First of all, it should be made clear that my base point is: Avatar is a great movie, and a ton of good fun. But counting various other factors, here I’m trying to discuss that despite the great quality, Avatar is nevertheless a somewhat disappointing movie. Please finish reading, then think for 5 minutes, and make debate after that. I’m not insulting the movie or the director here. Jumping to the final conclusion, then back to read all the lengthy crap may help a little.

And by “disappointing” here I’m mainly talking about the hype around it. I’m not sure how this is done in the western world. But here in China, the pre-launch hyping had gone all spooky. Big promises such as “a revolutionary movie that changes your perception of cinema experience forever” flies everywhere. This is a lot of hope and expectation, plus a heavy dose of suspicion in my head. Say, how can “cinema experience” be changed in a revolutionary way? IMO the term “revolutionary” indicates something completely different from what we are having now. But how could it be? We know pretty good about good ole cinema. Color pictures and movie with sound WERE revolutionary because they put extra DIMENSIONS into the art. 3D movies WERE revolutionary, but it’s been there for quite some time. IMAX was also kind of revolutionary but it’s not something new either. So, with all those good things invented and well accepted, I can’t see what else could tease our sense in a completely (or largely) untried way. 3D without annoying glasses? Or will they build new cinemas which can do hologram? Or fancy little head-up-display? None. Actually Avatar comes in 3D (with glasses), 3D IMAX, and the plain normal form. Have to admit that the 3D version of Avatar looks extremely glorious. But that, let’s face it, isn’t anything new. Disney had contributed a lot to 3D (glasses required) movies. On this fundamental principle, real human cast (well, BASICALLY real human) and cartoon characters are not so different regarding a movie viewer’s experience. That’s a failure of creating a revolution from the hardware path.

With that failed, the only other possibility is to be creative on software. “Software” in the movie world, I reckon, largely means world setting and plot design. Here let’s break it into details to see how much creativity is there.

World Setting:

Pandora is a very interesting (not necessarily beautiful if we count native creatures) world. However, there isn’t so much brand new concepts when compared to, say, Dungeons and Dragons. In the traditional D&D setting, we have a whole universe that consists of gear-shaped lands whose inhabitant are construct creatures that have no ability of free thinking. We have a demi-plane that automatically sucks evil entity from every other plane into it. We have the city of Sigil that denies the presence of every single god and has countless portals leading to every corner of the multiverse. In Avatar’s case, Pandora is a otherwise pretty plain planet with template humanoids (heavily modded based on cats), mutated bulls, mutated tigers, mutated birds, a lot of shiny LED tubes, massive forests and mega-tons of flying rocks. The species could use more variety and more imagination. At current stage, if mapped into D&D multiverse, Pandora represents the most basic Forgotten Realm campaign, which is a simple recreation of our basic earth. Sure there is a shining point that EVERY LIVING THING ON THIS PLANET IS BORN WITH A BUILT-IN USB PORT/PLUG. This is a truly genius idea which could be developed into many interesting things. But it’s not enough to make Pandora an astonishing, one of a kind imagination land. Practically it’s a mimic of Amazon rainforest with every kind of wild life uglified, tribes more civilized, and some extra wondrous landscape that very much like the traditional way of picturing what heaven should look like in Chinese culture. Yeah, by the last item I’m talking about flying mountains and floating rocks. That’s something we Chinese have been fed up with for over a decade, through comics, movies, and TV-series. Sure it’s fascinating every creature has a literally *universal* serial bus cable with plug & play feature. This just isn’t enough though. Me, for one, believes there are more interesting worlds out there, some examples would be  Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Blade Runner, even Land of the Dead.

Plot Design:

Well this is the best shot if any movie wants to go revolutionary. Designing a plot doesn’t cost so much expect the author’s brain juice. And intriguing plot will last in people’s minds much longer than fancy graphics. However:

  • Story Structure Overview

It’s fairly hard to say that the story of Avatar is “deep”, “intriguing”, or “fancy”. Abstracted outline would be: The greedy villains found a good place with a lot of interests to take. So they went there. Unfortunately there are some inconvenient native folks (but conveniently weak) putting up some resistance. Bad guys do it the hard way, weaklings fear, die, and flee. Out of the mess comes out a nobody who is somehow proved to be THE ONE (by prophecy, sword in stone, birthmark, etc. etc. etc.) He unites native people, he leads the war (against impossibly crushing odds), he wins everything. Bad guys die-die, good guys win-win. THE ONE lives happily after with his local girlfriend. This is, for lack of a better word, very typical “Hollywood Blockbuster”.

This isn’t anything new. Almost every old time wild west movies share this routine (usually without THE ONE part), not to mention medieval-style fantasy movies (plot goes exactly this way). Funny, I’ve seen many people on twitter free linking Avatar to real-world events, such as European’s invasion of America, China’s [beep beep] on Tibet, and even China’s notorious city regulators (城管) force-demolishing good people’s house. Such thinking make sense. Of course, because Avatar basically told a rather simple story of “the big mean beats the innocent weak”, which is a phenomenon witnessed almost everyday in our world, and from this starting point people could be led every possible direction. I admit such are good thinking, and the ones who come out with them are brilliant minds. However, it’s not an proper reason to call Avatar a “deep and inspiring” movie. Sir Newton saw apple falling to the ground, then hit by the sudden revelation of gravity. We say Sir Newton is a great thinker, one of the best in human race. But never have I seen anybody believing APPLES are to be praised. It’s because the sight of apple falling to the ground is so common and interchangeable with many other things. The discovery of gravity could easily come from a pear, a jug, or even a hammer landing on Sir Newton’s head. Avatar is, IMO, such an apple. It, or rather the buzz and hype around it, forcing people to dig deep into the thin story, come out from the other side, and get inspired by THEIR SURROUNDINGS IN THE REAL WORLD. That probably why western people are thinking about American Indians, human right activists are thinking about Tibet, and Chinese folks thinking about 城管. Thinking is good, discovery is great, but crowning an apple is otherwise.

  • Cliché

Mr. Terry Prachette said something like “cliché is cliché because there bound to be some screwdrivers in the toolbox of language”. Cliché is acceptable, or even welcomed in the case of Hollywood blockbusters. However, Avatar is a movie that put a little bit too much on the “revolutionary” side. So, I have to be a little harsh on really silly cliché. Some of them are:

  1. Evil and strong earthlings
    I agree that we earthlings are greedy like hell. But do we always have to be overpoweringly strong over alien natives? It’s right to create some obstacle for our protagonist or there won’t be any fun. But does it have to be this way? Evil strong earthlings raiding other planets for resource is no new story. Now only the US of A, Japan also has some animation on this topic. For something not quite completely different, they could render the alien race strong but ununited, then lead the protagonist through a political struggle. This cannon vs. long bow routine makes the rest of the story hard to go on with a reasonable sense.
  2. Headman’s daughter
    So Neytiri is the headman’s daughter. Better still, her mother is the spiritual leader. But does it have to be this way? Protagonist goes into the village, hooks up with some random girl who turned out to be the daughter of the mayor/sheriff/king/headman. This is like reading a typical Chinese kungfu novel, when the protagonist is hunted by his enemies and dropped down a cliff somewhere between chapter 4 and chapter 5, you know at once there BOUND TO BE some old kungfu grandmaster waiting down there. He HAS TO save the falling guy, HAS TO pass all his moves and techniques to him, and for about 90% chance HAS TO die instantly after that. This cliché isn’t particularly bad, but makes me feel like landing my teeth in a rotten spot of an otherwise very good apple on the first try. Beats the appetite a big bit. According to Avatar itself, Na’vi are wise and rational people. The fact that Neytiri is very high-born doesn’t add any weight to her words. There will be a trace of freshness if Neytiri is just a random hunter, and this may serve the plot rather well.
  3. American army is evil
    A lot of people would like to see American army rendered as evil ass I guess. But adding this group of badass into this very movie doesn’t seem to be a good move. What happened on our mother earth that national armies fall underdog to business entities? Is that ever likely to happen? The word “mercenary” may make a lot more sense under this plot.
  4. THE ONE
    Frankly I’m not sure why there must be the presence of the old boring THE ONE trick in this intended to be creative movie. Yes, Jake needs some means to unite all Na’vi toward the end of the movie. But even so, riding the wossname big bird is enough. What about the flying jellyfish seeds around him? And I remember there was someone talking about, oh no, he/she talked about the BLOODY OLD PROPHERCY. Through the movie I didn’t see any prophecy at work, neither was there any extraordinary feat from Jake himself. He didn’t have magical power. He didn’t have super strength. He didn’t communicate with the soul-tree especially well. This is about the lamest THE ONE in all movies eh? I don’t see how Avatar could be damaged without this abused cheap tool. Quite the contrary, I believe ripping the bits about “THE ONE” will make this movie slightly better.
  5. Allies from nowhere
    How did the US of A train its soldier? Why Trudy runs rogue so easily even without any proper reason? This mysterious girl (good looking though) was there from the beginning, helped good guys all the way through, and died as soon as her mission is over. Using such an unfleshed character as a tool to unroll the story is rather a lame trick IMO. So is the wild animal rampage in the final showdown. The Na’vi have said in a very absolute way that the planet itself won’t interfere with humanly affairs. How come all those big buggers running wild while selectively not bothering with anyone on the good side? To maintain the balance? I won’t buy that. Earthlings bombed your tree, killed your children, flamed your forests quite a while before the final all-out war. The balance, if there really is one, should long before that be maintained. And Mr. or Ms. Pandora is the very land the bad guys standing on. If as the animal rampage scene indicated that the planet has a mind, how come it didn’t make any counter-act earlier? In short: deus ex machina. Old and always lame trick. Shouldn’t be spotted in a movie that intended for godhood.
  • Things not making sense

Well this is mostly chit-chat about things in the movie that doesn’t quite make sense. It damages the quality, but not by much. Feel free to skip this.

  1. “Project Avatar” itself
    Can’t see the point of this costy scientific breakthrough. You want to plant a spy, you COVER HIS/HER IDENTITY before anything else. Why those avatars just walk into Na’vi camp wearing human clothes? And they speak English? And they proudly reveal their true identity? The Na’vi is not a dumb race. It knows the difference between “us” and “them”, even if one of “them” looks exactly like “us”. To infiltrate their society, or even to plant a bomb, I guess anyone with common sense would choose not to go in there with “I AM A BLODDY AVATAR” written in bold and big fonts on his forehead. The key here is that “you are from the other side”. It doesn’t matter if you appear to be a big blue catman or a small hume behind funny mask. “To get to understand them” doesn’t mean “to go there, hop around, and ride crazy birds with them”. You understand Na’vi, you gain their trust, you massage the message from earth into Na’vi society, that’s good enough. The movie plot itself accidentally proved that Project Avatar is nothing but a waste of money only for certain people’s love affairs.
  2. Wossname big bird rider
    In such a society as Na’vi’s, it’s normal that might stands for weight of words. But to prove one’s might, riding the wossname bird isn’t really a good idea. Firstly according to the movie itself, the wossname birds is so big that it never concerns if there is any other creature coming from above to attack it. Secondly, Avatar’s “USB ports on living creature“ setting is so convenient that it renders the taming of the big ass bird on the easy side. All you have to do is to drop from above (proved not hard), fall on its back (with luck factors), and plug the cable (hard but no legendary feat). I dare say that if Na’vi people could spare a dozen of magnificent young men each month, drop them down on the big birds from high above, say, five in a bundle. Chances are pretty good that two or three of them could make the landing, and three fully grown (and damn hard to kill) men trying to grab one single cable wouldn’t be so hard. One plug then the bird is yours. By this way the Na’vi could have a couple of legendary wossname-riders on a monthly basis. Giving Jake political power by this means is hardly persuasive.

Final Conclusion

Avatar is a good movie with tense action, stunning visual, and blocked a lot of busters. However, on a calm review, it should not be overburdened with morals or mapped into real events. There are fresh ideas, however the whole plot isn’t anything new. Luckily, with outstanding 3D visual and dense pre-hype, the somewhat thin plot is pretty well under cover. It has obvious plot flaws and cliché which normally shouldn’t be a problem but in this heavily hyped case must be counted. This is a piece of jewel, but not yet masterwork. In other words, it’s definitely not a movie that you will talk about after two decades.

If I’m any judge, my rating to Avatar (on a 10 points scale) will be 8, give or take 0.5. A great ton of fun, but didn’t live up to the building hype and expectation.

Misc.

In Chinese modern literature courses Lu Xun is a very important figure. He is famous for his cynical style and very weird usage of language. One of teathers’ all-time-favorite question goes like “Mr. Lu Xun once wrote ‘In front of my house there are two trees. One of them is a jujube tree while the other of the two if also a jujube tree.’ Why didn’t he just say ‘there are two jujube trees in front of my house’?”

This nasty riddle haunted a lot of teenager’s dreams. We used to be taught with something I can no longer remember as a standard answer. But now if confronted with this annoying little bugger of a questions again, my answer will be “well you can have your say, but I still think Grandmaster Lu did this out of utterly boredom. Let’s leave the poor jujube trees alone.”

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