[personal profile] ofstarsandstone
I should be working on revisions to my novel, but instead I am going to write a review of Avatar.

Most of this review will be under a cut, as it shall be rife with spoilers. But here's the short-take. Whoever first said that Avatar should have been called Dances With Fern Gully is 100% spot on the money. There are whole scenes and story ideas stolen from those two films. And yeah, I know. There are no new ideas, only new ways of presenting those ideas. But this isn't even a new way.

I will begin this review as we have been taught to critique. Start with something nice.

Ok. Just like everyone else, I was in drooling awe over the cinematography and graphics. Especially in 3D, they do an amazing job of immersing you into this beautiful alien world. The first night scene with the bioluminescent creatures made me want to get up and dance. Speaking of dancing, the score is frighteningly superb, given that this is the guy who gave us "My Heart Will Go On." I bought the CD already, owing to my obsessive need to purchase anything I think will make good writing music. After listening to it three times, I can hear the parts where he's ripped off himself, but at least he picked good stuff to revisit.

But back to the visuals. I don't know what the movie is like in "normal" viewing mode. I only saw it once, and I plunked down the extra dollars for 3D. The only reason we even saw Avatar was because Steve wanted to go to a movie and he didn't want to waste the extra money to see a movie in the theatre unless he was going to have the whole visual experience. So if you're going for the experience, go for the 3D experience. That's what they call it, and I can say that it delivers. It doesn't do many of the "tricks" of 3D, like popping monsters out at you, but it definitely gives depth and wonder to this startling and beautiful world. I do think they went a little overboard sometimes. Like once they introduced the gorgeous bioluminescence, they couldn't resist going back to it as often as possible.

Now I'm done with nice things for a while. Let's talk about what I didn't like. I didn't like Jake Sully, the main character. Why not? Because he's a male Mary Sue. There's a name for them: Gary Stu. Here's a perfect quote from the wikipedia article on Mary Sues:

The term is more broadly associated with characters who are exceptionally and improbably lucky. The good luck may involve romance ("Mary Sue" always gets her man); adventure ("Mary Sue" always wins a fight or knows how to solve the puzzle) and popularity (the "right people" seem to gravitate towards the character). These characters have few problems while attempting to achieve their goals. "Everything goes her way" is a common criticism regarding "Mary Sues", the implication being that the character is not sufficiently humanized or challenged to be interesting or sympathetic.

And that pretty much sums up Jake Sully. He also has some elements of "Angsty Sue," because he has a tragic past- he's lost his twin brother and has a spinal injury that left him paralyzed from the waist down. So he gets to wear sympathy badges from his backstory without the director having him do anything else in the movie to create real sympathy. Everything he tries succeeds, often for no good reason. The most glaring is his acceptance into the Na'vi culture, one of the biggest Deus Ex Machina device uses I've ever seen. Eywa (the Na'vi goddess/tree) decides to favor Jake, so when the character Neytiri tries to kill him, a seed from the tree lands on her arrowpoint before she can shoot. This leads her to save his life from some wolf-like things, and to bring him back with her to her people. There, everyone instantly hates him until the shamaness tastes his blood and finds out he is a warrior. Apparently this is enough to change everyone's mind about him, and she decides to give him to her daughter (Neytiri) to teach him their ways and make him part of their society. WTF? I wish I could do that. I'm going to go hang out with some native people whose language I don't speak and have them teach me their ways, when otherwise they don't want anything to do with me and don't even have the exterior motive of the Dances With Wolves Lakota, who hoped that by learning more about Dunbar they might be able to save their culture.

Jake then spends most of the movie doing everything better than the Na'vi, except that he doesn't learn their language too well so that the director has an excuse to keep most of the dialogue in English (understandable, I guess). He only fails twice. Ok, one and a half times. He falls off his banshee once before he gets back on immediately and tames him/her. His epic fail is not getting the Na'vi to abandon their tree home, but he doesn't really try, so we don't blame him too much. Ok, I blame him.

Then he doesn't fail at anything for the rest of the movie.

I just got back from grad school writing classes. One of the ways to develop a plot is this method:

A character wants something for a reason, but he can't have it. He tries to get it, and fails. Tries again, fails. Tries a third time, fails. Resolution.

Never happens in Avatar.

Let's move on to minor characters.

Grace, played by Sigourney Weaver, is one of the few redeeming characters. But let's face it, it's bloody Sigourney Weaver. One of the only problems I have with Grace is that at the beginning of the movie she's been banned from the Na'vi commune and you never find out why. She used to have a school there, but it was disbanded, and it is a big deal when Jake talks the Na'vi into letting her come back. This is a plot hole in the backstory big enough to tuck the moon into.

The colonel is completely bloody ridiculous. He is one-dimensional, stereotypical, and a pain in the ass. A good antagonist is a foil for the protagonist. The colonel is just an asshole. All of his reactions to situations are exponentially harsher than the situation demands, mostly because it gives the filmmakers an excuse to have huge 3D explosions. I hated his character, but not for the reasons I was supposed to hate him. I hated him because he wasn't a realistic bad guy. I hated him because the filmmakers didn't do their job. And I hated him because I so wanted him to be Jake's shadow (in the Jungian sense) and instead he was just a megalomaniac.

Norm. His name says it all. I think he's supposed to be "everyman." I'm not even sure why he's in the movie.

Truvie is also a stereotypical and flat character. I almost cheered when she died, because it meant I wouldn't have to see her again.

And then there's the end of the movie. The natives triumph and kick the big bad humans back to Earth.

What you don't see is when the humans retaliate and fire-bomb the planet. All they really care about is ore, so they don't need to maintain the surface vegetation or population. So we're all glad that Jake has become one of the Na'vi, and we're counting down the hours until your civilization is truly wiped out for good.

I'm not saying that in "real life" that would happen, but the movie sets up that ending. It paints a stark and horrific view of most of humanity, and then breaks its own internal laws at the end by acting like everything is going to be just fine. Trust me, the mentality that created the earlier explosion scenes wouldn't go away because your people won a single battle. No, if that's really want you want us to believe humans are like, you have to accept that I left the theatre saying, "yeah, right."

But it was very pretty, and I truly loved the Na'vi people and their way of life. I'd go join them in a heartbeat if they existed. And if James Horner's score was playing in the background on their world. Luscious.

So there you have it. Pretty scenery, lovely music, and an engrossing alien culture. But undeveloped characters, horrific plotting, and gratuitous violence detract too much from the setting, and I can't say I would spend the money to see it again.
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July 2011

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