What do you get when you cross a Bratz doll with a Smurf? A Na’vi.
Yup, folks, I finally caught up with my pop culture and went to see Avatar last night. Seeing it made me realize why I so seldom bother to catch up with pop culture. The movie was a snoozer. The first two hours were mostly a college freshman’s fantasy anthropology thesis leavened by myriad cliches and really bad acting. At the very end, when the action adventure sequences finally kicked in, I didn’t think the visual quality or the plot turns were any better than the most recent Transformers movie.
Others have written about the movie’s politics, which are certainly offensive (military evil, corporations evil) and stupidly demeaning (indigenous people are child-like angels on earth), so I won’t go there. What bugged me was how derivative the movie was. Again, others have commented on the way in which Cameron simply recycled Dances With Wolves and a gazillion other movies in which the evil American military and corporations seek to destroy indigenous people, only to have a messiah like ex-military or ex-corporate person ride in to save the innocent indigenous who can’t save themselves. All that goes without saying given Cameron’s knee jerk politics (although I don’t see him donating his profits to any indigenous people’s groups). Nope, what bugged me was the lazy derivative quality that had Cameron borrowing from a bunch of other movies.
For starters, as I said, the creepy Na’vi were clearly inspired by hybridizing Bratz dolls and Smurfs. Here, I’ll illustrate.
First, the Bratz dolls, with their big heads, huge, highly colored eyes, and abnormally elongated bodies:
Next, the Smurfs, with their blue skin and big ears:
Blend these pop culture images, and you end up with Na’vi, completed with oversized heads, big ears, big eyes, blue skin and weirdly elongated bodies:
The only mystery is how the Na’vis figured out, on their own, the wonders of corn-rowed hair:
But the borrowing didn’t stop there. Do you remember when Jake Sully was giving his impassioned “we can’t all get along” speech? Because the movie was in 3D, Jake’s wagging little tail kept distracting my eye. It didn’t take me long to track down that image either:
Twice in the Wizard of Oz (that I can remember) that tail took center stage: once when the four friends began their long walk down the hallway to meet the Wizard for the first time, and once again when the tail kept peeking out of the costume the Cowardly Lion had stolen from the witch’s guards. There is no doubt in my mind that the same genius who designed the tail for the Wizard of Oz got resurrected to help out with the Na’vi.
Cameron raided old Hollywood for other ideas. The night time scenes of a luminous Pandora were pretty, but certainly not original. Disney got there first, all the way back in 1940, in the lovely Nutcracker Suite part of Fantasia:
For the goddess’ tree, those glowing, hanging limbs, into which the Na’vi can plug their braids, were clearly inspired by commercial grade rope lights, right down to the little bulbs embedded in the strand, and the plugs at the end:
As for the dialogue . . . bleh! Cameron is a terrible writer. Borrowed ideas, film cliches (people always whoop in helicopters or when they’re otherwise flying) and, worst, unbelievably hackneyed lines borrowed from decades of bad action movies:
[to Jake, before he becomes an Avatar]
Dr. Grace Augustine: Just relax and let your mind go blank. That shouldn’t be too hard for you.
Dr. Grace Augustine: So you just figured you’d come here, to the most hostile environment known to men, with no training of any kind, and see how it went? What was going through your head?
Jake Sully: Maybe I was sick of doctors telling me what I couldn’t do.
Trudy Chacon: [fires on Quaritch's Hellicopter] Your’e not the only one with a gun, Bitch!
Col. Quaritch: Yo Sully! How does it feel to betray your own race?
Jake Sully: It’s over.
Col. Quaritch: Nothing’s over while I’m breathing.
Jake Sully: I was kinda hoping you’d say that.
Cliches, insults, wooden writing, it’s all there. I’m surprised Cameron didn’t manage to have the wacko Marine Colonel throw in “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” To be fair to Cameron’s bad writing and nasty attitude, though, he did manage to get in a snide reference to “shock and awe” by referring to the campaign against the angelic Na’vi in those terms.
I could go on, but it’s like re-living a bad dream over and over. For 162 minutes, I writhed in my theater seat, overwhelmed by boredom, leavened only by the occasional disgust. What a lousy movie. If it wasn’t for the computer animation, it would have sunk like a stone. And to be honest, even the animation wasn’t that good. [Slight spoiler alert:] The only time I really felt it added to the movie was when ash was falling after the crazed military bombed the great tree. That was kind of pretty. [End of slight spoiler.]
If you’ve seen Avatar, I bet you know what I’m talking about. And if you haven’t, save your money. Or better, the ticket price to a gift basket at Soldier’s Angels. Those guys and gals deserve it after the massive insult lobbed at them in the most popular movie in years.
UPDATE: Silly me. I forgot another borrowing. (The following is a slight spoiler, if you care.) When the born-again indigenous Jake calls upon the earth for help, and gets that help, that came right out of Tolkein and C.S. Lewis (who borrowed the concept from Tolkein). In both those classics, the enraged trees in a land despoiled by evil end up helping the good guys. Funnily enough, though, I never saw either Tolkein or Lewis as savage critics of corporatism, conventional religion or their own nation’s military. I must have missed something.