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Forum Nerds Duke It Out Over Avatar

December 24, 2009

by Kevin Burke
Forum Nerds Duke It Out Over Avatar

You probably haven't heard much about Avatar. It's just James Cameron's latest half a billion dollar blockbuster appearing in every movie theater in the world. In IMAX. In 3D. Not to worry. We had our two resident geeks -- ok two of them, there are many, many more -- check it out. Unfortunately, they came back with conflicting reviews. So in the interest of fairness, and since reading them will still take less time than watching the two and a half hour epic, we figured we'd run both and let you decide who got it right, Carl or Kevin, in the comments. Winner gets dibs on the next alien invasion/love story review and the much-prized title, "Nerd of the Week."


By Kevin Burke

Unlike most recent action movies, Avatar has a story and characters -- and the story isn't just a vehicle to show stuff blowing up and the good guy killing bad guys. But when you make the most anticipated movie to come along in years, it's not simply enough to have a story; you need to have a good story. While Avatar is probably the most beautiful and interactive movie that's come along in years, the subpar story hindered my enjoyment.

The Disney classic Pocahontas is a facile comparison for James Cameron's movie, but the better fit (and the one from which almost the entire story is lifted) is Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune. The plot in a nutshell [spoiler alert]: an inhospitable planet contains a resource essential to the Na'vi galaxy; an outsider finds his way among the natives, riding wild animals as initiation and fulfilling the local prophecies, falling in love with a local along the way; the prophet rallies the entire population of natives (who are all really good fighters, by the way), and they expel the outsiders. Unfortunately, Cameron's changes mean that Avatar's story is no match for Dune.

The central conflict of the story is that the humans want to mine a stash of valuable unobtainium, located directly below the Na'vi tribe's giant home tree. Even though unobtainium has no apparent value to the Na'vi, they aren't cooperating with the plan to chop down the tree, so the humans decide to risk interspecies war and the lives of hundreds of their own men by firebombing the tree and killing the tribe. But there's a way easier solution, as I've shown in the picture:

TUNNEL DIAGONALLY AROUND THE TREE! You're from the future! If you can figure out how to cryogenically suspend people for six years, you can probably figure out how to build a diagonal tunnel.

The hero of the movie is a white person (almost every human in the movie is white) who, through an avatar, becomes a Na'vi tribesman, and eventually their leader. This opens up the movie to another bit of delicious criticism from Annalee Newitz: "When whites fantasize about becoming other races, it's only fun if they can blithely ignore the fundamental experience of being an oppressed racial group. Which is that you are oppressed, and nobody will let you be a leader of anything." Indeed, if history is any guide, this story would have ended in crushing defeat for the Na'vi, as it has for nearly every indigenous society around the world. By ending the movie with the Na'vi triumphant, as the humans fly away, Cameron risks trivializing the horrific experience of every indigenous society that was annihilated at the hands of Europeans.

Furthermore, as New Yorker film critic David Denby points out, the fact that this anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist movie cost over $300 million to make, implements the latest technology and will be shown in almost every theater in the world is sublimely ironic. We may prefer our stories to be about the triumph of indigenous people, but only when they are packaged and sold to us by a global film company.

Avatar is beautiful and the amount of detail that went into creating the world, the plant life, the ship's technology, and the animals is extraordinary. Cameron and his crew managed to solve the uncanny valley problem that plagued Polar Express and most Pixar movies. The 3D technology looks so good that it will probably be used in every movie in about five years. But everything in film starts with a story, and that's where Avatar dropped the ball.


By Carl Peaslee

My sister told me, "It's just a rip off of Pocahontas." And one of my other friends said, "It's just The Matrix meets The Last Samuraii." And I heard it was Brave Heart versus Jurassic Park. I even read one critic who described Avatar as "Our generation's King Kong."

...Ok. Um. Sorry, I'm going to stop everyone right now. First of all, our generation's King Kong was ... King Kong -- and it made me never want to see a T-Rex fight a giant Gorilla again (thanks a lot, Peter Jackson).

Avatar is not Pocahantas meets The Matrix meets The Last Samuraii meets Jurassic Park meets Brave Heart. Avatar is Avatar. And I'm confident to say that Cameron's film will be a milestone in cinematic history.

Not because of its story (it was lackluster), or its acting (it was subpar), but because of its production. Up until this weekend, I've never been so immersed in a filmmaker's world. James Cameron's world, the moon of Pandora, makes real life seem flat and boring. His neon fauna and glowing flora turn Claremont into a landscape drearier that a bowl of oatmeal.

When I first sat down during the previews my thoughts were, "Oh shit, I'm going to get a headache." As the trailers progressed, Disney 3D animators hurled item after item at the audience. In those four short trailers I saw every single hackneyed 3D gag filmmakers have ever attempted. I seriously thought I was to about to have crap flung at the camera (literally) ad nauseam for the next three hours.

But twenty minutes into Avatar, I forgot that it was a "3D Movie." The CGI characters and plastic glasses felt completely normal -- that is until some speck of ash or pollen would float out from the IMAX screen, and I'd move to brush it away, only to smile at the sheer strength of the illusion.

In a humorous coincidence, I happened to watch Polar Express with my mom minutes before watching Avatar. The difference was mind blowing. James Cameron harnessed the technology that made the lovable Tom Hanks into a creepy Christmas abomination to make a no-name actor into an alien hero I felt I could touch -- and an overgrown smurfette into a heroine I strangely wanted to touch.

Avatar is not a "3D Movie." It is a movie that pushes three dimensional filmmaking beyond petty parlor tricks. I saw a pterodactyl reach through a helicopter and bite a mans head off. I saw two people kiss underneath a willow tree. I watched bullets whiz over my head. Avatar will change the way I watch movies -- not just action movies, but all movies. There was deep focus, then there was sound, then there was color, now, there is Avatar.

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