It didn’t take long for me to discover that I’m in a pretty meager minority with this one. Most people that I’ve been talking to absolutely loved Avatar, James Cameron’s long-awaited follow-up to his 1997 megahit Titanic.
Hell, I was looking mighty forward to it, myself, and when I sat down for that midnight screening earlier this month I was genuinely excited. As were a lot of people. And a lot of people got what they were hoping for. But not this disappointed moviegoer.
Avatar has been something of a darling among critics and audiences alike. It’s well on its way to earning back its massive budget at the box office, and has achieved Certified Fresh status on RottenTomatoes as well as Universal Acclaim on MetaCritic. All the while, I feel like I’m the only one who just doesn’t get it.
And it is with that sense of lone chagrin that I name Avatar the most overrated movie of 2009. Last year, Quaid bestowed that dishonor upon Ron Howard’s Best Picture-nominee Frost/Nixon. A good choice, but I suspect my choice for this year will have a stronger and louder band of supporters backing it up.
But, really, overrated isn’t the right word. Overrated is a word that works better for a movie like Frost/Nixon, a movie where all of the things that many people thought were impressive just…weren’t. Avatar is a movie that I feel like I’m looking at through a completely different set of eyes than most.
And so, to start things off on the wrong foot and get everyone’s blood a-boilin’, let me say that I believe that the right word to describe Avatar can only be to say that it is most certainly dismally “stupid.”
Avatar is a stupid movie with stupid ideas and a stupid brain that is too incredibly stupid to recognize any of its glaring stupidities.
There. I said it.
Stupid is a word that is so commonly used by everyone to describe movies, yet it’s one that I almost always make a point never to use. It’s too broadly dismissive and never means quite what is meant by the person using it. To me, there’s a difference between “It was bad” and “It was stupid.” And to me, Avatar is stupid.
Now, I will certainly admit that the visual prowess of Avatar is unmatched, perhaps even groundbreaking, but time will tell with that one. But it’s also a movie that, no matter how aesthetically pleasing, can’t overcome its one glaring folly. Many people will admit, to my credit, that the story isn’t quite up to snuff, but for my money, Avatar is one of the absolute worst scripts of the decade.
Before I get into it, let me just say that I usually pride myself on my negative reviews a lot more than my positive reviews, but in this case there’s so much foam slobbering from my mouth that I’m unsure that I’ll be able to scrape it all off into a frothy brew from which we can all sip the poetry of my rage. But I can sure as hell try.
From the story/message/theme standpoint, you might have heard it being described as a big action movie version of Dances with Wolves or Ferngully: The Last Rainforest. To say that does a disservice to both of those movies. At least Ferngully had fairies and a funny talking bat.
If you haven’t seen it yet, Avatar centers on a character named Jake Sully, played by Sam Worthington, who you might remember from Terminator: Salvation. He’s a crippled marine that gets called in to assist some scientists on the moon of Pandora. Never mind why. It really doesn’t matter.
The moon is populated by natives known as the Na’vi, gigantic gangly blue sparkly people. His job is to get plugged into an “avatar” (Hey! That’s the title of the movie!) which will allow him to wander the lands of Pandora as one of the Na’vi, all while his real body rests comfortably in an incubation pod or whatever the hell it is back at the base.
The humans on the moon want to mine the land of the Na’vi for its resources. I can’t recall what specifically they want, some kind of mineral. It really doesn’t matter. The humans would like for the Na’vi to move, and are more than happy to resort to violent force or genocide, whichever comes first.
The military leader on Pandora asks Jake to investigate the Na’vi to see if there’s anyway that they’ll ever leave their land quietly and peacefully. When considering the way that Cameron broadly demonizes all of his antagonists, this request is pretty uncharacteristic, but that’s a minor quibble in a movie full of major incompetence.
Jake soon starts to fall in with the Na’vi, becomes more acclimated with their culture, and even falls in love with one of them (Zoe Saldana from Star Trek). And he soon realizes that there is no chance that they’ll ever give up their land. The Na’vi are nature-centric and share a sort of collective consciousness with all plants and animals of Pandora. They are able to literally plug themselves into the nature around them as if they were all nerve endings of the giant brain that is Pandora. And how cool that could have been!
After not long, Jake is officially inducted as being one of them (even though they all know that he’s actually just a dude in a box a few miles away), and is fully ready to fight off the evil human types who sent him out their in the first place and want to drive them out and rape their lands and grrrrr!
Now, maybe I’m sounding more cynical than I intend to right now. If you want to make a movie about environmental preservation, that’s all well and good, but please first make sure that you are of sound mind.
This is where James Cameron misstepped with Avatar.
An early red flag I had about Avatar occurred when watching James Cameron on “60 Minutes” a few weeks ago. Morley Safer was asking Cameron about the design of the Na’vi (which, for all of the amazing-looking creatures in this movie, the Na’vi sure look dumb) and he was noting their tails. “Why tails?” he asked James. A pretty softball kind of question, but his immediate reply alarmed me. James Cameron sort of half-smiled and said with boyish glee “Well, tails are cool!”
And that kind of “Well (fill in the blank) is cool!” mindset seems to be the only thing that was driving him during the entire process of making Avatar and it just doesn’t cut it for the subject matter he wishes to explore. It seems like all of his best ideas started and stopped at “Well, that’s cool!”
This is a movie where everybody is plugging themselves into everything, becoming a part of something else, and the thematic weight of it is totally lost on the guy who thought it all up in the first place.
For example, the Na’vi can plug themselves into plants and animals to be peaceful and at one with nature. That sounds nice, but PETA would have a field day with this one, and they’d be right to. The Na’vi plug themselves into the animals, and proceed to make them do awful and dangerous things. Sure, the animals are consenting to be plugged, but once done, the Na’vi are the masters and the animals have no free will of their own; sort of a slap in the face to Cameron’s thematic ideas about being one with nature.
Meanwhile, in the parallel plugging ventures, the evil humans plug themselves into machines (not unlike the power loader from Aliens) to rape and pillage lands and cause all sorts of destruction. And finally there are the select few good humans who plug themselves into the Na’vi to learn more about their culture.
SOME MINOR SPOILERS
Well, at the end of the movie, all three of these peoples plug themselves into their respective outlets and proceed to kill each other (all for the sake of a big action sequence) in one of the most outrageous displays of gleeful cinematic savagery you’ll see all year.
You’d think a movie that boasts such a “we are the world” collective consciousness kind of idea wouldn’t create bad guys that are so simplistically evil and good guys that see fit to kill them all at the drop of a hat. You’d also think that a movie with such an obviously anti-war ideology wouldn’t be so proud to bask in the thrilling glorification of war-like violence.
I understand that “this is our land!” and all that bullshit, but I just think it’s a shame that the reverence that James Cameron has for natural habitats and plant life doesn’t extend to human and animal life.
Remember the ending of The Abyss: Special Edition where the aliens almost wipe out humanity with gigantic tidal waves, but instead stop the waves before they hit and let it serve as a warning of “Hey! Stop killing each other…or we’ll kill you.” Kinda dumb, right?
Just think if the aliens in The Abyss actually had wiped out all of humanity. Well, that’s sort of what Cameron is up to here. Avatar functions with a similar thought process of “Hey! Stop stealing and raping lands that don’t belong to you…or we’ll kill you.” Only, this time, he follows through. The guy just doesn’t get it!
No one in this movie even learns any kind of a lesson—and I get a sense that if anyone did, it would probably be the wrong damn lesson. As far as the “good guys” are concerned, they are perfect and have no lessons to learn, and all of the “bad guys” are either exterminated or exiled. It’s such a simple-minded endeavor that it’s damn near unbearable to sit through.
END OF SPOILERS
Imagine a seven-year-old kid with a wildly active imagination, but without a fully matured sense of right and wrong, justice and injustice. Now imagine him sitting you down to watch him put on a two-hour-and-forty-minute play for you with his action figures and you’ll get a sense of what the Avatar experience is like.
James Cameron has supposedly been working on this movie for years and years and years, and it shows: his ideas are immature and juvenile at best and the most broadly agreeable interpretation of his message is so hackneyed, obvious, and dated it might have only made for a stirring film about 400 years ago. And those primitive fuckers would have been just as floored by Did You Hear About the Morgans? (“No, sir, I haven’t! Tell me!”)
I realize that my grievances with this movie seem mostly…political, for lack of a better term, but I argue that they are mostly logical and even humanitarian. Avatar is a thoughtless, careless movie and it’s all the more disappointing and distressing that something so visually arresting that had the beginnings of so many great ideas (like the ideas of avatars and the collective consciousness of Pandora) could go so horribly wrong—and right from the word go, too.
Avatar isn’t really a good movie at any point. It’s a shame that James Cameron is such a control freak because he could really stand to have a second set of eyes look over his scripts. His dialogue is the very definition of atrocious, filled to the top with ridiculously cliché haggard-movie-hero one liners like “I didn’t sign up for this,” which I realize was also used in The Dark Knight, and while I can’t totally condone it in that film, its context and delivery were a bit more forgivable and maybe even a tad self-aware.
Giovanni Ribisi, as the corporate head thirsting after Pandora’s MacGuffinous resources, is the only one in the movie who looks like he’s at least trying to make the dialogue work. Sometimes he succeeds, mostly he doesn’t. It’s a shame, really. Not even Sigourney Weaver is very good here, as she’s forced to say lines like “If you’re going to pee on my leg, at least have the courtesy to tell me it’s raining.” It was funny when it was the title of a Judge Judy book, Mr. Cameron, but it’s not movie dialogue.
Character arcs (in the rare occasion of their implementation) are treated in a very off-handed “oh, by the way” sort of approach, always taking a backseat to heavy-handed preachiness and over-the-top action. In fact I defy you to give a damn about any single character in this movie.
His symbolisms and preachiness are so heavy-handed, and the plot is such a shameless mishmash of tired plot threads borrowed from countless movies, in particular the early nineties’ cops-and-surfers flick Point Break, which, curiously, was executive produced by James Cameron and directed by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow.
Like Cameron with Avatar, Bigelow returned to the big screen this year after an extended absence, her last film being 2002’s submarine thriller K-19: The Widowmaker. Fortunately for her, however, her new film, The Hurt Locker, is an infinitely better, smarter, and more mature film than Cameron’s, and might just earn her an Oscar. With that film, she portrays soldiers as the people that they are, and not the expendable, evil collateral damage of war that Cameron seems to see. Wonder why they divorced—I guess Bigelow felt wrong about being married to a child.
There’s just no defending the script of Avatar. If you enjoyed the movie for the visuals and the epic scope, and got caught up in all of it, then that’s fine. I understand. Personally, I didn’t. When I wasn’t irritated, I was bored, squirming around in my seat, waiting a long, long time for it to be over. I believe Avatar to be a bad movie. A bad, bad movie. I know many others don’t feel the same at all, and every day it’s looking more and more like a lock for a Best Picture nomination. So maybe there’s something I just missed, but if there is, I really have no desire to ever sit back down in front of this movie to find out just what it was.