I’m sure I can’t be the only one who thought
how the hell did they get James Cameron to direct the film version of
Avatar: The Last Airbender?” when they first heard that
was working on a movie called Avatar.
Knowing very little about Avatar:
The Last Airbender
other than that a film adaptation was in the works and knowing
absolutely nothing of Cameron’s long time coming Avatar
it wasn’t too unreasonable an assumption, especially since
logo used for James Cameron’s Avatar happens to look a lot
the title font used in the logo of the totally unrelated Avatar: The Last Airbender
I actually didn’t realize that Avatar had nothing
to do with Avatar: The
Last Airbender until E3 2009, where James Cameron got on
stage at Electronic Arts’ media briefing and talked about the
game adaptation, and then talked for about ten minutes about how
movie was going to be, but shared nothing other than the basic concept
of what an avatar body in the movie was.
The presentation (or lack thereof) made me interested, but left me
feeling that Cameron was being cocky and full of himself, going on and
on about how awesome this movie (and game based on the movie) would be
without actually showing anything.
After E3, I really didn’t care enough about Avatar
to find out any more about it online or follow its development. In the
month or so prior to it’s release I’d catch wind of
tidbits about the film, or quotes from Cameron’s interviews,
which really didn’t do a whole lot to impress me.
For example, I remember hearing one quote from Cameron to the effect
that he conceived Avatar
to be the movie he always wanted to see when he was fourteen years old.
So is Avatar
a kids flick then? Well Cameron sure isn’t fourteen years old
anymore, hasn’t he matured at all since then?
I personally can say with absolute confidence that if I had a chance to
write the novel I would have written at age fourteen it would have been
absolute tripe, and though I was still interested enough in the
underlying concept of avatars to see the movie, I was concerned that it
could end up being childish, which mind you is a very different thing
from being a kids flick.
Worse yet on my perception of the movie, my mother shared with me that
the mineral the human settlers were mining for on Pandora was called
“unobtanium”. My first thought was that calling a
obtain mineral “unobtanium” would be something that
strike me as clever and witty when I was fourteen and still weaning
myself from writing Pokemon and Gundam fanfiction.
Among my circles of friends both on and off the internet, expectations
were generally low, with some going as far as to declare that it had no
redeeming qualities whatsoever and refused outright to even see it or
consider the possibility that it wouldn’t totally suck.
My own apprehension combined with an atmosphere of criticism and
skepticism from my friends left me expecting not to enjoy Avatar,
but still, soon after its release, on a night I had nothing better to
do, I went to the theatre to see it, since I was still interested and
would at least be in on all the references and jokes about the movie
that were sure to follow, whether or not it was any good.
As I’ve said on my Livejournal and in message board
discussions, I was genuinely surprised by how much I enjoyed Avatar.
On a scale in which a great movie is exemplified by The Third Man, and
an example of bad movie being North, I would personally rate Avatar as being a good movie, light-years away from great, but nowhere near sucking.
Things I liked included the fact that Pandora’s atmosphere
wasn’t actually directly poisonous to the human settlers, it
simply just didn’t have enough oxygen for humans to breathe
safely, so they needed to wear breath masks when outdoors.
Not many movies I’ve seen actually depict anything like this.
my experience most movies either require humans to wear a full space
suit while exploring other planets, or simply depict the atmosphere as
being completely Earth-like and the explorers need no special equipment
I found the visuals to be extraordinarily well done and served their
purpose wonderfully. I didn’t feel like I was watching a
“cartoon” or some half assed video game cut-scene
made because they were too lazy to use traditional practical effects.
Despite the story being predictable and perhaps overly derivative, it
entertained me, and I did enjoy it, though it did have problems of its
own that I’ll go into later on. Some might call me juvenile
uncultured for having enjoyed Avatar, but, hey,
this is just my own opinion.
Despite having enjoyed what I saw, I was aware even as I was
that it definitely had tons of problems.
My first issue is, with all the crazy words invented for this movie,
and the list goes on
and on, could they really not come up with a better name than
“unobtanium” for the mineral the settlers are
Tongue-in-cheek is one thing, but unobtanium is just stupid and
pathetic. If they wanted to be clever and meaningful with the name of
this mineral, couldn’t they have derived a word or phrase for
“hard to obtain” from say Greek or Latin or some
language, as to sound intelligent and educated rather than gimmicky and
And for as much as the word “unobtanium” has become
the laughing stock of Avatar,
it’s only uttered twice throughout the course of the entire
movie. In fact the first time unobtanium is mentioned by name,
it’s in this oddly placed scene where Parker Selfridge takes
Grace Augustine into his office and starts explaining to her what unobtanium is
and why they are on Pandora mining for it.
Why would Parker find the need to suddenly start explaining to Grace
what unobtanium is and that it’s extraordinarily valuable?
Haven’t they both been working on this planet (or moon
for years together?
This scene was totally unnecessary and an example of bad, clunky plot
exposition. If this scene wasn’t in the movie, would viewers
been unable to understand why RDA was mining on Pandora and why they
wanted to drive the Na’vi out of Hometree? Doubtful. I
think this scene was shoved into the script at the last second as an
excuse to have the word “unobtanium” appear
the script aside the one other instance later in the film where
it’s mentioned in passing as to almost be overlooked
Now, on to unobtanium itself? What is it used for? What does it do? As
far as the movie is concerned all it’s good for is selling at
high prices, but despite adding a clunky scene to tell us that
it’s called unobtanium and is ultra expensive, they
bother telling is why it’s so valuable in the first place.
Likely Cameron has mentioned in some interview what unobtanium is used
for, or perhaps it was explained in the video game or some
related materials or literature, but that’s not the sort of
that viewers should have to go beyond the movie to find out,
the primary motivation for the conflict between the humans and the
Na’vi and it isn’t even throughly explained.
Parker could have just said “This is unobtanium, this is what
we’re here for, it’s worth a trillion dollars an
it cures all known forms of cancer with a 100% success rate.”
that would have done it for me, but no.
In fact, why not have unobtanium cure cancer? It would have been a
great plot point, since it would have given the human settlers and
their motivations more depth and ambiguity, and therefore more internal
conflict on their actions and allegiances. It would have given
Quaritch’s statement to Jake that he has “betrayed
race” a lot more weight and meaning.
RDA can still be profit motivated antagonists, but wouldn’t
have given the story more dimension and the conflicts
more believable and genuine if unobtanium really could save millions of
human lives back on Earth?
Speaking of antagonists, Parker and Quartich’s over the top
racism against the Na’vi, was a serious detriment to this
film’s level of intelligence. I understand that
exploitation of Pandora was in many ways intended to parallel European
imperialism which was justified and motivated by racist attitudes, but
to have both Parker and Quartich make personal insults against the
Na’vi’s culture and physical appearance at every
opportunity doesn’t make for an intelligent comment on racism
prejudice, it’s barely a step above mustache curling puppy
kicking cartoon villainy.
It doesn't take an in your face elitist bigot character to make a
commentary on racism. Most racism doesn't involve violent hate crimes
or bald guys saluting Hitler, it’s something subtle and
noticeable like a cashier forgetting to ask a non-white customer for their
store discount card when they had done so first thing for the several
preceding white customers.
Avatar has a hard time with subtlety, and for
prejudice in a work of fiction, a drop of subtlety goes a lot further
than a bucket full of over the top racism akin to an ABC After School
Princess and the Frog
did a great job of this. A story set in in 1920’s New Orleans
featuring a black protagonist would have to deal with prejudice in one
way or another, and in fact it serves as an obstacle to the protagonist
throughout the story, yet the story is not about racism nor does it use
racism as a cheap gimmick to shepherd viewers into sympathizing with
the protagonists or force feed a pro-tolerance message. Even the film
adaptation of The
Golden Compass dealt with racism better than Avatar.
might not have
suffered so much from this if they had better divided the roles of the
villainy between Parker and Quartich. Parker is made to represent the
cruel, heartless side of capitalism and entrepreneurship which will
literally run over anyone and anything and anything to turn a profit,
and Quartich seems to be the embodiment of imperialism and militarism
and apparently cares nothing for the interests of RDA itself, but seeks
only conquest and destruction for its own sake.
If they had made Quartich the overt bigot while Parker just cared about
the money to be made, the message might not have seemed so forced and
disingenuous, and would have better justified having
two villains rather than just one.
Speaking of Quartich, yes it’s true that he’s
stock character and an almost cartoon caricature of Colonel Kilgore
from Apocalypse Now,
while I understand that some take issue with that, I personally felt
that that sort of character was exactly what this story needed and it
worked really well.
Quartich may be a hackneyed type of character one would expect in a
story where the military are the antagonists, but the obvious
isn’t always necessarily bad, and I enjoyed Stephen
performance in this role and found him to be one of my favorite parts
of the movie.
I found the acting to be good across the board. The only problems I had
with the performances (they were several) were a direct result of the script, which was
clunky in parts and from time to time mildly cringe-worthy.
I had heard the phrase “the legendary floating mountains of
often enough in Avatar promotional material that I was familiar with
it before I went to see the movie, but never did I actually expect to
hear it uttered in the film itself. It’s so damn cheesy
it’s unbelievable, I felt like I was actually still being
advertised at even after I’ve brought my ticket and am
the theatre watching the movie.
I shouldn’t have to be told by characters in the movie that
floating mountains of Pandora are “legendary”, or
they are any floating mountains to begin with. It’s not like
there’s buildup or suspense throughout the movie as to how
amazing these mountains are. In one scene, a character says something to
Jake like “Have you ever heard of the legendary floating
mountains of Pandora?” and then a second later
they’re in a
helicopter flying in between said floating mountains.
Shouldn’t I just be able to see the floating mountains and
to myself “Wow! Floating mountains! That’s
rather than having to be told in explicit terms by the characters that
the mountains are amazing mere seconds before I’m going to
It’s as though Cameron was so proud of himself for deciding
to include floating mountains in Avatar
that he wanted to pat himself on the back and make sure we know how
unbelievably fucking awesome these mountains are. It’s as bad
as the NES version of Ghostbusters
where after beating the game, the ending actually says “You
completed a great game.”, shouldn’t that be for the
audience to judge?
Why would Quartich, to the Marines in the security briefing, say that
the wild beasts of Pandora will kill them and eat their eyes for
Jujubes. Why Jujubes of all things? How random is that? Does the
Farley&Sathers candy company still exist in the year 2154?
Couldn’t they have just said jelly beans or gumdrops or
other than Jujubes?
The scene where Sigourney Weaver’s character Dr. Grace
is introduced and complains about having to work with the unqualified
Jake Sully was the low point of the entire film for me.
Dr. Augustine’s dialog here verges on being outright corny,
along with the almost stereotypical futuristic laboratory setting, this
was a scene I felt even when watching it for the first time could have
been plucked out of any sci-fi movie, complete with some swear words
being shoved in to make the kiddies feel like they were watching a
“grown up” film, though fortunately the rest of the
was smoother and served its purpose well enough.
story is indeed
derivative, and though it has original elements, it is in itself not at
all original, though I don’t find that alone to be cause to
this movie. I won’t be apologetic as some have and parrot
old saying about “nothing is original in Hollywood these
days”, but I will say that even though Avatar
is derivative, the way stories are told and passed on both in ancient
times and today is derivative in nature, and most myths, legends, and
fairy tales both past and present are derived, inspired by, or
sometimes outright ripped from earlier works and are riddled with
tropes, memes, and stock elements.
far from an original
story, but to me it told its story well enough, and despite being
predictable and derivative I found that James Cameron did a very good
(though far from perfect) job of telling an old story in a new way, and
for the time I sat watching it I was entertained enough to justify the
cost of admission, so I really can’t complain about it.
If this was the story Cameron wanted to tell, then how can anyone say
that it should have been “more original” short of
saying that the movie just flat out should not have been made at all?
The main problem I had with Avatar’s
story is the idea that humans as a species are basically cast as
antagonists and are redeemed through sacrificing themselves fighting
for the Na’vi or by permanently becoming Na’vi
and abandoning their human lives and bodies entirely.
The message that “humans are evil” is probably the
last thing society needs to be exposed to right now, and quite
predictably it has already resulted in a highly visible and extremely
pathetic element within the online Avatar
fan community in which fanatics express that they are disgusted with
themselves for being human and have to deal with
“depression” over the fact that they
can’t go to
Pandora and become Na’vi themselves, or even describe
as Na’vi trapped in human bodies.
It’s not every day that poorly conceived plot points in a
fiction movie are so bad that they make viewers clinically depressed
over the fact that they are human.
Probably the most discussed aspect of Avatar
is its extensive use of CGI techniques, many of which are making their
screen debut with Avatar and others which were created specifically
with this film in mind.
The public is still new to the idea of a film in which essentially
everything on the screen is a computer generated image, yet the film
itself is not an “animated film” in the sense of a
film. I saw some feedback prior to Avatar’s
release dismissing it as a cartoon, and in some of the low res
screen-caps floating around the web, the Na’vi and Pandora
resemble screenshots from a Final Fantasy title, yet when I saw the
film for myself I didn’t get the feeling that I was watching
“cartoon” or an “animated”
movie, nor did the
mere knowledge that the visual effects were created with computers and
exist in the real world only as binary code rather than physical models
and sets spoil my ability to believe in the world I was seeing on
Some have criticized
harshly based on its employment of CGI alone, accusing the movie of
having been made by computers rather than “real
insisting that Avatar
could have been effectively executed using traditional effects and
techniques, and I disagree with both of those assertions.
I can understand how it’s easy to assume that doing something
using a computer by default requires less skill or work than doing it
using some sort of physical media, and in certain ways it may ring
true, but it’s not as though the creators of Avatar
simply pressed a button on their MacPro workstation and sipped their
Starbucks while the computer created and animated Pandora and the
Na’vi from scratch.
A tremendous amount of hard work and talent went in to Avatar’s
visuals to get them to the caliber of what was seen in the finished
product, and even though some don’t like or connect to the
and direction of this particular film, I genuinely can’t
understand how someone could find Avatar’s visuals to be bad
lacking in quality, or accuse the creators of being lazy for not using
traditional techniques and effects.
What do I think of Avatar’s
visuals in relation to the future of film making?
Well, to do that, I’m going to go slightly off topic and talk
about one of my favorite shows from when I was a kid, Thomas the Tank Engine and
The Thomas TV
series as it’s known today originated from a series of
children's books known as
The Railway Series which was written by Reverend Wilbert
Awdry and his son Christopher Awdry between 1945 and 2007.
When The Railway Series
adapted for children's television in 1984 by Britt Alcroft and David
Mitton, they adopted a live action animation style using purpose built
model trains and set layouts, with the human characters represented by
wooden figures. The unique animation set Thomas
apart from other cartoons and became the show’s hallmark, but
use of physical models and sets presented numerous challenges and
limitations that negatively impacted the quality of the series.
Express passenger trains that were depicted as being fifteen coaches
long in the illustrations of The
had to be limited to three or four due to the space restrictions of the
studio set. Sets had to constantly be constructed, demolished, and then
rebuilt for filming, therefore locations and track layouts which should
have remained consistent changed dramatically from season to season,
and sometimes even between episodes. Other times the same sets had to
be recycled for stories intended to take place many miles and decades
apart from each other.
Some stories from The
had to be re-imagined or even scrapped entirely when adapted for the
screen due to complications that prevented elements from the stories
from easily being replicated using models.
To further complicate things, the many railroads featured in The Railway Series
stories are built to varying scales, with the main railway featured
being of standard gauge, but others being of so small a gauge that
accurately depicting them on screen would have been prohibitively
expensive or even impossible using models.
Seventeen original episodes had to be written to stall for the time
needed for the animation team to build a true to scale set for the
smaller engine characters, and eventually, the high costs and technical
limitations of adapting Railway
Series stories for TV lead to the series abandoning the
source material entirely and leaving more than seventy of the original Railway Series
stories untelevised. Also banished from the screen were dozens of
characters from the books, many of them my personal favorites, who
never appeared on TV in part due to the expense of building the
character models for them.
Recently, the live action animation that had been Thomas & Friends’
calling card was retired in favor of CGI animation, putting
set-builders who had been working on Thomas for nearly
two decades out of work.
Though I had stopped watching
Thomas fifteen years before this change was made, I remember falling in love with the
simple, somewhat crude animation, and appreciated the fact that there
was actually a studio somewhere out there where the characters I loved
on TV actually existed in the form of real working models that had been
built by hand to be realistic in a way that CGI or even traditional
hand drawn animation could never equal.
At the same time, I recognize that the limitations of live action
animation prevented the Thomas
TV show from living up to the vision of the books it was originally
based upon. CGI allows the locations to be consistent from season to
season, and stories and characters from The Railway Series
that were rejected for being too difficult to film using models would
with CGI have been a breeze to render and animate.
My point saying this is that both CGI and traditional effects have
their strengths and weaknesses.
Yes, Avatar could
proficiently executed using traditional special effects techniques, but
would that have lived up to what was in James Cameron’s head
he envisioned Pandora and his ideal final product? Almost certainly
I don’t see CGI and traditional techniques when it comes to Avatar as
a race between a stage coach and a sports car with one being obsolete
and intrinsically inferior and the other being the future and
intrinsically superior, it’s about the feel, not so much the
or the newness of the technology being used.
I think Cameron wanted to make Pandora not just
“realistic”, but real in its own right, huge,
unique from anything seen on Earth, and for realizing that in the way
it was done in Avatar,
don’t see how filming in a rainforest with actors in blue
paint and prosthetics or whatever other ways it could have otherwise
had been done would have matched that.
I saw Avatar twice
theaters. The first time I saw it on a standard screen with Real 3D,
which I believe was the same system used for the 3-D in both Up, and Coraline.
The 3-D effects were somewhat reminiscent of a pop-up book with
everything set upon different “layers” of depth,
it didn’t look bad at all and was an interesting addition, it
still more of a gimmick than anything else.
My second viewing was in IMAX, and the 3-D quality in IMAX is so
incredible and fluid that quite ironically I almost didn’t
notice it after a while. It’s not the sort of thing where I
like stuff is constantly flying out at me just to be gimmicky, it was
more like an upgrade of the quality in which I was watching the film,
like the leap from watching a film in standard definition on a VHS tape
to watching it on BluRay in high definition.
I wouldn’t say that the CGI techniques used in Avatar are
“the future of film making” or that traditional
are outmoded or dead, though I do think that CGI will be an important
part of that future in the same way 3-D environments revolutionized
video games in the mid 1990’s.
I remember after PlayStation and Nintendo 64 came into vogue, it seemed
for a while as though 2-D gaming was as obsolete as silent movies and
zeppelins. Ironically however, the recent advent of digital
distribution and a trend towards nostalgia has sparked a renaissance in
2-D game design, which surprisingly still has a lot of new ideas and
concepts to contribute in the age of high resolution, high definition
Similarly, I don’t think CGI will ever completely usurp
traditional effects, as they each have unique attributes and
characteristics to offer that can’t be substituted for one
another without losing something in the process.
So, after five hours of typing and an hour or two more in proofreading
and revisions, I’ve completed my thoughts and comments on Avatar. I hope you
enjoyed reading and that I’m in some way adding to the
intelligent discussion and criticism of this movie.
If I had a nickel for each time I used the word "avatar" on this
webpage, I'd have $2.55.
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