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movies / December 21, 2009

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Avatar turns out to be the one about the white guy who gets mixed up with Noble Savages and likes them so much he goes native, right before the big battle. So no surprises about the plot. But what about the totally immersive game-changing 230-million-dollar 3-D animation/live-action digitized supersensory orgasmatron of a revolutionary media experience, you ask?

Eh, it was all right.

How much you admire it depends on how you like your sci-fi fantasy worlds. I like them less pastel, I admit. Writer-director-producer-imagineer James Cameron has come up with Pandora, a planet so nice and floral and pretty it looks like one of Walt Disney’s Silly Symphonies. This planet is populated by the Na’vi, a tall, slender, cornflower-blue people who are just as pleasant as the landscape. They’ve got a few trappings of ferocity, a knife here, a bone through the nose there, an occasional snarl, but as a rule they keep busy communing with Mother Nature and praying that the violent gearhead “sky people” will go find themselves another planet to colonize.

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The big battle they finally get into? Eh, it was all right. It’s your basic bow-and-arrow v. high-tech weaponry fight, and we know from history how that generally worked out. Only this ain’t history.

For history rendered CGI-tastic, you go to Red Cliff, the monster hit in Asia that didn’t make much of a splash here. They sent over the short version, which runs almost three hours, around the same length as Avatar. They figured we couldn’t handle John Woo’s five-hour vision of the 3rd century Han Dynasty war between the emperor and the warlords (a war that every Chinese kid knows about, supposedly, though it was all news to me). I could’ve handled it; I could’ve seen your five hours, Woo, and raised you ten. Oh, the reds and blacks and golds, the cool armor and topknots, the horses galloping, the tall flags flapping, the naval battle at night with fire as the primary weapon! That’s the stuff!

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Admittedly John Woo’s homosocial tendencies, fixating on the love of the guys for each other and posing them practically nose-to-nose to emphasize it, can get a little embarrassing for Americans. But if you get past that, it’s all blood and glory and battle tactics. And the people look great. Male, female, old ones, young ones, middle-aged ones, they’re all beautiful and interesting-looking. The star, Tony Leung, isn’t even handsome, but he’s got this wonderful, intelligent, melancholy expression that’s worth more than all the handsome there is.

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Avatar has lead actor Sam Worthington, which might not seem like much at first glance. He’s the stolid guy who stole Terminator V from Christian Bale, and he works the same stolidity trick here with the same miraculous effect. Quiet, unassuming, able to say hideously embarrassing lines with so little inflection you’re not sure you heard him right, it’s amazing what he can get away with as Jake Sully, a paraplegic Marine who revels in restored physical life as a half-human half-Na’vi hybrid. Sully’s planted among the natives through the nefarious schemes of a creepy corporate honcho (Giovanni Ribisi) and a maniacally tough military officer (Stephen Lang), and over the objections of an acerbic scientist (Sigourney Weaver). He meets a hot Na’vi number named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) who teaches him the mystical Na’vi ways, and you know the rest.

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Other than Worthington, they’re all acting up a storm in that genre-film way, each constantly underscoring his or her primary characteristics. Sigourney Weaver is introduced climbing out of her bed-pod just like in the old Alien days, but immediately demands a cigarette from an underling, and you know what you’re going to get from that moment on: the outspoken, hard-bitten female in command who’s mushily moral and femmy underneath. Stephen Lang knocks himself out playing muscled, scarred, square-headed, cold-eyed military might, and Giovanni Ribisi does that mean-weanie thing he was designed by nature to convey. Michelle Rodriguez is one of James Cameron’s standard-issue butch female soldiers, though I admit she’s good at it.

Worthington is stuck with the worst of all character-types, the Hot Dog, stupid but fearless, refusing to go by the book. But his animal ability to just stand there, or sit there, dignity intact while people around him say and do idiotic things, saves the whole show. The guy has the rock-steadiness of a mule standing out in a field. Not exactly riveting, but still, a pleasure to contemplate.

Speaking of animals, some of the species imagineered by Cameron are good—there’s a pack of black reptile-panther-jackal thingies that are worth watching, and the flying griffin-like animals are okay too. I could’ve done without the Sacred Floating Tassels, but then, that’s the whole problem with the movie for me. I hate that Downey-soft spirituality and awed-faces crap that got rolling in American films with E.T., and never stopped. The greatest 3–D effects ever can’t compensate for this Tofu World filmmakers are always shoving at us.

When night in the Pandoran forest is rendered in luminescent pinks and blues and purples, looking sort of like those novelty light-up rings people wear around their necks at Disneyland, and this represents the spiritual energy of the planet, and the theater audience is one solid mass of uplifted glowing faces, I’m the one in the fourteenth row frowning in severe disapproval.

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33 Comments

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  • 1. andrew  |  December 21st, 2009 at 3:38 pm

    i would kill to get to sit in a theater for 5 hours and watch a John Woo THree Kingdoms movie.

    instead, i went to see the Avatar thingie. not bad i guess, i just wasn’t expecting it to be so much Disney. ultimately have nothing against an army-versus-indians movie where the indians get to destroy the army. it was kind of like the tarantino ww2 movie.

  • 2. Tyler Bass  |  December 21st, 2009 at 4:23 pm

    Nice visuals.

    Plot is Ferngully 3.

  • 3. vortex  |  December 21st, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Well, with Avatar I wasn’t bored, so that makes it better than a lot of movies. The plot was basically Dances With Wolves mixed with Zulu Dawn. Yes, it had that whole Dreamworks/Pixar vibe going, too.

    I was also glad they decided to make humans the oppressive, evil aliens, because face it we all know that’s the truth. James Cameron deserves a certain amount of praise for his relentless Manichean bashing of capitalism. Yes, he simplifies it down to black and white, but you know what, in reality that’s basically true. No reason not to emphasize it in fiction.

    Ok, the corporate guy wasn’t as bad here as his Aliens analogue was… but I got the impression that he wasn’t moral so much as squeamish.

    For my CGI movies, I like ones like Negative Happy Chainsaw Edge, which is just a pointless movie about how miserable it was to be a young Japanese person during the Lost Decade, especially when you have to fight a chainsaw wielding monster that comes down from the moon every night. But I saw Avatar with some friends from India who lost their jobs recently, and they all loved it, so I wonder if my cynical old heart isn’t doing me a disservice.

  • 4. Bob  |  December 21st, 2009 at 7:45 pm

    Agreed, it was OK (massive hollywood cheese aside) with the impact of 3D imax helping it along. Not good, but better than I was expecting.

    The gunships *are* Orcas from Command & Conquer, and I found myself wishing I was watching a film of that instead, which would probably have a deeper and less predictable plot. Make it happen guys, you can re-use the models and everything …

  • 5. sk  |  December 21st, 2009 at 8:12 pm

    Avatar was certainly preachy, but I still found the movie very entertaining. Yeah, yeah, evil white imperialists are destroying all the mystical woo-woo shit in the forest, and, surprise, a white guy gone native fixes all of the indigenous people’s problems. The hackneyed plot is obvious enough that it can easily be ignored. With that inconvenience aside, you can enjoy where the movie actually shines. The movie is best taken as an escapist, pictoral journey to a place that, if nothing else, looks damn interesting. Having every plant glow is a bit of an overload, but the overall presentation can provide a refreshing escape from reality. Likewise, the battle scene provides a little bit of excitement and an excellent showcase for all the imperialists’ cool toys because, let’s face it, guns are awesome.

    I wouldn’t pay to see it again, but I don’t feel cheated after having paid for the first time.

  • 6. isnuggledick  |  December 21st, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    John Woo movies are garbage, I don’t know what you’re talking about. And this was one of the most staggeringly racist movies I’ve ever seen- a bizarre undoing of the conquest of the Americas.

    The only good part of this movie was Stephen Lang. He is America: ripped, old, stubborn, mean, greedy, treacherous, and violent.

  • 7. Michael  |  December 22nd, 2009 at 4:31 am

    Ah. another eXiled reviewer who has a problem with beautiful environments. Because the real world’s so lovely, we need to make the other worlds hellholes, right?

    I enjoy having a glimpse of paradise, because there isn’t anything on our planet that comes close to it, and Jesus fucking Christ, it’s beautiful. I was one of those open-mouthed, uplifted (oh god, uplifted, how terrible, I wasn’t feeling miserable – ain’t that right, Eileen Jones) people smiling away at such pristine beauty, even though the colour palette would not be my usual cup of tea. And I’m happy for it.

  • 8. Plamen Petkov  |  December 22nd, 2009 at 6:02 am

    Woo’s movies are garbage? Wowo, Hardboiled, The Killer were garbage? You must have mixed the sold-his-ass to-Hollywood Woo with the original real Woo. But then again, anyone who spreads goatse links around shows where his real intelligence comes from.

  • 9. 16 Shells from a 30.06  |  December 22nd, 2009 at 9:37 am

    “Dances With Smerfs”

  • 10. mechagodzilla  |  December 22nd, 2009 at 10:33 am

    I managed to catch Red Cliff, both parts, in their theatrical releases in Japan last year and this year. Not only did they kick eight million pounds of ass in that format, but they also included an initial historical briefing in the same visual style.

    I’m not even going to waste my time with Avatar.

  • 11. Korman643  |  December 22nd, 2009 at 11:12 am

    It’s interesting to make a comparison between “300” and “Red Cliff”. In “300”, a bunch of misshapen, ugly, noisy and very stupid show-off makes a lot of fuss about how stupidity and brute force are great, intelligence and economy of effort is bad, and that the fact they couldn’t win a battle even if their life and welfare would depend on it (which is PRECISELY the case!) is a big virtue, and not the sign that they’re a pack of bodybuilding losers.

    In “Red Cliff”, everyone (including the nominal villain, Cao Cao) is charming, charismatic, brave and very, very, VERY much intelligent (in the brainiest sense of the word), and has just one goal for the entire movie – to win, to win and to win again, using every possible trick beside brute force. That’s not to say that they don’t use brute force – quite the contrary! – but if they can use cunning, and deception, they will do. In fact, there’s not a single major character of “Red Cliff” I wouldn’t have liked to invite for dinner (particularly the above mentoned Cao Cao, who in real life, beside a fine strategist, was a very good poet and apparently a great party animal).

    Actually, one of the reasons why the 5 hours original “Red Cliff” double feature is better than the trimmed down version is that the latter miss completely one of the best subplots of the original (for those who have seen it – it’s the false desertion). And probably the main letdown of the entire movie is that John Woo version of Zhuge Liang (the super-Machiavellian Taoist military counsellor of Liu Bei) is far too nice and bloodless and not enough scheming and ruthless.

    A suggestion for John… ahem, I mean, “Eileen” – if you haven’t already do yourself a favour and try reading a bit of the “Romance of Three Kingdoms”, maybe starting from chapter 36. It’s widely available on line in an adequate (but not great) translation. It’s one of the greatest epic books ever written, XIV century Chinese KNEW how to write war epics, and it’s even relatively accurate to the original III century facts.

  • 12. Satan Worshipper  |  December 22nd, 2009 at 4:48 pm

    I thought the chick was hot, I’m pretty sure thats the only reason people don’t hate the movie.

  • 13. Half-Breed  |  December 22nd, 2009 at 6:03 pm

    I saw avatar last night. I left the regular screen to the 3D screen about halfway through. This review hit it pretty much on the head, the movie blew but there was a few things that uplifted it. I disagree that Worthington made the experience much better. The main characters stupidity was good humor when nothing else happened, but other than he ruined the film.

  • 14. az  |  December 22nd, 2009 at 8:29 pm

    I don’t know if it’s just me, but the 3D sucked dick. It was mostly flat and the only thing that were really 3D were fire and those fancy translucent 3D monitors they had. As in the only things they actually used the traditional SFX engine for, it seems, rather than just renderings with too many polygons.

  • 15. fajensen  |  December 23rd, 2009 at 2:43 am

    Avatar desperately lacks imagination – the story of mythical stone-age armies (or a bunch of samurais) defeating a mechanised army is so stupid so see vomited up again and again and again …

    I read a very different old Sci-Fi story about a bunch of stone age aliens whupping a modern invading army from earth – In that story, the aliens had evolved so far that their (artificial!) environment and themselves (more or less artificial bodies) was constructed mainly by nano-machinery and fairy-tales.

    These people chose to become stone-age magicians because being Gods was too boring; much more satisfaction in life by luring invaders & world-improvers by being soft and stupid before wiping them out with the good-ole runed* battle axe and magick armour …

    I think Cameron should have bought that – it would have been cheap too.

    *) Nano-machinery drawing power from the early universe.

  • 16. Finny_01  |  December 23rd, 2009 at 6:46 am

    Come on you haters, Avatar was pretty good. And basically, given the initial conditions described in the movie, what happened was believable. The evil corporation caring more about profits than treating some blue monkeys right in a place with no laws or even media oversight? Sounds about right. The white imperialists blowing the big battle despite superior technology? Ever heard of Little Big Horn and General Custer? It can happen. And given who’se in charge, it would. The meathead Colonel was a badass to be sure. But he displayed about zero strategic or even operational thinking ability. He put a goddamn spaceship at treetop. He could have swooped in at Mach 2, dropped bombs on the target, and zoomed away in a couple of minutes.

    But why would he be smart? He’s a security chief, not a panzer division commander.

    The last scene for me was a little sad, because I knew that in 12 years time the sky people will return. Led by generals, not bodybuilders and weasels, and armed with nukes and perhaps a plague that kills blue monkeys.

  • 17. rick  |  December 23rd, 2009 at 4:38 pm

    The idea of re-skinning hunter-gatherers and pretending they’re aliens is Star Trek allegorical wankery. And as an allegory, the movie doesn’t do shit new. As a visual/visceral thing, it’s pretty awesome. Still…the world is so palpably ALIEN, it’s like a balloon deflating, watching the visuals catch up with the essential lack of imagination. There’s nothing less alien than fucking hunter-gatherers, when you think about it.

  • 18. Hermies Purrbuckets  |  December 24th, 2009 at 3:58 pm

    James Cameron is a talent-free hack.

    CGI is cartoons for the brain-dead.

    The last decent movie out of Hollywood was in 1983.

    FOX is evil.

    AVATAR is just this year’s Republican mass-masturbatory fantasy. If you go to see it, you are a dumb tool of the right-wing technocracy. If you pay to see it, you are a brainless, broken peasant, giving your hard-earned alms to the evil king, for the privilege of being (further) brainwashed subliminally.

    D’oh!

    HP

  • 19. Eileen Jones Continues To Rock  |  December 25th, 2009 at 1:19 am

    Thank you for telling us about Red Cliff in this way.

  • 20. DERP  |  December 25th, 2009 at 1:32 pm

    The problem with the movie is that they made “dances with smurfs”. What they should have made was “Lawrence of Pandora”.

    It would have been so much more badass if those blue fuckers were separated into different warring tribes, adept at jungle warfare but low on tech. The mercenaries come in, Jake falls for his blue piece of ass, and he ends up uniting the tribes and arming them with stolen tech. The last hour or so is an orgy of giant blue vietcong going up against humans.

    I’d pay to see that. I don’t want to pay to see boring hippy aliens in a ripoff of a dumb 1990 film.

  • 21. Korman643  |  December 26th, 2009 at 6:26 am

    Here’s the trailer for the 80 episodes, new (2010) Chinese TV series based on the “Romance of Three Kingdoms”, apparently it covers most of the time frame described in the novel (and not only the years around the battle of Red Cliff. The Ward Nerd may be interested!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q33eQD758MQ

  • 22. zerez  |  December 26th, 2009 at 2:24 pm

    that first night in Pandora’s jungle was marvellous, reminded me of some unforgettable LSD trips in the nature. Every plant beaming with changing colours… wonderful. But that lasts only 3 minutes.
    The rest is horribly boring. The music is so loud & stupid, a bland mix of afro-indian world music bullshit. And always those stupid Hollywood pattern, the good savage and the Evil Westerner.

  • 23. captain america  |  December 27th, 2009 at 8:00 am

    i agree with the DERPster. they should have thrown in some intertribal warfare. some slavery, savage rite-of-passage rituals, and perhaps even torturing enemy prisoners of war to death would have been good too. way too heavy on the noble savage stuff in this movie.

    as for finny’s idea about the white folk coming back in 12 years to wipe out the navi, what i got out of it is that the whole planet is some sort of collective consciousness that has now been awakened and can unite against an invader, thus making the navi homeworld unconquerable. or something stupid like that.

  • 24. Mango  |  December 27th, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    Nuggledraggerdick is either high on crack or an alien. John Woo garbage? Yeah, right! If your favorite action thriller is ‘On Golden Pond’ – What kind of maniac would even enter in a comment like that, even for a joke. Garbage is nuggle’s diet, or maybe his marriage, but NOT Woo. Woo is a classic, a legend. A very reason for living. I think snuggle is USMC.

  • 25. mx?  |  December 27th, 2009 at 9:23 pm

    I felt like I was watching the smurfs 3D. the visuals were ok, and the enviromentalist bullshit plot feels shoved into your throath, wether you agree with it or not.

    GOOD CGI, by the time it ended I wanted to fuck the smurf, who knew we were not so different?
    the animal-loving is taking to bestialism XXXtremes, its like watching someone fuck a horse or something.

    But I would watch a good ol war movie with the 3D effects, it would make for an awesome battle of britan movie

  • 26. Joe Blow  |  December 28th, 2009 at 8:31 am

    Man I loved it!!!

    I think it was better than south park’s “Dances with Smurfs” . . in any event it was LONGER! hahah

    and the fringy things in the hair “bonding” with the frigging flying dragons!!? way cool. I was sorry we didn’t see them having sex with their thingies attached. imagine getting brain fucked AND dick fucked at the same time!

    I think the hackneyed plot and stilted dialog served to ENHANCE the cool visuals. you could concentrate on going wow neato! rather than the stupid plot.

    my 3d was great. the flying on the dragon was excellent. I would see it again and pay for it again.

    FOX Sucks

  • 27. franc black  |  December 30th, 2009 at 9:32 am

    @DERP

    F’n wonderful take on it, bro !

    “The problem with the movie is that they made ‘dances with smurfs’. What they should have made was ‘Lawrence of Pandora’.”

    LMFAO

    I loved the movie, if only for the sensory thrill and those pretty blue asses…but they could have done so much more. Too bad that the entertainment industry feels it has to sell to north american neo-bourgeois mommy sensitivities in order to break even.

    I like to think that the best is yet to come. If they were to re-make Frank Herbert’s Dune with this technology and with a freaky gritty touch like Lynch tried to do … gosh, the best years are ahead of us boys !

  • 28. Like yah!  |  January 1st, 2010 at 8:25 am

    Once Jakesully gets his torch put out when hounded by the hyenas the lightshow begins. That’s to signify that you are looking at the scenery through the eyes of the smurfs night sensitive eyes.

    Why are there floating boulders? That’s for the sequel(s) to “explain”; obviously something to do with the unobtainium. Cameron was very much thinking of opening a franchise here, expect Avatars into the double roman digits for the next 50 years (if the smurfs don’t invade earth first).

  • 29. CB  |  January 13th, 2010 at 4:04 pm

    If you don’t like Dances With Wolves, then your opinion on movies is as relevant to me as the musical opinions of someone who turns their nose up at the Beatles. If you don’t like Avatar just because the plot is copied from Dances, well, it wasn’t new when Dances presented it so see the previous sentence.

    The best part of this movie story-wise is that, for once in this kind of film, the *good* side of the invading culture is shown. Sigourney Weaver’s team represents science and technology, and the ability to respect other ways of life without adopting them. They never buy into the native’s spiritual mumbo-jumbo outside of what they can verify with their own instruments. Yet they can also tell what is the *bad* part of their culture, the ones who are willing or even happy to slaughter anyone in the way of their paycheck.

    So that was new. Other than that the plot and the dialogue were thin for sure. This movie was no Dances With Wolves. But it was pretty good anyway.

    The mountains floated because (apparently) the unobtanium was a room temperature superconductor. So once you accept that, combined with the low gravity and large magnetic field of Pandora, floating mountains actually make perfect sense. There were hints in the movie (the piece of floating unobtanium early on, the big structures

    Cameron’s biggest achievement here was putting together an alien world so completely and plausibly that you can sink right into it. He did the same thing with the 3D. The 3D was everywhere, the reason the person above said they didn’t see much is because they stopped noticing it in the same way you aren’t thinking about how you see the real world in 3d. Subtlety is good.

    Sadly if there was a sequel involving humans and Cameron wanted to stay realistic, it would be a short movie. They wouldn’t bother with landing on the planet, and they wouldn’t bother to bring nukes with them. All they’d do is land one of the digging machines on another moon of the gas giant, and start lobbing debris at Pandora. Orbital bombardment would devastate the planet quicker and cheaper than nukes, and then they could land and dig up the unobtanium at their leisure.

    Much better would be a sequel that covered the inter-tribal conflicts that were hinted at.

    Even better would be no sequel at all. There’s no need for one. Some things are better left alone.

  • 30. Frank McG  |  January 18th, 2010 at 8:06 pm

    The saddest part about this movie isn’t that it’s one of the most preachy, derivative films ever made, it’s that it made a record amount of movie and you can’t hear any mention of it without a mention “visionary director James Cameron”. To quote Patton Oswald: “Are people really this stupid?”

    Take the exact same script as Dances with Wolves (right down to a soldier with leg issues), put it in the setting to Fern Gully, then saturate it with your disgusting Furry sex fetish (so if they have sex by plugging in hair, and they plug their hair into animals to control them, that means they RAPE animals into submission?) and suddenly you have a VISIONARY TRIUMPH.

    Look up the article “When will white people stop making movies like Avatar”. These movies are all about white people joining the noble savage without actually giving up white privilege. I didn’t think District 9 was a perfect movie, but at least it was honest enough to show how horrible “going native” in a ghetto culture is.

    For some reason movies like Dances with Wolves and Avatar think that people won’t come to the conclusion that ghettos and genocide are bad unless they make the oppressed group some super noble spiritual BS tribe. District 9 was honest enough to point out that the natives were cannibalistic mud diggers, but that the injustice lay in the forced conditions that made them that way.

    I blame Avatar’s success on kids being dumb (will go see any movie with machineguns vs dinosaurs) and the Boomer generation thinking black progress is “cute” and not thinking twice about the dishonest racial message. Think about it: how many 20-40 people do you know who liked this movie? It’s all dumb kids and ignorant boomers.

  • 31. Avatar Fanatic  |  January 23rd, 2010 at 6:13 am

    Avatar is one of my favorite movies last 2009. I watch it in 3D IMAX. It can be said that it is a must watch movie. The cinematography, sound effects, editing special effects; all are just excellent. The director has shown innovation in creating the Nav’s. These blue complexioned, monkey types elements are excellently featured in this film. Sam Worthington is wonderful.

  • 32. korman643  |  June 12th, 2010 at 2:02 pm

    I know very well that no one here will read this but:

    Chinese television has release a full version of “Three Kingdoms” (the whole 92 episode story, not just Red Cliff). It’s available on Youtube.

    Here’s the battle of Red Cliff

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HKU3mcZBhrE&
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TP_lQpZJSt0&

    Of course it has not the scope of the movie, but is closer to the book, so grimmer and more tragic. The actor playing Cao Cao is amazing.

  • 33. joe  |  July 22nd, 2011 at 8:15 am

    Come to think of it, I can’t remember a single movie where Michelle Rodriguez doesn’t play a butch female soldier.


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