December 17, 2009

Army vs. Indians in Avatar

'Dances with Wolves' in space

James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’ gets the visuals right and just about everything else wrong

By Carl Kozlowski
Imagine the story of a soldier sent to fight native tribes for their land who finds that, once he actually meets and gets to know them, respects them too much to follow through with his mission. Gradually he becomes one of the tribe, leaving his old way of life behind to embrace their nature-loving culture.

You might think you’ve just read the synopsis for Kevin Costner’s Oscar-winning classic “Dances With Wolves.” But it’s actually also the core plot of another Oscar-winning director’s new film: James Cameron’s “Avatar.” The fact that “Avatar” is basically “Dances With Wolves in Space” represents the film’s major flaw. For despite being the most expensive film of all time, with a $300 million production cost and another estimated $200 million spent on advertising, “Avatar” is also one of the most derivative films of all time.
And:Cameron knows how to dazzle visually, covering Pandora with a seemingly endless array of gorgeous vegetation and alternately beautiful and horrifying creatures. And when the time comes, he delivers battle scenes that drew jaw-dropping gasps and even applause from the audience at an advance screening.

But these terrific elements are ultimately dragged down by the fact that Cameron’s screenplay seems to be cobbled together with derivative elements from many other films, even aside from “Wolves.” There are two resurrection-style scenes that seem cribbed from Cameron’s own underrated 1989 film, “The Abyss,” and when the RDA mercenaries come crashing in for their initial attack on the Na’vi, much of the assault seem lifted from “Apocalypse Now.”

Add in the fact that the Na’vi simply appear to be blue-hued Native Americans with tails, and that their worship service to a god named Eywu (a name that resembles Yahweh when spoken in the film, in yet another unsubtle touch) seems like it could be set to Elton John’s “Circle of Life,” and the hokum factor adds up fast.

But worst of all is the fact that the RDA forces dress, look and act like US Marines, and their assaults play out like a greatest-hits collection of America’s worst military atrocities, from napalm-style bombings to driving the Na’vi away in a sequence that resembles depictions of the Native Americans’ Trail of Tears. Col. Quattrich resembles Donald Rumsfeld in both appearance and tone, particularly a ridiculously heavy-handed speech in which he tells his forces of the need for “pre-emptive war” to get what they want, and another character’s statement that the military assault will be “shock and awe.”
Only scrawny script mars stunning 'Avatar'

By Jeffrey WesthoffThe chief’s daughter, Neytiri spares Jake’s life and shows him the ways of the Na’vi. Meanwhile, Jake’s military and corporate masters plot to rout the tribe and steal their land. This is the same basic story as the Disney version of “Pocahontas,” except there the villains were drawn with more subtlety.

“Avatar’s” main bad guy is cigar-chomping Col. Miles Quaritch (Steven Lang) who sneers when he isn’t snarling. His ally is a corporate weasel played by Giovanni Ribisi. This is a philosophical shift for Cameron. In “Aliens” the Marines were dupes of an evil corporation, but in “Avatar” they are collaborators.

Cameron’s ecological messages are obvious. “The wealth of their world isn’t in the ground,” says an enlightened Jake, “it’s all around them.” Just as plain are Cameron’s criticisms of the Iraq war. “Our only security,” growls Col. Quaritch, “is a preemptive attack.”

Much of the message-free dialogue is just plain bad. “We’ve got to take this to take it to a whole new level,” says Avatar Jake as he rallies the Na’vi in their uprising against the military-industrial complex. Don’t tell me you didn’t see that coming.
Comment:  Several reviews have compared Avatar to Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas. Most reviews have said the story isn't as good as the art. Every review has noted the stunning visuals.

For more on the subject, see Evoking Natives in Avatar and The Best Indian Movies.

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