Avatar – A Visual Triumph and Rhetorical Flop

I finally saw Avatar. The flu, catching up with everything I missed while I had the flu, and then New Year’s kept me from seeing it.

This review is going to have some spoilers because so many people have seen it already, and I also don’t think that the plot is that essential to the movie experience.

The Visuals


I’ve never seen anything like it. The physical design and creation of Pandora, was executed brilliantly. Each plant and creature had a distinct look and physiology.

The battle scenes were amazing. I felt completely engaged and invested in the battles. I was saddened by each fallen Na’vi; the indigenous people, and “good guys” of the film.

The 3D shooting was never gimmicky. Not once.

From a visual standpoint, this is without rival, the prettiest movie I have ever seen.

But that’s where my praise ends.

The Story

I don’t need my fiction, music, video games, or any other artistic mediums to agree with my worldview, so when I say that I found the plot thin and disappointing, it’s not because I don’t agree with James Cameron’s politics and philosophies.

The movie was obviously anti-Bush (I can’t stand him), anti-capitalism (I’m all about capitalism), and very critical of America (America’s a good place, but it’s not beyond reproach). I couldn’t care less about any of it, other than it felt dated. I know that James started this movie some eight years ago, and it really showed.


Unobtanium; the ultra rare, excessively valuable ore that the evil humans were mining on Pandora.

Seriously, unobtanium? Are you kidding me? They took the time to design every aspect of every plant and animal in this world, and they couldn’t take ten minutes to come up with a name that doesn’t sound like poo?

In Joss Whedon’s web series Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Dr. Horrible sought to steal a substance called “wonderflonium.” The difference between these two corny-ass names is that Joss & Co. did it to be funny, while James did it because “oil” was already taken, and he didn’t take the time to think of something that was even remotely believable.

We are told that unobtanium is worth 20 million (whatever unit of currency they use in this future) a kilo, and that’s supposed to be a ton of money. If that is the case, why does the corporate head-honcho have a big chunk just floating on his desk? Unobtanium alone broke my suspension of disbelief.

Paper-Thin Characters

They developed Jake Sully, Neytiri, and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver is a natural bad-ass), but the other characters were caricatures; especially the hardened evil commanding officer, and the moronic corporate hack in charge.

These characters were so obtuse that I never once looked at them and saw a fully formed human, making decisions based on a personality. The reason is because they weren’t people, they were straw-men for capitalism and American policy placed on Pandora for the Na’vi to prove incorrect.

The Straw-Man Plot

The Na’vi represent a humanoid species that lives in almost total harmony with the world around them. The problem is that this is unachievable for humans, even though it’s clear that the movie is promoting this idea as the human ideal. The Na’vi live in a world that is designed for them. They can literally link to the animals, plants, and even each other. Humans have no such link. Birds have wings, fish have gills, humans have reason, engineering, and higher thinking. That is how we live and thrive. We have to adapt our environment to survive, we don’t work any other way.

That’s just one of the straw-man arguments that emerged from this. Add in the comparison between the human/ Na’vi war, and the War on Terror. Whether or not you support that war, the differences are staggering. The simple fact that the Na’vi aren’t led by brutal rapist, murdering, warmonger dictators is a big difference.

How Could it Have Been Better?

In Starship Troopers, the humans are actually the villains. It’s done so subtly that a lot of people don’t even notice it the first time. That movie makes a very similar point about human nature, and it does it without beating the audience over the head with a club.

Firefly and Serenity, are filled with absurdest philosophies about the nature of the Universe and God. However, there was always a counterbalance. Sheppard Book was a significant character and man of God.

It’s possible to get a point across without forcing it down the viewer’s throat, and that point is usually more poignant when the viewer comes to the conclusion on his/her own.

The Bottom-Line

I recommend you see this movie in IMAX, because if you aren’t watching it in IMAX 3D, you aren’t doing it right. The visuals are exceptional, and are well worth the price of admission. The plot is thin, and I found it annoying, but I am happy I experienced it.

That being said, there are people I deeply respect who fell in love with this movie, so maybe you’ll like it.

I don’t think I will watch Avatar again on Bluray or DVD.

5 thoughts on “Avatar – A Visual Triumph and Rhetorical Flop

  1. Hey David, where’s your blog subscription button? I was planning to use it. Why waste it?
    Anyway, I saw that you could be a professional movie critic.

  2. David, excellent write-up of Avatar. I’m glad i’m not the only one who caught on to the “unobtanium” thing

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