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Avatar: The Good and The Bad

I finally got a chance to see James Cameron’s Avatar. Maybe you’ve heard of it?

It’s about a military mining operation on the planet Pandora that is hindered by the location of a village of the native Na’vi. To avoid killing the natives, a contingent of scientists attempt a peaceful negotiation through the use of Avatars, home-grown versions of Na’vi that are genetically linked to humans. A soldier, Jake Sully, is elected to join the Avatar program and learn their ways so that he might convince them to relocate.

There’s been a lot of opinions floating around about this supposedly landmark film…usually emphasizing one extreme (“A new standard!”) or the other (“It sucked!”).

Here are my impressions of the film…


THE GOOD

  • The visuals were excellent overall. What really made it was the incredible attention to detail. There were an amazing number of animated elements that made it look more real.
    • The vistas were stunning, eliciting the sense of wonder that draws me to science fiction.
    • The CGI characters were very good. Certainly past the Uncanny Valley (if that could be said to exist with human-like aliens), though if you look closely at certain times you can see that the physics of their movement wasn’t quite right.
    • The 3D was OK. There were a few scenes – particularly those with floating debris in the extreme foreground – where I felt like swatting the debris out of the way.
  • Decent worldbuilding – We get to see many aspects of the Na’vi culture and Pandora itself.
  • Sets a good example for how cool a military SciFi film could look. Those mecha-robots looked they jumped right off the cover of a Warhammer book.

THE BAD

  • Clichéd – Maybe I’ve just seen too many films that feature an Evil Corporation. (Sigourney Weaver’s presence only reminded me of The Company from Aliens.) And films about ravaging the land (with its accompanying New Age soundtrack). And the hero who disobeys orders to fight for what’s “right”. And the friends and foes who join together in the cause. And the inevitable love interest. And the inevitable confrontation with her betrothed. Etc.
    • Two-dimensional, archetypical characters. Sympathetic hero? Check. Tough Military superior? Check. Heartless corporate suit? Check. Jealous boyfriend? Check. I had hoped that the wheelchair-bound Sully getting his Avatar legs would be a bigger part of the film and would lend the character some depth. It wasn’t and it didn’t.
    • Unobtainium? Really? I get the in-joke, but the name is too much a part of that joke to skip past it without wincing.
  • Predictable – Every single plot point was visible long before it actually happened.
  • Awkward dialogue. “Shut your pie-hole?” Seriously?
  • Bad science – Ignoring the fact that much of the science behind the Avatar project was a lot of handwaving, some things were just downright silly:
    • I get that Pandora’s gravity is less than that of Earth, but what’s up with floating mountains? I mean, the planet has working waterfalls and floating mountains?
    • Near the end of the film, the Major falls from a ship from very high up. I don’t care if he was in a mecha-robot – the impact would have killed him.

BOTTOM LINE: Excellent visuals but it has lackluster story. It’s on par with the Star Wars prequels; great eye candy, but not much more beyond that.

See also: Scott’s review.

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

24 Comments on Avatar: The Good and The Bad

  1. Wow.  I am glad I go to movies to be entertained.  It must suck to be you.

    To me, the story was about Pandora, which they did a good job. For a movie to have the depth you want with all the characters, and be only 2-2.5 hrs, they would have had to cut the world building to make it a character driven movie.

    I was highly entertained, the movie flowed well, the story, although not unique, was solid.  In case you did not know, “every” story has been told.  And those of us that read lots of SF, it is difficult to get a 2hr movie NOT provide easy to see plots.  For the masses, I think they will like the story.

    Regarding the floating mountains, since they are only in the “flux” region of the planet, yes, they can have floating moutains and waterfalls.  You see earth-like mountains floating, I see a living planet with different parts of a body.

    Use your imagination with this movie and you will see how much more it is than what you see with your eyes.

  2. I had a pretty similar feeling about the movie.  Overall, I relly liked it.  I did think that the story was pretty predictable, and I personally think that they could have shaved about 20 minutes off of it.  The only thing that really bothered me was “Unobtanium”.  $400 million and we couldn’t take half a day to come up with a better name. 

  3. I’ll be interested to hear how those involved with Avatar‘s creation ultimately explain the underwhelmingly amemic script. Did they think the CG would “fix” it, or were they trying to create a generic, detail-free fable in the hopes of wider audience appeal?

    Whatever their intent, they created an empty-headed beauty, and I’m mostly OK with that.

  4. I get that Pandora’s gravity is less than that of Earth, but what’s up with floating mountains? I mean, the planet has working waterfalls and floating mountains?

    In a Studio360 interview, Cameron explains the floating mountains.  The unobtanium that the Corporation is after is actually a room temperature superconductor. The magnetic flux that the Corp complains about around the mountains allows those mountains, just full of the unobtanium, to levitate in the fields (and, according to Cameron), move around like icebergs.

    I can’t and don’t defend the cliched script, though. I was disappointed in that.

     

     

  5. I enjoyed reading your review on the movie Avator.   I enjoyed the movie, as it was something different and exciting.  The visual affects were stunning.  Im new to your site, and look forward reading your posts.  Have a good one and Happy New Years.  2010.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful, entertaining review, John.  This review is very helpful in determining whether I want to see this film or not (mixed with a number of other reviews).  I don’t spent $10.00 lightly nowadays, so it’s good to get a review that sensibly lists the pros and cons.

    What entertains me even more are comments like Will’s above, that excoriate people for having a mixed or nuanced opinion of a film.  Why do some people have so much anxiety over this film that they have to attack any review that does not treat it as a gift from the Entertainment Gods on high?  Personally, I think you can worldbuild AND have great characters; it’s really a matter of building characters off of your fascinating world.  There are plenty of examples of this in SF cinema, and it doesn’t have to be a Continental tragi-drama.  You can make good actions movies with decent  characters.

    And while “‘every’ story has been told,” you can re-tell them without falling into predictability or mawkishness.  In fact, that is the challenge of storytelling.  Rather than complaining when people point that out, it might be more helpful to consider how a filmmaker’s story choices play out, and whether or not they enrich their awe-inspiring visuals.

  7. >>For a movie to have the depth you want with all the characters, and be only 2-2.5 hrs, they would have had to cut the world building to make it a character driven movie.

    Or, they could do like other filmmakers did with Brazil, Minority Report, Gattaca, The Dark Knight, Star Trek (2009), etc.

    Thanks for the floating mountains explanation, Paul, which succinctly gives the explanation.

  8. Of course, you can’t argue with success. This movie is doing very, very well, despite, or because of, a simple and/or cliched story. But is having a simple story in this movie a bad thing? I think it balances with the excellent and detailed worldbuilding. A friend of mine directs movies, and he was talking about this movie, and what he would have done. As he put it, “I would have over-complicated the hell out of the story! And I would have loved it, and other SF fans would have loved it, and the movie would have been a box office disaster because everyone else would hate it!”

    Love it or hate it, the world of Pandora is the real star of this movie. The plot was simply there to entertain us while showing it off.

  9. TheAdlerian // January 2, 2010 at 11:20 am //

    I couldn’t agree with the review more.

    I think the “suck factor” depends on how old you are. I’ve noted that young people in their teens and twenties think the film is highly original, but older people see it for what it is.

    Ideally, that shouldn’t bother me, but then I realize that this is a tactic of the film industry. They target many films at young people because they can take the same plot and pull it out every ten years and spring it on a new generation. In the 90s we had vampires and zombies and now in the late 00s here they are again. A film like Avatar has been done countless times and the reason is that it’s easy money because the plot has been shown to work over and over again, so expect more.

    What annoys me about this tactic is that there’s a lot of very original SF in books, yet the film industry doesn’t want to tap into it. Something like Warhammer is a combo of familiar and original and would probably become very popular if made into a film. The Culture stories from Banks have a lot of potential. Whatever the case, I’d like to see some epics which aren’t corny morality tales, and if they must be, then I’d like to see them about people and not some nonsense like “the Earth” is alive. It’s not.

  10. David Barnes // January 2, 2010 at 1:29 pm //

    I went and saw this a couple of days ago at the local IMAX theater and was very impressed. Sure the story could have had a couple more layers of complexity but to me this was a totally immersive expereince and worth every penny. The visuals were amazing, the soundtrack was a perrect partner to the visuals and I thought the acting was fine even though the script wasn’t exactly Kurosawa. That said it was a wonderful 3-hour expereince and movies like that are rare enough for me to celebrate. And am anticipating going back next week and seeing it again.

    I know Cameron spent a fortune on this and it was definitely the most expensive movie I saw in 2009 but it was worth the money (to me) and I don’t what else is important here.

  11. I’m subject to motion sickness, and the 3D version of Avatar made me sick. No, really: run-to-the-restroom-and-throw-up sick. I lasted just less than an hour. What I saw was very pretty.

    I suppose I am curious to see it when it comes out on DVD (in 2D). But I’m conditioned now: there’s no way I’m going back into a theater to finish watching.

    (For the record, other 3D films have not bothered me at all.)

     

  12. John: Here’s an article on the science of Avatar which explains the floating mountains. http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/avatar-science-fantasy/story?id=9460748

    They way they set it up works for me.

  13. Question though: if there are whole mountains floating around on unobtainium, why couldn’t they just mine it from there w/o destroying the whole hometree set-up the Na’vi had going? Doesn’t seem as rare anymore when it’s a whole region of the moon being affected by tidal flux…

    I went to go see this movie for the visuals tho, didn’t expect any story i hadn’t read or seen before in some form. My friends who aren’t into SF at all though really enjoyed it. Definitely worth seeing for just the technical achievement in visuals and definiately for the 3-D, which I thoughts was handled adroitly. Some of the best 3-D scenes were not thection-packed monster-jumps-out-at-you type of scenes, and the effect was even cooler for that impact it had in those moments.

    Sort of wonder why they didn’t just make the decision to have the Na’vi be closer to human size, would have solved a lot of the akward body scale shots’ issues in the film.

     

  14. plot: dances with wolves with blue indians.

    visuals were stunning. i watched it more as a technical exercise that did what it set out to do. it entertained. people who work with 3d animation and visuals can see where the money went and just how much work and new tecniques have gone into this and still enjoy it. sure there were flaws but all in all well worth going to cinema and spending a few hours getting lost..after all isnt that the real point

  15. I’m not going to say the ‘Dances with Wolves’ style script was perfect or hugely original but there are no original ideas and this sort of story is a classic which has been told many, many times in all kinds of ways. Just like any other basic concept. Take any movie and you can say its like any number of other movies or a combination of them. Does that make it bad? Hell no. And to be compared to ‘Dances with Wolves’ to me is an honor, it did win 7 Oscars after all.

    You make things fresh and original with great characters (which I felt they had), the interpretation or visuals and great performances. Who can deny Stephen Lang was one fantastic bad ass however ‘cliched’ he might have been and I loved Sam Worthington’s gentle, subtle style of acting. And I don’t think Sigorney Weaver knows how to put in a bad performance. THAT is what makes this film so awesome, that and the incredible, mind blowing visuals. And there was plenty of light and shade in performances as well, such as the boss (sorry I forget his name), he wants the unobtamium, at almost any cost but its plain to see his decisions affect him.

    They pushed the envelope on the visuals, and no one can deny they broke ground there and did some amazing work. I find it kind of disappointing that critics need something to pick fault at this movie. So what if it wasn’t perfect or original, and therefore predictable, many movies are predictable but still very enjoyable. In other movies there would have called it ‘solid’ and moved onto other things to talk about, in this they’ve seized on the weak spot to pick fault with.

    With this kind of story, suspension of belief is required, I never get why people moan about how good the ‘science’ is, when its set in the future on an alien bloody world (and the so called ‘rules’ of science are always being re-written or updated)! Its hard to suspend belief when the visuals are bad or the performances lack conviction, but none of that applies to Avatar.

    As for the mountains, if you actually watched the movie they do give you an explanation many, many times as for why these particular ‘mountains’ float. Whether that’s proper ‘science’ or not…. does it really matter?

  16. regarding Bad Science:

    It’s not hard SF. It’s not pretending to be hard SF. Being hard SF wouldn’t make it a better movie. Develop at least a rudimentary suspension of disbelief and move on.

    Though I was a bit annoyed at the waterfalls on the floating mountains. That was a heck of a lot of water falling continuously off of some very tiny mountains with no apparent source of water other than condensation.

  17. @Daemon, I’m so glad I’m not the only one who noticed that.

    I really enjoyed the movie, but I think I’m going to hold off forming a firm opinion about the plot until it comes out on DVD and I see it in 2D. I want to see how much a lesser emphasis on the visuals effects my opinion of the movie.

    I am certainly impressed with the new CGI methods. There were several times while I was watching Natari (sp? I don’t feel like looking up the correct spelling) and went “That’s totally an expression Zoe makes!”

  18. Don’t forget to add The White Man’s Burden to the sheer shock and awe that is Avatar:

    <a href=”http://www.starshipreckless.com/blog/?p=1245″>Jar Jar Binks Meets Pocahontas</a>

  19. Now, if only James Cameron had been a fan of WARHAMMER 40000, we could have had the same visuals and hightech military hardware without so much Greenpeace in the plot.

    Or had it been a remake of STARSHIP TROOPERS, I’d’ve gone to see it.

  20. Great review, John. I totally agree with you on most points, although I was much more disappointed than you were with the final outcome.

    Yes, visually it was amazing. Even the story idea (which I realize isn’t totally original, but it’s not often seen in film) regarding the use of genetically grown “avatars” to interact with an alien society was pretty good. For me it all fell apart with the overuse of cliches, and, like you mentioned, cliches that have been used time and again. The military guy is a complete jerk with no redeeming qualities. The simple natives never do anything wrong (except there’s a hint of jealousy from one of the guys when he realizes that his girl is being stolen). There’s very little gray here. It’s all pretty black and white. It’s simplistic storytelling. Fables for kids, I think. Not that those are bad (Star Wars is one of my favorites). We all need those, but I was hoping for more.

    Let me contrast this movie with Battlestar Galactica (the series). I realize the first thing everyone is going to jump on is the fact that a series has 100s of hours when a movie has only a few, but put that aside a moment. In Battlestar we saw shades of gray. People had good and bad sides. Positive and negative traits. That’s more interesting to me.

    The last thing I’ll say is this: the movie took some pretty lame political shots. I’m all for preserving the environment, but you could have named the general, “George Bush” and the hero “Al Gore.” LOL. “Looks like this is some sort of shock and awe campaign!” “They’re going to war over a natural resource!”

    But, great review, John, I think you captured everything very well. Thanks!

  21. I pretty much agree totally with your review of the film; but, the visuals were so stunning, and seeing that world come to life like that, really trumped everything else and I came away loving the film.  What an amazing age we live in where techniques like Cameron’s can make fantasy/scifi stories come to life like that.  It boggles my brain.

  22. Scott Schafer // January 11, 2010 at 1:42 pm //

    Despite all the hype, I was a bit prepared not to like the film going in – in part because I found Titanic to be fairly shallow, and in part because the basic concept of the “avatar” sounded stupid to me on two different levels.

    First, how do you “mix” alien DNA with human DNA? I’m reminded of that old Foreigner song (via South Park): pig and elephant DNA just don’t mix. So how could human and alien DNA mix? The only possible way this could work is if humans and the Na’vi were closely related – impossible on the face of it. Even then, why would you expect the result to be a Na’vi that a human can control telepathically? And what about the human/Na’vi’s brain? Is it just an empty vessel and not a creature with its own existence?

    Flying mountains are entirely plausible compared to the bad biology at work here.

    But even if you accept all of that, why would anyone do this in the first place? Did the Conquistadors dress up like Incas in order to learn their ways before destroying them? Of course not. The only plausible reason to do this would be to spy on the Na’vi people by pretending to be one of them, but instead the humans just showed up looking like Na’vi and announcing that they were really humans. Great way to engender trust – show up as a blatant deception!

    Obviously, the point of all that was to enable our hero to become a Na’vi and hook up with a hot alien babe. But this is the end justifying the means here. There’s no logical reason why human anthropologists wouldn’t have just landed on the planet in their own skins and contacted the Na’vi directly.

    Otherwise, I found the film to be enjoyable and the visuals to be incredible. This was the first film I’ve ever seen where the CGI looked as life-like as the live action. Great flora & fauna for sure. It’s just unfortunate the technology and artistry wasn’t in the service of a more original and believable plot.

    One day, someone is going to use technology like this to show us a truly plausible alien world. That will be worth looking forward to.

  23. Thank you. Sometimes I feel like I’m in an alternate reality where good is bad and bad is good. I wasn’t as kind as you are; I thought “Avatar” was a horrible movie. Whenever I point out the bad characters, bad plot, bad world-building, bad science, and bad dialogue, everyone goes, “Yes, but look at the pretty pictures!” Yes, the CGI was great, the visuals were great, but have we really gotten to the point where that’s all we demand from a movie? Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, but the story is the most important factor in my enjoyment of a movie, and there was nothing to enjoy in this. They could have just made it a documentary on Pandora and not bothered with a plot. I don’t even give Cameron that much credit for his “imagination.” Most of it was just aspects of deep ocean life transplanted on land (bio-luminescence, hammerhead sharks, etc.). And don’t get me started on the floating mountains.

    Great points all, by the way. The more you think about the movie, the more plot holes appear.

  24. I really can’t understand some of the defenders of this movie… you go to be entertained? Well so do I, and whislt this was a visual treat with some great use of 3D, it was also a truly attrocious movie with not a hint of wit, charm, character or intelligence displayed in the entire movie.

    This idea of praising mediocrity just baffles me, the plot of this movie has been used hundreds of times before and apart from the alien world setting and aforementioned stunning visuals there was nothing original about this movie…. in fact it stuck to the tried and tested forumla to such an extent that it completely forgot the scifi elements existed at times…. Such as dropping ground troops to protect a bombing run… WTF!!! Under what military plan does that seem a good idea….. nevermind the often used term ‘nuke from orbit’ is the ideal military stratergy to take out hard to attack ground sites.

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