Saturday 26 December 2009

Avatar (2009)

Opening with much pomp and circumstance (and East Coast blizzards!), James Cameron's long-awaited Avatar is NOT, as the PPCC had previously imagined, anything to do with the fun cartoon, Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Alas! We like that show!

Well, this clears up a long-held confusion on our part. It is also NOT, as we had previously imagined, really, really bad. It's only sort of bad. It's OK. It would not pass by the reviewers of our favorite sci-fi magazine, Strange Horizons, because it breaks one of their cardinal rules:
14. White protagonist is given wise and mystical advice by Holy Simple Native Folk.

Yes, Avatar does that thing where it simultaneously glorifies and undermines the Other (in this case, the blue-skinned, slightly feline alien race, the Na'vi). See how the Other is in touch with nature, while we white men worship only money and machines! See how the Other is generally primal, peaceful and unsophisticated! The Na'vi, apart from being dangerously close to furries (aaaaah! AAAAH!), are a cultural hodge podge of indigenous people from various parts of our planet (Native American, West African and Pacific Islander come to mind). This would all be fine and well - the movie, after all, spends a lot of time establishing a clear moral dichotomy between the Na'vi and the evil, Vietnam/Iraq-fightin' military-industrial complexed White Man. What's kind of lame and disappointing is that (1) the Na'vi are still patriarchal (so sue us for hoping!), and other boringly Earth-reminiscent things, and (2) it takes one of those evil White Men to save the Na'vi.

The plot, which is Joe Haldeman (like, really, REALLY Joe Haldeman!) as told through the lens of James Cameron in Aliens mode - complete with Sigourney Weaver! - centers around a wheelchair-bound Marine, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington). Jake has been sent in his deceased brother's place to the dreamy planet of Pandora, where the Americans have a strong, two-pronged presence. On the one prong is a not very subtle portrayal of the sort of steamrolling, "winning hearts and minds" stuff that happened/happens in Iraq. This is led, predictably, by Money, Power and Military Men (things which King Arthur warned us explicitly about!). The second prong is a slightly more eco-friendly research expedition led by a bunch of grungier scientists (with beards! and long hair!), who are in turn led by a grumpy Sigourney Weaver. Jake the hardened Marine is, on paper, with the scientists, but it's not long before he's in the military's pocket again.

Jake's task: to live in the body of an "avatar", a half-human, half-Na'vi hybrid that will travel among the Na'vi in order to, uh... win their hearts and minds. Jake takes to this job with gusto. It gives him the freedom of a whole, hale body again, but it also exposes him to the increasingly pretty, awesome and highly saturated adventure fun course that is the Na'vi society. (Dude, Na'vi warriors climb floating moutains and ride pterodactyls! It is cool.) Jake also gets some romance thrown in there, for good measure and for the ladies.

In the end, it all boils down to: what will Jake choose when faced with supporting the evil military people or defending the nature-loving, indigenous people? Let's just say that, about halfway through the film, the PPCC was suddenly seized with the intense desire to watch Last of the Mohicans. Hmmm.

The acting was predictable and OK, the filmmaking was enjoyable if uninspired and the story, well, see above. We at the PPCC are hardened sci-fi troopers, and so we found the plot and caboodle fairly dull. If you want an anti-war sci-fi epic about American soldiers in some far-out planet operating remote-control machines and occupying bodies, we would definitely recommend Joe Haldeman's Forever War and Forever Peace. It may not require 3D glasses - which, by the way, are a bitch if you suffer from poor depth perception! - but it will probably stimulate your gray matter a little more.


Knight of Ni said...

in the end they all seem the same, with so much animation- transformers, terminator, and now avatar... it made me wish for an old-fashioned action movie- sholay, bud spencer& terrence hill flicks. Olden goldies.

Heqit said...


The animation and world-building look awesome, but I'm so tired of this plot. Does it really not occur to anyone making these movies to wonder why, if the Holy Simple Native Folk(tm) are so incredible and wise and asskicking and all, they don't just fight CorruptVillainPower(tm) on their own? Are moviemakers (en masse!) that deeply convinced that We The Audience must have an American Average Joe proxy in order to watch any movie that's about Not Us?

For that matter, why do we need Corrupt Invader Villain Power (tm) at all? If they want to do world-building (and I don't blame them) and these Other People are so great, why not just set the whole story among them? They could have heroes and villains and leaders and extras and comic relief and maybe even romantic objects (or better yet, romantic subjects) just like a real society composed of actual people. Imagine.

Sorry, getting long-winded and bitter there and rambling. I might rent this, but probably not. It looks so pretty, but if I'm going to watch recycled plot elements and stock characters I might as well watch masala and enjoy myself.

Sharon said...

Seriously, as visually compelling as the film looks, they lost me at 'unobtanium.' Seriously? Why not just call it McGuffinium?

All the cultural baggage is just icing on the cake after that; icing that leaves a bad ooky taste in the mouth. Will have to wait for Clash of the Titans to finally watch Sam Worthington in something. Now that movie seems to be cheesy in a good way...

Anonymous said...

I read the movie critique because I thought it was for the Rajesh Khanna Avatar .. did not see the year.

Coming back to this Avatar - the one with funny pronunciation of the name - I thought I was jaded and getting old after I read the gushing move reviews in news papers - I thought, what the hell it is like Seven Samuri - Magnificiant Seven - Three Amigoes - Sholay - Trinity movies (I cannot remember if it was Trinity is still my name or they call me Trinity - Bud Spencer and Terrence Hill - they were heroes from child hood) - and one from master of Indian westerns - Feroze Khan - Khotey Sikkey (a must watch for all) .. but me finding the story old with all others gushing for the movie .. I thought I must be getting old.. I was so depressed at the thought of getting old that I went on a drinking binge that started on a Saturday and ended on Sunday morning ..

Now I know I am not alone - unless all of the reviewers are hitting 40s and 50s .. that would be depressing enough to go on another drinking binge today - it is a Saturday in India - Let me know if I should start the drinking now..