Friday, March 26, 2010


I finally got around to seeing Avatar. It was more than I expected and less than I wanted.

I knew that the visual effects were going to be good. What I didn't expect was how rich and layered they would be. Cameron has created one of the most visually appealing alien worlds to ever appear on the screen. The depth and detail of the forest is astounding. From the plants and flying insects in the foreground to complex tangle of life in the background, Pandora is a stunningly beautiful place. The Na'vi, the people who live in this forest world, are themselves beautiful. This is a motion picture worth watching just for the moving pictures. If you do go and see it I'd suggest watching the 3-D version. This was made to be seen in 3-D.

There has been a bit of controversy about 3-D lately. Avarar's box office success seems to have convinced Warner Brothers that they need to make all their future big movies in 3-D. A lot of people are asking why. Most movies, even most action movies, won't really be any better in 3-D. Good old 2-D is just fine. It is only movies like this that are built around their visual element and are designed with the process in mind that are worth the extra expense and the bother of wearing funny glasses. The push to create more movies using this technology is fairly senseless.

So the visuals are stunning. What of the plot, the characters, the story?

Well, that's the “less than I wanted” part. The plot is predictable, cliched, and somewhat hackneyed. While the visuals were fully realized, the characters were not.

Mankind is on the planet Pandora to mine the place of that most valuable of all precious MacGuffins, unobtainium. Yes, they really did call it that. I took it as a signal that we weren't to look too closely at the plot. It didn't matter what was being mined, it was something that they had and we wanted.

The mining company has two groups of non-miners with them; scientists and soldiers. The soldiers are there to keep the native population from disturbing the mining operation. The scientists are there to study that same population and to try to convince them to get out of the way.

The soldiers do their job with guns and bombs. The scientists use “avatars” to better communicate with the Na'vi. Avatars are artificially created Na'vi bodies that the scientists download their consciousnesses into. Our hero in this story is a former soldier who is working for the scientists. As he learns more about the Na'vi and grows closer to them, he begins to see who are the good guys and who are the bad.

The plot of good guy tree hugging primitive aliens versus evil, exploitative humans was very familiar. I rather liked it when Ursula K Le Guin wrote it in more than thirty years ago in The World For World Is Forest. That too featured mystical elements and a native revolution against the human baddies.

This is the fantasy re-telling of way too much human history. It is the story of the Americans and the American Indians. It is the story of the Belgians and the Congolese, the Australians and the Aborigines, and the British and just about everyone. It is a story that is worth telling. Science fiction can be used to tell these stories in a way that reveals truths by looking at them in a new way. That's not what happened here.

As an action movie this was a lot of fun. As a love story it was quite pleasant. It was great to watch but it didn't present all that much to think about. Fine. Watch it anyway. It's worth seeing, but probably only once.

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