Originally Reviewed – 3/16/2010
Often, reviewing movies can be, what the English call, a sticky wicket. As critical reviewers, we tend to examine what exactly makes a good or bad movie. Elements such as lighting, cinematography and acting all come into play and as critics, we tend to let deficiencies in those aspects affect our feelings on a film. By the very definition of the term, critics are…well…critical, more so than your average viewer, so much so, that we sometimes forget why we fell in love with movies in the first place.
Avatar is one of those films that inspire an internal struggle within me, the epic debate of substance versus experience, technique over emotion. The film features hammy, over the top acting, a script that is teeming with laughable dialogue and a story that’s been told literally a hundred times before. So why oh why did I leave the theater with a smile on my face feeling completely satisfied and blown away? The answer is a complex one, but to do the film justice, let’s examine what the movie is, what it’s not and what it aspires to be.
While you would think the highest grossing film in move history wouldn’t need a synopsis, Avatar is the story of a peaceful alien race called the Na’vi whose tree hugging way of life is being threatened by the big bad industrialist humans. Enter a crippled Marine who, via a mind meld with a Na’vi avatar, is tasked with infiltrating the alien culture to learn their ways and try to sniff out a potential weakness. On the way he flies a dragon, falls in love, and learns to appreciate a culture that his superiors have tasked him to help destroy.
First the bad, and there is plenty of it. As I mentioned earlier, Avatar featured one of the worst Oscar nominated scripts I’ve ever seen on the big screen. No amount of technical tomfoolery can mask the cornball lines that come out of the actor’s mouth at every turn. The role of the General is particularly painful as he has some of the worst lines ever committed to celluloid…and I have to reiterate, this was a front runner for Best Picture! On the acting front, Sam Worthington proves he has neither the charm nor the chops to be a leading man, Zoe Salanda plays it over the top as Worthington’s love interest and Sigourney Weaver is surprisingly wooden as the Avatar scientist. In fact, the acting as a whole is clichéd, stale and, without the incredible special effects, pretty boring. Inspiring monologues don’t inspire, humor falls flat and the film actually starts to drag after an hour and half into it. So why the 70% Fresh rating?
Well, now for the good. The film itself can only be described as a big, beautiful spectacle, and in this case, that’s enough. Much ado has been made about the technology behind Avatar, but the CGI world that the Na’vi inhabit truly is beautifully realized with ooohh and ahhh moments at every turn. While James Cameron’s weakness is directing real human beings, he is one of the finest action directors in Hollywood and those scenes are frantic, exciting and very satisfying. The art direction is also inspired as all that technology would have been for naught if the vision hadn’t been there, and it’s there in spades. The story, while clichéd to the point of plagiarism, still hits all the right emotional buttons. In short, the film is something that we are wired to enjoy.
In fact, one can make some Cameron / Lucas comparisons. They both have no clue how direct real human beings, have a love for cutting edge technology and are true visionaries. They also both borrow heavily from the archetypes of Joseph Campbell to create their movie structures. Just like Star Wars and The Matrix, Avatar, whether James Cameron intended on it or not, uses Campbell’s classic mythological archetypes to create a story that, despite its many flaws, people naturally respond to. While I’m not going to start writing a thesis on Campbell, do a quick Google search for “Joseph Campbell archetypes” and you’ll see what I mean. Avatar is basically Star Wars with blue people and audiences are having a similar reaction. Why? Because it’s a proven formula for writing success, that’s why.
When all the dust settles, Avatar works as a film because it’s a classic story that people can’t help but respond to. Much like pop music simply sounds good and peanut butter tastes great with chocolate, Avatar simply feels good to watch, despite all the aforementioned problems and pitfalls. When it comes to all the things we critics look for in movies, Avatar falls short in almost every aspect; however, it’s a fantastic ride for the senses and clicks all the right links within our souls. While it wasn’t deserving of the Best Picture buzz, Avatar creates an awe-inspiring, hopeful world that you can’t help but fall in love with, even if only for the 162 minutes you spend there. Afterwards, you can dish with your film buddies on all of the movie’s flaws, but if you don’t find yourself staring at it with childlike wonder, you may want to re-examine what made you fall in love with film in the first place.
Score – 70%