The UNpopular Opinion: Avatar

Written by: Aaron the H

THE UNPOPULAR OPINION is an ongoing column featuring different takes on films that either the writer HATED, but that the majority of film fans LOVED, or that the writer LOVED, but that most others LOATHED. We’re hoping this column will promote constructive and geek fueled discussion. Enjoy!

“You are Omaticaya now. You may make your bow from the wood of Hometree. And you may choose a woman. We have many fine women. Ninat is the best singer.” – Neytiri

Last week I tried to heap praise on what I considered to be an under-appreciated modern classic. It was a film that, while popular with JoBlo readers (or perhaps because of this), wasn’t as controversial a choice as some of you would have liked. Well, fine. I’ll get back to my hater ways. In the biggest of ways. It’s time to trash the blue giant. The #1 film of all-time (financially). A film many already consider a modern masterpiece. Well, I’m hear to tell you why it’s the second most overrated film of all-time, and if that ain’t controversial enough for ya, just you wait till I tackle #1 at a yet to be determined date.

So, yeah; AVATAR. The Sultan of CG. The breakthrough for 3-D. The mo-cap Ferngully. Not really a bad film (I don’t think Cameron’s got that in him), but the greatest spectacle of all time?! Puh-lease. Let’s pick this apart piece by piece, starting with the gimmick that pulled most of us in. No, not the “From the director of T2” screen credit. I’m talkin’ ‘bout the ground-breaking technology said ground-breaking director invented. Now let me be clear about one thing: I am NOT a huge fan of CGI sets or motion-capture performances. For an example of why, simply compare the old Star Wars films to the new ones. Compare Robert Zemeckis’ first ten films to his last three. There is something lost when special FX are used to help sell a story rather than help tell a story.

“Please tell me you remembered to turn the oven off.”

I’m not the first person to discover what happens when computers replace actors, and even though Avatar does an exceedingly better job at bridging the gap between animation and live action than anything else, real life will ALWAYS look more real. Even with that said, I understand why what Cameron did was needed to tell this story and create the environments of Pandora (although I believe the Na’vi could’ve easily been created with greater effect by actors in prosthetics from Stan Winston’s creature shop). And yet still, I found myself asking at film’s end…why were his previous films, like T2 and Aliens (both sequels mind you)- so much more fascinating to watch than this visual spectacle? The answer is mind-numbingly simple:


What breaks my heart most about Avatar being the highest grossing film EVER (by a LONG SHOT) is how predictable, hokey, and shockingly unoriginal the story is. The unreal hysteria that arose after the release of the film- fans whose reactions and newly sworn Na’vi allegiance reminds one of the fanbases that surround the Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings franchises- is truly mind-boggling. Those classic sagas earned their hype based on wildly original universes and creatures. Avatar just takes us to a jungle planet with Native Americans painted blue (and dogs, horses and dragons painted ROY-G-BIV).

Cameron allegedly dreamed up this winged creature after looking at the hood of his ’79 Pontiac Trans Am.

Cameron has been behind some of the most original films of our generation, even when making sequels and action comedies- quite the gargantuan feat. Yet when given the opportunity to create a wholly original work in Avatar (and having over a decade to write the script), he seemed happy just taking a page from Dances With Wolves, Pocahontas, the previously mentioned Ferngully, and a hundred other “Evil white men invade and destroy the natives” movies before them. The most original idea in Avatar is that the natives have built-in extension cords that connect them with their planet/animals/each other. A cool concept, but not enough to carry a film.

At least in District 9, (a movie made by a first-time filmmaker with less than 1/10th the budget of Avatar), we are led along for quite some time wondering which are the bad guys- the aliens or the humans. In Avatar, there is no such mystery or suspense. In D9, the aliens need the white man to just stay the F outta the way so they can free themselves from persecution. Avatar proposes the tired, traditional, and fairly offensive idea that the savior IS the white man. Does nobody find fault in the logic that Eywa, that Tree of Life thingy, chooses a white man in an Avatar suit as the Na’vi’s greatest warrior? Isn’t that kinda like choosing Al Gore to lead the NAACP?

So I think most of us can agree that Avatar‘s screenplay was nothing groundbreaking. The film’s success then must have been as a product of the new technology and the imagery that resulted from it, yes? I wont spend too much time bashing these, because yes, the visuals were simply outstanding. But regarding the revolutionary 3D, let me ask you this: after the first 15 minutes, did you even remember you were watching 3D? I didn’t. And that’s the problem with 3D; in essence it’ll always just be a gimmick. Not to mention it spawned perhaps the most annoying, cash-grabbing Hollywood trend of all-time (one that in my prediction, will be dead within 2 years).

Pocahontas totally went off the rails after attending her first rave. (I’d still hit it)

Two essential components that make a film classic, components that make a film award-worthy, components that make a film worth watching and rewatching, are a riveting script and powerful depictions of richly complex characters, and while I did find Zoe Saldana to be great in this film, I think we can all agree that none of these performances will go down in history. Even the vastly-underrated Giovanni Ribisi seems bored here playing his one-dimensional corporate goon. Stephen Lang, who used a low-key temperament and stone-cold demeanor to standout as the biggest badass in last year’s Public Enemies, took on the pivotal role as the film’s primary villain in Avatar– and cranked the zaniness up to 11. Despite being one of the only live-action characters in the film, Lang’s Colonel Quaritch comes off as the most cartoonish of them all mostly because of poor writing. FAIL.

And yet, despite all this, I must reiterate one thing (if for no other reason than to avoid a Na’vi arrow through the chest): Avatar is not an awful film. It’s often entertaining, and as far as pure visual spectacle, it’s nearly unrivaled. It’s just not a classic. Not worthy of geek worship. Not worthy of the Best Picture Oscar nomination it received, or even the Golden Globe it won. It’s James Cameron’s fifth best film. But unfortunately, because much of the above definitely ranks as the unpopular opinion, what is essentially a beautifully-rendered cartoon will likely maintain its place for generations to come as the most successful motion picture of all-time.

At least until Cameron steps behind the camera (er, computer monitor) for the next one.


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