Sunday, January 31, 2010

A Review of Avatar

Entry copied from author's old blog, Close Encounters of the Awkward Kind

I liked Avatar. Tentatively I might say "I really liked it", but I'd have to watch it again to say.

I'd give it an overall B+. Because I love science fiction, cool ideas, and aesthetic visual displays that really take you there, I rate it a little higher than I'd rate a movie with the same storyline that wasn't science fiction with cool ideas, that wasn't just pretty. That says a lot coming from me, since my biggest turnoff for movies is a half-baked story.

The story itself, to quote many other reviewers, is not new, nor particularly deep. There are no huge twists, you know how it's going to end. It draws heavily and unapologetically from our own history of imperialism, which is the point. Its view on human imperialism seemed to me, too pessimistic, until I realized it does mimic what happened on this continent. In fact, its parallel with the European meets Native American Saga (minus the smallpox) is almost too obvious: the Na'vi, the indigenous people of the planet Pandora, look sort of like how we always depict Native Americans, aside from being tall and blue, and make the usual "Indian" catcalls and war cries. They thank the spirits of the animals they hunt for food, and the female lead is practically a blue Pocahontas, her father a blue Powhatan. Of course our hero, a paraplegic ex-marine, eventually falls in love with Na'vi Pocahontas and decides theirs is the superior culture, while we know the real Pocahontas story went the other way, so maybe the whole movie is a subtle way for us to alleviate our "white man's guilt."

Aside from the obvious allegory, the premise is actually pretty interesting. In a not too distant 2154, humans have set up a mining operation on Pandora, one of many moons of a gas giant circling Alpha Centari. (In case you weren't aware, Alpha Centari is the closest star to us besides our sun, 4.4 light years away.) Searching for the unfortunately-named "unobtianiam", the most efficient superconductor know to man, in order to power future Earth's globe-spanning system of MagLev trains, the humans come into conflict with the neolithic Na'vi who want to keep their village right where it is, thank you very much. The massive company is not above a little non-human rights abuse here and there, but the general population would prefer a more diplomatic front be put up, so the Avatar program was developed. Using the results of some pretty advanced neuroscience and extremely questionable bioethics, several "Avatars" have been created whereby Na'vi genetic material and that of individual human "drivers" have been spliced together and grown into Na'vi bodies that can be remotely controlled by the humans they are genetically related to. This solves the problem of humans spending prolonged amount of time in the dangerous jungle and toxic atmosphere to which they are utterly not adapted, and helps gain Na'vi trust. Our hero's twin brother was the expected driver for an Avatar but has been killed, so genetically identical Jake Sulley is tapped for the job, wheelchair and all, because an Avatar is a terribly expensive thing to waste.

Since I'm related to one, I especially like that they made the main character a paraplegic. And even though the story is not new, its presentation manages to be interesting. There was some science that seemed a little off, which I'll go into later, but I generally liked the ecological ideas at play on Pandora. They're obviously fictional, but still, not outside of the realm of plausibility in a universe as expansive as our own.

My mom described the movie as "Pocahontas meets Transformers", and I would say that's an adequate, if slightly shallow, description. Of course sci-fi freaks, (with the exception of me, who doesn't go to movies for the action) are going to be interested in a face-off between robotic-ally controlled modern military might and colorful creatures with teeth and a knack for archery. The next sentence contains a spoiler: perhaps only in a movie could bows and arrows really win over explosives. (But I already told you the story was predictable, so you already knew that was going to happen.) The action was pretty much movie standard, (thus predictable) which I generally tend to dislike. I nonetheless found it tolerable, if a little implausible toward the end, and because you're following on the backs of flying things amid rocks that float because of the unobtainium (so why don't they go after those instead of mining it?), it is exhilarating.

The movie is not shallow, but it's not super deep either. With a little more focus on the story and characters it could have been deep, and that's why even though I did really like it, I won't give it an A. With all the hype about the movie, a try for a story better than merely adequate was within the realm of possibility and would perhaps have made it a truly incredible film. For reference: the story is of the same quality as the story in Star Wars, except prettier and earthier, being about people who worship their mother-earth, and all. It is, not surprisingly, a franchise of Lucasfilms. The main character at least undergoes some interesting internal conflict, the rest pretty much don't but are still moderately sympathetic. The bad guy's reasons for being bad are not particularly deep, but then, maybe neither were those of the Europeans.

Sci-fi Geek Alert: The whole thing is stunningly beautiful, and as I said, I give them props for their ecology even if there are some things about the science that bother me. The main one is that though in one panorama of the night sky we see that Alpha Centari is quite far away, still the planet sports a tropical climate. Perhaps there is some unexplained heating mechanism coming from the gas giant, or else part of the "toxicity" (which is never really explained) of the air is an extensive greenhouse effect. I also failed to understand when the Avatar drivers, who come back into the consciousness of their human bodies upon sleeping, were supposed to get any real sleep. If they can create a psychic link between two organisms, maybe they've figured out how to override the need for REM cycles. I also think they really should have thought of something better than "unobtainium" to call the all-important rock. While I'm at it, they could certainly have done better with their dialogue about why the bad guys care more about it than native people's lives, more complicated and deeper motivations all around.

So, yeah. This movie could not be a book, because a) the story is not its strong point, and b) you can't transcribe that much beauty into a book. I bet if it's popular enough, someone will try.

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