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California Literary Review

Movie Review: Avatar


Movie Review: Avatar

The story and script fail to create multifaceted characters, sticking instead to the inherent malevolence of military invasion and corporate America’s insatiable appetite for resources and money. In our current time of war and economic instability, these are significant social issues, but the film handles them ham-handedly, pitting stock characters against one another in an epic moral (and physical) battle between conservation and greed.

Movie Poster: Avatar

Directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron

Jake Sully – Sam Worthington
Neytiri – Zoë Saldana
Grace – Sigourney Weaver
Col. Miles Quaritch – Stephen Lang
Trudy Chacon – Michelle Rodriguez
Parker Selfridge – Giovanni Ribisi
Norm Spellman – Joel David Moore
Moat – CCH Pounder

CLR [rating:3.5]

Movie Still: Invictus

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully and Zoë Saldana as Neytiri
in James Cameron’s sci-fi thriller Avatar

[Photo credit: WETA. ®2009 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved]

This Visual Masterpiece is a Must-see Despite a Dreadful Script

James Cameron’s resume is extensive and vividly familiar to anyone who’s ever had the notion to watch science fiction films. The man brought us the screenplay for Alien, then he directed the first two Terminator movies, then he was behind Titanic, one of the highest-grossing films in history. It shouldn’t be a surprise that once again, he’s ahead of the technological curve with this year’s holiday release, Avatar.

For Avatar, a movie the director has dreamed about since his twenties, Cameron used a “physics based sim” and a modified version of the Fusion camera to create a three-dimensional experience like absolutely none other. The movie has been heralded as a turning point for film technology, and frankly, that is probably true. The film is, visually at least, wholly unlike any other movie you’ve ever seen. Due to the technology Cameron used (and helped to invent, according to advance press), CG in Avatar doesn’t enhance the movie, it is the movie—but watching the flora and fauna of Pandora doesn’t feel like watching CG. In 3D, the film is an experience in immersion: once the characters are placed onto the moon Pandora, the audience is drowned in gorgeous scenery the likes of which earth has never seen before.

The film follows Jake Sully, a marine who lost the use of his legs in battle, as he travels to Pandora, a moon orbiting a far off planet, ostensibly in order to play dual roles as security guard for researchers and military spy. Sully and his counterparts are Avatar drivers, which means they inhabit surrogate creatures created from a mix of human and native DNA. The natives, called the Na’vi, are twelve-foot tall, blue-skinned, cat-eyed humanoids whose behavior and rituals are similar to that of Native Americans. They are a highly spiritual and naturalistic tribe whose connection to their planet lies not just in their ancestry, but in actual biological synthesis with its creatures and vegetation. If this all sounds silly, that’s because it is.

Historically science fiction allows immense room for playing with societal concerns. The Red Scare, the Cold war, fears of the A-bomb, mistrust toward technology, racism, environmental issues: all have been tackled by sci-fi’s greatest authors and filmmakers. In the current economic and social climate, this year’s science fiction films have taken on hot-button issues including human greed, apartheid (District 9), and ecology. It can’t be a coincidence that in the year’s best science fiction humans are the enemy. In Avatar, the greedy corporate CEO (Giovanni Ribisi) and the seasoned, hardcore colonel (Stephen Lang) lock horns with biological researcher Grace (Sigourney Weaver) and her team of avid conservationists. As well as being home to the Na’vi, Pandora is populated by a natural fuel resource the government will literally kill for.

The story and script fail to create multifaceted characters, sticking instead to the inherent malevolence of military invasion and corporate America’s insatiable appetite for resources and money. In our current time of war and economic instability, these are significant social issues, but the film handles them ham-handedly, pitting stock characters against one another in an epic moral (and physical) battle between conservation and greed. The dialogue and Jake’s voice-over are terribly written (Cameron is also responsible for the screenplay), and the characters are static. Anyone who’s seen a science fiction film before will know the tropes: man travels to another world, falls in love, and ends up fighting for the culture he ostensibly came to study/gain resources from/demolish. Luckily the movie is a visual spectacle; else it would be yet another played-out sci-fi epic.

Cameron has been in the news recently regarding his tendency to write strong female roles. In a lengthy New Yorker article, he mentions that in order to create strong women, you write dialogue for men and then change the names. Sigourney Weaver’s career truly began with her role as Ripley in Alien (a character whose masculine tendencies are highly debated in feminist film criticism), and she returns to Cameron to play another strong-willed but ultimately doomed character. Grace smokes like a chimney, curses like a sailor (as much as can be done in a PG-13 film, anyway), and she’s willing to resort to physical combat for her beliefs. Zoë Saldana’s Na’vi love interest Neytiri and Michelle Rodriguez’s fighter pilot Trudy are yet other dominant females, but Cameron is no feminist ally. In a Playboy interview, he discussed how to create the perfect alien breasts for Neytiri, although the Na’vi aren’t placental mammals and therefore don’t require breasts. He knows how to appeal to teenage boys, and he does it well.

Visually, the film is truly a masterwork. Pandora is an affectionately rendered bioluminescent paradise. Characters physically link to their surroundings via grasping tentacles that appear from their long braids. Seeds float through the air like jellyfish, flora gleam with incandescent radiance when touched, and creatures unlike any you’ve seen before synthesize a world that is as unfamiliar to us as the bottom of the sea. But the magnificent flying creatures and the gorgeous vegetation feel so real you could reach into the screen and stroke them.

Though the movie is flawed and ham-handed, it’s imperative to view in the theater; the visual splendor and realism are absolutely jaw dropping. Home theater technology hasn’t advanced enough yet to be able to support a film like this one, so if there’s any movie you see in theaters this year, it should be Avatar. It’s a challenge not to be completely captivated and immersed despite the script’s laughable stupidity, and audiences searching for an escape from the winter doldrums will not be disappointed.

Avatar Trailer

Julia Rhodes graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Communication and Culture. She's always been passionate about movies and media, and is particularly fond of horror and feminist film theory, but has a soft spot for teen romances and black comedies. She also loves animals and vegetarian cooking; who says horror geeks aren't compassionate and gentle? Google+



  1. Curtis McCladdie

    November 13, 2010 at 12:56 pm

    Visually spectacular. The big screen is not advance enough to present the artistry presented in this movie. Try watching it at home, alone, in your comfort zone. The effect is greater there, your mind can be “quiet” when you’re alone so that you can actually be there with the pandorians and the plot can be real for you and not the plot that our mind usually makes it up to be in the theater. Give the movie a chance to do more for you than you can imagine so you can have the best experience it offers. It not always best in a crowded stadium theater.

  2. Cheri

    January 14, 2010 at 8:06 am

    To: Ken / San Jose
    A passage from Henri Christophe’s personal secretary, who lived more than half his life as a slave, describes the crimes perpetrated against the slaves of Saint-Domingue by their French masters…

    Have they not hung up men with heads downward, drowned them in sacks, crucified them on planks, buried them alive, crushed them in mortars? Have they not forced them to eat excretement? And, having flayed them with the lash, have they not cast them alive to be devoured by worms, or onto anthills, or lashed them to stakes in the swamp to be devoured by mosquitoes? Have they not thrown them into boiling cauldrons of cane syrup? Have they not put men and women inside barrels studded with spikes and rolled them down mountainsides into the abyss?

    So Ken… Slavery as it was, is not practiced today in the same way as it was by the Europeans. They were barbaric. Servants will always exist (in Arabia or wherever) and some will be treated unfairly and oppressed.

    With Slavery it is not just the cruelty which one has to think about.. thats finished, but the stripping of wealth from the African countries to build the wonderful infrastructure we have here in Europe today… Africa is not a poor country by any act of nature, it is by acts of Greed, Cruelty and Racism.

  3. J

    December 26, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    Ken – Thanks so much for this point-of-view. I’m in wholehearted agreement. The movie is as much about white guilt as it is about genocide, environmentalism, and military invasion. Cameron’s able to push all the right buttons, and while that makes him a clever filmmaker, I don’t think it makes him a good one.

  4. Ken / San Jose

    December 25, 2009 at 10:59 am


    You need to understand that all races have done many, many, bad and horrible things, not just white people. However, Hollywood knows how to hit that “Bad White People” button and light up people like you. You need to learn more about the world, for example–did you know that slavery(for example) is practiced TODAY on a much, much larger scale by Arabs and Africans against Africans on the African continent?, than was ever the case in the U.S?
    Start there. Learn more. Question revisionist history as taught by “academics.” If you’re white, don’t give in to the liberal media’s unrelenting mission to make you hate yourself.

  5. Ken / San Jose

    December 25, 2009 at 10:52 am

    Almost every great work of art is created to work on multiple levels, including an “actual” story and a subtext. This movie falls into that category. Here’s my reaction:

    Writer James Cameron shows old school racist colors as well as extreme hypocrisy way in this admittedly visually spectacular film.

    1. White dude saves primitive species–PLEASE, James, not this pat Hollywood formula AGAIN. I know it makes money but give me a break–I think I threw up a little in my mouth when I saw this coming one more time. (p.s.–I’m white).

    2. White dude flips seamlessly between his white world and the more compelling primitive world (Cameron living vicariously through the Na’vi, as he no doubt wishes that he, like many white libs, were black). OK man, got it, but the expiration date on that one was about 1989 and now it’s really starting to stink up the place.

    3. I loved the makeup of the military defectors–a Latino dude, a handicapped white dude, two white academics, and a probable Lesbian. Man, I love that Democratic party! James, do you have any other paint by color books you can share?

    4. Closing scenes show almost every single bad human to be white men. Certainly no women, and few if any Latinos, Asians or Blacks. Hmmm.

    5. Worst of all, the real story of the film is not the taking of the precious metal from the Na’vi, or about the taking of oil from Iraq, or about the stripping of the the rain forest. It’s about the James Cameron mining our uncertainties about race in order to make an insane amount of money. This kind of maneuver will blow up your emotional Hometree whether you realize it or not, and most people will never how completely they have been manipulated by this film.

    I prefer to live in a post-racial world where I don’t really give a damn about anyone’s race. I don’t care if you are white, brown, green, black, purple or see-through, if you’re a good person I’m going to like you, and if not then I’ll be seeing you later.

    That’s my take. Happy Holidays and God Bless.

  6. Unrelated

    December 24, 2009 at 7:48 am

    Hmm, I’m no film fanatic but a sucker for sci-fi. Yes, the story is toddler-friendly but I really had a good time watching. Sometimes it’s just nice to watch a happy ending movie.

  7. uday wagh

    December 21, 2009 at 5:58 am

    Avatar could be adventurous and a good experience if watched once,the next time you give it a try and you would definitely stepback.Story is far below the expectation from Cameron and repetitive.The film is too lengthy and slow,probably because the first half eatsup your brain where you have already got known to the end or the conclusion of the film.The best part starts in the second half where you could see a lot of action happening after a long silence.The 3D rendering did not help at all.There were hardly one or two shots where I encountered a 3D experience.I wonder why Cameron wasted money on this stereoscopic technology.
    You always have to be first or different BUT unfortunately Cameron couldn’t do his best this time.

  8. Aaron DeMarco

    December 20, 2009 at 1:37 pm

    I truly do not understand how ANY human being could seriously put the 2 1/2 hours required into this movie and seriously have anything but constructive criticism, how can ANYONE watch an ENTIRELY possible genocide (WE DID IT TO THE NORTH AMERICAN NATIVES IN THE LATE 1400 and 1500’s??!?) Which we have COMMITED before and not say, wow, whatever happens we must keep our minds eye open to such horrific possibilities of our own ability and greed. How can you watch the genocide of an innocent and beautiful people and make some comment like i cant believe he put a message like that in there, stupid tree huggers, damn environmentalists. yes OBVIOUSLY its not an ACTUAL possibility, and i mean that only concretely for our own lifetimes, but the 1500’s are only 500 years in the past, thats about 7 lifetimes. That is entirely too close for comfort and completely close enough that we still have lessons to learn. Can anyone say we havent displaced, killed, or straight up stolen to get our hands on resources owned by a poorer, more aboriginal race of people, if u can your completely ignorant to the world around you and whats happening only a very short distance from your front door

  9. Valentin

    December 20, 2009 at 10:55 am

    The plot, the characters and the unoriginal design stunned me to the point that I just could not flatten my mind and simply enjoy the animation. With a script and characters as flat as they can possibly get, this 3D rendering is a complete failure as a movie.

  10. Kari

    December 19, 2009 at 4:09 pm

    I read the review posted and I have to disagree. Before seeing this film be sure to open your mind to fantasy. In doing so, the artistry and message of this film will become one, leaving you with a great experience and a message to take to heart.

    So many people are so wrapped up in critisicm that they can not see things with an open mind. Every film has an opinion before it is viewed. Go to this film with no inhibitions and a clear state of mind.

    James Cameron as always has surpassed my expectations. This film left me speechless. One only has to really let the mind fall into the fantasy, to feel and see the meaning of this film. For me it depicted how greed can destory everything that is beautiful and innocent in it’s essence. Every human being should be able to connect with the world around them (a main point in this film). The people of AVATAR are no different then we once were. This film shows how money and greed has led our race to connect with only machinery that we control; conveniences of our time. Maybe many won’t see the spirtiutal aspect of this film but it spoke to me in an extrodinary way! I am privledged to watch a movie with such spectacualr artistry along with a message that is true to the heart and brings back to reality human existence at it’s best!

    All I can say is thank your for the mastepiece and the heart enveloping message!

  11. Jean Kabir

    December 19, 2009 at 2:28 pm

    What was so great about this film I could not understand. Is cinema all about graphic/visual while the rest of the component(narrative), acting can be third-rate

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