Saturday, February 20, 2010


Avatar’s greatest achievement is not its innovative use of 3D, the art direction, or the special effects. It is the fact that as I returned home after seeing the movie, which is, in terms of story and plot, nothing more than a hybrid of Pocahontas and Dances With Wolves, I asked my wife if she thought Avatar could win the Oscar for best picture and I was able to do so with a straight face.

Visually, the world that James Cameron and his crew created is stunningly original. You want to be there, you want to domesticate a Banshee and fly around Pandora weaving in and out of floating mountains. But before I go on praising some aspects of the film I need to talk about what I didn’t like.

In the love scenes and the battle scenes I was concerned about the soundtrack detracting from the story, as is the case with many blockbusters. The best example I can think of is Air Force One. Not that there was much to detract from, but that movie has the most over-the-top score of any film I can think of. It is absolutely miserable. I encourage you to watch a few minutes of the movie just so you know what I’m talking about.

Increasingly as time elapsed in the theater, I wanted to see more of Pandora than I wanted to be interrupted by the completely unoriginal story with dialogue that Jar Jar Binks could have written. The lines given to Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) are especially painful. His lines reek of American pomposity and we have heard them a million times before, like this one, “You are not in Kansas anymore” or “Shut your pie hole” or, a favorite conclusion of many Americans, “Diplomacy has failed.” This is code for time to blow shit up.

It is worth mentioning that I am aware of Cameron’s work. Aware of it, but also a fan of some of it. So I knew his writing comes across as mannered when it isn’t delivered by Arnold Schwarzenegger to give it that extra dose of insincerity. And by that point, one is so amused by Arnold’s accent that it doesn’t matter what he’s saying. It just sounds so damn cool because Arnold is saying it. This is to say, I went in with the lowest possible expectations. I knew the dialogue would be bad. I knew the score might be overreaching and obvious. I knew the story had been told a million times. I foresaw myself leaving the theater pissed off and disappointed that I spent any amount of money to see the movie, but near raging because I spent $12.50 to see Avatar in 3D. When these are your expectations, it leaves a lot of wiggle room. And believe me, there was a lot of wiggling.

For me, the world of Pandora, with all its color and biological unity, was good enough to offset that wiggling, like Neytiri and Jake bonding while training in archery or doing whatever the Na’vi do to do it under a tree with drooping, neon-like foliage. As a viewer, besides the aforementioned scenes, I wanted to be in the movie, perhaps permanently. Life on Pandora is pleasingly simple, but with added risk. Yes, you could get thrown from a cliff and die when fighting your Banshee, but that goes with the territory. There are greater risks on Pandora, but there is greater reward, the peaceful environment with symbiotic coexistence, a scenario we can’t replicate here on Earth even between humans.

Like many movies before it, Avatar presents an alternative to the world we live in. Humans arrive on Pandora with high-tech war toys to only make a dollar. We are presented with a the culture of the Na’vi, a deeply spiritual, loving people who respect all forms of life and believe in communicating with Eywa, which is conveniently similar in name to YHWH, for Yahweh the God in the Hebrew Bible.

The movie is a retelling of history; specifically what happened in the western half of the United States. Only the ending in Avatar is different. The corporation that is there to make an extra buck is defeated and turned away and Jake and two others (all human) choose to stay on Pandora. At the end of the film, I understood why Jake decides to be made into one of the Na’vi. It just makes sense. Most of humanity, represented here by the corporation, is greedy and careless when it comes to preserving all forms of life. Avatar makes you ponder the choice between living in the human world or the Na’vi world. It is an accomplishment of the filmmakers that others and I end up choosing the Na’vi over the humans. And, it is an easy choice. To make that an easy choice, is where Avatar displays its strength. There is some measurable depth in this movie and that is more than other blockbusters have and much more than I expected. Couple that depth with the unbeatable beauty of Pandora and Avatar, despite no originality in story, has an outside shot at winning the Oscar. I don’t think it will, nor do I want it to, but to have it in the mix is a feat.

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