‘Avatar’ has stunning visual flair, but story is colorless

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Andy Bockelman

Andy Bockelman is a member of the Denver Film Critics Society, and his movie reviews appear in Explore Steamboat and the Craig Daily Press. Contact him at 970-875-1793 or abockelman@CraigDailyPress.com.

Find more columns by Bockelman here.

“Avatar"

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

Running time: 160 minutes

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldaña and Sigourney Weaver.

Great, soaring extraterrestrial pterodactyls.

Spores of intergalactic trees that look like dandelion seeds.

There are plenty of recognizable components in the alien world of “Avatar,” and the movie’s storyline is at the top of the list.

By 2154, Earth has become almost uninhabitable.

But that hasn’t stopped the people of the planet from seeking out enterprise elsewhere, most notably on Pandora, the moon of the planet Polyphemus. Mining operations have been slow because of the rebelling natives, the Na’vi — blue-skinned, tailed, 9-foot tall warriors whose attachment to their natural surroundings has gotten in the way of Earth’s business on their world.

Among those ready to reach out to the Na’vi is Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine functioning as a replacement for his late twin brother, a scientist working on a special project before his death. The Avatar Program allows for humans to mix their DNA with a Na’vi body and control it through a technological mind-link.

Jake’s newfound use of his legs turns around when he is assigned by his superior (Stephen Lang) to infiltrate the Omaticaya clan of the Na’vi and negotiate terms for their relocation. But under the tutelage of a member (Zoë Saldaña) of the race, Jake has second thoughts about betraying them.

Worthington is pretty standard in his position as a man given a second chance, although, to be fair, he doesn’t have the best repartee to recite. After all, it’s not the actor’s fault that one of the first phrases he speaks while in avatar form is the eloquent thought, “This is great.”

Sigourney Weaver outdoes him in avatar and human bodies correspondingly as crusading botanist Grace Augustine, whose interests in the Na’vi are educational and diplomatic, rather than exploitative.

The shining star of the tale is Saldaña, who is rendered gloriously real through motion capture technology as Neytiri, a soulful Na’vi woman who just happens to be the daughter of the chieftain (Wes Studi) and begrudges the interloping intruders for raping Pandora’s environment and pushing their language and social customs on her people.

Go figure.

The villains are virtually unwatchable, as Lang is downright ridiculous as Col. Miles Quaritch, who seems to view genocide as a hobby. Giovanni Ribisi is just as laughable as bottom line businessman Parker Selfridge — who you know is a corporate drone because he putts golf balls into his coffee mug in his office, just like every executive who ever lived — who is obsessed with getting his hands on the mineral lode blocked by the Na’vi, that of unobtainium.

For those familiar with the term “MacGuffin,” now would be the appropriate time to roll your eyes.

In every great film — particularly those in the fantasy genre — there is a moment when the audience is completely engulfed within the world created on the screen. In this movie, that instant promises to come numerous times but never follows through.

Unlike the universes created in enduring features like “The Wizard of Oz” or “Star Wars,” there is never any doubt that we are merely sitting in a theater watching a motion picture rather than making the leap into the story itself.

We may as well be Jake in his mind-link pod rather than following his Na’vi alter ego.

This wouldn’t be as much of a drawback if the film’s promotional campaign hadn’t spent months loudly heralding the coming of a new age of cinema.

Writer/director James Cameron’s first feature since “Titanic” has an extraordinary visual design, with the peoples and the domestic menagerie of Pandora utter joys to behold in terms of fully conceptualized computer generated imagery.

Cameron knows what he’s doing in creating a treasure trove of beings to catch the eye, but the problem is that nearly every scene involving characters from Earth is so rudimentary and time-consuming that it takes away from the wonder of the Na’vi and their world. When the two come together for battle scenes, it’s an astonishing sight to behold but goes on too long.

A scattershot, preachy tone about the dangers of suppressing other cultures — particularly in a parallel to the treatment of Native Americans — further reminds us how depressing it is that the aliens of this adventure look and act more authentic than the human beings who persecute them.

Make no mistake, “Avatar” is a must-see movie for its fully fleshed out vision of top-of-the-crop effects.

As for whether this will become the current generation’s defining film, hopefully it’s not too much to say that we can do better in what we choose to immortalize through our patronage. It’s a perfectly enjoyable popcorn flick, but contrary to every ad you may have seen, this is most definitely not the pinnacle of the art of filmmaking.

Comments

moviecriticreviewer 4 years, 11 months ago

I give this review 0 stars and the critic thumbs down.

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onewhocares 4 years, 11 months ago

I, too give this critic two thumbs down and the movie 4 strong stars. Maybe the critic should study in depth the genocide of our Native Americans more thoroughly. If he did he would see that the zeal that was displayed by the humans in their quest to rid the natives that stood in the way of "capitalism" was very accurate (can you say George Armstrong Custer?) .The reality is, if we went to another planet, we as humans would do the exact same thing AGAIN!!! The lesson in this movie is very important to our youth and was captured in a beautifully stunning way. Our planet was just as beautiful in another way once upon a time.

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ray513 4 years, 11 months ago

When you think of the indigenous people as less than human of course you can think of genocide has acceptable. What this critic does not seem to remember is that this is the same story we had when treating with the American Indians. I took my wife and 4 kids to se this the youngest being 8 and it was great. The special effects along with the characters is unbelievable. I understand critics have to find something wrong every movie they see because that is what they are paid for, but this review was not right. I will pay to see this again.

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sharon123 4 years, 11 months ago

I agree with the critic. Although the movie is technically amazing and beautiful, the story itself has been seen in many other movies -without surprises, with archetypical characters without shades... The bad one is laughable, the good one is insipid, etc... I liked the mystic approach but thought that it went never too far. I mean... the movie is worth seeing it, but I don't understand why everybody considers the story as good as its special effects.

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Joseph 4 years, 11 months ago

Good review. Here's what my teenage daughter and her two friends (Native Americans; we live on a reservation) thought about the movie: The 3D visuals were great. But the story was silly, condescending (Did I mention we live on a reservation? They understand condescending.), predictable, funny when it wasn't supposed to be funny (I'm being polite; they got a bit hysterical about how "connections" were made; a day later they are still cracking themselves up, waving their fingers at each as if to "connect.") The dialogue was dumb. Dances With Wolves meets Star Wars meets Pocahontas. The female characters were way too shrill and over-the-top. Real Marines (they know quite a few) are lean and mean and have a really weird sense of humor. Real Marines are always polite, even if they want to kill you. We've been hearing everything the movie had to say since the third grade. Please explain how mountains can float, and how beasts can run with six legs. Why are there no reptiles and no bugs? The technology feels old and clunky, the kind of stuff you'd see at an open-pit coal mine in Montana (they've all been to one). How did they get all that giant stuff all the way to that planet, anyway? There is not one hot guy in the entire movie. Not one (collective sigh). The scenes where everyone is swaying back and forth, connected to each other and to the earth (planet?) is just totally embarrassing. Coolest part of the movie: going to the bathroom and then coming back in to see everyone wearing exactly the same black glasses. Cool and creepy, at the same time--the glasses, not the movie.

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onewhocares 4 years, 11 months ago

No offense, but your ignorance regarding the past military actions in the US is totally insulting. Do you think Custer, Reno, Sherman, Sully and the others that participated in the massacres against our Native Americans, such as at: Wounded Knee, Sand Creek and the Yontocket sites, to mention just a minute few, were polite as they smashed the babies heads together, and mutilitated the women, as they wiped out the tribes? Maybe you should educate yourself on your own history and whether you like it or not, the way the military was portrayed in this movie (as the scientists) was representative of what took place in our US beginnings. Who cares if you live on a reservation. Regardless of your race, most people today are born and raised in a Christian society totally detached by nature, and I wouldn't expect the teenagers to understand about spirituality and the connectiveness to the natural world as was portrayed (& yes a bit exaggerated) in this movie.

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moviecriticreviewer 4 years, 11 months ago

Joseph, google search "suspension of disbelief." You might enjoy movies more if you learned what that is.

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BillWilliams 4 years, 11 months ago

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Joseph 4 years, 11 months ago

Dear onewhocares,

I was only saying what my daughter and her friends, teenagers, had to say about the movie. Personally, I thought the story was beyond lame. I dozed off twice.

As far as my knowledge of Native American history is concerned, I am of Blackfeet/Cree descent, and have a Master's in History. My main areas of expertise are the history of the upper great plains, especially of the Indian tribes who inhabited that area, of the Metis, and of East and Southeast Asia. I am a former combat Marine, speak Mandarin fluently, and Japanese well enough to get by. I've seen what B-52 strikes can do, and I've seen what the Khmer Rouge could do with garden and farm implements. As it turns out, garden and farm implements are far more dangerous than are B-52 strikes.

But most of all, I've experienced first hand the damage that well-meaning Americans, such as yourself, can do to native cultures and societies. Far greater damage, it turns out, than that perpetrated by the Custers and Sheridans of the world.

You are more insidious in your ignorance than Custer was in his egoism and blood lust. Like it or not, the reason why the world today is in such a fix has much more to do with good men doing bad, than it has with bad men doing bad.

Hint: you might want to research some of the massacres that the various tribes perpetrated against each other. If AVATAR was truly a reflection of European/American treatment of Native Americans, then the aliens would have been dying like flies thanks to disease--disease that traveled AHEAD of actual physical contact between races; disease that was inevitable, with or without the abrupt influx of large numbers of Europeans to this hemisphere.

Lucky for my daughter and her friends, they DO have a solid grasp of history and culture and society. They all have gone out in the forest and killed a deer or elk with bow or rifle, and then greatly appreciated that deer or elk when they ate it. All of which is part and parcel of why they thought AVATAR was eye candy and nothing more.

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missrose 4 years, 11 months ago

The fact is, it doesnt matter what color your skin is, rather what you feel in your heart. Just because you are native doesnt necessarily automatically make you an expert. I would like to address some of the points of your argument, the first being that yes human beings by nature are violent and cruel but if nobody has noticed so is every other organism on the planet. The thing that separates modern day culture (if you would like to call it that) from past ancestors is not our advancement in technologies rather our lack of respect we have for each other and the environment. The United States govt is the biggest perpetrator of this always destroying and conquering not for the good of their citizens but for their pockets. My friend our govt has destroyed and demolished everything for the sake of having a nice house etc. I find it really interesting the correlation between religion and the actions of these individuals. If you are an expert in plains Indians you will then already be aware that in the Sioux language there isnt a word/phrase saying to own the earth. I am sorry for you that you have been caught up in this lie. If the govt is so great then why are the reservations the poorest places in the U.S? We are a society of greed and hate and destroy anything that threatens the opportunity to make a profit. As for your comment on disease, you obviously have never taken a pathology class or read anything similar because such diseases as small pox and such were unheard of until the Europeans came across. Our own govt would give blankets infested with smallpox through villages to wipe everyone out. In a sense they were sterile and had immunities to agents native to the area. Throw in people from a different part of the world and its exposure all over again. The western civilizations are filthy pigs in comparison. I find it all really interesting how you think just because you are native you think you know so much. My friend please go study up a little more on your history because obviously you dont know much. I love how you almost are defended the men that were responsible for your own nation's demise. Avatar was a good movie in that it properly portrayed the military's true intentions and lack of civil rights. It might have been overly exaggerated in some areas but only to emphasize a point. Have respect for everything and feel the connection.

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