Sunday, January 10, 2010

Movie review: Avatar -- part 1: Why I should have hated it

I feel like I should hate this movie. First, there's the plot. It's formulaic. And not only is the plot trite and shopworn, it's at least borderline racist: White guy stumbles into a group of his exotic enemies who, with echoes of the "Noble Savage," are so much deeper and more in tune with nature than he is, becomes part of the group despite the hostility of some of its members, overcomes his prejudices and casts off his old self, wins the heart of the beautiful Native Girl, becomes best buds with the young Native guy who had most wanted to kill him, learns to use their weapons and skills even better than they can, becomes their savior/messiah figure, and leads them in battle against his own (evil, exploitative) people who can't see the value of the wonderful culture they're about to destroy. With assorted variations, it's been used in any number of movies: Dances with Wolves, Fern Gully, Pocahontas, The Last Samurai, Star Trek: Insurrection, and on and on.

And the predictability! It's not just that the overall plot is a formula, but there isn't a single plot surprise in the movie. I saw every "twist" coming a mile away. I think it was Chekov (Anton, not Pavel) who said that if you show a gun in Act 1, you have to use it in Act 3. Well, James Cameron shows us a lot of guns, both literal and figurative, in this movie, and each time he does, you can easily predict exactly how he's going to use it. I won't go into specifics, even though you can't really "spoil" a movie this predictable. You'll know what I mean if you watch the movie.

And characterization? Forget about it. Two characters in this movie are fleshed out to the point where I suppose they could generously be described as three-dimensional (yet still cliché). Every other character is an archetype, if not a stereotype.

Oh, and then there are the heavy-handed "messages." Respect for the environment is Good. Murdering indigenous people in order to destroy their land and take their resources is Bad. Well, no frakkin' duh. Like we need a movie to point those things out for us. (But despite what some people have said, Avatar is not anti-war at all. It's pro-war. It's anti-imperialism, but it's very much in favor of warring to protect yourself against imperialism. That's definitely not a pacifist message.)

So, it sounds like I hated this movie, doesn't it? But I didn't. I loved it. Despite everything I just wrote, I absolutely loved it. It's actually kind of annoying. Despite my self-ascribed good taste, despite everything I think I know about movies and film-making and literature and story-telling, despite my ability to "deconstruct" this film and any other film from start to finish, backwards and forwards, inside and out, James Cameron can make a movie filled with everything I think should make for a bad film and keep me riveted for two and a half hours, entertain me, move me, and transport me to another world. I kind of hate that he has that much power over me.

In Part 2, I'll explain why I loved the movie so much.


  1. That reminds me that I was planning to write a review of "The Incredibles" which I just saw for the first time recently (and liked). The plotting of "The Incredibles" is all about the set-up/pay-off of the type "if you show a gun in act 1, you use it in act 3." Sometimes it was predictable, but not always.

    I'm still debating whether I should see Avatar. I don't generally watch many movies (except science films and kids' films with my kids).

  2. I couldn't agree with your post more... I also walked away with exactly those feelings. As I try to explain the movie I find myself thinking in the back of my head, "this movie sounds so stupid!" Yet, I loved it and it is my new favorite movie of all time.... I can't wait on your second post to see if the reason is the same as yours.

  3. Carol,

    I'm a movie cheapskate. I watch around 50 movies a year, but I only see one or two new releases at the theater per year, and about the same number at the $1.50 theater after they've been out a while. The rest I watch on DVD. But I don't rent them, I get them from the library for free.

    Even so, I've seen Avatar twice, at the inflated price they charge for 3D. It's a must-see if you like movies at all.


    Part 2 will be up in a couple of days, but the short answer is that the movie is beautiful to look at and everything works exactly the way it's supposed to.

  4. The one glitch in this movie for me, the one thing that broke the seamlessness of what was otherwise a (visually) well crafted word, was that the native *people* didn't have enough limbs.

    Every other critter from the hammerhead rhinos to the panther thing to the dog things to the monkey/lemur things to the little purple dragons flying over the lake to the chinese-lantern dragons that lit up and spun away like little helicoptes all had 6 LIMBS. 4 in front, 2 in back. Just like most earth creatures claim 4 limbs.

    But not the people.

    Everything else in the movie's flora and fauna meshed so well.

    Then the people show up with only 4 limbs.


    But yeah, formulaic as it was, I loved the movie too.

  5. I will touch on the number of limbs in Part 2.


What do you think?