Wednesday, March 10, 2010
I feel quite conflicted about Avatar, as if I cannot decide whether or not I approve of it. The visual impact of the film was second to none, but when I saw it a second time I couldn't help but take notice of all the little oddities and nagging problems that I was able to write off the first time.
The thing that probably bothers me the most is how much the entire plot rides on staggering coincidence after staggering coincidence. The only reason Jake is even invited to the Avatar program is because his twin brother died. Once there, he stumbles his way into meeting the Na'vi chief's daughter who decides not to kill him purely because a cotton fluff floats onto her readied arrow. When they later hook up on the day of his ceremony, they happen to screw and fall asleep in the very spot where the bulldozers arrive the following morning.
My misgivings are exacerbated by Jake's consistent status as a golden boy; everything he tries to do works right away for no apparent reason. He has absolutely no training in operating an Avatar but he instantly groks it and is running around effortlessly in minutes. The first bird creature he tries to mount turns out to be the right one for him. Later he manages to mount the super scary flying monster, something we're told has only happened once before in Na'vi history.
It's not easy to root for a protagonist who seems to be succeeding based purely on luck rather than skill. Lots of movies have heroes who are "special" or "the chosen one" which is a legitimate story conceit, but they don't typically bumble about and save the day.
Look at Neo in The Matrix. We're told that everybody falls the first time when they attempt to defy gravity in the "jump program." Neo takes a running leap and falls straight to the ground. When facing an Agent for the first time, he dodges well but still ends up shot. When he fights Agent Smith, he stands his ground only long enough to realize he has to run away. Only at the very end of the film does he do something truly extraordinary.
If The Matrix followed the Avatar playbook, at the start of the movie Neo would have fallen from that window ledge and landed safely on the back of Trinity's motorcycle.
Beyond the limp protagonist, Avatar has seriously underwhelming antagonists. The golf-loving corporate stooge and the ridiculously tough Colonel were impossible to take seriously as characters (although I did get a kick out of seeing a knife-wielding mech suit). The former was just a wishy-washy jerk, alternately treating the Na'vi as sentient life forms and disposable primates, while the latter was cartoonish in his contempt for the natives.
The other characters weren't much better. Jake's potential rivals, both human and Na'vi, both turn out to be incredibly friendly despite his dickish behavior. Grace might hold the land speed record for character turnarounds. We're barely introduced to her as a hard-ass who doesn't approve of a marine in her science experiment and the second Jake makes contact with the Na'vi she's practically his mother.
I'm also having trouble understanding the basics of the plot. In three months the humans' mining operation will reach the Na'vi settlement, so any negotiations or resettlement plans must be completed by then. Yet before Jake has his series of improbable accidents on his first day in the field, the three Avatars are doing nothing more than examining the wildlife. We know Grace has communicated with the Na'vi and even taught them English. Why isn't she reaching out to them and explaining what's at stake? Likewise, there's never any indication that Jake ever attempted even once to warn the Na'vi about the bulldozers or discuss the stakes at hand. All we get is a half-hearted log entry stating "We have nothing they need."
More to the point, where is the urgency coming from? Humans have traveled deep into outer space in search of the rare mineral Macguffinite and are in the process of tearing up Pandora to get what they came for. By all appearances this has been going on for years and aside from a few arrows in a tire, it doesn't look like the Na'vi are impeding humanity's advance. Why a sudden deadline to negotiate now? Indeed, why hire new Avatars at all at this late stage?
This, of course, begs the question of what the point of the Avatar program really was. Were they studying the inhabitants or the habitat? Was the program ever intended to actually mediate talks between the two sides? Either way, it seems like there weren't nearly enough people running around in Avatars to accomplish their goal(s). For all the equipment and personnel we see on screen, the entire film revolves around only three human operators.
I'm still decidedly in the camp of Avatar fans; the movie was a treat to watch despite all of the shortcomings I've mentioned above. To those who deride it as "predictable" I laugh; genuinely surprising movies are exceedingly rare. Whoever you are, I guarantee that your list of favorite movies is full of ultimately familiar stories retold in an exciting fashion. If nothing else Avatar takes elements from other films and expertly spins them together into something new.
I'm still of the opinion that James Cameron has never made a movie and I look forward to whatever he comes up with next (let's hope it doesn't take dozen years this time). However, I'm also happy that Avatar wasn't the award-winning juggernaut that Titanic was. It certainly wasn't the best picture I saw in 2009 and I only saw like six movies all year.
When leaving comments, please don't remain Anonymous. Click on "Other" and pick a name!
Be sociable! No sign-up is required!