Well, I’ve seen it. And I have a few thoughts. (Needless to say, the SPOILER LAMP is lit.)
Expectations: I’ll be blunt. I went in there not expecting much. The reviews I’d read were all a bit mixed. I’d also been put off by the marketing hype – for the last couple of months, Avatar has been kind of hard to ignore.
In fact, the film far surpassed my expectations, and is definitely worth seeing. It was also rather more intelligent then I’d expected. Thinking back on it in hindsight, I’m spotting loads of things.
Spectacle: First off, the visuals are amazing. (But then, that was never in doubt.) Also, the 3D is an experience worth having, although you do sort of stop noticing it after a while. The only thing that slipped up a bit for me was the floating mountains (they damaged my suspension-of-disbelief).
Back-to-nature was obviously very prominent. To my surprise, this wasn’t as anvilicious as I’d been expecting. In fact, I was actually quite cheered by the portrayal of the human scientists on Pandora, who ended up on the ‘good’ side.
Also, I was expecting an outing of ‘ooh we can’t possibly understand, it’s too SPIRITUAL for our poor little human brains’ but in fact, mercifully, the scriptwriters threw this trope in the bin. In fact, Dr Augustine’s scientific investigations lead her to be convinced of the existence of the planet-mind Eywa. Also, during the burning of the Home Tree, she stays with the Na’vi, when she could easily have abandoned them.
Something else that seemed to be present was the perils of militarism. Some of the early dialogue seemed to imply the existence of a security dilemma on Pandora. It does seem clear that RDA (at least initially) wasn’t consciously-planning a war on the natives. But, the first attacks led to countermeasures, which only incited more attacks, leading to even more counter-measures … and a vicious cycle set in, the end-point of which we see in the movie. The use of phrases like ‘shock and awe’ and so on only heightened the War-on-Terror parallel.
However, the morality set-up was quite black-and-white. It was clear whom you were meant to like and whom you weren’t. I would have liked a clearer explanation of what ‘unobtanium’ was needed for. Presumably, if it’s making people build huuuuge starships at equally huuuuge expense, it must be extremely important. Dare I say it, could it be the case that the people on Earth might have a legitimate need for it? A bit more moral ambiguity would have been good..
Also, although science got off surprisingly well, there was a distinct air of technology-is-bad. You never really see much in the way of (say) medical technology in the film; instead you see lots of guns. Plenty of guns. Never, every any shortage of guns. Also, the human settlement’s palette was cold blues, industrial greys and stark whites, and the lighting was either too bright or dark and gloomy. The natural environment on Pandora was all bright colours and attractive forms, clearly with the intent of making it seem more enticing and alluring. This did give me a bit of a feeling of being railroaded along, just a little.
Also, the plot was a classic piece of Campbellian myth. If you’ve ever come across the Hero’s Journey before, the plot became pretty guessable. Particularly from the bit where Jake Sully meets Netiri, the plot is pretty much pure Hero-with-a-thousand-faces.
Characters and dialogue: Dialogue, I felt, was a bit weak. The first half hour was the worst for this. There were quite a few cliches strung together. It got less noticeable later on, thank goodness, but it was painful at first.
Also, I felt the characterisation was a bit off. It looked like there was an attempt at a drama, with Dr Augustine the Villain (she’s initially quite nasty to Jake), the Colonel the Rescuer (he offers Jake his legs back) and Jake the Victim (he’s lost his brother and his legs). There was some evolution – the Colonel definitely turns into the Villain and Jake ends up as the Rescuer (of the Na’vi), although it’s not so clear where Dr Augustine goes. (I suppose you can argue that she sort of becomes a Victim, seeing the Colonel destroying the people she’s devoted so much time to studying.) But, the drama never quite goes anywhere truly inspired. And for all that they do grow on you as the film goes on, the characters don’t really feel that original or that fresh.
The Aliens: You’ll notice I’ve said nothing about the aliens so far. You see, there aren’t any – at least, not really. The Na’vi are biologically-alien, but the way they act is pretty human. I never really felt that they stood out unambiguously as a species in their own right. This wasn’t helped by several factors.
One is that they seem to have little material culture. Beyond the skull-sculpture-thing and a few headresses, they don’t seem to have much in the way of art or even jewellery. They didn’t seem to have much mythology, either. (The whopping great big gas giant overhead didn’t even get a mention – compare with the status the Sun and Moon have in our ancient traditions.)
Also, they show a lack of curiosity. They never seemed to care where the ‘sky people’ come from. They never even seem to bother to ask why the sky people have come to Pandora. (Maybe if they had, some problems could have been avoided…) Without meaning to be harsh, they did seem culturally-impoverished.
Ironies: Several things struck me as distinctly ironic. And I’m not sure if this was intentional or not.
The first was the technology-is-bad thing. Jake Sully’s nature-loving apotheosis was only possible through technology. There’s nothing primitive about the avatar process!
Also, during the big battle at the end, if you look carefully, the only effective weapons are, umm, the stolen guns and the grenades. The Na’vi are very brave but not really that effectual.
Another point was the small amount that we see of Na’vi society. We’re clearly supposed to think of them as a peaceful, communitarian society – but apparently, they have a very, very high proportion of warriors amongst their population. That would tend to imply a high proportion of clan-on-clan wars, as well.
Overall summary: I felt Avatar was a good movie. It compares well to most sci-fi films I’ve seen (which are generally pretty woeful, sadly). In fact, with District 9, Moon and also this, 2009 seems to have been a vintage year for tolerably-decent film SF.
I felt the film had a few specific weaknesses, which did let things down a bit. However, it does still remain genuinely ‘good’ and is worth seeing.