This past Monday a friend of mine and I went to see Avatar in 3D at a local theater. I’ve been meaning to get my thoughts on the movie down, and so here I go.
First, if you go to see this movie, see it in 3D. The visuals are stunning and the digital 3D actually manages to do them justice. I caught a bit of how they did the motion capture for the film, and that knowledge actually aided my appreciation for the scope of the film – the fact that you’re viewing the actors faces captured as they talks is truly a remarkable feat (they didn’t even do that for LOTR and Gollum, where his face was keyframed).
The story of Avatar isn’t anything original. It’s basically a re-hash of the colonist, resources, natives narrative that’s taken place all over the globe for the bulk of human history (most closely paralleling the North American version). As such, there really wasn’t anything surprising amidst the “good soldier learns humility, falls in love, becomes conflicted, transforms to a hero” narrative. The backdrop is gorgeous – but it’s gorgeous window-dressing for what is really a mediocre plot and thin character development. Probably the most disappointing part of the story is how the character of Pandora itself wasn’t explored – especially since it comes to light that the planet is essentially an organic network. Delving into Pandora’s story would have been fascinating. The fact that the war on the planet was fought over “inobtanium” – a mineral more valuable than anything on Earth, but it’s never explained why in the film – left me groaning.
While the middle portion of Avatar showing how Jake Sully came to appreciate the uniqueness of the living network of Pandora as a budding Navi hunter, this story-line eventually runs into the war-like human passion for…. inobtanium (groan). Oneness, “they didn’t need to die,” and thanking one creature for giving it’s life for other creatures to live quickly fade away to the typical Hollywood tale of the Myth of Redemptive Violence. The movie comes down to a massive battle of groups trying to kill the other side faster that they can be killed. Oh, and you know the Navi are the side to root for because Pandora sides with them in the fight (by sending carnivores to beat the snot out of the Marines).
Look, I don’t expect much in the way of ethically challenging resolutions in Hollywood blockbusters, but I would have appreciated maybe a little more depth than the “the noble savages stood up and fought off the oppressors by shear nerve, courage, and will against the cowardly oppressors.” In the parallel most closely aligned to Avatar, the people to attempted to do that died horribly and the oppressors (a) won decisively and (b) gave the oppressors even more reasons to justify their in-human treatment that they visited upon the natives. The probalby with the myth of redemptive violence isn’t just that it’s too unimaginative to make for a compelling movie, it’s that when it’s tried in real life the results are always bad. I’ve seen Christians complaining that Avatar promotes a “leftist agenda,” but the deeper reality is that it promotes the world-view of the warmonger better than any pantheist leftist agenda, “The only defense is a great offense.”
You might think that I’d recommend skipping this one in the theater and watching it when it comes home on Blu Ray or DVD – but I’m not. The effects of the film are that good, and worth seeing in 3D on the giant screen to be truly appreciated. While I found the last third of the film to be mentally tiring – it was an emotional arc that wasn’t a bad emotional ride with occasional depth in character that broke through the paper-thin story-arc. So go ahead and see it, and be wowed by what you see – a huge and over-done melodrama with scenery worth the price of admission. It’ll win every effects category at the Oscars this year, but not muhc else.