Review: Avatar (2009)

OK, I rarely write movie reviews anymore. But Avatar deserves a small rant after wasting 3 hours of my time.

It’s been a drought of a movie season this fall. I haven’t been to the theater in weeks, so the crop of December films had me pretty excited. (And I’ve not entirely given up hope.)  Yet, despite its 80-something percent “fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.com, Avatar bombed out. IMHO

James Cameron stole my soul when he wrote and directed Terminator (and T2).  Definitely some of the finest and most thoughtful sci-fi films ever made. Titanic raked in billions by showing us the predictable death of the unsinkable ship and an equally predictable love triangle; it’s basically female emotional porn. (Manipulation of the “love receptors,” no?) Having embraced the digital moviemaking techniques of the 21st C along with the ability to now show 3D movies practically anywhere, Cameron’s Avatar was supposed to give us the most incredible visual experience we’ve had yet.

Check.

avatar movie Indeed, Avatar is beautiful.  Blue stripey people in semi-African clothing run around a lush digital jungle stocked full of creatures any kid who plays Spore would love to claim as his own creation. The blend of digital and human is stunning….  this is not your older brother’s video-game animation here. The digitized figures are fully human, not that weird and awkward stage where even the best video game animation currently resides.

I went in to Avatar with a positive outlook (buoyed by its high ratings) and ready to see a decent story in lovely form.  Instead I got a visual overload (how many times can you say “ah!” before you just don’t care anymore?) and possibly the worst story I’ve watched on film voluntarily since Pearl Harbor.

In fact, you don’t even need to see Avatar to know the story.  Take Al Gore’s environmental doomsday theology, mix in your favorite Disney fantasy characters (preferably from a preachy film like Pocahontas), and fill in the rest from your knowledge of African culture and the US’s treatment of Native Americans. (Ken Burns did a great miniseries on PBS.)  Now delete any emotional interest you have in the characters, reduce all the “bad guys” to one-dimensional worse-than-stock villains, and you’re set.

In a word: Predictable.  Down to the last condescending implication that humans hate our Mother Goddess Earth, you can guess every turn before it twists, see every manipulative guilt trip line long before some character utters it.

It deserves to be a footnote in film history for its groundbreaking blend of computer and human … but I don’t read footnotes for 3 hours just for fun.

For the love of all that is Story, leave Avatar on the shelf.  IMHO.
Unless you are particularly in love with beautiful digital animation.  In that case, buy yourself the super-sized popcorn & drink before you settle in to see this on the big screen –it’s a full 3 hours long, and the story sure isn’t going to hold your attention by itself for 180 minutes.

Update:
Our friend & fellow movie fiend Brett went back to see the film in 3D (we saw it with a crowd who wanted the 2D experience, and that’s ok by me, because movies are expensive enough without adding $3.50 for the special glasses, I mean, really?!)…. anyway, Brett said the 3D version was 1,000x better than seeing it in 2D. He found the visuals to be very compelling, and groundbreaking enough to excuse the utterly pathetic plot.

I refuse to put my butt through those 2.5 hours of torture ever again, regardless….

Homage

Only a few occupations provide a euphoric sense of accomplishment as well as the release from the burden of responsibility … and directing a play to its final end is one of them. 

This will surprise many people (which kind of makes me laugh, actually, since it seems pretty obvious to ME), but I much prefer directing to acting. My acting skills suck, to be honest. Directing (like coaching) is a vastly different package of creativity and orderliness — one that comes far more naturally to me than the vulnerable emotional exposure of public performance.

The Psalmist instructs us to “give to the Lord the glory due His name.”  I must give praise lest I accept the Lord’s mercies arrogantly and without gratitude.

Today was a rough day around NCS. Unless you’re out of state or live under a rock, you’ve heard that a local Hanna student & football player, Jake Nicolopolis, had a severe stroke yesterday and has been in critical condition for 36 hours.  One of my main actors in tonight’s show is Jake’s best friend. Andrew spent most of the past 24 hours at the hospital, and he didn’t perform for either show today.  Obviously, I understand that life throws curve balls, and Andrew as a person is worlds more important than a play.

That said, we had a play to perform — with our without one of our leads.

I never have the manpower to cast understudies. For five years now, we’ve trusted God to keep actors healthy enough to perform. Despite some very close calls, today was the first day I had to actually face a serious absence within a cast on performance day.

In addition, several kids at school know Jake, Their hearts are heavy – as should be when something this serious is going on.  I had just been reading James 5 in my homeroom devotions. “Is any one sad among you? Let him pray. Is any cheerful? Let him sing songs. Is any sick? Let him ask the elders of the church to pray for him…. ”   “The effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man accomplishes much.”   The patience of Job; the faith of Elijah. Those ideas were divinely placed into our minds at just the right time this week.

It’s scary to perform a comedy when your student body is wrestling with the BIG QUESTIONS of life, like “Is God trustworthy?” “What if my friend dies?” “Is it disloyal to laugh, to have fun, to perform a play when someone is seriously sick?”   I never belittle the adolescent journey through the big questions — because teens haven’t learned yet how to ignore the ideas that really matter.  We adults hide our anxieties and lack of faith very effectively.  It’s not healthy.

I like to remind grown adults that many teens are forming their relationships with God during these years, and they don’t really know Him all that well.  It’s like being lost in the grocery stores when you are 4…. your mom might be just around the corner, but you sure do fall apart when she’s not in your line of sight.  The relationship is too fragile for you to “feel” her absence.  God must “parent” us all into deeper, further trust in His wisdom and goodness.

So today we all spent a lot of time praying — for Jake, for his friends who hurt with him, for our play.  I didn’t have any choice but to pray and trust. Either it would work, or it wouldn’t.  Jack Knipe stepped up to fill in Andrew’s role, with no rehearsal before the first performance and no knowledge of the script. We would accept the Lord’s mercies from His hand as He saw fit to give them.  That’s how it would be.

How beautiful it is for me to say that the Lord is again faithful to His people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more unified play cast, a smoother production, a better set of performances from this group of students. I am incredibly proud of the way the students handled their emotions today and their responsibilities to each other and the wider community.  And I’m positive that God was giving us quiet grace — the grace for living that we take for granted until “living” itself becomes a struggle.

So. For public record — today’s shows were great.  If you saw one, go remind the actors about their great work, because they deserve praise. But we all acknowledge the rich mercies of the Lord in carrying us through a tough, tough day.   Amen.