I went and finally saw Avatar, James Cameron’s first film since the phenomenally successful Titanic (a movie I’m proud to say I’ve never seen). After seeing it, I’m so fundamentally conflicted over it that I don’t even know where to start to write a review. And yet, at the same time, I’m moved beyond reasoning to NOT write about it.
So, as I prefer to do, I’m going to start with the Good, because there is plenty to crow about in this movie. For those people who don’t think this movie changes the game in movie making, you’re blind. This has got to be one of the most spectacularly told and created films ever. It radically changes the boundaries of what a good movie is, and what a good movie is not. The tech-minded Cameron has earth-shatteringly changed moviemaking with this beautiful epic that movies of the future will have to come to grips with the new expectation of movie goers. It really is that radical.
First off, if you haven’t seen it yet don’t waste your time seeing it in anything but 3D. The film is a 3D masterpiece, and the attention to detail intrigued me more than anything else in the film. This wasn’t 3D for the “gee whiz” factor, I can only recall one scene with the “in your face” pointy thing at your nose. And instead of being gratuitous, it was almost a “you’re expecting it so here it is” kind of moment. For the rest of the movie, the 3D was there to further the story. And it did.
I’ve never been to a movie that so immersed you into the story. From minor reflection in windshields to stunning computer generated graphics, the result was simply amazing. Unlike some of the “nature” films using 3D, I never felt like I was in a 3D movie. Instead, I felt like I was in the story. That’s not a “techie” thing, for which Cameron deserves accolades. Instead of telling a story to the 3D medium, Cameron told a 3D story.
And I mentioned the computer graphics, this is the first movie where I didn’t think while watching that “hey, those are some amazing CGI effects.” Even though I knew there weren’t 10 foot tall blue actors, the movie worked and I believed it completely. These blue aliens were totally organic and I bought them as a real being completely. The alien creatures, while odd looking, stayed believable. Even the eight legged “horses.”
The actors themselves, even the thinly written ones (and there were plenty of thinly written ones) did a superb job. Again, I never thought “hey, Sigourney Weaver is pretty good in this.” The entire time I saw “Grace,” the exobotanist who was a dedicated scientist trying to do the right thing. If anything, there just wasn’t a need to “suspend” my disbelief. The movie was done so well, I just believed.
That’s not to say that all was rosy in this movie. It isn’t. I really suspect that Cameron has gotten so big that no one has the guts to pull him aside and say, “Really? James, is that REALLY what you mean? Let’s think that through.”
For starters, there is the planet. Pandora. Really James? Pandora? I mean, what are the chances that the planet which landing on it makes things go all to hell would really just happen to be named after the lady that opened the box that brought all evil into our world? Well, if you’ve seen Cameron work before, subtly was never his strong suit.
And the mineral in contention, the reason that humans are even on this Pandora’s Box in the first place, is some currently unknown mineral called “unobtainium.” That’s about as original a name as… well I can’t think of anything unoriginal enough to complete the analogy. It is, quite possibly, the single dumbest motivator ever put into a movie.
I have a theories as to how this happened. Unobtainium is a well known plot device to science fiction writers, of which Cameron is clearly one. It is any “thing” that can not or currently does not exist that is needed to further the plot. Wolverine’s Adamantium skeleton is an unobtainium. Star Trek’s dilithium crystals are also an unobtainium. Cameron needed a reason for the humans to attack the natives on Pandora. That reason is an unobtainium, as the plot device is known. In early drafts, Cameron may really have used unobtainium, with the intention of naming the mineral at some later date. Then, instead of changing it, he thought it a great joke to leave it as unobtainium. Well, I think the joke was flat.
Normally, unobtainium is unimportant to the motivation of the characters and is designed to move the plot beyond some critical problem of the real world that would prevent the made up world from functioning. The fact that Wolverine has Adamantium blades is less important to his motivation than the fact that he has the blades at all. Wolverine needed indestructible blades that shot out of his hands. Adamantium, the unobtainium, explains how they can be indestructible. Likewise, Star Trek needed a massive energy source so they could, you know, trek among the stars. Enter dilithium.
But in Avatar, unobtanium is both a plot device AND the motivator behind the entire movie. Had unobtanium not been on the planet, human would never have attacked the natives. So it was more than a convenient plot device, it was the primary motivator of the entire film.
And yet, Cameron never treated it as anything other than classical unobtainium. He never gives us a feel for why it is important. Other than profit, which is really a weak motivator for such a grand scale. Why was it profitable? Did it cure cancer? Does it solve some fundamental need for all mankind? We aren’t told why some mineral is so valuable that common, everyday people are willing to kill an entire race to attain it.
Moving beyond these poor choices in nomenclature, the corporate pigs and military psychos are just poorly written and, I believe, show a general misunderstanding of the military. I know by touching on this subject I risk being branded as a “right winger” nut, and trust me, I’ve read some truly horrible reviews that seemed to completely miss the boat on this.
It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last time, that some Hollywood hot shot thinks he knows more about the military than he does. Colonel Miles Quaritch is a typical Hollywood version of a military man who bares no resemblance to a real Marine Colonel. He’s some sort of political joke who is written paper thin. Had Quaritch been real, he’d never reach the rank of Colonel in the Marines, nor would his men followed him so blindly.
That’s something Hollywood hasn’t figured out. There has been a fundamental shift in the way our military is trained today. We no longer expect our military to be mindless grunts who do what they are told. We expect our military to be thinkers, to take the initiative, and to examine their situations and surroundings. There is a reason for this. We are putting more and more high tech equipment into the hands of soldiers than ever before. We are doing more with less personnel, so those individual soldiers need to be able to out think our adversaries.
So here we have a group of highly trained military people, all using advanced technology that takes serious training and thought, and every one of them follows blindly? Unlikely.
Not only that, but while visually stunning, there is no way that a well trained military man would devise the simplistic and dangerous military strategy used in the movie. Again, this isn’t the first movie to completely miss the whole military “way,” but no modern military is going to attack like this poorly written “Colonel” does. The attack on the native’s home tree was completely unbelievable.
Furthermore, it showed a total disregard for the men and women under the command of Quaritch. Which later, becomes a key plot point. How could a man who rose to the rank of Colonel in the Marines care so little for his comrades in arms that at a key moment of battle he would abandon his men? Apparently Cameron is unaware that the Marine’s have a motto. Semper Fidelis. It means “Always Faithful.” Abandoning your men for the sake of personal revenge is not what Semper Fi means. How could a Marine Colonel spend the years and years in the Corps, rising through the ranks, and fail to remember that? How could he possibly inspire men to committee acts of such aggression as killing women, children and babies and not be loyal to them?
Since these things are so common in Hollywood, why does it upset me in this particular film? Well because the story could have been so much richer if it had taken them into account. Instead of a mindless killing machine, Quaritch could have been conflicted over the need for unobtainium and the end results. He could have shown the restraint true leaders would have shown, not the megalomaniac tendencies of a serial killer.
There were other “problems” with the story, which when you got right down too it was full of holes and problems. The natives were “perfect.” The idea of a “nobel savage” was portrayed with stereotypical accuracy. The “profit at the cost of everything” corporate leadership. A lead scientist that couldn’t figure out how to explain her great discovery to her financial backers. All of this was just paper thin writing.
Does the good of this movie outweigh the bad? I’m not sure. It is too close to tell. Maybe I’m too demanding of my storytellers, since I’m often disappointed with the plot of most movies. Maybe I expect too much from my movie going experience. There is no doubt that the movie was a triumph in many ways. I guess my biggest disappointment is that a movie so dedicated to so much of the details visually would ignore so many of the details realistically.
And in the end, “Unobtainium… Really James? Did you mean that?”