Avatar (2009)
March 24, 2018 2:53 PM - Subscribe

A paraplegic marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home.

Roger Ebert: "Avatar" is not simply a sensational entertainment, although it is that. It's a technical breakthrough. It has a flat-out Green and anti-war message. It is predestined to launch a cult. It contains such visual detailing that it would reward repeating viewings. It invents a new language, Na'vi, as "Lord of the Rings" did, although mercifully I doubt this one can be spoken by humans, even teenage humans. It creates new movie stars. It is an Event, one of those films you feel you must see to keep up with the conversation.

AV Club: Over the years, James Cameron has fared better than most in wedding cutting-edge special effects with strong, meat-and-potatoes genre storytelling, but Avatar, his supremely goofy science-fiction/action spectacular, finds him lost in a $250 million aquamarine light show. As the film’s technical marvels grow commonplace, it will look like a clunky old theme-park attraction, a Captain EO for our time.

...

Look past the New Age beauty of Cameron’s Pandora—and whenever the camera swoops through its verdant, psychedelic wonders, that isn’t easy to do—and Avatar is a weak patchwork of his other films: the leaden voiceover from Terminator 2 here, the military/civilian conflict from Aliens there, even a Jack-and-Rose-style forbidden love story cued to adult-contempo soundtrack. And if that weren’t enough, Cameron tacks on ham-handed environmental messages and a one-size-fits-all anti-war metaphor that references Native Americans, Vietnam, and the current oil-fueled quagmires.

Rolling Stone: Unlike hack-of-the-decade Michael Bay, who can transform anything into instant stupid, Cameron knows how to harness technology to storytelling. He's been cooking up the plot of Avatar since childhood. The basics? Humans are bad. It's 2154, and the Earth is dying. To survive we need a mineral called Unobtainium (a joke term popularized by engineers). To get it we travel to the alien moon of Pandora and abuse its natives. They are the blue-skinned, yellow-eyed, 10-foot tall Na'vi, who hug trees but hate on intrusive humans. The Na'vi are good, in similar ways to the indigenous people that America has historically exploited. If you're not thinking Native Americans, Vietnamese, Iraqis, Cameron nudges you with allusions to Dances With Wolves and the genocidal heat behind such terms as "fight terror with terror" and "shock and awe." Dialogue is not Cameron's strong suit.

NYTimes: If the story of a paradise found and potentially lost feels resonant, it’s because “Avatar” is as much about our Earth as the universe that Mr. Cameron has invented. But the movie’s truer meaning is in the audacity of its filmmaking.

Few films return us to the lost world of our first cinematic experiences, to that magical moment when movies really were bigger than life (instead of iPhone size), if only because we were children. Movies rarely carry us away, few even try. They entertain and instruct and sometimes enlighten. Some attempt to overwhelm us, but their efforts are usually a matter of volume. What’s often missing is awe, something Mr. Cameron has, after an absence from Hollywood, returned to the screen with a vengeance. He hasn’t changed cinema, but with blue people and pink blooms he has confirmed its wonder.

EW.com: Cameron is such a skilled nuts-and-bolts filmmaker that the story he tells is never less than serviceable; it has none of the nattering clutter of one of the latter-day Star Wars films. But it’s never more than serviceable either. What it’s in the service of is the creation of a relentless ”Oh, wow!” acid-trip videogame joyride. The climactic battle sequence in Avatar is a stupendously orchestrated clash of color and movement, of machine-gun droids and Na’vi warriors flying their primitive griffin steeds down canyon walls. The sequence imprints itself onto your mind’s eye. As spectacle, Avatar is indelible — a true rush — but as a movie it all but evaporates as you watch it.

New Yorker: It’s the old story of Pocahontas and John Smith, mixed, perhaps, with the remnants of Westerns (like “Dances with Wolves”) in which a white man spends some time with the Comanche or the Sioux and then, won over, tries to defend the tribe against the advancing civilization that will annihilate it.

Science is good, but technology is bad. Community is great, but corporations are evil. “Avatar” gives off more than a whiff of nineteen-sixties counterculture, by way of environmentalism and current antiwar sentiment.

Trailer

How Does Pandora – The World of Avatar Reflect James Cameron’s Film?

The Racial Politics of "Avatar"

Going Na'vi: Why Avatar's politics are more revolutionary than its images

When Will White People Stop Making Movies Like "Avatar"?

Colonialism, Capitalism, Racism: 6 Avatar 'Isms'

Five Years Ago, 'Avatar' Grossed $2.7 Billion But Left No Pop Culture Footprint

Avatar: how the biggest film of all time got left behind

Is Avatar better than we remember?

Avatar is a Much Better Movie Than You Remember

Avatar: Why No One Cares About a Sequel to the World's Most Successful Movie

Fox is spending a billion dollars on those Avatar sequels
posted by MoonOrb (38 comments total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
 
Cameron is such a skilled nuts-and-bolts filmmaker that the story he tells is never less than serviceable; it has none of the nattering clutter of one of the latter-day Star Wars films. But it’s never more than serviceable either.

This nails it in two sentences.

I am curious about the sequels from a purely academic point of view. How much cultural cache does the name hold a decade later? The movie could have a huge following outside of English-speaking countries and I'd have no idea.

Can't say I wanted a sequel, much less 4 of them.
posted by slimepuppy at 4:22 PM on March 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


I remember two reactions watching it in a theater on the day Avatar was released:

1) That as a director, Cameron's a genius, that the the 3D was brilliant and dazzling and totally worth all the money and effort. To date, this is the only film that's made me feel that way.

2) Thinking "If that girl native who's stalking our hero turns out to be the chief's daughter, I swear to Christ I'm walking straight out of here." Well, I didn't (see: 1) but but it was only the first of the many, many narrative cliches confirming my opinion that as a screenwriter, Cameron's a complete hack.
posted by mojohand at 5:09 PM on March 24, 2018 [7 favorites]


He's this generation's John Ford (observation, not compliment).
posted by brujita at 6:22 PM on March 24, 2018


I remember watching this in the theater and laughing so much that I probabaly should have left. (I didn't, because I was with a large group and also very rude.)
posted by grandiloquiet at 6:27 PM on March 24, 2018


It's amazing how a film which was so successful and noteworthy upon release has so completely vanished from popular culture less than a decade later.
posted by bowline at 7:00 PM on March 24, 2018 [9 favorites]


I'm with you 100%, mojohand. This is the only 3D movie I've ever seen where the 3D was completely immersive, and made the movie better. And, thanks to having kids, I've seen a LOT of 3D movies.
posted by Frayed Knot at 7:18 PM on March 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


PAPYRUS.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:00 PM on March 24, 2018 [22 favorites]


At the time Avatar came out I decided that the nerds of my father's generation (my father included) spoke Elvish, my generation spoke Klingon and that the kids were learning Na'vi, but it doesn't seem to have stuck around. Here's hoping that years from now we still sasa Belter.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 8:46 PM on March 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


When I recall this movie it emerges in my mind as an animated film, like Battle for Terra. I remember thinking at the time that the cgi was beautiful but didn't create any sense of weight or realism despite the obvious amount of care and attention to detail that went into making it.

Plus yeah, remake of Ferngully.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 11:15 PM on March 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


The Pandoran biosphere - is the star of this movie, as far as I am concerned. Cameron treated the subject pretty seriously by consulting a team of experts - and it is interesting to see some of the real work examples that influenced the film.
posted by rongorongo at 12:29 AM on March 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


"If that girl native who's stalking our hero turns out to be the chief's daughter, I swear to Christ I'm walking straight out of here."

Similarly, but not until he effortlessly captured and tamed the giant dragon thing that no Na'vi had managed to do for ages. That more than anything else was the "Have no fear, Marine McWhiteguy will save you, simple natives!" moment.

Think of all the ways it could have been better:
- Make the protagonist a member of an oppressed culture who has a vested interest in stopping a new era of colonialist bullshit.
- Na'vi never accept him as a member of the tribe, he does the right thing anyway.
- Make Na'vi tribal culture less obviously a ripoff of Earth tribal cultures
- Do Na'vi really fuck via the same biological interface that they use to control their "horses"?
- Don't invoke the imagery of other, better films in your bad film. It just makes me want to go watch Aliens again instead of keep watching Avatar.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:36 AM on March 25, 2018 [13 favorites]


I feel like Cameron the director did an amazing job on this film but was seriously let down by Cameron the writer of the screenplay. Somewhere between Terminator 2 and this film, his writing skills devolved from "clucky but quotable" to just clunky. Seriously if you have the future space marine commander spouting, "You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen", maybe you should find someone else to write dialog.
posted by octothorpe at 8:15 AM on March 25, 2018 [4 favorites]


It's amazing how a film which was so successful and noteworthy upon release has so completely vanished from popular culture less than a decade later.

I think part of that is the effect of having whatsisname... you know, that guy... in the cast, he's the world's most forgettable actor.

Sam Worthington!

I actually had to look it up.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 8:52 AM on March 25, 2018 [7 favorites]


Dear God I hated this.

I saw it with friends and one of the several things I sputtered out to them after was "why didn't they show Giovanni Ribisi stealing candy from a fucking baby because that's the only 'evil guy' trope he didn't hit".
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:25 AM on March 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Ah, Dancing with Smurfs. The last movie I fell asleep in, which contributed to my distinct uninterest in going to the cinema on the regular.
posted by halcyonday at 12:06 PM on March 25, 2018 [5 favorites]


Sam Worthington

Who?
posted by tobascodagama at 12:45 PM on March 25, 2018 [4 favorites]


I feel like these are the same sort of responses that have come up every time there's been a post about Avatar on the blue, so I'll just link to a previous comment of mine, and further say that the whole sanctification of a "Pop Culture Footprint" strikes me as kind of dumb and self-justifying--this notion that something isn't really successful unless people make it into a kind of lifestyle, write endless virtual reams of fanfic about it and make sure that the characters are represented in cosplay at all the major cons and most of the minor ones. (By those standards, Firefly/Serenity is a roaring success.)

Of course, Cameron has already left Godzilla-sized footprints on the pop culture landscape with both the Terminator franchise and Aliens, which had a much bigger impact than the other three entries in that franchise, so I think that he's got little to prove there. Ditto with his future plans, as the people who bet that Avatar and its predecessor would be flops were about as wrong as wrong can be. In fact, so many of these hot takes on the film strike me as so much whistling past the graveyard.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:43 PM on March 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


It's the perfect pop culture hamburger. Fits in your hand, lettuce is crisp, 5 minutes later you forgot you ever had it.

Though I do remember the hilarious robot knife fighting scene, come on that shit was gold.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:38 PM on March 25, 2018 [3 favorites]


I think part of that is the effect of having whatsisname... you know, that guy... in the cast, he's the world's most forgettable actor.

I will not accept this designation for Sam Worthington in a world where Armie Hammer exists.

Also, while I enjoyed the movie for what it was, there were a few things that bugged me (hello, Papyrus). One of the most petty: the Na'vi have four limbs, while every other vertebrate on Pandora seems to have six.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 1:45 AM on March 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


It was gorgeous and totally forgettable.
posted by DrAstroZoom at 7:24 AM on March 26, 2018


Sam Worthington is a very good actor. But he's an actor of small, quiet, troubled moments. He's not an actor who does well in big, noisy movies that he needs to shout over, which is not a criticism of those movies. Some actors are tremendous in them.

The trouble is that he is a good-looking, muscular man, and so Hollywood has tried to make him an action movie star, which is not a great match for his talents. Armie Hammer is a great actor even in big action films, but the film's haven't really matched his talents (although Free Fire is pretty good).

That being said, I think Avatar is a better film that people remember. It's hacky, yes, but I think purposefully so. Cameron is a pop filmmaker, and popular arts tend to hew closely to audience expectations. There is a lot of stuff in the film that a more nuanced filmmakers would have handled better — the indigenous characters, the white savior tropes, the representation of disability. So, yeah, there are a lot of valid criticisms of the film.

But I still think Cameron deserves credit for repeatedly smuggling progressive messages into his films, including assuming women are as or more competent than men and this film's anti-colonization, pro-environment message. As decolonization increasingly becomes part of the dialogue (and it has with Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther), this film's total rejection of colonialism I think is going to be seen as being a little ahead of the curve.

But, then, for me it's a film that I watch with a little embarrassment and then by the end OH MY GOD HE'S TORUK MAKTO AND THE RHINOS HAVE JOINED THE ATTACK AND THEY ARE FIGHTING WITH A MECHA-SUIT THAT CARRIES A GIANT KNIFE.
posted by maxsparber at 8:30 AM on March 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


this notion that something isn't really successful unless people make it into a kind of lifestyle, write endless virtual reams of fanfic about it and make sure that the characters are represented in cosplay at all the major cons and most of the minor ones.

Presumably all but the most hackish of directors would like to have people remember and care about their films a mere ten years after release. There's not a lot of Aliens or Terminator fanfic, but there are quotes everyone recognizes and most everyone remembers that moment when the new-model Terminator first morphed. By that standard, yeah, Avatar was the most financially successful failure ever.
posted by praemunire at 8:34 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'd also like to say that white savior films are always going to be a problem, but at least this is one where the film presumes that the white dude SUCKS at everything and until he actual learns indigenous ways and respects them he is entirely useless. His solutions in the film are rooted in the indigenous worldview and in indigenous techniques, and this film presents this as not only being equal to colonial military might but actually superior to it. Instead of a group of primitives who need colonial culture to save them, they are people with their own technology that is hidden to colonialists, but for its obvious capitalist value.
posted by maxsparber at 8:35 AM on March 26, 2018 [4 favorites]


Cameron deserves credit for repeatedly smuggling progressive messages into his films, including assuming women are as or more competent than men

Right? I mean, who saves who at the end?

His solutions in the film are rooted in the indigenous worldview and in indigenous techniques, and this film presents this as not only being equal to colonial military might but actually superior to it.

This is a film that was largely produced during the height of both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and released just before the troop draw-down in Iraq began in earnest, and not only acknowledged the success of asymmetric warfare but celebrated it. That's remarkable.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:03 AM on March 26, 2018 [3 favorites]


I haven't seen this since it was in first-run theaters, but I remember being delighted by Sigourney Weaver in this movie.
posted by rmd1023 at 11:21 AM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


I had a fun time when I saw the movie in the theater. I was even motivated to get the dvd. The number of times I've watched this film since it came out? Once when I got the dvd and...maybe another time?

The most incredible thing about Avatar is that somehow Cameron sold it to Disney as something worth dropping millions of dollars on (see Avatar land at Disney). He convinced them that this investment would be worth it based on a movie that had fallen out of the collective consciousness (people don't even make fun of it anymore) of society and will somehow strike again with the following sequels to come out a decade later. It's entirely possible the next Avatar will have that same level of F/X and awe inspiring use of 3D....but, it's also possible the next movie is terrible, sinks the rest of the releases, becomes an insanely bad investment of time and money, and Disney is stuck with having developed an experience that fewer people will want to go outside of "I want to ride a dinosaur," type of thing.
posted by Atreides at 12:54 PM on March 26, 2018


Since the success of Black Panther, I've been wondering if Disney will end up turning the Avatar area into Wakanda as soon as contractually able.
posted by rmd1023 at 1:26 PM on March 26, 2018 [6 favorites]


As others have mentioned, this is the most immersive 3D I have ever seen, and I will treasure that memory. It also launched 3D into every damn movie which is just the worst movie trend.
posted by graventy at 2:19 PM on March 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


until he actual learns indigenous ways and respects them he is entirely useless

...but once he does, he's better than every single indigenous person EVAR!

I missed this when it first came out, and when it was on TV recently my wife was amazed to learn I'd never seen it as she assumed it would be the kind of movie I'd love (although, to be fair, she's never seen it as it's the kind of movie she hates). I tried watching it, I really did, but I just... I couldn't. Nothing, absolutely nothing about it appealed to me. Yeah, OK, they're tall and blue. Nice scenery. Is that all you got to distract me from a terrible storyline?
posted by GhostintheMachine at 6:17 PM on March 26, 2018 [2 favorites]


OK, so just to add to the weirdness of Avatar, the ISV Venture Star is one of the most realistic and well designed spacecraft in science fiction, right behind the Discovery of 2010.

It's based on the Project Valkyrie designs of astrophysicst Robert Pellegrino, and there's nothing impossible about it. If we had antimatter and a way to store it, we could build one of them. The amount of design work and thought involved is incredible, and in a genre which usually doesn't think more about spacecraft then "slap some greebles together and give it hyperspace drive" , it really stands out.

And all in service to a movie about space Smurfs. Go fig.
posted by happyroach at 9:36 AM on March 27, 2018 [3 favorites]


People loved Avatar because it is pure escapism with all the bells and whistles of a hero adventure/love story. Thematically it's jumbled mess bolstered by pure fantasy. Consider if the Na'vi sat down and started watching human films, which ones do you think they would identify most with? The one about the dwarve space alien that turns into a bad ass human warrior, falls in love with the President's daughter, and saves the humans from the other technologically advanced dwarf space aliens? Or... more like Invasion of the Body Snatchers? Maybe Get Out?
posted by P.o.B. at 10:26 AM on March 27, 2018


Probably they'd most associate with Fern Gully.
posted by maxsparber at 10:51 AM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


the whole sanctification of a "Pop Culture Footprint" strikes me as kind of dumb and self-justifying--this notion that something isn't really successful unless people make it into a kind of lifestyle, write endless virtual reams of fanfic about it and make sure that the characters are represented in cosplay at all the major cons and most of the minor ones. (By those standards, Firefly/Serenity is a roaring success.) ... Of course, Cameron has already left Godzilla-sized footprints on the pop culture landscape

If you measure pop culture footprint solely (or even primarily) in cosplay or fanfic, no wonder it seems dumb to you. But that's not what it means, at least to me. (And I should note that it's not the only way a movie can be good or important, not in the least. But it's the 15th highest inflation-adjusted grossing movie of all time, and it's remarkable how little of a footprint it's left, compared to most movies in the top 50.)

Pop Culture Footprint can be measured by you describing Cameron as leaving Godzilla-sized footprints; you could have said King Kong sized footprints, or Ent-sized rootprints, or velociraptor-sized footprints, or Wookiee-sized footprints, or Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man-sized footprints or maybe even kaiju-sized footprints and almost everybody would know what you were talking about, but if you describe him as leaving Hammerhead Titanothere-sized footprints, nobody knows what you are talking about even though everybody in the world went and saw the movie less than a decade ago.

Pop Culture Footprint is two notes on a tuba making you not want to swim, 40 years later. It's a "Mrs. Robinson" relationship having meaning, 50 years later. It's there being one romantic way to eat spaghetti, 60 years later. Pop Culture Footprint is a movie being remembered 70 years after release in hack dialogue like "You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentlemen".
posted by Homeboy Trouble at 1:04 PM on March 27, 2018 [9 favorites]


Probably they'd most associate with Fern Gully.

Or the mentioned Battle for Terra? Without the fairy tale endings it would likely be Dances with Wolves, because the abject terror of invasion would be a more realistic understanding. All in all it would be a horror story for the Na'vi rather than the feel good hero story.
posted by P.o.B. at 1:43 PM on March 27, 2018 [1 favorite]


This movie was an event at the time, I remember that. I remember my wife and I using a rare, treasured date night the nubspawn were in toddler and infant phase, respectively, at this point) to see it. Visually impressive - stunning, even. But gah, the story. The beats were predictable from the opening fifteen minutes. Our joy came from dissecting the problems and drafting out a better movie on the drive home.

To be fair, perhaps Cameron didn't want to take story risks because he was already taking huge technology risks with the CGI and the 3-D. But man, even just some small changes could've made this into what Ebert predicted: predestined to launch a cult. Instead, I just remember it as a technical showcase that isn't interesting enough to watch again.
posted by nubs at 2:16 PM on March 27, 2018


The one about the dwarve space alien that turns into a bad ass human warrior, falls in love with the President's daughter, and saves the humans from the other technologically advanced dwarf space aliens?

I would say I'd watch the hell out of this, but this is pretty much Macross. So, yeah.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 12:53 PM on March 28, 2018


It demanded that we dismiss the uncanny valley (that still exists in recent movies) of CG human(oid) facial expressions. Maguire's Spiderman just barely got away with it because you never see his face. This movie gave licenses written on Papyrus to shitty up human expressions for an eternity, and for that I can't watch it again.
posted by Brocktoon at 3:40 PM on March 28, 2018


I would say I'd watch the hell out of this, but this is pretty much Macross. So, yeah.

Or Superman? But you'd still have to take a leap to compare either of those to Avatar's storyline from the Na'vi's standpoint. So, not really.
posted by P.o.B. at 4:26 PM on March 28, 2018


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