The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar (2009)

Avatar (2009)

My eyeballs are still in a post-coital glow.

Listen, don't say word one to me about Dances With Wolves. To me, James Cameron's movie is "Tarzan" meets "Aliens Turned Inside Out." Just another of the endless "white guy out-natives the natives" movies, and I've seen 'em all my life, and have more right to be sick of them than most.

But I loved this movie. How rarely we get to see an extraordinary creative talent at the height of his powers, taking twelve years of his life to get it as right as he can. And if some of the derivative elements aren't totally digested, screw it. THIS is science fiction, sense of wonder, with intelligence and real caring dripping off each pixel. Of course it could have been better. But few filmmakers in the history of the medium could have even attempted something like this, and you get to see it for ten bucks or so. If you care about the genre at all, if you love adventure, if you have any interest in where the medium of film is going, or what it is capable of, you have to see this.

The story is simple: Jake Scully, a crippled ex-Marine, is hired as a mercenary by a ruthless industrial combine with its own army. He will use an "Avatar," a psychically linked synthetic alien body, to infiltrate a group of Na'vi natives and convince them to step aside so Earth can plunder their goodies. They sit atop a giant lode of a precious mineral, Unobtainium (that was a great giggle.) Of course he falls in love with the native princess, and of course he has a change of heart, and see that the "simple" natives are closer to his heart than his own species. That's the tale, and the art is in the telling. And frankly, there has NEVER been a movie that looked like this, where we moved between total reality and total unreality as smoothly. Never. Cameron is right: this IS a threshold film. It is a game changer. And the technology used to create this will birth real transformative art one day. This isn't that. It is still utterly remarkable, if you can forget wishing that Cameron had four instead of, apparently, three normal human brains crammed into his head. Lord God, Billy Bob--this might not have been one of the great films, but it WAS one of the really, truly, great movies. Maybe the best B-movie of all time. Naw, that's probably RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARC. This ain't that. But then Raiders wasn't AVATAR, either. Nothing is, or ever quite has been. James, you done yourself proud.

For anyone who has ever munched popcorn and simply let their inner twelve year old out to play, this was an "A+"



Don't expect good things for brown-skinned men in James Cameron movies. Or even a brown-skinned voice actor. I'm just sayin'. I will admit that there seems to be one black NCO with two lines of dialogue. We do not see him die. I'll take what I can get.


Ethiopian_Infidel said...

"Don't expect good things for brown-skinned men in James Cameron movies."

You'd think at least we'd get to see a Black Terminator. By Hollywood standards, a Terminator's a superb role for a Black man. Terminator's are sexual, yet don't have sex. And they always get terminated in the end. Imagine a Mister T-type Terminator oozing superlethal sexuality without fucking, chasing and menacing John Conner's White females, and being blown away to the thunderous cathartic applause of the predominantly White audience. You'd think a brilliantly shrewd producer like James Cameron would see the huge potential of adapting the tried and lucrative Rocky formula to the Terminator series.

Steve Perry said...


Most of the blue folks with lines were voiced by black actors, or in one case, a Native American actor. Most of them die. Not all of them.

Of course, most of the white characters die, too.

Then again, if you don't go "Holy Shit!" over and over while watching this movie, you are probably not any kind of science fiction or fantasy or movie fan no matter what color you are ...

Jeff said...

Out-natives the natives... yeah, I'm not sure that's the interpretation that sticks with me. More like "went in, fucked up, had to clean up their own mess". Learning to treat the natives as people, through an experiential understanding of their lives (in however short a time :P), being critical for that.

It's similar to Iron Man, where Stark gets caught in the middle of his own firestorm of weapons and learns to take responsibility. I heard people complain about American paternalism; well, okay, but guess what, he is the one with the powerful company, so he's in the position to try to clean up and really make some change regarding the impact that company has. He fed/caused half these problems in ignorance, now he's going to try to fix them after opening his eyes.

Foxessa said...

Need to send Cameron and Hollywood posses of Postmambists.

Love, C.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

I don't know what postmambist means, but I like the word anyway.

Avatar's astonishing. This is like Jurassic Park times 10 ... something you're really never seen before. I could bitch about the story but it's pointless ... this is the first alien world I ever believed in.

Steven Barnes said...

"the first alien world I ever believed in"--absolutely, Dan. Cameron has the goods, and you can absolutely see he's an artist, making films to entertain his own aesthetic sense. If he'd taken all the hours and energy developing technical skill and had focused it on writing, he would be as good as anyone has ever been.

Steven Barnes said...

The voices behind the camera are brown...I think there is truth in that, and will, at some point raise the question of why so often filmmakers like our voices, but not our appearance (ties into my theories about "color shock" and sexual competition: it is easier to identify with a non-human alien than with an actual member of a competing group)
As for the "Rocky" formula, it definitely plays off the "other", but not exclusively racial in that regard. The most successful Rocky movie (actually the most successful Sports film EVER) was "Rocky IV", where he fought the Russian. Of course, the audience got the pleasure of watching Apollo Creed crushed in seconds by blows Rocky just walked through...I guess that counts for something.

Foxessa said...

eeek. Supposed to be PostmambOists.

that pesky O.

Principles of Postmamboism here on BoingBoing:

re kuta g├╝iri mambo -- open your ears and listen to the important matter.

Love, C.

Daniel Keys Moran said...

The most successful sports movie (and the most successful Rocky movie) was the original Rocky. You really have to adjust for inflation with movies -- Rocky made 225 million in 1976; Rocky 4 made 300 in 1985. But you adjust for inflation and Rocky's 1976 earnings are 425 million in 1985 dollars.


I still wish they'd cast someone other than Antonio Tarver as Mason Dixon. I could have bought Rocky destroying some actor -- I loved "Rocky Balboa" and those boxing scenes just left me cold. I know I'm supposed to suspend disbelief, but the original Rocky wouldn't have worked with the actual Ali in Creed's role, either. Sure, Chuck Wepner stood in the ring with Ali for 15 rounds, but Stallone couldn't have. I believe Stallone has a shot against Weathers, Mr. T., and Dolph Lungren; I don't believe he has a shot against Ali, or Tommy Morrison, or Tarver. Rocky 5 has worse problems than Stallone fighting Morrison, but that bit at the end still stunk worse than the rest of it.

Ethiopian_Infidel said...

"The most successful sports movie (and the most successful Rocky movie) was the original Rocky."

I'm relieved that the second-to-worst installment of the Rocky franchise wasn't so spectacularly successful. IMHO, IV would have been the most awful and plain stupid Rocky, were it not for the dazzling Siberian training scenes and great score. That "honor" instead belongs to Rocky V.

Steven Barnes said...

That's interesting, Dan--your suspension of disbelief breaks down if you KNOW that the lead actor can't beat the actor playing against him. That's probably more common than I'd thought. Of course, the stunt man is almost always tougher or better at a given activity than the "hero"--so I guess the more you know about the skill of the opponent, the harder it gets to believe. Watching Jon Voight fighting the indestructible Randy "Tex" Cobb--surely the greatest mis-match I can think of.

goddesspt2 said...

Stunning visuals - A+; trite storyline - D-. John Smith (Jake Scully)/Pochantas meets Robocop. I kept waiting for Vanessa Williams to pipe up with Colors of the Wind. Walked out disappointed b/c of same ole storyline. Felt like Cameron just created a visually awesome Disney film. Heck even the scarred military guy bringing to mind Scar from the Lion King. 1-dimensional characters (bad is bad and good is good). Was there any doubt how this was going to end? The natives (oops Na'vi) always win (in the movies) *rolling eyes*

Interesting article in Washington Post about reaction in the blogosphere:

Will check out The Road tomorrow and hope I won't walk out filling like I want those 2 hours of my life back :)

LaVeda H. Mason said...

Another view on this; that articulates how I saw this movie precisely:

Warning: There be spoilers...