Thoughts on Avatar

We finally (finally!) made it down to the movies to check out James Cameron’s Avatar yesterday.  What a great cinematic experience, what scope, what vision!  Such technical achievement!  And yet the storyline was as clichéd and recycled as you can get, with a paint-by-numbers plot, and the kind of Lowest Common Denominator political messaging best left to documentaries.

None of this should be news to anyone, as virtually every movie blogger out there has checked in with a similar critique.  Sill, the Hollywood Foreign Press thought enough of Avatar to give it the Golden Globe for Best Drama and Cameron the Best Director prize.  The movie has stirred up some political controversy, busted box office records, and elicited feelings of depression in industrialized youths across the planet.

The wife and I enjoyed the movie quite a lot.  Cameron has always been a great visual storyteller, and time away from the camera has done nothing to diminish his ability.  There’s just so much coolness in it.  And yet, as my sister remarked to me, “with a budget like that, couldn’t he have hired a writer or two?”  

What surprised me about my viewing experience was this: as the third act of the film got underway and the final battle was upon us, I found my usual sense of anticipation replaced instead by sadness.  Sad about the beautiful scenes of death and destruction about to dance across the screen, sad that Cameron hit the last two checkboxes on the heroic journey plot outline with such ruthless timing, sad about the final cartoonish portrayal of soldiers and the military.  I suppose in terms of an anti-war theme, then, the film succeeded with me.

In addition, I could feel my annoyance at the utter lack of irony and simplicity of the Noble Savage/Savage Noble dynamic building.  It probably doesn’t help that my education included multiple classes on the history of colonial expansion – a complex subject worthy of academic rigor.  It also doesn’t help that I tend to get prickly when big-budget Hollywood films steal liberally from established science fiction tropes and then repackage them as ‘new’ or ‘groundbreaking’.  Avatar does not employ a single new or original sci-fi concept, let’s be clear on that.  These problems all combine to make it something less than a great film, let alone one of the films of the decade as some have suggested.

Yet would I recommend this movie?  I would indeed.  It’s a great cinematic experience (in 3D!), beautifully conceived, undeniably entertaining.  If you’re a movie-goer and you haven’t yet been, it’s certainly worth seeing on the big screen.


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