Thursday Editor’s Pick: Avatar (2009)

by on December 22, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Thurs Dec 29 at 7:00 at Museum of the Moving Image [Program & Tix]


MOMI’s “See It Big!” series offers a chance to experience or revisit James Cameron’s gamechanger on its own terms, away from all that pop cultural phenomenon weight. Showing in Digital 3-D.


“I was lucky to see Avatar at a pre-screening a few hours ago,” wrote Balazs Jedovszky. Continuing:

It completely blew me and the whole room away and i dare to say it will do so to 80% of any audience anywhere. The remaining 20%, who always finds something to complain about, will whine about character development, dialog, story or the pop-corn.


Well, let me tell you: they went to this movie with the wrong expectations.


You have most likely met Cameron’s previous work(s): Aliens, Terminator 1 & 2, The Abyss, Titanic (!), just to name a few.


So WHAT should you expect from Avatar??? MORE of the same!!! More of revolutionary film-making, more of grandiose new ideas, more of never-before-seen special effects, more of 150 minutes without relapsing, more of the James Cameron genius…


Professional critics were hardly more measured. Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal:

Mr. Cameron’s singular vision has upped the ante for filmed entertainment.


Tom Long in The Detroit News:

I have seen the future of movies, and it is “Avatar.”


Kenneth Turan for the LA Times:

‘Avatar’ restores a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience.


Ty Burr in the Boston Globe:

Avatar is an entertainment to be not just seen but absorbed on a molecular level; it’s as close to a full-body experience as we’ll get until they invent the holo-suits. Cameron aims for sheer wonderment, and he delivers.


David Denby in the New Yorker:

James Cameron’s Avatar is the most beautiful film I’ve seen in years.


Though not everyone was convinced. “Sure, it’s very beautiful to look at,” wrote tomskaal:

[B]ut, if you’ve seen the trailer, then you’ve seen the movie! It’s basically every movie clichés put together in one horrible and so unoriginal movie. it’s a mix of the “last samurai” meets “Pocahontas” meets “Atlantis”! it’s by far the most horrible storyline since Ed Woods’ “plan 9 from outer space”.



Avatar is grade A crap. That’s right, it’s crap. I say this for one simple reason: Without the special effects this movie would never, ever captivate and take a hold of audiences like it has in the past week. Ask yourself this one question: If it didn’t have the effects, the Navi plugging their hair into the trees like it’s a damn broadband jack, mech suits(just like the ones in Matrix Revolutions) and barely futuristic ospreys, would you care about this movie at all?



If a film student submitted the Avatar screenplay to an instructor, he/she would have been given an F.



J. Hoberman in the Village Voice:

Avatar seamlessly synthesizes live action, animation, performance-capture, and CGI to create what is essentially a non-participatory computer game: Jurassic Park‘s menagerie running wild in The Matrix‘s double eXistenZ. When, waking up back in the lab, Jake realizes that “out there is the true world and in here is the dream,” you know that it’s time for him to go native, complete with tender blue-monkey sex (“We are mated for life”). As in a Jack Kirby comic book, the muscular, coming-atcha visuals trump the movie’s camp dialogue and corny conception, but only up to a point. Jake’s initiation rites notwithstanding, Avatar itself doesn’t reawaken until the bang-up final battle—aerial cavalry incinerating holy sites and bombing the bejesus out of the blue-monkey redskin slopes, Jake uniting the Na’vi clans with inspirational martial music. (The requisite Celtic keening is withheld until the end credits, accompanied by a Celine Dion clone singing in Na’vish.)


Long before the third act, however, the ideologically sensitive will realize that 20th Century Fox has taken a half-billion-dollar risk (counting PR) that perhaps only Rupert Murdoch’s studio could afford to take. The rampaging Sky People are heavy-handedly associated with the Bush administration. They chortle over the failure of diplomacy, wage what is referred to as “some sort of shock-and-awe campaign” against the Na’vis, and goad each other with Cheney one-liners like, “We will blast a crater in their racial memory so deep they won’t come within a thousand clicks of here ever again!” Worse, the viewer is encouraged to cheer when uniformed American soldiers are blown out of the sky and instead root for a bunch of naked, tree-hugging aborigines led by a renegade white man on a humongous orange polka-dot bat.


Let no one call so spectacular an instance of political correctness run amok “entertaining.” I look forward to the Limbaugh-Hannity take on this grimly engaging development—which will perhaps be roguishly interpreted by Sarah Palin as the last stand of indigenous peoples (like Todd!) and women warriors against Washington bureaucrats. At least Avatar won’t win James Cameron a Nobel Peace Prize—but, then again, it just might.



On cue, Armond White in the NY Press:

Set in the near future, Avatar is a throwback to the hippie naiveté of Kevin Costner’s production Rapa Nui (directed by Kevin Reynolds). While prattling about man’s threat to environmental harmony, Cameron’s really into the powie-zowie factor: destructive combat and the deployment of technological force. At first, Sully, a “warrior and dreamwalker” like The Matrix’s Neo, is shown as a fierce, sculpted meathead with a wounded look in his wide eyes. Cameron lights Worthington superbly in tremendous, empathetic close-ups, yet when Sully’s involvement with the avatar project increases—as hair and beard grow in—his humanity becomes nondescript and he identifies with the Na’vi. (It’s disappointing that the great Worthington only appears in a quarter of the film; most of the time Sully is a Smurf.) Going native allows Cameron to move on to the violent technology he really loves—though never scrutinizing Sully’s new bond with an angry red dragon or how Sully’s temperament becomes dangerously enflamed.


Here’s the hypocrisy: As Sully helps the beleaguered, virtuous aliens fight back and conquer the human invaders, Avatar puts forth a simple-minded anti-industrial critique. Despite Avatar’s 12-year gestation, Cameron’s obviously commenting on the Iraq War—though not like his hawkish Aliens. Appealing to Iraq War disenchantment, he evokes 9/11 when the military topples the Na’vi’s sacred, towering Tree of Souls. The imagery implies that the World Trade Center was also an altar (of U.S. capitalism), yet this berserk analogy exposes Cameron’s contradictory thinking. It triggers the offensive battle scenes where American soldiers get vengefully decimated—scored to the rousing clichés of Carmina Burana.
The fantasy of Sully giving up the impediment of his (American) humanity is a guilt-ridden 9/11 death wish. References to “fight terror with terror” and “shock-and-awe campaign” don’t belong in this 3-D Rapa Nui with its blather about the Na’vi’s “direct line to their ancestors.” Once again, villainous Americans exhibit no direct communication with ancestors. That’s Cameron’s fanboy zeal turned into fatuous politics. He misrepresents the facts of militarism, capitalism, imperialism—and their comforts.


– Compiled by Tom McCormack

Recent Features

Gene Kelly retro at Film Society (thru Jul 26)

July 13, 2012

I'm happy again and like myself: 100 years of Gene.


Erich Von Stroheim retro at Film Forum (thru Jul 30)

May 28, 2012

The decadent realism of Hollywood's favorite sadist.


Migrating Forms Fest at Anthology (thru May 20)

May 11, 2012

Traveling through time and space at NYC's upstart experimental film fest.

View All →