Film review: Avatar (Spoiler alert!)

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

I suspect that my spoiler warning will not matter much because going by the box office records this film is setting, I may have been one of the last people to see it last weekend.

I don’t usually go to see much-hyped blockbusters as they are often overly focused on action for its own sake and thus not the kinds of films I enjoy but I felt that I should see Avatar. At the beginning of each semester, I ask my students various questions to help me get to know them better and one of these is their favorite film. Many of them replied that it was Avatar, which made me intrigued as to what was so appealing, especially since some of my faculty colleagues also said it was their favorite film ever. (I also ask students their favorite book and this year for the first time many students said Harry Potter, which suggests that the first generation of students for whom those books were a formative reading experience are now entering college.)

I was also intrigued by reports of the 3D effects and the new special effects using avatars that went into its production. The idea of using computer-generated avatar technology to tell a story about the use of avatar technology was clever.

First the good points about the film. The 3D and special effects are quite stunning. The vistas that we are shown of the fictitious planet Pandora are truly beautiful. I am persuaded that writer-director James Cameron has revolutionized filmmaking, as so many reports suggest.

But while Cameron (none of whose films I have seen before) may be a pioneer in technique, his storytelling leaves a lot to be desired. Avatar is very long (160 minutes) and weighted down with one cliché after another, coupled with often clunky dialogue. What we have is the well-worn premise of the conflict of civilizations. On one side we have the Noble Savage, a tribe of lithe and graceful (and blue) people known as the Na’vi who live on the distant planet Pandora. The Na’vi blue people are close to nature, worship a tree-god (yes, they are really tree-huggers), use bows and arrows as weapons, ride horse-like animals and pterodactyl-like birds, and kill animals only when they must, and do so with regret and reverence. There is a good deal of talk of eternal spirits that unify plants and animals. Against them is pitted the US military-industrial complex, the ‘modern’ world, who kill and destroy indiscriminately, callously, and with impunity. To drive home the point, we are repeatedly exposed to juxtapositions of highly sophisticated modern technology at the American base camp with the simple dress and life of the Na’vi.

There is also the cliché of the good-hearted but ignorant and arrogant American who blunders into a culture he does not understand, committing one faux pas after another, grinning all the while, before eventually learning the ways of the natives and gaining their acceptance and eventually becoming one of them. Think of the old cowboys and Indians film clichés, except with the Indians as the good guys as in Dances with Wolves and Little Big Man, and you get the idea.

Cameron heavy-handedly loads the film down with obvious political and social messages, the primary one being the evil of the military-industrial complex. The overwhelming might of the US military is placed at the service of a private company that seeks to mine the precious and rare ore called Unobtainium (really, that’s its name) that is available on Pandora. The catch is that the richest vein of ore lies slap in the middle of the area occupied by the Na’vi and their most sacred tree. The stage is thus set for conflict, as the US military unleashes its full power on the Na’vi, even destroying the holy tree, in order to force them to move.

These allusions to the actual history of the US using its massive military to invade defenseless countries in order to secure their raw materials for the profit of private companies are unmistakable. In case you are too dense to get it, one character even refers to the policy as ‘shock and awe’, which must make that character a military history buff since the events of the film take place in 2154.

The problem is that even if the allusions are valid, the evil characters lack depth and are merely cartoon villains. The colonel in charge of the military is totally heartless and single-minded in his pursuit of victory, a crude caricature of Colonel Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. At any moment I expected him to yell out “I love the smell of burning Na’vi in the morning!” He and the soldiers under his command are all stereotypical ‘ugly Americans’ (except for one) and show no hint of any regret at the slaughter they unleash on people who simply want to live on their traditional lands. The head of the mining company is only concerned about his company’s profit report and shows only the slightest hesitation at the thought of the havoc he is about to unleash on the peace-loving Na’vi.

But despite its attempts to expose the cruelty of US policy, there is one American conceit that Cameron cannot bring himself to give up. The leader of the Na’vi revolt that defeats the machinations of the military-industrial complex is an American marine who switches sides. Cameron may have felt that allowing the US to be defeated by a purely Na’vi opposition would lose him audience sympathy (and thus ticket sales). After all, many Americans cannot still accept that the ‘primitive’ Vietnamese were able to defeat the US. Or maybe even he is unable to conceive of American forces being defeated by non-Americans. So ultimately the film becomes a battle in which the good Americans defeat the bad ones, with the Na’vi in supporting roles. The ending in which the evil colonel and the renegade marine go mano-a-mano is another cliché, but an excusable one.

Apparently some people dislike the film because of its portrayal of an evil alliance between the US military, government, and exploitative companies, even though such an alliance manifestly exists. There is also the inevitable Christian reaction that the film gives credence to pagan religious beliefs like tree gods, and Jesus does not make even a cameo appearance. The renegade marine even ends up praying to the tree-god and his prayers are apparently answered in the usual oblique way that all gods are expected to behave according to their union rules. Of course, the very idea of life on other planets undermines Christianity, so one can see why the fundamentalists might be bothered by the film.

From the point of view of scientific consistency, I found Cameron’s futuristic vision to be not persuasive. Pandora and its inhabitants seemed very Earth-like, just a little more exotic. That is fine if he takes the defensible position that only Earth-like conditions can support life. But we are also told that the atmosphere is not suitable for Earth people, which suggest that the wildlife should be more different. Although there is a reference to Pandora’s low gravity, people seemed to move around the same way that they do on Earth. If gravity and the atmosphere are different, it is not clear that the military aircraft could function on Pandora. It may have been better to make Pandora’s atmosphere and gravity similar to that of Earth to avoid some of these difficulties. What Cameron needed was a science fiction writer of the caliber of Arthur C. Clarke to make his scientific vision better. Stanley Kubrick’s decision to have Clarke work on the screenplay of 2001: A Space Odyssey was undoubtedly one of the things that made that film so great.

The weapons used by the military seemed very similar to what are used now, even a little old by today’s standards. There were no drones, for example, of the kind being used extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan right now.

One oddity in the film was that the head of the scientific program (played by Sigourney Weaver) was a smoking addict. It was an odd, jarring, and gratuitous touch and one wondered why Cameron included it. It is unlikely that smoking will still exist in 2154, let alone be allowed inside research facilities in distant planetary locations. Is Cameron a smoker, striking a small blow for beleaguered smokers against the current campaign to curb that practice?

Today is the day the Academy award nominees are announced and someone on NPR said that Avatar is a strong contender for winning the best film award. This amazes me. I can see it getting awards in technical categories. I have to give credit to Cameron for using the 3D technology tastefully. We were not constantly exposed to crude in-your-face shocks. Instead it was used to create beautiful images of the planet and its exotic life forms. But I cannot see how people can overlook its weaknesses in the more important areas of filmmaking, such as story, dialogue, and acting.

Halfway through while watching the film, I decided to not let the trite story and the often-painful dialogue bother me, but enjoy the film as I would a wildlife documentary. And for that, it was worth it.

POST SCRIPT: South Park parody of Avatar

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You can see the full South Park episode titled Dances with Smurfs here. The episode is also a parody of Glenn Beck and the teabaggers.


  1. Kyle J says

    Great review! I shared many of the same feelings, but was still so captivated by the experience of visiting Pandora in IMAX 3-D that I paid to see the film twice. 😛

    The Earth-like nature of Pandora bothered me, too. In his defense, I believe Cameron was somewhat limited in how different he could make the wildlife, particularly the protagonist species. He was already asking the audience to suspend their disbelief as to whether a human could seamlessly assimilate with, and even develop sexual attraction to, an alien species in a mere 90 days. For this story to work at all, the Na’vi needed to be humanoids – different enough to make the romance interesting, but enough like humans to keep the audience from squirming in their seats during the intimate moments.

    Once one has introduced an alien species that is inexplicably human-like, it almost requires an Earth-like environment to explain this coincidence. I suppose I can accept the necessary assumption that, under these much different environmental circumstances, evolutionary forces could nevertheless develop life forms so similar to Earth’s. However, I agree with your criticism. It would be nice to see movies branch out into extraterrestrial life-forms that are physiologically more unique.

    In regard to the military portrayal, it’s important to note that the soldiers in the movie were paid mercenaries, as opposed to active U.S. troops. The same political undertones you mentioned were still very blatant, but I think he included that important distinction to dispel cries that the film is aiming to be explicitly anti-U.S. military. It was difficult not to laugh when the leader talked about the need for a “preemptive strike,” and “fighting terror with terror.” Regardless of one’s views on the wars, he truly sold out the storyline with such obvious political messages.

    The Oscar talk blows my mind, when the best movie of the year was unquestionably Transformers 2. 😉

  2. Paul Jarc says

    Cameron may have felt that allowing the US to be defeated by a purely Na’vi opposition would lose him audience sympathy (and thus ticket sales).

    Another take on this:
    When will white people stop making movies like Avatar?

    One oddity in the film was that the head of the scientific program (played by Sigourney Weaver) was a smoking addict.

    I read somewhere that this was supposed to indicate her disregard for her physical body and preference for her virtual life.

  3. says

    With regard to the science of Pandora, I think you’re being a little too critical. For one, the reference to gravity is very vague, probably deliberately so, just to indicate that we’re aware this is a moon, not a planet. But large moons have considerable gravity, and 80% of earth-normal would not look much different in terms of mobility. About the atmosphere: possibly the most obvious explanation would be that the air contained high proportions of chlorine, for example, which would kill you if breathed it for any length of time. Any adapted species, of course, wouldn’t notice it, and there would be no significant change in the color of the sky. I was also impressed by the very good biological reasoning; for instance, the flying reptiles have nostrils in their throats, making a higher metabolism reasonable, and had very obvious deep breastbones for attaching oversized flight muscles, which I thought a very nice touch. The only error was in having these giant avians take off without a significant run when doing so from a flat area; probably for artistic effect. The Tarzan-type liana-swinging was also a bit cliche; in a real jungle one has to swing, land, run, and then swing again to gain momentum — can’t do it in one continuous swing.

    One unexplained fact: how does the avatar body communicate with the controlling mind? I see no mention of communications chips implanted in the avatar brain, and what about transmission range? … Anyway, a very nice movie to watch if you keep your critical brain switched off.

  4. says

    Survival group against God?? LOL. Good luck with that. Truth is, no one knows the exact time this will happen except the man upstairs, however, I firmly believe that there are people placed here by God that post the warning signs and it’s up to you to take heed.
    eschatology 2012
    -- some truth about 2012

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