I was testing a piece of home theater equipment for my job last night, and wanted to see how it performed with quick-cut action sequences with a lot of special effects. So I browsed the TV listings and soon found James Cameron’s “Avatar,” which I decided would be ideal for my purposes.
I had not seen “Avatar” since it was in theaters. Although I remembered liking the movie (with reservations), I have always flipped past it on cable because I’ve never had the slightest desire to re-watch it, and I’m someone who re-watches almost everything I like. So I settled in to watch it (and to check this piece of gear for compression issues and general HD performance), and in the first 15 minutes, I groaned out loud at least five times. I’m convinced that King of the World James Cameron wrote a first draft, used the first thought, line, or idea that came into his head at every turn, and never did a rewrite. It was so painful that I abbreviated my gear test, went back to the TV listings, and watched the delightful “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” instead.
Maybe you remember “Avatar” fondly, as I did before this exercise. Its Rotten Tomatoes scores are still ridiculously high, so clearly everyone liked this movie. Allow me, if you will, to burst that bubble, as I watch it all the way through and pick it apart!
0:47 Droplets of condensed water (or something) hang in the foreground of the first shot of our hero, Jake Sully (played by the black hole of charisma known as Sam Worthington) in a showy demonstration of the 3D technology that made this movie such a big deal in the first place. In 3D, this shot was cool. Without 3D, I’m just thinking, “Oh, right. This movie was in 3D.” Weird that I had to be reminded of that, as the 3D is the whole reason this movie fooled so many people (myself included), but it can’t behind that smoke and mirrors this time! Anyway, Jake has apparently been in cryogenic freeze for six years on a spaceship.
1:18 Jake’s first spoken line (as opposed to his wooden narration), as he’s pulled from his cryogenic freeze: “Are we there yet?” Really? “Are we there yet?” Get it? Because that’s what people say on long car trips. I have a feeling this was supposed to be cute, but it’s delivered with such a thud I almost didn’t even notice it. How about “Where’s the bathroom?” It took me four seconds to think of that. I admit that it’s hacky, but it’s still better than “Are we there yet?”
1:50 So he’s taking the place of his murdered brother, who was a scientist. We know this because Jake tells us three times in narration. “Yeah. Tommy was the scientist.” Three times.
2:00 “Up ahead was Pandora. I grew up hearing about it, but I never thought I’d be going there.” The name of the planet is Pandora. Get it? Like Pandora’s Box? Like you never know what kind of awfulness will come out if you open it? Sadly, this is one of the subtler touches in this screenplay.
2:20 A couple of company guys in suits say they’d like to talk to Jake about taking over his dead brother’s contract because they have the same genome. Wouldn’t this conversation have taken place BEFORE Jake went into cryo freeze for six years?
4:15 Never mind, it was apparently a flashback. You can tell by Jake’s long hair. Still, it’s not a good sign that this was unclear.
5:07 Jake’s a paraplegic ex-Marine and he took this gig to pay for repair to his spine. Evidently we still have not fixed the healthcare system in the future, not even for wounded veterans. I’m waiting for the coded reference to death panels.
6:05 A huge truck rolls by with arrows stuck in the wheels. How long till someone says “We’re not in Kansas anymore?”
6:10 Five seconds! “You are not in Kansas anymore!” I swear I did not know that was coming. The most cliched line in the history of cliched lines is delivered by Stock Military Hardass #1, an older guy with three big scars in the side of his head, an all-camo wardrobe, and a pistol on his waist with the handle pointed forward. So you know he’s a badass. “If there is a hell,” he continues, “you might want to go there for a little R&R after a tour on Pandora.” I am starting to wonder if in addition to inventing a 3D camera system for this movie, Cameron didn’t also invent some kind of script-writing machine, because it seems impossible that this much hack dialogue could come from a sentient human.
6:50 Exposition time! We learn about the indigenous Na’vi and their poison arrows and their carbon fiber bones. Military Hardass #1 explains that although it is his job to keep everyone alive, he will not succeed with everyone. That’s the kind of attitude they inculcate in the Marines. if you want to stay alive on Pandora, he explains, you have to follow the Pandora Rules, but Cameron cuts away before we get to hear any of them. I guess they’re not that important.
8:00 Time to meet the avatars — Na’vioid beings grown from a mix of human DNA and the DNA of the natives, inhabited by the minds of the humans. It just now hits me that “Na’vi” and “native” are very similar words. Cameron worked on this movie for ten years, but apparently wrote the script in an afternoon.
9:20 In case all this exposition weren’t clunky enough, Jake also has a video journal, so he can tell us what’s going on and how these avatars work. He can use his dead brother’s avatar because of their common DNA, but I’m wondering why there ever needed to be a dead brother. Couldn’t Jake have been a scientist himself? I know there’s some wish-fulfillment in the fact that Jake is a paraplegic ex-Marine so the avatar allows him to walk again, but couldn’t he have been a paraplegic scientist with no dead brother? If any good plot reason for the dead brother comes along, I’ll let you know.
10:10 Sigourney Weaver comes out of her avatar pod and says “Who’s got my goddamn cigarette?” Is someone supposed to be standing there with a lit cigarette to stick straight in her mouth? Someone runs up and does just that, but is there some reason Sigourney couldn’t have left a pack on the table right next to her pod? This is what they call a “character moment,” where we learn that Sigourney’s character is a) the boss and b) a total c-word! (I promised myself I wouldn’t use swear words on this blog.)
11:10 Sigourney throws Jake some attitude because unlike his brother, he’s not trained for this. This brings up the conflict between the corporate masters and their egghead employees, but I’m still not sure we needed to kill Jake’s brother to get that across.
12:07 The Stock Corporate Douchebag is played by the otherwise appealing Giovanni Ribisi. How do we know he’s a corporate douchebag? He’s practicing his putting in the middle of mission control! He helpfully explains that despite his lack of scientific training, Jake is an ex-Marine and will be a security escort. Sigourney worries that he’ll be trigger-happy. She is like a caricature of an uptight liberal hippie lady.
13:13 “This is why we’re here: Unobtainium.” This has to be the worst McGuffin in the history of McGuffins. Unobtanium? Really? Why not call it “Hardtogetium”? “Dontevenbotherum”? Even when I saw this movie in the theater and was wowed by the 3D and generally on board for the whole thing, this moment made me laugh out loud. This line alone should have disqualified the movie from contending in any Oscar category other than the technical ones. No writer should ever write that line, and even if they do, no director should ever shoot that line. Such are the perils of absolute power, such as that wielded by James Cameron.
14:35 We’re not even 15 minutes into this thing yet and I want to gouge my eyes out with a spoon.
15:00 This movie is a lot easier to watch when no one’s talking. Jake takes his avatar out for a spin (over the objections of the scientists, of course), saying “I got this” several times in the process. This is the closest we’ve come to any character development on Jake.
18:34 Sigourney’s avatar is wearing a Stanford tank top. As the Na’vi are nine feet tall, where did this garment come from? Of course all their clothes have been custom made, but that doesn’t explain a Stanford tank top. If they’re printing custom T-shirts for the avatars, why not make one for Jake that says “I got this”? It’s his only memorable line in 18 minutes (and only memorable because he’s said it five times). Also, if all of the scientists are shrieking in the lab that Jake shouldn’t get off his gurney until the proper testing has been done, why is Sigourney tossing him a piece of fruit and congratulating him on his motor skills? She’s been hating on him nonstop, now all of a sudden she’s all buddy-buddy?
20:00 Hardass Pilot #1 is played by Michelle Rodriguez. It’s good she’s not being typecast.
20:50 Military Hardass #1 (mid-bench press): “This low gravity will make you soft. You get soft, Pandora will shit you out dead without warning.” He’s got an avatar of his own, a robot one, and he wants Jake to be his double agent. Even though all the humans are on the same side. This company has some interdepartmental issues.
24:20 My only complaint about the dual-horizontal-propeller aircraft that Cameron first put in “The Terminator” and carried over into “Avatar” is that they aren’t available in real life. I saw an Osprey fly overhead when I was on a lake vacation in Virgina this summer — that was similar.
25:00 Sigourney calls Jake an “idiot with a gun.” Now she’s mad at him again? She’s got quite the unconventional management style!
25:35 Now that we’re actually on Pandora, at least there’s cool stuff to look at, and thank God for that — I need something to distract me from this terrible script. But this is also where the movie shifts to being 98% CGI, and despite all the hoopla about the effects, I am still fully aware of the CGI. I wonder if this can ever be overcome, or if our brains have some kind of override that tells us when things aren’t real, no matter how good the effects are.
28:43 I am beginning to suspect that Sam Worthington is hiding an Australian accent. Google confirms my suspicions. Add that to the list of things Sam Worthington can’t do convincingly onscreen.
31:50 Enter the love interest, hiding in the bushes. Her entry into the plot is very similar to the way Wicket the Ewok enters “Return of the Jedi.” Coincidence?
33:30 Stranded in the woods at night, Jake fashions a torch with the available natural resources. How did he know what would be flammable? The script has gone to great lengths to remind us that he’s had no training and knows nothing about Pandora. And why is he carrying a box of matches? Did he get stuck being Sigourney’s cigarette valet?
35:20 Under attack from all manner of beasts in the forest. I guess this is why he needed to be an ex-Marine. Nobody would believe a scientist could fight all these nasty animals. You win this round, Cameron.
35:31 Saved by the love interest! You know you’re in for a long, long movie when the second lead shows up 35 minutes in. I don’t know if I can make it to the end. I really don’t.
37:00 The bioluminescent forest: the only (positive) detail I really remember about this whole movie. Why, oh, why didn’t Cameron hire a screenwriter? The broad strokes of this story are just fine, but the devil is in the details. And by “details” I mean “dialogue” and “character logic.”
39:28 Had I been in charge, I’m not sure I would have made the moss light up when you walk on it. It’s cool, but a little too “Billie Jean.”
46:00 One of the big problems with this flick is that Sam Worthington is a totally blank slate. The other avatars, and the Na’vi, all have some personality because they are played by actors who have some personality, but Jake has none at all, in either human or avatar form — a problem for a main character. This is reinforced when he comes out of his avatar and he starts telling the humans at the base what he’s seen. Everyone (everyone) is more interesting than Jake. Maybe they named him after Jake Lloyd.
51:14 The Na’vi worship a goddess called “Ehwa,” which encompasses all living things. Jake was foretold in the prophecy to bring balance to the Ehwa. Whoops — sorry, I’m getting my played-out, unoriginal ideas confused.
52:20 This thing where the Na’vi hook up their ponytails to the ponytails of the horses and the giant birds is a cool idea — clearly it’s a metaphor for the Na’vis’ closer relationship to the natural world and the inherent value of that, but I immediately start wondering when he’s going to join ponytails with Neytiri (The love interest.) If memory serves, this never happens in the movie, which is a pretty big tease. Shouldn’t it have been the big love scene at the end?
54:40 Norm, the other guy who has an avatar — a trained scientist like Jake’s brother — is suddenly being a total dick to Jake. When he first showed up and he had no training he was very friendly and helpful, but now he’s throwing his lack of training in his face at every opportunity like Jake knocked up his sister or something. Couldn’t he have just had a bad attitude from the beginning? Make him bad cop to Sigourney’s good cop? That way they would both be — wait for it — consistent characters!
57:30 It’s not clear to me why the Na’vi have taken Jake in like a lost cousin or something. He doesn’t speak their language, he stumbles through their beloved forest like a bull in a china shop, they know he’s a human in an avatar — they even remark that he smells bad. So why are they adopting him into the fold? I could not be paying closer attention to this thing than I am right now, and I don’t get this at all. Since the whole movie pivots on this, shouldn’t it make sense?
59:40 Is it on purpose that the score sounds just like “My Heart Will Go On” from “Titanic,” right down to the pan flute? Celine Dion already looks like a Na’vi so the synergy is a natural.
1:00:30 Now Norm is being nice again. Maybe he went back on his medication.
1:01:10 Long montage about Jake learning the ways of the Na’vi and the Force. After all that talk about what a hell-hole Pandora is, he certainly seems to be having a delightful experience!
1:10:40. I can’t take any more. I’m tapping out. Uncle!
Here’s the thing: I’m an hour-plus into this movie, all the plot pieces have been introduced and set into motion, and with 90 minutes to go, I’m not the least bit interested in how it all turns out. I’m sitting here wondering if there’s anything I could be working on for my job, rather than watch the rest of “Avatar,” 2009 Best Picture nominee and all-time box-office champion.
When you take away the wow factor of the 3D, there is nothing here to grab onto in this movie: the main character is unsympathetic and uncharismatic; the script sounds like it was written by a seventh-grade dropout; and the story is almost a scene-by-scene remake of “Dances With Wolves.” I don’t begrudge it its huge financial success, because this is a blockbuster from the top down and blockbusters are frequently of questionable quality, but the Academy Awards committee ought to have its credentials revoked for putting this steaming hunk of garbage up for the big prize.
Like I said earlier, when I was doing my gear test last night I lost interest in this movie after 10 minutes, and watched “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” instead. That movie holds up pretty well (other than the music, which couldn’t be more dated): you always know who the characters are, what they think of each other, what their motivations are, and above all, you like them and root for them. And they didn’t even need 3D computer-generated monsters with six legs. They don’t make ’em like they used to, I guess.