I’m kind of late to the party with this, so I’m not sure what I can say that hasn’t been said already. Regardless, I’m not entirely sure a sensible person can watch Avatar without needing to rant afterward. The entire film is just a mess and I found myself actually offended by it (on a movie viewer level). Where should I even begin?
I suppose one of the biggest problems with Avatar for me, and hopefully for everyone else, is that James Cameron essentially treats viewers like they’re stupid. The factions and characters in this film lack subtlety and depth to an unheard of degree. The bad guys might as well have been followed around with giant neon signs that read “BAD GUY” and the good guys might as well have been followed around with giant signs that read “GOOD GUY.” There may be a lot of stupid people around (for example, I’m sure people bought tickets to Beer for My Horses), but audiences are smarter than Cameron is giving them credit for here.
Not only are the bad guys in this movie blatantly bad but they’re cartoonishly evil. They might as well have top hats and giant mustaches to twirl. However, they’re the best part of the movie. Even as an overly evil villain, the marine colonel is easily the best thing to happen on screen in all of Avatar. He is so over the top and ridiculous that his role almost seems like a joke. He’s the most stereotypical tough-guy and uncaring-military-officer character I’ve seen in film. Yet strangely enough, he’s way more interesting to watch than any of the heroes.
The good guys in this film are the alien race called the Navi (Na’vi, maybe? Not sure). They are perfect. That’s all Cameron really seems to think we need to know about them. And as such, they are freaking stupid and boring. If you’re trying to write interesting characters, here’s a protip: give them flaws. Character flaws and making said characters face up to these flaws is an excellent source of dramatic tension and conflict in a movie. However, the Navi are perfect. They are essentially space Native Americans and everything they do is so hamfisted and corny that you may actually get sick to your stomach watching them.
I get that the Navi are supposed to have a connection to nature but make that connection subtle and interesting. Cameron’s Navi literally “plug in” to nature. They plug into their horses, into trees (to access what is pretty much the natural Internet), into everything. I cannot even begin to express how stupid this concept is. Taking the connection to nature idea and making it a literal, physical thing pretty much ruins any dramatic interest it could create. There is no better way to describe this than “dumbed down.” And what makes it so bad is that it doesn’t need to be dumbed down. People are smart enough to figure out that natives have a connection to nature without showing them literally plugging into nature, I assure you.
That’s the thing about Avatar: so much in it doesn’t need to be in it. At the end of the day, is Avatar a story that really even needs to be told? Nope! I cannot believe that after however many years it’s been since Cameron first started thinking up this film the best story he came up with was a carbon copy of Dances with Wolves. Maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if Avatar’s story and characters had been better handled. For example, the story in the Uncharted series of games is by no means original or unpredictable. We’ve seen pretty much everything in the Uncharted games before in various shows and movies. What made Uncharted so good was that it took those common, frequently used elements and did them really, really well. Because of this, it almost felt like it was new and original. Sadly, Avatar fails to accomplish this same thing (though I’m not sure it was even trying to). Most people just like to ignore this by saying the movie was about special effects and the story doesn’t matter.
Let’s examine the argument of a movie that exists solely to showcase good special effects. District 9 showed off some amazing special effects, along with some of the most realistic CGI aliens ever created. Did the story have to suffer so that we could enjoy these effects? Nah, it was actually quite good. Special effects alone cannot carry a movie; you need a solid and engaging narrative to keep people’s interest. Do you know what happens when you don’t do that? The Star Wars prequels happen. The Star Wars prequels are actually a really good parallel to Avatar in that George Lucas tried to cram as much CGI garbage on screen as possible. Like the Star Wars prequels, so much in Avatar comes to unanswered “why” questions.
Why does the ground on Pandora (the alien planet) light up when people take steps on it? Why and how are there flying mountains? Why and how are there waterfalls coming off these mountains? People have hailed the alien animals in the movie as magnificently designed animals that seem very alien. Why would anyone think this? They’re just Earth animals with very slight changes. Actually, what really bugged me was that every single animal on Pandora looks like a different monster from Final Fantasy X. I’m completely serious—the similarities are stupefying.
I’d like to get back on track and talk about the main character. This guy is so distant and unrelatable that it’s almost impossible for the audience to connect with him. In the first half hour or so of the movie he just acts completely uninterested in anything that is going on. When he’s in his real human form, he just stares at everything and everyone with this deadpan look on his face. When he’s in his avatar form, all he does is just make stupid baseless decisions that get him into trouble. If the character doesn’t care about what’s going on around him, why should we?
I guess that if he had a real character arc this wouldn’t be so bad. We could see him go from an uninterested observer to an idealistic leader. I think this is what Cameron was intending to do, but it completely falls flat. The reason it doesn’t work is because the character just changes in a split second. He starts out distant and uninterested and then there’s a short montage of him not really doing a whole lot (learning how to be a Navi hunter, I suppose) and then bam, he’s suddenly anti-human. I suppose spending all that time with the Navi would cause him to see things from their perspective, but from a narrative standpoint he just snaps over from one side to the other like they flipped a switch in his brain.
Suddenly, our new hero has no problem killing his fellow humans to save the Navi. If he wants to kill the colonel, fine. That guy is so cartoonishly evil that he has to die. But I guarantee not all the marines on Pandora were like that. Hell, I’m sure most of the marines in that final battle were just dudes following orders. If Jake (the main character) had arrived on Pandora the day that the marines decided to attack the Navi, he would have helped out just as much. Yet he has no problem whatsoever flying around slaughtering his fellow humans. Not to mention that he probably gets several thousand Navi killed as well with the little battle that he talks up to them.
There’s a lot more I could say about the story, but I honestly don’t want to. Avatar is so poorly conceived and written that it comes off as bad fan fiction (then again, all fan fiction is bad). Is it worth seeing just for the special effects? Eh…I’d say no. Like Titanic, it’s one long and drawn-out snooze fest just to get to the final action sequence. If Cameron really did make Avatar just to show off some neat effects, he wasted everyone’s time and there is literally no reason this movie needs to exist. He should have just taken the time to come up with an original sci fi story with compelling characters that could carry the special effects. Avatar is unoriginal, contrived, and derivative. Also, now we have dumb kids going around talking about how perfect Pandora is and how they wish it were real. Thanks, James Cameron.