Avatar review

Avatar is by far the must see movie of 2009. It’s simply mind blowing.

I’ve watched it twice already, first in regular 3D and then on “proper” Imax, both at Siam Paragon.

No idea how it would look on a non-3D screen, I suspect a lot of visual appeal will be lost. Imax also had superior sound with chairs literally shaking during heavy machine gun fire. On the other hand, the 4:3 screen ratio on Imax was disappointing. I’ve seen a blurb somewhere that Cameron thought cutting off sides would be better for 3D viewing but in my opinion there’s so much more detail on a wide screen that 4:3 cut takes away a lot of wow factor.

Either way, visually it’s a feast, especially the Pandora itself. From floating rocks to seeds of the sacred tree to animals and insects, it’s just awesome. I’m going to watch it again at least once before it goes off the screens – it won’t be the same on the TV once the dvd/blueray comes out.

Having said that, there were several let downs. Cameron is a great director but his stories don’t live to to his technical skills. I won’t judge if this story is as emotionally compelling as Titanic, it certainly has its tear jerking moments, but it could have been so much more. Once the emotional high has passed and I started to think about it rationally it looked shallow, boring and predictable.

Without giving the plot away beyond of what is in the trailers, the decision to fight the earth army back was clearly a rather childish kindergarten sandbox reaction. At first I thought Jake Sully had a real plan for this conflict resolution, for two sides getting a solution based on mutual respect but no, he’s just a marine, they don’t do thinking and negotiations even if the basic conditions are there – after all the “skypeople”, the earthlings, wanted the resources that natives didn’t use themselves, surely they could have found a way to co-exist and maintain the same “balance” that Ewa, some sort of Pandora deity, was so much concerned about.

It wasn’t even the Earth army, it was a private security force for a mining company, any win would be only temporary, skypeople would surely come back and put the native rebellion down. Bows and arrows and local wildlife can save the day once, maybe twice, but ultimately they are doomed anyway. They are fighting progress, and progress is unstoppable.

That brings us to another aspect – “paradise” vs “progress”. The story assumes that paradise is better, that Pandora should be left alone, that it’s perfect as it is, that once you get to know it, like Jake did, you’d appreciate its beauty and even fight to protect it. One problem, though – in order to fight you need some sort of a progress anyway – you need better weapons, better organization, and you need strong passion and propaganda machine, you need to compete with other civilizations. Once you start on this path your paradise is as good as gone.

It’s nice to be a “self-sufficient” hunter on some little known planet but only if that planet has been designated and protected as a spa resort or a monastery, not if it happens to be on the front line of human endeavor to conquer the nature. Greens might rage against it all they want but it’s a fact of life and they’d better learn to live with it, and so do Na’vee Pandorians.

That brings us to the culture of Na’vee themselves – what do they do with their lives? What do they do beyond eating and procreating? What makes them different from the animals they hunt? They all, Na’vee and the animals, seem to be equally aware of “Ewa” and their places in the “balance” scheme of things, so that’s nothing special either. In fact Na’vee seem to be aware of the concept of “progress” and their elevated status among species on their planet, they are essentially at the stage the Earth civilization passed through thousands if not millions years ago and as such they don’t offer any alternative modes of development.

Surely we can learn something from them but it’s not going to change the essence of what our civilization is all about, and one remarkable thing about it is that it’s very adaptable. Even if skypeople come back and conquer Pandora, the episode will be registered and our civilization will learn from it and be more considerate next time. I bet “we” are even more concerned about preserving places like Pandora than Pandorians themselves. They just go to war, provoking destructive forces they can’t stop, and they risk losing the whole planet to their little emotional outburst. Savages, indeed. They yet to learn to control themselves when passions rise. We had a lot more experience with wars and their outcomes, they should learn our history if they have nothing to relate their situation to.

About “savages” label – while only war mongering skypeople used the term in the movie, Jake Sully, the convert himself, related to them like to savages, too. He had no second thoughts in treating them like a clueless tribe that had no idea what they were getting themselves into, he knew that Na’vee had to be saved from making fatal mistakes, but eventually he also gave up and resorted to war, and, for all their assumed enlightenment it that was apparently the only option they could think up themselves, too.

That brings us to “Ewa” and its role in this mess. In Na’vee’s words Ewa is a combined consciousness of all living beings ever lived, in science words it was a network of whatever Pandorian trees have for brains, and it has more connections than a human brain (the whole planet beats one single human brain? Duh). In Na’vee’s words Ewa is interested in maintaining the balance, it doesn’t take sides. Fine, but then it was clearly a local phenomenon as it didn’t take into account the existence of skypeople and their aspirations, it clearly took sides when the battle started. A bit disappointing, religion wise. Here, on Earth, we have a concept of God that rules the whole universe and every living creature on every planet, and, as such, if he is interested in maintaining balance he’d have no problem in settling Skypeople vs Na’vee dispute. I could say that in the end the war mongering skypeople got what they deserved by OUR God rules, not by Ewa’s, which makes Na’vee alleged superiority questionable again.

Also it was no problem for an earthling to achieve highest position in Na’vee society in three months but I’m pretty sure it wouldn’t work the other way. So here the Earth is superior again.

I think the main lesson we should learn from this story is something along the lines of responsibility and sustainable development, not about bliss of sitting under trees and singing Kumbalaya.

What if we compare this story to the West vs Thailand? Well, for one thing, Thais have learned how to walk the fine line and have the best of the both worlds. When colonial powers came knocking on Thai doors, Thais have managed to placate them and save their independence, and so far they seem to resist “soft” colonialism rather well, keeping their cultural identity under the onslaught of all things “farang”. They were smart enough not to go to war they couldn’t possibly win, and they are smart enough to maintain their “privileged” status now, though at times I think they are paying only the lip service, equally to “imported” development and homegrown Buddhism.

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12 Responses

  1. Not sure I will bother to see the movie – I still not been able to sit through either Star Wars or Raiders of the lost Ark, which seem to be similarly hyped movies.

    “The Thais….are smart enough to maintain their “privileged” status now’

    What do you mean by that?

    • Star Wars had completely different pathos, and Raiders was a textbook action movie.

      What blew MY mind away here was visual effects. I don’t think there was one single real scene in a movie, everything was computer generated, and it looked absolutely real. Dinosaurs looked real in Jurassic Park, and King Kong looked real, but Cameron takes it to entirely new level. Visually, he created a whole new world, and he did it with a very good taste. Night views are simply amazing.

      I forgot to mention the native woman, Neytiri. By human standards she is sexually repulsive, but, through CGI, her body exudes such powerful and compelling femininity that she dominates the whole movie like a magnet. I don’t think trailers do her justice, or Na’vee’s faces – they look very alien in previews but after a couple of minutes of the actual movie they feel like you’ve been with these people forever.

      I guess the secret is that they were actual actors, actually running and jumping around, Cameron just stretched their limbs and changed the colors, preserving their overall humanity.

      • It’s sounds great for those who are into sci fi/fantasy type movies (and technology), but I know thats not for me – I’m not going to knock it, I’ll just avoid it until it makes its way to free tv and then I’ll see if I can stay awake through it.

        Plot wise, Avatar has been compared to Dance with Wolves (a movie I thought was OK), but its the Star Wars comparison that really turns me off.

        Forgot to mention that I also fell asleep during the first Lord of the Rings movie, and never been able to watch a Harry Potter movie either.

        Happy New Year to you Stan:)

    • Oh, and on being “privileged”, just look at their “sufficiency” idea – they really think it’s the answer to world’s problems (and maybe it is, in terms of alternative mode of development).

  2. Yeah, there’s nothing really original there, plotwise. Before the movie came out everybody knew it was about special 3D effects and people were worried if the story lives up to the technology. I think it doesn’t, truly, but it’s not the main point and it generally does the job.

    And I’m sure it will look godawful on UBC.

    I don’t know who compared it to Star Wars and why. It’s got most anti-heroic heroes ever. Jake is a traitor to the world we are supposed to worship. It’s not even Matrix with it’s humans against the machines pathos. Avatar is just anti-social, with a couple of poignant lines about values of “our” culture. Tree hugging aliens against Earth? Non-starter.

  3. The technology doesn’t interest me (I’m more into nature & sufficiency:), but from what you have said, I may even like the movie (plot wise).
    I wont care two hoots whether is a spectacular visual event on tv as that stuff just goes way over my head anyway.

    It’s quite funny the way the sufficiency concept is promoted so strongly by those whose lifestyles are already much more than sufficient, and I doubt it’s an original concept, as I’m pressty sure E F Schumacher was preaching it before you know who.

  4. As far as story and plot go the movie is quite scripted, staid and predictable. Don’t expect anything dramatic there. Where it really shines is the in the CGI and special effects. If this is the direction for movies over the next decade then we are in for some visually stunning, immersive and compelling movies. Even if you don’t like the Sci-fi theme I think the movie is ground breaking for what it is doing with the technology available today.

    • It took Cameroon years to create this. The benchmark has been set, and skills are there, but you need serious commitment and financial resources to match Avatar visually. Jurassic Park was similarly groundbreaking, but there were only few movies comparable to it in over a decade that passed since then.

      But yes, I’m hopeful that there will be one or two equally stunning movies in the next couple of years. Mostly it will be “Shoot’em up Malone” kind of crap, I’m afraid (the latest Guy Ritchie offering).

  5. Cameron said back in 2006 that if Avatar is successful, he plans to make two sequels!

    http://www.mtv.com/movies/news/articles/1535402/06292006/story.jhtml

    • Well, he can put the story straight, or he can do Matrix 2 and 3. I wish he concentrated on visual aspect rather than on storytelling, though.

      I watched Avatar on non-3d screen and a lot of magic was missing. Colors were the same but there was not the same level of engagement as I noticed countless shots where the camera (cameras, as they were using at least two cameras to shoot 3d) was moving through objects on the near plane towards objects far away to create three dimensional illusion of actually following the movement but that was completely lost in 2d presentation, those shots looked unnecessary without 3d element.

      I’ve had a second look at the story, though, and I”m planning on another blog about tree people, when I sober up.

      • One thing that has been bogging my mind, thought, is why it was so easy for Jake to successfully tame the red Banshee (indeed the film completely neglects to explain this). Maybe, just maybe, Jake was no ordinary marine after all. He could be some sort of a reincarnated ancient hero or something like that. Actually there could be a huge amount of backstory in the Avatar world that has yet to be revealed, and it makes perfect sense to produce a sequel or two to explain the rest of the story to us.

        • I assume he caught it off guard and created the bond before “turuk” realized what was happening. On the other hand there’s the second condition to taming your flying horse – it should choose you, too, and it should try to kill you. Or, perhaps, any flying horse that tries to kill you can be tamed and claimed, and so turuk’s resistance would have been enough.

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