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The Blue & Gray Press | August 17, 2019

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"Avatar": New Look, Same Old Story

Maybe I would have liked James Cameron’s mega-movie “Avatar” if I hadn’t seen Disney’s “Pocahontas” fifteen years ago. But I did, so instead I was just bored out of my mind. Sure, the special effects are great and the 3D technology does some amazing things that haven’t been done before. But remove the flashy graphics, and you’re left with a completely bland, predictable movie.

Normally, at this point in a review, I’d explain the basic premise of the movie to give you an idea of what it’s about. With “Avatar,” I don’t have to. If you’ve seen “Pocahontas,” “The Last Samurai,” “Dances With Wolves,” “The New World,” or “FernGully: The Last Rainforest,” you’ve seen “Avatar” before.

From start to finish, you could probably tell me everything that happens in this movie if you just replace “Native Americans” with “weird blue people” and “gold” with “unobtainium.”

You will never be surprised by “Avatar.” You will never wonder what’s going to happen next. The only twist in “Avatar” is that there is no twist. I kept waiting for the plot to play with my expectations and take some crazy turn to keep me interested, but it never did. Not every movie needs to be some unpredictable, Shyamalanian mystery, but “Avatar” borders on plagiarism.

The 3D effects went a long way toward stopping me from walking out of the theater, but mostly because I paid extra for the ticket and felt obligated to stay. For about half an hour, I was pretty amazed with how good everything looked.

The best 3D effects the movie employs are also the subtlest; the glare of glass that takes a second to register that it’s actually in front of someone’s face, for instance. But after that initial half an hour of wow, I became desensitized to the special effects and concentrated on what was actually going on in the story. I literally had to be nudged awake at one point.

If James Cameron is a genius for anything, it’s for finding a way to so transparently repackage the exact same story we have seen for decades and still be heralded as a visionary.


  1. Jay Mahan

    Perfect assessment. Completely spot-on.

  2. bollverk

    While most of the movies you mentioned are historical, Avatar is interesting because it presents a dystopian vision of human future. For some people it is easy to fathom that in 20, 50 years technology will exist to fix broken spines, yet we will only use it on people who have the money. Some others realize that right now, we are fighting wars for oil, or for example the Chinese are relocating entire cities to build mega-dams for energy.

    But many people don’t, which is why I find Avatar an important piece of work in the right mindset. Superficially, it is bland enough, but there are those subtle hints which the movie only alluded to which makes it interesting. I hope that Cameron wanted the first part to be a cash cow so he can revisit some of the more interesting stuff in the sequels.

  3. Good review, but I highly object to your inclusion of The New World in the list of similarly bland films. That film is anything but simplistic.

  4. @bollverk: There are plenty of movies that present thought-provoking visions of the future without also ripping off plots of the past.

  5. Daniel Arias

    You may be looking at it the wrong way.

    Morgan Meis has a fitting commentary at the Smart Set:

    “It is fitting, then, that the story told in Avatar is so very dumb. It’s the standard dehumanizing evils of modernity versus authentic people of the forest tale. But just like in the good old days, the story isn’t what we’re there for. We are there to see reality expanded once again, to see digital technology create a coherent world that never existed anywhere on the corporeal plain. A good story would get in the way. …Our minds were being, if gently, blown. That is worth something, to have one’s sense of reality tweaked in a format that has otherwise been so comfortable for so long. What happens in the movie? Who cares? But dammit if Sallie Gardner doesn’t ride again.”

  6. Kelsey

    There’s a reason this movie is the number two best selling movie of all time.
    Avatar reinvented the way our movies are made, it can hardly be compared to Pocahontas and Fern Gully. Similar messages and story lines, but done on entirely different levels. It’s okay to like a movie that everyone else likes! That’s because it was a great movie! I say just sit back, relax, and enjoy the cinematography.

  7. If “Avatar reinvented the way our movies are made” because “a good story would get in the way,” then I weep for the future of cinema.

    If you want amazing, immersive worlds, play video games. They are the very definition of “coherent [worlds] that never existed anywhere on the corporeal plain.” But cinema requires me to care about characters and what’s going on in their lives, and if you’re telling me that I /shouldn’t/ care about Jake Sully and I /shouldn’t/ care about Neytiri or what’s going on in their lives, then what is the point of Avatar?

    If all you wanted was to be immersed in the world of Pandora, with all its neon fauna and blue monkeys instead of brown and blue horses instead of brown, then why not demand for the narrative to be completely stricken? Obviously it’s getting in the way. Why not just demand a “Planet Earth”-style documentary about Pandora?

  8. Kelsey

    Well, the whole ‘pocahontas’ storyline is pretty good! Maybe thats just my opinion, but I think it was redone because it is a classic story that people enjoy. I think if you’re going to ‘rip off’ an old story line for a movie, you better do a good job with it, and IMPROVE it. If you do that, then whatever its cool with me! I think Avatar definitely took the old story and kicked it up a few notches, adding its own creative adaptations to it. And I would love to see a planet earth documentary of pandora!!! :] Too bad its not real. Let’s be real here, Thomas, who wouldn’t want to fly on a freaking bird/dragon?!

  9. David

    Let me start by saying that, under normal circumstances, I would make a much more academic appeal to your review of this movie. It’s unlike me to volley ad hominem in large doses.

    Still. Quite frankly, Thomas… you lost credibility when you compared the movie to Pocahontas in your first sentence. The statement, “I liked Avatar better back when it was called Pocahontas” has been said on so many occasions that it’s become a cliche. And if it wasn’t bad enough that you snuck that in there thinking you’d be clever enough to present it as your own material, you had to take it further by likening it to all the other movies it’s been compared to as well.

    What really irks me, though, is the lack of professionalism invested in your review. Not once in your entire argument do you cite a specific account or make reference to those areas you felt made the movie weak. You get close when discussing the 3D aspects of the movie, but its unlinked to your main argument and comes off as rather trivial. As does your tone which, despite being consistent, feels far more didactic than reflexive.

    Let me put it this way. I’m a Computer Science major here and a programmer for a very popular game developer. Over the summer, I worked specifically on a series of expansions for the game Fallout 3. After each release, my coworkers and I would take time to read carefully through each game review; discussing the major points along the way. We didn’t do this to gather the general *opinion* of the game… we did so to get an objective evaluation of our work. Just something to keep in mind.

  10. If it’s a relevant statement, I personally don’t care if it’s cliche or not. All I could think about during that movie is “this is just Pocahontas. Why did I pay money for this?” I think that idea comes through pretty strongly in my review. I never presented that idea as though it was my own; I simply presented it.

    As for the lack of specifics, there are two reasons for that. The first is that I mention that the movie blatantly rips off these other stories and that someone who hasn’t even seen Avatar could probably tell me everything that happens in it. Going over “here’s Avatar’s equivalent of this story event” to prove it would be redundant.

    The second reason is that I had a word count to meet, and to be honest, I already went over it with this review. I would’ve loved to go into further detail about how uninteresting and cliche the characters are, how I caught some of the fake Native American accents dropping out, how the world of Pandora itself is just a color swap of Earth, etc. I really would have. But I didn’t have space, so I decided what the most important message I wanted to convey was and focused on that.

    But believe me, I wanted to list more examples of the 3D and that sort of thing. The reason why 3D feels unrelated is because it’s just something I needed to address. So much of that movie rides on the presentation that I couldn’t NOT address it. The best I could do was tie it back in at the end of my 3D discussion.

    And as for an “objective evaluation,” if there’s one thing I want people (especially anyone actually involved in Avatar) to take away from this review is that story matters. Have something original. Not everyone is content with the copy/paste approach.