wiping them out in order to plunder?  Check.  Schools to teach the natives English?  Check.  Romanticized view of “how we were meant to live”?  Check. But this time, the white man is also the savior, allowing me to feel good about myself.

It does make sense for Jake to have a key role.  He’s the one who knows what the Na’vi are up against.  He should be involved in the planning.  But the idea that in 3-4 months, he goes from clueless human to the Awesomest Na’vi Savior?  Now we’ve gone from SF to fantasy.

Pandora had the ability to save itself, and did so.  (See my paragraph on Grace’s role.)  Jake wasn’t needed in the savior role.

ETA — Sexism: Was hurrying to get this post written, and forgot to include this one. Thanks Catherine for jogging my brain.  Jake “becomes a man,” and is now entitled to choose a woman.  The movie never goes anywhere with this aspect of Na’vi culture, but damn — there’s an awful lot packed into one line.  (As a good guy, Jake of course gives his intended the right to choose/consent.)

 Overall: Enjoyed it.  Suspect it might drag a bit when seen on DVD.  (Too many “behold the nifty” scenes.)  Worth seeing for the effects.  Papyrus font not too distracting after the first few minutes.

Comments and thoughts welcome, as always!

  1. I’m told this is supposed to be an inside joke. Sorry, but no. When 90% of the audience doesn’t get it, and when a good portion of those people are kicked out of the movie to roll their eyes, then your joke has failed.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.

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Comments

cathshaffer
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:01 pm (UTC)
Pretty much agreed on all counts. With regard to the whole white man's guilt plot--it's no worse than Dances with Wolves, really. I think they could have done better with the basic story template, but whatever. I think Jake was supposed to be someone who succeeded because he was naive--he did not have the preconceptions and expectations of either the anthropologists or the scientists. He mastered dragon riding not because he was smart enough to fly higher, but because he was stupid and desperate and, frankly, his body was expendable. However, they didn't develop these angles very well. I thought less time should have been spent on Animal Training 101, and more on Character Development 801. I also felt like we missed half the movie, because it started at a point when human/Na'vi relations were already screwed up.

Totally agreed on Unobtainium. Not only did 90% miss the joke, but the 10% who got the joke don't find it clever, just lazy.

We were dying for Sigourney Weaver to get inside the mechanical suit. Could they not have thrown us that one tiny bone? Come on!!!
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:05 pm (UTC)
"We were dying for Sigourney Weaver to get inside the mechanical suit."

Yes! From the moment they showed one of the mechs. That would have been a much better inside joke than Unobtanium!

I agree it's no worse than Dances with Wolves. I think it's the fact that we keep reusing the same plotline, combined with the fact that Avatar could have been so much more.

I think starting earlier could have worked, and would support my desire to highlight Grace's role instead of Jake's :-)
cathshaffer
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:17 pm (UTC)
I do agree Grace was underutilized. Alas.

Yes, they needed to take it up a notch. Exploring the terrorism angle, like you mentioned, would have been fantastic. I was very intrigued during the early scenes where they were rolling equipment in with arrows stuck in it and such that we were going to have some really crazy-hostile badass aliens--not the cuddly nine-foot smurfs we got. How awesome would it have been if they had done the unthinkable and killed Jake's Na'vi body, leaving him stranded on a hostile alien planet with an unbreathable atmosphere, confined to a wheel chair, with nothing but a flimsy trailer to live in and a mate-for-life relationship that he has totally FAILED at by being the wrong species. I was so *worried* about all of this stuff happening in the movie. Why didn't they go for it?

(Also, why did they back away from the obvious USB hookup during the love scene? Too porno?)
dr_phil_physics
Jan. 11th, 2010 06:54 pm (UTC)
Maybe it was like trying to connect two A connectors together -- doesn't work. In other words, maybe the USB cables are only for two legs masters to control six legged critters.

But I was thinking it -- especially after Grace's remark about playing too much with it in the beginning. It would've made the mating-for-life claim more realistic, but would've risked having Jake look like he'd found a new way to rape if they'd shown it.

Dr. Phil
jimhines
Jan. 11th, 2010 08:55 pm (UTC)
Can you explain the rape aspect?

If the USB plugin worked the same as it did on animals (once I'm plugged in, I control you), I could see that. But I don't think we have evidence of how that would work with two members of the same species plugging in to one another, or that it would be a control/dominance thing.
theguindo
Jan. 11th, 2010 07:10 pm (UTC)
HAHA I was waiting for them to USB hookup during the love scene too. COME ON IT'S SO OBVIOUS.
bookishdragon
Jan. 11th, 2010 10:36 pm (UTC)
I think the point of the terrorism line is not that the Navi are really terrorists (and in spite of that they are the good guys so when is terrorism justified?), but instead it is a reflection of how we (and this is every body not just white people) refer to the enemy. Currently 'terrorist' hold the most hostile baggage and so it is what is used. 200 years ago, and on back through the Romans/Chinese dynasties, we would have said 'barbarians'. Which to the British, Romans, Chinese, Japanese and others meant anyone who did not role over in the face of conquest and the 'obvious' superiority of said group but instead had the nerve, the unmitigated gall, to fight back and actually do so successfully (British v Irish, British v. Scots, Romans v Gauls (and Boadicea), Chinese v Mongols and Japan v Korea). Or if we move to Central and South America we would have said 'cannibals.'
I don't think Cameron was trying to say the Na'vi were terrorists, I think he was trying to show how they were being villanized by the outsiders for daring to stand up for themselves.
beccastareyes
Jan. 11th, 2010 03:18 pm (UTC)
I think starting earlier could have worked, and would support my desire to highlight Grace's role instead of Jake's :-)

It's funny, when I saw the movie, I kept thinking it would be more interesting to me if the movie was about Grace and Neytiri working to get the school back as species relations go down the toilet*, rather than Jake Sully being surprise!adopted. You could do the cultural learning from the POV of an alien learning human culture, plus having two female characters working together.

* And, fine, it ends in a climatic battle scene. You can even have Grace's Avatar body die both so she can pilot a mech and to actually deal with the Na'vi learning how to deal with Avatars in their human forms, rather than just kind of glossing over it.
barbarienne
Jan. 11th, 2010 05:08 pm (UTC)
I think Dances with Wolves, while definitely a white man's guilt story, is better in two respects:

1. John Dunbar becomes one of the tribe, not the Bestest Sioux Ever. He doesn't show them better ways to be who they are--he struggles, only semi-successfully, to understand them on their own terms. The one real help he brings to them is something they genuinely haven't got: guns. For this he is appreciated, but he is not made chief because he brought them magical boomsticks.

2. Dunbar's presence with the Sioux is a problem, and he knows it. The US troops will hunt them twice as hard because they view Dunbar as a traitor. This forces him to leave his new family. He can't actually save them; he can only make things worse.

DWW isn't perfect, but it's a far more nuanced movie than Avatar.

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