All right, let’s deal with ‘Avatar’

Posted: February 25, 2010 in Action Movies, crotchety ranting, Jeff Holland, reviews, Threat Quality
Tags: , , ,

OK, I’ve had a week to think about Avatar.

Which…Avatar doesn’t get better, the more you think about it. I’ll warn you right now about that.

Rather than bother with a straight-up review of Avatar – spoiler alert, I thought the visuals were really nice, the CGI characters were so smooth I honestly forgot I wasn’t looking at real actors, the script didn’t have two braincells to rub together, and Sam Worthington can’t fucking act, as it turns out – I figure I’d just address certain issues I ran into with the movie.

Why is 3D making a comeback? Well, the obvious answer – because Avatar is a runaway success – but why was Avatar itself in 3D? I’m a little lost on that point. Was there a clamoring for it? I don’t believe so. The people I talk to are pretty split on the issue – some like it, some don’t. I don’t. At all. I always THINK I will, but every time, my eyes strain, the glasses are an uncomfortable fit (at least for Avatar ; during Coraline I felt like I was Roy Orbison – which is to say I felt awesome), every time I tilt my head the screen goes blurry, and – most problematically – I find I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be focusing on.

And that’s…kinda crucial for a movie. Particularly a movie that is full of things that aren’t really there. The 3D instead gives everything a bit of a free-floating nature (and not just the stupid damn fireflies in the foreground that audiences are supposed to swat at), so the brain has to do extra work interpreting the weight, placement and grounding of each object before it can get anything else done.

My point here: if you want me to get into the story, I have to accept the world presented to me as real. Which brings me to point two.

Not only is this story played out – it’s not even played out properly. Now, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Dances With Wolves in full, but one of the things they make clear to the audience is Kevin Costner is Dealing With Some Shit. He is clearly suffering from his wartime experiences, and it’s that sense of rootlessness and not belonging to his own people that makes him susceptible to a tribe-change. To a far lesser extent, that’s what happens in The Last Samurai , too – a mentally stable Tom Cruise would never have abandoned his previous life to wear bad-ass armor.

Contrast that with the Jake Sully character. His problem isn’t mental or emotional, like his movie predecessors – it’s purely physical. There is never any moment where you think his head’s not where it should be. In fact, his problem is actually very solvable. His reward for service – The Company (always The Company, eh Cameron?) will pay for his surgery. Reasonably speaking, this should give him more motivation to stick with his side.

(Especially since his only character trait is “He’s a Marine.” As I understand it, there’s a pretty solid bond among corps members that would exactly prevent this rootlessness. And by the way, screenwriters –  quick lesson: “marine” is not a character trait – it’s a job. Now, it’s a job you can draw some conclusions about a person from, but it’s not a trait in and of itself. You still need to do some work so that we are invested in the lead!)

Maybe the problem isn’t with the script, so much as Sam Worthington’s blank expression. I don’t know. All I know is there was never a moment where I grasped why he was so quick to join up with the Na’vi. Which brings me to my NEXT point:

Jake Sully is just a poseur: The only other idea I could’ve seen for Jake’s loyalty switch – immersion with the noble savages – isn’t on the table since he can leave his Na’vi body and talk with humans he’s also spending close-quarters time with. These aren’t even particularly jerky humans – they’re Sigourney Weaver and The Guy From Dodgeball, and they’re caring and willing to teach Sully. But Jake likes being a Na’vi because his legs work in that body. He’s okay not learning their culture or anything about the planet, as long as he’s fully mobile. He’s not even all that curious about being accepted – that just kind of happens regardless.

In other words, he’s got the look, but he can’t possibly understand what it’s like to be Na’vi, because he can leave anytime he wants to. This movie isn’t Dances With Wolves – it’s “Common People,” by Pulp, the awesomely vitriolic kiss-off to a rich girl who wanted to play at being underclass.

“I said pretend you got no money
She just laughed, and said ‘oh, you’re so funny,’
I said ‘Yeah? Well I can’t see anyone else smiling here.

Except, because the Na’vi are all groovy hippy love the earth people, there’s nobody in the Jarvis Cocker role, calling Jake out for his bullshit. Which leads me to maybe my biggest problem:

The Na’vi don’t really make any sense. For instance: What exactly did the Na’vi think Sigourney Weaver and Sam Worthington WERE?

I mean: Look at her.

She’s clearly not a native of the planet. She is wearing the clothes of the sky people. She is teaching them English. Meanwhile, Jake Sully looks like cat-person, but knows absolutely nothing about the planet or how his biology interacts with it.

They clearly – CLEARLY – have to understand that these are not “real” Na’vi. Maybe they don’t understand specifically that these are humans in na’vi suits or whatever, but they get that these two are just tools of the Evil Corporation they’ve already had bad dealings with.

So…when the shit goes down, why do they feel betrayed, exactly?

Because they do not make sense. They are a hunter-warrior tribe but you don’t actually see them hunt anything; they’ve been at peace with the other tribes for however long. Jake becomes their greatest warrior in the span of three months because he figures out if you fly above the thing that never looks up, you can wrangle it. Seriously. How out of it are the Na’vi, that this stupid human (and seriously, even by human standards, Jake is startlingly dumb and short-sighted) twigged to this before they ever did?

Their gender-politics are pretty baffling, too. The girl-na’vi is tasked with training Jake, and the tribe’s shaman is a woman, but when Jake’s inducted into the tribe – after three months, which means he got the correspondence-course level of na’vi training – he’s told he may “Choose any of their women,” except for girl-na’vi, who is promised to the future tribal leader.  But then girl-na’vi beds down with Jake because “kind heart” or whatever, because she can choose her own mate, except…huh?

Which brings me to my NEXT point (I swear, I’m not even planning these segues!):

The movie doesn’t listen to itself half the time. Colonel Killpot (one of the lone sources of joy I had was in coming up with evil names for the evil colonel because I couldn’t remember his name) informs his band of mercenaries (not marines, conservative whiners – mercenaries, an IMPORTANT DISTINCTION) that the Na’vi are “incredibly hard to kill.” But during the big final battle? Bullets seem to work pretty damn well.

Or how Jake’s twin brother spent three years training and interfacing with the very expensive and complicated avatar to get it working properly, but when Jake plugs in and has immediate motor coordination. Which reminds me!

The entire story hinges on a gaping plot-hole. So, years of development and science and technology devoted to this human/na’vi avatar. And yet the first time someone piloting one gets lost in the woods, everybody starts freaking out that he’s lost and they can’t retrieve him. Why?

Because apparently they didn’t think to stick a GPS tracking strip in it anywhere. MY PHONE HAS ONE IN IT. MY PHONE.


There are many, many other problems with the movie, but I’ll let this guy explain it far better.

  1. vondrook says:

    Have you seen the image of a treatment for Pocahontas and replaced all the names with Avatar character names and locations. Pretty funny. I also did a bit on dumb action movies. check it out at

  2. cschack says:

    I also loved Lucius Shepard’s take on it:

    “I get worried whenever I hear relatively intelligent people getting behind films like Avatar, describing it as “an immersive experience,” because whenever I attend one of these clobberfests I feel like I’ve been hit in the face by a bucket of shit, which is also an immersive experience.”

  3. Jeff Holland says:

    Ah, the “immersive experience” excuse – I used it myself. Only midway through, when I realized everything about this movie was preventing me from getting immersed, did I remember:


  4. Tad says:

    i’m just glad you threw in a Pulp reference!

  5. Jeff Holland says:

    I wasn’t even sure which line to quote – they’re ALL appropriate.

  6. Moff says:

    Yeah, my cat has a microchip in her.

    I dunno. It was a mediocre movie as movies in general go. As blockbuster SF movies go, it was pretty well executed—as it should have been, since the story was so tired. I think James Cameron tends to aim to serve the lowest common denominator as ably as possible, and that’s why, even if no one cares about Avatar in ten years, he’ll still have a flying house and I won’t.

  7. “the brain has to do extra work interpreting the weight, placement and grounding of each object before it can get anything else done.”

    I think this is an effect that will drop away as a) the tech improves and b) audiences get more inoculated to this kind of entertainment. The average moviegoer’s brain is wired to interpret the action within a flat frame, but a generation that’s reared on moviegoing AS a 3D experience will not be troubled by this. So give it ten years.

    That said, as for story … oy.

  8. Jeff Holland says:

    In ten years the next generation of kids will have their cellphones grafted to their hands AND they’ll be able to see in 3D?


  9. V.I.P. Referee says:

    “and seriously, even by human standards, Jake is startlingly dumb and short-sighted”


    “Because apparently they didn’t think to stick a GPS tracking strip in it anywhere. MY PHONE HAS ONE IN IT. MY PHONE.


    Hahaha! I love it. Studios need to let action scripts evolve, so they can support the outrageous premises introduced by CGI. I think the world has come to understand the difference between dumb action and reflective force, following the past decade of global mess. Gone are the days of: “I’ll be back”. Show me, the audience, why I should care about the interactions between characters in conflict.

  10. Lindsay says:

    The reason I’ve read for why you (and I) get eyestrain at a 3D movie is pretty simple. In order to focus properly on something that is moving relative to you, two sets of muscles in your eyes work in tandem. 3D imagery only engages one of those sets, but you reflexively try to use both, which stresses out your eye muscles.

    So if anything changes, my bet is that when everything’s in 3D, the kids will need glasses to see anything else.

  11. braak says:

    Yes. One of the things is stereoscopic focus–the two eyes change their positions relative to each other in order to determine distance. The other thing is retinal focus–that is, the retina of each individual eye changes shape in order to focus on whatever the focus is.

    So, there’s an optimal retinal shape if the focused object is at twenty feet, a different optimal focus if the object is at ten, &c.

    The problem with 3D glasses is that they accommodate stereoscopic focus–by changing the picture that each eye sees–but they can’t change retinal focus, because the object on which we’re focusing is always at the same distance. That is, it seems to be the fireflies right in our faces, but it is actually always the movie screen. The discrepancy is what causes headaches.

    This is why I’m not sure that kids of the future will actually be used to it–I kind of think that, like the 3D of the past, it is an exciting fad that will disappear shortly.

    (Not to mention the fact that no one has yet directed a film that necessarily must be seen in 3D, and that therefore represents a film in which 3D is used as an actual element of cinematography, rather than as a kind of fun, slapped-on additive.)

  12. dr. berda says:

    Silly theater kids… you guys always miss the god damn point. Did you really go into a movie like this expecting fantastic acting and a heady plot? It’s about enjoying your imagination, shutting down those critical centers of the brain and letting the ooey gooey visuals wash over you. If you want to challenge your mind read a book for christ’s sake, don’t hit up a James Cameron blockbuster. Despite having a thin plot, people loved this flick (except, of course, for the cynical theater kids). Idiots even had “pandora blues” after seeing this flick. I am not ashamed to say that i want to ride a flying dinosaur too. As far as the Na’vi making no sense, i thought they made perfect sense: everything that happens in their world is the will of God. No one rode the big red bird and united the tribes because no one needed to step up like that. And no one would have because they would have blindly accepted these disasters as the will of God. Enter the time honored messiah character. He doesn’t need character traits, he needs balls. If you can say one thing about this character, certainly he’s got those minerals. The Na’vi know exactly what they are dealing with in these avatars as evident by descriptions such as “dreamwalkers” and “demon in a false body.” Jake is accepted because he is different; he isn’t a loud mouth scientist spouting off everything he knows about them and teaching them what they are missing in life. He is an idiot, lost and in over his head, offering nothing. He is able to learn from them because as a marine, his brain was already washed before (although honestly i could have done with out the “empty cup” line). The ability to do this kind of hard core warrior type shit comes from his combat and training experiences: the ability to disconnect reason and fear from action (i.e. balls). I thought these kind of philosophical points is where the movie really shined, but again you critic types never see that because you are to busy looking at everything that is wrong with the movie. No GPS in the avatar bodies? Really? Giant blue cat people with carbon fiber bones ride 4-eyed-six-legged horse critters using a funky neuro-connection in their wig and you are worried about some damn GPS? (Do they mention an extensive global satellite system buzzing around pandora? Wouldn’t the gravity of the enormous planet pandora is orbiting kind of fuck with that sort of activity?) As far as the 3-D goes, it was actually pretty well done. Not right up in your face annoying like the muppets in disney world; just enough to give you the hint of depth: one more cute trick to add to your experience as a movie goer. Next time buy extra junior mints, a bit of a sugar rush would help chop down that liberal artist cynicism. The glass is half full Holland, don’t be afraid to take a sip now and again.

  13. Liz C says:

    Oooh, I have answers!

    One of my coworkers was on this project for two years working on the faces. His reasoning behind the push for 3D is that you go through your life seeing nearly everything in 3D–the fact that movies and TV are not in 3D reflect technological limitations rather than biological. Thus, it makes sense to him that people, once they are used to it, will want or at least be fine with having all this stuff in 3D. And it’s cool. Like graphics. So at least that’s the philosophy behind one of the people pushing 3D, if that helps.

    I also don’t really think there were a lot of rewrites in the script, which was written in the early 1990s. No GPS for you! A mix of human and Na’vi DNA… all the science is old.

  14. braak says:

    Dr. Berda–

    What are you talking about, “cynical theater kids”? I, Braak!, am the theater guy here, and I didn’t go to see this movie at all. Because I don’t give a shit about it.

    Because I think “shutting down those critical centers of the brain and letting the ooey gooey visuals wash over you” is tantamount to being a moron.

    But Holland? Holland is a guy that likes movies, and presumably has expectations about the level of intelligence that a movie script ought to provide. It might almost be accurate to say that he thinks that, since it’s not impossible to have both amazing visuals AND an intelligent script, maybe James Cameron should have taken some time out of the twenty years he spent planning this movie to dig one up.

  15. Jeff Holland says:


    1) Yeah, I’m not a theater kid. Or a kid, for that matter.

    2) It is, of COURSE, asking a lot to expect a heady plot and fantastic acting from a popcorn flick. It is not asking a lot to expect a halfway decent plot and acting that wasn’t either plank-of-wood or Snidely Whiplash levels.

    3) “He doesn’t need character traits, he needs balls” was around the time I thought I was getting punked, here. I kind of want this on a T-shirt.

    4) You did answer the one actual plot question I had about whether the Na’vi recognize the falsehood of the avatars, so, thanks for that.

    5) As Chris points out, I am actually a deep and abiding lover of movies. ALL movies. Big summer blockbusters, quiet character dramas, everything inbetween. I go into each one hoping to like it, but I’ve seen enough movies to know at this point that’s not always going to happen. So I do lower my expectations to a point I consider reasonable: I’m willing to put up with a lot of plot stupidity if I’m emotionally invested in a character, and if a plot is clever enough I’m willing to put up with some cardboard.
    But if neither plot nor character are up to snuff, the suspension of disbelief breaks down, and I start noticing the weak scaffolding – the stuff that doesn’t make sense, or actively works against the story.

    @LizC: Thank you, both your points make (some level of) sense (and terrify me).

  16. Erin says:

    I had a very different experience with Avatar than you did, in that I enjoyed it. That said, if the 3D hadn’t “worked” for me, I think my reaction would have been the exact same as yours. I loved the tasty three dimensional eye-candy and had far less trouble with visual indigestion than you (and a lot of other viewers) ran into.

    Because I enjoyed the pretty colors so much, I was able ride out the rest. Actually, I had a hell of a good time with the plot and dialogue as unintended comedy. Did a single emotional moment resonate the way Cameron wanted? Of course not. But I almost fell out of my chair laughing during the fiber-optic drum circle, and that alone was worth the price of admission. Well, it was for me, anyway.

    I think there’s a chance that 3D is going to endure, and you have my honest sympathy on that. Here’s the thing about this technology: it clearly works really well for some people (most people, actually – look at overall audience reaction) and not so well for others. It’s obviously not a case of intellect, and I don’t really see a clear generational divide here either. I suspect it has to do with way different people focus their attention actually. Maybe watching these is something that can be learned, but… who’d want to try to learn something like that? It’s not exactly the same as learning to appreciate fine literature. I really enjoyed Avatar, but I’ll be the first to admit it was completely idiotic.

    Personally, I’m looking forward to more 3D films. I dig the amusement park ride mentality, and I’m willing to put up with quite a lot of stupidity if the experience is cool enough.

  17. Erin says:

    Dr. Berda: I’ll let Braak and Holland smack you around for dismissing critics of the movies, but as a geek I can’t let you get away with this piece of BS:

    “If you want to challenge your mind read a book for christ’s sake, don’t hit up a James Cameron blockbuster.”

    Avatar and Titanic may be less than profound, but Aliens and the first two Terminator movies are also Cameron blockbusters. In case you forgot, they’re also fairly smart SF. Not groundbreaking, perhaps, but smart. So kindly think twice before suggesting that someone walking into a Cameron movie is being naive in believing they might get some plot or character development from one of his films. He has, in fact, delivered both in the past while still raising the bar on visual effects.

  18. dr. berda says:

    @Erin… ooh, you got me on that one. T1 and T2 are of course classics, and Alien fucked me up for like a week after i saw it the first time. But Aliens? Guns and monsters. I loved every second of it, but don’t tell me it was an intellectual masterpiece.
    @ Braak and Holland: i’m breaking your balls. You should sell that t-shirt, i’ll take one.

  19. Jeff Holland says:


    I have revised the T-shirt concept: “He doesn’t need character traits, he needs UNBREAKABLE balls.”

    I’m sure there’s an unobtanium joke around here somewhere.

  20. Erin says:

    Berda: Aliens is a meditation on the maternal instinct and the blurred line between animals, monsters, and humanity. The key characters are well developed, and the vast majority of emotional beats work.

    Sure, it’s an action movie, but it’s also surprisingly intelligent.

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