‘Avatar’: ‘Wow Factor’ Drives By-the-Numbers Story to Massive Sales, Golden Globe

With ‘Avatar’ winning a Golden Globe and quickly catching up to the all-time box office moneymaking leader, Titanic, with about $1.68 billion earned, everyone’s certainly heard of its stunning visuals.

For those who want to look past the hype and glitz, and see a somewhat more measured take on ‘Avatar’, we offer this assessment by Osmosis Online’s film guy, Ken Coffelt, originally published Dec. 28, 2009 on his Film Diary site.


(2009) dir. James Cameron
Viewed: 12/28/09 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, San Francisco, Calif.

James Cameron (‘Titanic’ [1997], among others) has finally unleashed his ‘Avatar‘ on the public. Long in incubation, heavy on the expensive technology (nearly 70% computer graphics, including much motion-capture), and promoted as the greatest thing (this week or last) since whatever the last greatest thing was, this movie took a lot to make and is dragging in viewers and money.

And it looks pretty slick. Mostly.

The first 5-10 minutes of a movie can be really telling for me.

With most films, I’m not so into the narrative and end up thinking to myself, “it’s going to be a long two hours.” Alternately, as in the case with Avatar, it’s in the first 5-10 minutes that I get kinda psyched up. Avatar looked good, it was moving, and I was ready to be entertained. And it’s entertaining. And it’s 3-D in most cases. In my case.

But the movie, for all its visual flair, is also somewhat compromised by its own art design. The alien race (the good guys in this case) are the Na’vi, giant blue people who vaguely resemble tigers. Which is hard enough to portray in and of itself. All acted and performed via motion-capture, the movements have a vague realism, and facial expressions recall the actual faces of the actors who are represented by the digital blue figures. You see, the irony is, that all of the Na’vi are “avatars”, or beings representative of real other beings, who act them out like puppets.

Only, in the story, the humans have to construct “avatar” bodies to compete and make friends with the Na’vi (though this doesn’t ultimately make a lot of sense). And the humans are mostly evil, representatives of corporate greed and military might and rightness. They are after the destruction of the homeland of the blue folks in order to harvest “unobtainium”. That is the kind of science fiction nomenclature that I might make up.

The film significantly echoes Cameron’s ‘Aliens’ (1986), with Sigourney Weaver coming out of cryogenic sleep. Whereas the African-American captain in that film popped a cigar instantly in his mouth after coming back from the land of nod, Weaver demands a cigarette. But other archetypes from ‘Aliens’ abound: the space marines, even with a butch female pilot (Michelle Rodriguez) and a sleazeball corporate money-grubber, this time Giovanni Ribisi and not Paul Reiser. Oh, and of course, “aliens.”

It may just be that there are only so many character types in James Cameron’s playbook. Instead of the gut-busting, acid spewing villains of the ‘Aliens’ franchise, the aliens in Avatar are hyper-idealized humanoids, none of whom have an ounce of body fat between them. They are also presented as a race, more laudable for being highly in touch with the planet. But their treatment at the hands of the corporate militia is as “monkeys” or some other epithet meant to cast them as “below human,” as if to justify their destruction.

So, we got genocide.

And as lushly as the planet is depicted (Pandora is its name), it also sort of recalls black-light design, Spencer’s Gifts circa 1984, and the ‘magical music’ that accompanies this display practically screams, “Isn’t it wondrous? Isn’t it beautiful?” More like it’s day-glo in the dark.

Certainly, if the film is to be seen, it should be seen on the big screen, probably with the 3-D glasses. Better now than later. The key appeal, the “wow factor,” are impressive . . . but they might not age so well. Especially on the small screen.

Time will tell. It usually does.

For more of Ken’s vast archive of film reviews, please visit The Kennelco Film Diary.


3 comments for “‘Avatar’: ‘Wow Factor’ Drives By-the-Numbers Story to Massive Sales, Golden Globe

  1. February 5, 2010 at 9:58 pm


  2. February 7, 2010 at 9:31 pm

    During the movie, I was momentarily messed up by most of the same things that were been discussed here, but for the most part, I overcame them as my pleasure continued. Even the heavy-handed depiction of commercialism or the over controlling were accepted as being a important section of the story.But there one small thing that (oddly enough, I guess) upset me. There was no way to go back and view it after, but I’m pretty sure that when the Colonel was killed, he took his hands off the robot controls, trying to remove the arrow/bolt. Yet, with the Colonel’s death, the robot TOPPLED OVER! I would have expected such a machine just to simply stop moving and stand there.

Leave a Reply

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