Monday, December 21, 2009

My review of Avatar (contains spoilers)

Well I just got home from seeing Avatar (in 3D!). It was an entertaining film, but it was also so much less than it could have been. Visually and technologically it was superb. The plot, however, was derivative and hackneyed. Overall, it was the movie equivalent of a Pop-Tart: colorful and yummy but lacking real substance.

But hey, sometimes I like a good Pop-Tart.

As I watched, I had a nagging feeling that it all seemed vaguely familiar. Then it hit me: Ferngully! This is Ferngully for grownups!

Although visually the film was in 3D, from a plot standpoint the characters were very two dimensional: The military guys are (with two exceptions) all stereotypical thugs. The scientists are all thoughtful and benevolent. The corporate guy is greedy and crass. The Na'vi (natives) are noble savages. All of the characters fit into simple and cartoon-like categories, so we know who to cheer for and who to boo at. The ending wraps up everything nice and neat and tidy for us.

The theological world of the noble Na'vi is one of insipid new-agey pantheism, which seemed to have been cribbed from Disney's 'Pocahontas'. The plants and animals and trees and Na'vi are all interconnected in an environmentally-friendly web of eco-consciousness. Or something like that. I half expected to hear Elton John singing "The Circle of Life." On the other hand, religion didn't even appear to be on the radar screen of the human characters. The concept of a personal, transcendent deity was nowhere in sight.

The MacGuffin of the film is a rare and valuable mineral called--I kid you not--"unobtainium." Other than being described as the motivator for the human's rapacious conquest of the Na'vi planet, it is given no further explanation. Why do the humans need unobtainium so badly? I assumed that, at some point, it would come into play--perhaps to provide a key twist or revelation--but it turned out to be nothing more than an element to drive the plot.

The most disappointing thing about Avatar was that Cameron relied on the tried and true mechanism of having the characters use violence to resolve the film's conflicts. Walter Wink, in his fantastic book 'The Powers That Be' calls this "the myth of redemptive violence." I was hoping for something more profound and thought-provoking, but ultimately it came down to guns and knives and rockets and arrows and grenades and spears and big explosions and various people dying in entertaining ways. Some have said that Avatar carries an anti-war message, yet it is war that was presented as the only solution to the conflict between the Na'vi and the humans. The underdog Na'vi win the battle, the humans go home, end of story. Of course, if they make a sequel and it follows the history of the American Indians (upon which the Na'vi are obviously based) the humans will just return with a larger army and finish the job. It would have been so much more interesting if the enlightened Na'vi and their spiritually intelligent planet could have come up with a more creative and redemptive way to teach us naughty humans a lesson.

So there you have it: Ferngully meets Pocahontas, but with more weaponry and a much bigger budget.

A movie with a very similar plotline, but better written and with a more satisfying ending, is the lovely animated film 'Battle for Terra'. If you liked Avatar, go rent 'Battle for Terra'.


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