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Avatar (2009)

14 January 2010 by Gnoll 3 Comments
AVATAR

2009, Dir. James Cameron
162 min, Rated PG-13.
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang.

Review by Gnoll

So by now, you’ve probably seen Avatar. If you haven’t, you know someone who has. Chances are, that person has told you either how blown away they were by the movie or how bad they thought it was. You probably haven’t heard from many people who said something along the lines of “yeah, it was okay”, because that’s just not the kind of movie this is. It will leave an impression on you, regardless of how apathetic you are.

As someone who saw Avatar weeks ago, I will gladly take the side of those who proclaimed its sheer awesomeness. I even saw it in 3-D, which I personally am not a fan of, but it didn’t take away from the overall presentation. The visuals were breathtaking, the action was fun, and the characters were likeable. It engaged me for the entirety of its nearly three-hour runtime, and I enjoyed almost every second of it.

There, that’s all the actual review you’re getting from me. The rest of what I’m about to scrawl is going a be a little little tangental.

Most reviewers shared my sentiment. 94% of top critics on Rotten Tomatoes rated it positively. But just as its predecessor, Titanic, Avatar started getting a little bit of backlash. The biggest criticism seemed to be from those who complained about the redundancy of the story. Wait, scratch that. The only criticism seemed to be from those who complained about the redundancy of the story. Detractors took great pride when they figured out the big secret: the plot was vastly similar to a slew of previously-seen films: Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, The New World, and even FernGully.

I hate to use an overused bon mot, but no shit, Sherlock.

Here’s a newsflash: It’s the twenty-first century. Humans have been telling stories for thousands of years. And you know what? They’ve pretty much all been told. Coming up with an original, all-new story is more or less a fruitless effort in this day and age. It’s not the story that’s important; it’s how you tell the story that matters.

Star Wars wasn’t exactly the most original story ever told. It borrowed heavily from Kurosawa’a The Hidden Fortess and Yojimbo, with a little of the Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers serials tossed in. Despite this, it’s still one of the most beloved films ever created. The universe in which its set is unique, the characters are iconic, and the story is compelling. The same is true for many of the other beloved cinematic achievements. The Lion King is basically just a cuddly retelling of Hamlet, O Brother, Where Are You is a clever update of The Odyssey, West Side Story is a song-and-dance version of Romeo and Juliet, Clueless was a valley girl adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, and The Magnificent Seven is a Western remake of The Seven Samurai. Classic Greek literature, the works of Shakespeare, and the Bible inspire practically 90% of what you see in theaters today. Basic storylines and archetypal characters are recycled left and right, and this is a trope that has existed as long as societies have.

So yes, the basic story in Avatar is a lot like the one in Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, The New World, and even FernGully. And it’s for good reason: It’s a damn good story.

As a side note, a lot of stuff you see is based on an otherwise uninteresting story that is made more interesting by the way it’s told. Look at Citizen Kane. An old rich guy dies, and people try to figure out what the word “Rosebud” means for two hours. That doesn’t really sound like an exciting tale, but it’s told in a way that is completely compelling. Telling a tale out of sequence can do a lot for a story that might not otherwise be that exciting. Memento. Pulp Fiction. 500 Days of Summer.. That episode of Seinfeld where they go to India for the wedding. Again, it’s not the story that matters, it’s how you tell it.

And those two primary examples I listed above, Citizen Kane and Star Wars, have something else in common: They were revolutionary in their medium. Avatar has the potential to join them there as well.

I do blame a lot of this backlash on hype. 20th Century Fox wanted you to believe this would change the way you see movies forever. The marketing campaign may have been a wee bit over-the-top. I was actually somewhat dreading Avatar before I saw it. From the early footage, the blue-cat-alien thingys looked cartoonish and silly. The action looked generic. And when the marketing deluge began in early November, I wasn’t sure what the studio was thinking. Ads would rotate back and forth, one showing explosions and fast-paced action while hyping up Cameron’s work on Terminator 2 and True Lies, the next highlighting the romantic and epic overtones while associating Cameron with Titanic. I knew they were going for multiple facets of the audience, but it looked to me like they were going to just wind up confusing and alienating people. As the merchandise started flooding the local Target stores, I was already sick of it.

But I was proven wrong. And so were many others. As of right now, Avatar is the fifth-highest grossing film of all time in the United States and in second place worldwide, and is almost guaranteed to at least wind up in second (only behind Titanic) in the long run.

But it won’t be the last time somebody tells this story. You know, that story that in a few years, people will say is a lot like the one in Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, The New World, and even Avatar.

3 Comments »

  • Jarin said:

    Okay, I’m going to have to disagree with you. The problem wasn’t that the story was a retelling of an earlier story. You’re right, that’s done all the time, and isn’t a reason to criticize a movie. The problem is that the characters are two dimensional; especially the villains. You have corporate arsehole and military jackboots just basically doing whatever they can to display themselves as BIG EVIL STRAWMEN for the underdog nature-loving heroes to shoot down. It’s been said that in a good story, the villain needs to be the most interesting character, and I’d agree with this. BIG OBVIOUS EVIL is the lazy writer’s way out. I want some motivations and character in my evil, thank you very much.

    Also. Unobtanium? REALLY?

  • Gnoll (author) said:

    I loved the “Unobtanium” name, and meant to mention it in the review. If you know how the minds of modern scientists work, that’s actually the most realitic thing in the movie.

  • Dave said:

    The problem isn’t that the story is unoriginal, it’s that the story is unoriginal and it’s the same tired story that’s been told over the period of 20 years. It’s like every 2-5 years someone feels the asinine urge to retell the story, but every time it’s the same boring trash that was jammed down our throats the last time. The only difference now is that the enemy is corporations and military expansionism instead of the various villains of Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Pocahontas, The New World, and Fern Gully.

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