Avatar: Dances with Clichés

January 8, 2010 | 9 books mentioned 20 6 min read

coverAvatar tells the tale of injured soldier Jake Sully who travels to the forest moon Pandora and finds himself taken in by a race of primitive space furies called the Na’Vi. Unfortunately, the evil corporation he works for wants to bulldoze the sacred rainforest around the tribe’s Hometree and Sully—who has fallen in love with the chief’s daughter Netyiri—must become the sacred tribe’s greatest warrior, most brilliant strategist and most powerful spiritual leader in order to save the space natives from the powerful white/male/military/industrial/capitalist conglomeration of evil…and he only has three months to do it!

Of course, I might just have easily said the injured soldier John Dunbar, the forest moon of Endor, the sacred forest of FernGully, and the princess Pocahontas. Avatar’s story has allegedly been kicking around James Cameron’s head since he made his last feature (1997’s Titanic) yet the plot is a stale composite of clichés and borrowed elements that feels as if it was cobbled together in a weekend’s time. The minute you are introduced to The Native Princess, The Evil Military Man, The Greedy Businessman and the rest of the cardboard cut-outs that populate Avatar, you know the entire plot. In fact, you even know the exact words they will say. A great battle is about to start? “Let’s dance.” A villain returns for a final fight? “Come get some!” A new world is introduced? “You’re not in Kansas anymore.” (Here I was hoping for some character to raise their hand and ask, “Uh, sir, what is a ‘Kansas’ exactly?” “Geez, I’m not sure. I think it was a province a century ago when earth was divided into nation states before the great unification war? Not sure why I just thought of it.”)

I don’t mean to imply that Avatar is wholly unoriginal. Cameron does imbue his world with a New Agey environmental-mysticism that is capped by his aliens having USB cords in their ponytails. These fashionable cables can be plugged into various wild critters to brain-rape them into obedience. Surely a shrewd marketing move to capture the pre-teen female audience by letting them live out their fantasies of becoming one with a pony.

But perhaps storytelling, dialogue, and acting are not what you go to a sci-fi blockbuster extravaganza for. You go for the visuals, the epic scope and, especially with Avatar, the awesome special effects. And they are awesome. As mediocre as Avatar is on most levels, the visuals alone make the film worth viewing once—at least in theaters with 3D capabilities (it is almost criminal that some theaters are showing this in 2D.). Avatar is not the first film to effectively use 3D technology, but it is the first blockbuster to do so. No more sticks pointing out of the screen or freaky inhuman CGI characters—yes, Robert Zemeckis, I’m looking at youAvatar keeps the 3D unobtrusive yet totally immersive. The CGI for the Na’vi and the flora and fauna of Pandora are wonderful, using the same performance capture technology that brought Gollum to life in Lord of the Rings.

A related area of success in the film is the world’s design. From the floating mountains to fireworks lizards and shrinking mushrooms, the world of Pandora is gorgeously designed and rendered. Indeed the Na’Vi themselves, with their glow-in-the-dark Smurf skin and necklaces that magically always cover their nipples to preserve a PG-13 rating, are the weakest element in a film that is otherwise flawlessly designed.

If this was a screen saver, you’d have to say James Cameron did one heck of a job. Unfortunately, it is a film and all the other aspects feel glossed over.

I could not help wondering where the James Cameron of the first two Terminators had gone, the man who could meld effects with imaginative storytelling and characters you could care about. Is there anything in Avatar that feels as fresh as the T2 liquid nitrogen scene? Any characters as kickass as Sarah Connor? Any one-liners that could hold up to “Hast la vista, baby”? For all of Avatar’s visual wonder, the film feels dreadfully lazy. Not just the plot and dialogue—which approach prequel George Lucas levels—but the staging, directing and world building as well. Yes, I know I just said the creatures are fantastically designed—a process Cameron apparently left largely up to his artists—but conceptually they are merely space versions of your local zoo population. The film does not succeed in transporting you to a truly alien world ala the Star Wars films. Couldn’t Cameron have made aliens that conjured aboriginal earth tribes without copying them wholesale? Why are these otherworldly beings wearing tribal beads and shooting arrows with feathered tails and rock tips? Is there nothing about their world that would provide unique weapons or clothing or at least alien-looking versions of earth items?

Visually the 3D graphics are overwhelming, but the scenes themselves contain little of interest. The final battle in particular is epic fluff. The tactics are nonsense (the Na’vi aren’t smart enough to drop logs into the helicopter blades so instead attack them with bow and arrows?) and the scenes are lazily staged. The closest thing to a visually arresting moment in the film is when a bunch of flying seeds collectively give Sully a planet-spirit hug while he stands on a neon log.

In short, we have the imagery but where is the imagination?

Unlike many sci-fi films, I would not say that there are any gaping plot holes that ruin the story. That doesn’t mean it makes much sense. What is the point of the entire avatar program? According to the film, the genetically-engineered bodies—which are controlled remotely by humans—are there to work diplomacy with the Na’Vi and convince them to leave their magic tree so that the “unobtanium” mineral beneath it can be mined. But why does an evil corporation need to spend untold billions creating human-Na’Vi hybrid bio-robots just to do a little diplomacy? The Na’Vi are aware that the avatars are not authentic and indeed the humans have avatar-sized human clothing (Sigourney Weaver dances around in short-shorts and a Stanford tank top) so why not just send some people out in mech suits to negotiate?

On that note, what kind of futuristic mercenary military outfits half its soldiers with powerful robot armor yet sticks Jake Sully in a 40 dollar wheelchair from Wal-Mart? They don’t even have some kind of Segway wheelchair in the year 2154?

And then of course there is the film’s politics, which are muddier than some critics seem to think. In addition to the inherent silliness of spending several hundred million dollars and creating your own digital cameras to critique technologically-driven capitalism, the film’s cultural imperialism has rightly been widely derided. Building a film around the idea that a native population is too stupid to take care of itself and requires a white man to save them is a problematic premise to start from.

And then again there is also the acting. Credit should go to Stephen Lang for pumping some life into the evil colonel, but Weaver is uncharacteristically stilted as the good scientist Dr. Augustine and Worthington is as animated as a mulch pile. Wooden acting is one thing when the characters are Terminator robots, but Sam Worthington’s Sully is supposed to be the character we relate to and his performance drags down the film whenever he is in human form or doing voiceovers (the latter of which are almost universally unbearable. Worthington lulls you to sleep with his dull monotone only to wake you with groan-inducing lines like “I hope this tree-hugging crap isn’t on the final exam.”)

covercoverI don’t think anyone expects a popcorn blockbuster geared towards younger audiences to have the wit of a David Mamet script or the imaginative directing of a Fellini film. But when you are announcing yourself as the future of filmmaking, you should be able to stand tall against the great blockbusters of the past or at the very least of the present. Compared to the well-conceived, engaging and imaginative action and kids films of even the past two years (The Dark Knight, Up, Fantastic Mr. Fox, District 9, Iron Man, etc.) Avatar feels like a colossal underachievement in filmmaking as much as a colossal success in visual effects. When those visual effects become commonplace, what are we left with?

But one must give credit where credit is due. In making a film whose virtues are entirely wrapped up in the 3-D theater visuals, Cameron has succeeded in making the first film in some time which simply must be seen in theaters. You would get no enjoyment watching this film on your iPhone or bootlegging it on your laptop. (Remember how the visuals were mocked when the trailer was shown on TV and online?) So perhaps the hype about Avatar saving the industry is not entirely imaginary. Cameron has shown us that flashy special effects and marketing hype can still draw huge crowds to the theater. Here is to hoping those who follow in his technological footsteps bother to spend a little time on their scripts.

is the author of The Body Scout and Upright BeastsHe is the editor-in-chief of electricliterature.com and the co-editor of Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction. His work appears in Granta, Vice, The Believer, Tin House, the Pushcart Prize anthology, and elsewhere. You can find him online at lincolnmichel.com and @thelincoln.


  1. Apparently you’ve missed the duality of Sam’s character between his human form and his avatar form. Jake is a poor, beaten down former Marine with nothing left. How do you want a hopeless person to act? Charismatic? The avatar gives Jake life and vigor that he doesn’t have in his human form. It is evident once he’s in his Avatar body.

    What’s more evident and cliched is a critic who waited until every other critic writes his/her analysis, reads it, agrees with some of the opinions and rewrites it as his own. Yet, lambaste someone else for doing the same thing with his movie.

    If you’re writing a movie review of the second highest grossing movie of all time three weeks later, you shouldn’t be writing one. That’s not a real versatile critic who has his own unbiased opinions from the get go. That to me signifies a critic who dislike these type of movies already and finally had to push himself to go watch the movie so he can remember the scenes he dislike. Then comes home and says to himself, “this will be perfect, a negative review that will stand out from all the positive ones . Yeah it’ll definitely stand out and get a lot of attention”.

  2. I agree that this film was schematic. It was devoid of memorable moments, of idiosyncratic characters, and of good writing. There were some pretty scenes, but apart from the technology, which made the film worthwhile, its prettiness bordered on kitsch and didn’t compare to the arrestingly beautiful scenes of another animated film I saw not too long ago, Fantastic Mr. Fox. I appreciated the 3D technology, but at best, I didn’t feel moved or elevated by this film and at worst, I felt talked down to and as though there was an attempt at emotional manipulation by the deployment of age-old recycled elements of a formula proven to “move” audiences.

  3. Hi Navi, thanks for commenting.

    I actually saw this film opening weekend (walked through a few feet of NYC snow to get there). This review got delayed for some fairly banal reasons, but these are my reactions from seeing it then, ones I had before reading any reviews.

    Obviously people are free to disagree. One friend told me “you have no magic in your soul” soul for making some of these arguments to him a few weeks ago, so I’m expecting some disagreement!

  4. Your review is dead-on. I think the thing that bothered me the most was how everything on Pandora was analogous to, if not exactly the same as, something on Earth. That seems like such lazy sci-fi writing. Those crazy alien trees were, admittedly, pretty neat to look at, but they looked a lot like the 3D ones in the park down the street…

  5. “Naviblue”-real unbiased.

    I feel like there’s an element of emperor’s new cloths to this phenomenon. People prompted by ads telling them that they’re witnessing a transcendent visual experience (it kills me to paraphrase such a pompous marketing claim). They see it, and some impressed and some underwhelmed, still tell people it’s amazing. So now they see it, and already told it’s amazing, convince themselves it’s amazing.

    But hey, that’s movies nowadays. Maybe the past two years were tricks to make us think movies were coming back to a quality place. But then Hollywood remembered you never lose money appealing to the lowest common denominator, who sometimes don’t care much for plot and that kind of stuff.

  6. If you dont see the the amazing detail in this movie, or the emotion in the characters, your in denial !!!! stay out of the movie theaters..you dont belong there… because this film is what a movie experience is all about !!!!!!!!

  7. I think because the movie is sort of the first of its kind, I’m willing to overlook its many shortcomings. Story wise, it’s nothing amazing or new, but it’s adequate, competent enough to service the visuals. If this is a viable format (ie, 3D) and more films learn to work with it, better quality pictures will start to emerge and we’ll look back on “Avatar” merely for its initial breakthrough (and perhaps its box office record).

  8. All your remarks about the film’s various failings seem accurate. You must be aware, though, that 95% of the human race–specifically the 95% with magic in their souls–will disagree with you. I think Avatar might better be described as a ride than a film. Our investment in the outcome of on-screen conflict and struggle derives less from identification with fleshed-out characters and politically nuanced themes (the classical tools) than from a very physical, embodied sense of placement in the action, which ends up yielding powerful emotional identification anyway. The sacrificed element, and the element on which you concentrate most of your review, is memorability. There is very little, afterward, to talk about. Narrative, dialogue, anything that persists in word-memory, which is mostly what we’ve got. This is a film of pure sensation. But it seems clear to me–it’s borne out both by the critical reception the film has received and its ongoing box-office success–that Avatar is extremely successful at imparting the sensation of elevated wonder it sets out to impart. And I have no problem with a juggernaut of wonder-creation like this promoting a simple message of environmentalism and anti-imperialism. I think the case could even be made that the utter schematic simplicity of the framing moral struggle, its reliance on comfortable archetypes of accepted mythic power, allows a kind of total submission to sensation hard to achieve when the critical faculty is more actively engaged. The tight correspondence of Pangea-creatures to Earth-creatures or myth-creatures (horse, bull, big red dragon) is probably deliberate. Our immersion in Avatar-as-embodied-experience relies on the presence of familiar anchor points–most obviously, we have to find the Na’vi super hot. The writing was shitty, no question, but mainly just in being so bland. It was never enough to throw me out of the story. In fact, I think dry cleverness of the kind that generated iconic lines in T2, Jurassic Park, etc would have been out of place here, just as it would have been out of place in Princess Mononoke, another environmental parable that traffics in elevated wonder (although with far more subtlety and ambiguity). If the writing were good, Avatar could have been much more enjoyable for the class of viewers who pay close attention to that. Future films that reach this level of visual imagination and accomplishment might actually be memorable, too, at which time Avatar might be recalled as a kitschy artifact of the early days of 3D. But this was seriously one of the best rides I’ve ever gone on, and I’m really glad I was able to suspend whatever needed suspending in order to get my $16 worth, because, damn, $16.
    P.S. You have no magic in your soul, you crotchety bastard. When the giant spinning machines of industry are closing in on the heart of the forest, are you really thinking “poor strategic planning, should be dropping logs”???

  9. If you want a ride, go to an amusement park.

    MIKE: Love the !!!!!! I think that’s how any good critic wins an argument. Plus the arty lack of apostrophes.

  10. Your points are solid, ad hominem attacks be damned. Avatar’s a pretty mess (in 3-D, anyway), but a mess nonetheless; anyone looking for clever FIfth Elementish style or Empire Strikes Backish high stakes space opera or even provocative Alien/Event Horizon/Solarisish sci-fi horror will come home exhausted and/or angry. As far as I’m concerned, the most reasonable approach is to devour the visually innovative core and throw the rest away. Eventually a some fresh-faced Cronenberg or Kubrick disciple will get his hands on this technology and give folks jilted by the movie’s broadness what they want. For now, though, it’s nice to see 3-D and motion capture ferreted back from the FX attic and given a 21st century tune-up – after years of post-Matrix CGI saturation and the monumental disappointments attached (i.e. a certain trio of prequels), Avatar does a pretty great job of giving digital form and story function their second honeymoon.

  11. You are right it is a movie of cliches but for a blockbuster movie it was very enjoyable. There weren’t too many moments when I felt like leaving the theatre either by boredom or pointless violence. It is definitely a step up from most of the extremely expensive blockbusters of late, Transformers and Pirates of the Carribean 2 and 3. Will be very interested to see how a sequel is going to work… apparently its already in the motions of being made.

  12. I thought that Avatar was a mediocre film too until I read this:


    You’ve made some interesting points, but they sound whiny and objective, like you went and saw Avatar thinking it would suck, realized it was awesome, but convinced yourself that a movie with a derivative plot is terrible.

    My opinion: Avatar was awesome

    You may think otherwise, but your opinion would then be flawed.

  13. “…characters you could care about.”

    I think that’s the biggest problem I have with CGI films, it’s hard to care about a computer generated character. I want the real deal (a real person with real emotions even if their character is not human) and I don’t care how cool the special effects are!!

    Yeah, yeah, films like this would not be possible without CGI, blah, blah, blah! That fact still does not make me care enough to want to watch them!!

  14. This is an amusing article from CNN:


    “On the fan forum site “Avatar Forums,” a topic thread entitled “Ways to cope with the depression of the dream of Pandora being intangible,” has received more than 1,000 posts from people experiencing depression and fans trying to help them cope. The topic became so popular last month that forum administrator Philippe Baghdassarian had to create a second thread so people could continue to post their confused feelings about the movie.”

Add Your Comment:

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.