Avatar: epic or overrated?


Yes, I know there are roughly 6 trillion blogs, articles, columns and others discussing Avatar and gushing over James Cameron’s 'incomparable vision'.  However, I thought it was time that an independent observer without prejudice or agenda had a go at reviewing it.

Sadly, that person was unavailable so I decided to write it myself. 

Does the film belong at the upper echelon of great cinematic achievements, or is it another Titanic; a big budget waste of time?

The answer, in my not-so-humble opinion, is: both.

To properly evaluate Avatar though, I had to come up with some criteria.  Since I can’t be bothered going all Roger Ebert on you, I decided to think of my favourite films and why I like them.

First, the film needs to be ‘rewatchable’.  In other words, if you see it on TV, it doesn’t matter that you already own it on DVD, you’re sitting down to watch it.

Secondly, it needs to have an ‘x’ factor.  Whether that’s the Dude Where’s My Car ‘guaranteed to make you laugh out loud even though you can quote the line about to be said’ factor, or the Dead Poets Society “even though I know what happens it still has me enthralled’ factor, or the Star Wars “I can’t believe I still like watching this film even though I’ve seen it a billion times’ factor.  Once a movie has one of these factors, it immediately makes my ‘good’ film list.

Thirdly, it needs the Superman-esque ‘I’m making my friend watch this and I really, REALLY want them to like it otherwise I will hang my head in shame for having made them watch it and I might keel over and die right now’ factor. 

You know this one.  There’s the film you love only your mate hasn’t seen it, so you force them to watch it while you’re leaping out of your chair explaining every little nuance to them, all the time annoying the crap out of them.  Good times.

A perfect criteria?  No.  A lazy critera? Yes.  So, how does Avatar stack up?


To be blunt, I’m not sure Avatar has it.  I only saw it once at the movies which isn’t a good start.  Mind you, when I did see it at the movies, I was fairly blown away.

First off, it was the first 3d film I’d seen since a Michael Jackson 20 minute promo video at Disneyland when I was 11 that managed to convince me that MJ was an alien.  In other words, it was the first 3d movie I’d ever seen. 

When you add the absolutely awesome visual effects, well, I wasn’t leaving the theatre for anything.  Seriously, someone could have said “Hey Dylan, Jennifer Hawkins is outside and said she’d like to go out with you tonight” and I wouldn’t have left.1  It was that enthralling to see the mystical world of Pandora.

However, that was pretty much the only thing that had me.  Had I gone back a second time to watch the film, all the magic of seeing the new world for the first time would have been lost.  Plus, I would’ve expected the terrible dialogue like, “I’ve got a helicopter too” or the horribly disguised digs at Dubya, “We shall fight terror with terror”, rather than being surprised by them and proceeding to laugh myself silly.

When you then take into consideration the length of the movie (it felt like it went for longer than a Kevin Rudd sentence) it lost its rewatchability.  So, to be blunt, if someone said to me “Hey, I’ve got Avatar on DVD.  Want to watch it?” I’d probably say “No, I have to be home in 5 hours.”

X Factor

This is hard to measure because, by definition, it’s impossible to measure intangibles.  However, you think that’s going to stop me trying?  No way!

Basically, this film did have something going for it.  The graphics were, as I said before, absolutely ridiculous.  When you add to that the fact they were in 3d, well, that just elevates it to another level entirely.  If this were sport, it’d be the equivalent of winning the championship and then signing the best player in the league to your roster for the next season.  It’s the cherry on the sundae.  And yes, I realise I just went back to back with sports and food similes.  What can I say, it needed that extra level.

The thing that most appealed as the X Factor wasn’t just the unbelievable graphics/effects.  It was how fantastical everything was.  It really felt like an event.  As the film started, you had no idea what Pandora would look like.  But as the guy from Terminator explored the land more, you started to feel more excited about it.  And when he was wrestling that pterodactyl bird thing, it felt like the Delorean had hit 88 mph.  In other words, you saw some serious s&^%.

That to me is an x factor.  If I can be sucked into thinking that there’s a good chance the main character will die even though it’s only halfway through the movie, then something’s gone right. 

So, I would say that this film does have a bit of X Factor to it after all.

The ‘I’m making my friend watch this and I really, REALLY want them to like it otherwise I will hang my head in shame for having made them watch it and I might keel over and die right now’ factor

For a film to have this factor, it means I want my friend to love it.  In other words, I need to love it.  And for Avatar, I’m afraid I didn’t love it.

Yes I thought the spectacle was amazing, but all this garbage about James Cameron’s vision and him creating a new world is hardly unique.  In order to debunk the ‘vision factor', let’s analyse the two things that people hail as extraordinary about the film.

1: He created a world from scratch that was believable and captured your imagination

Sorry, but this is hardly unique.  Sure he had better systems at his disposal in order to create the way the world looked, but was he the first to create a new world that captured your imagination?  Uh no. 

Look at The Matrix. It created not only a new world, but an entirely new reality that captured your imagination.  Look at Star Wars.  Not just one world, but multiple worlds!  I could go on and on here but you have better things to do than to read my arguments as to why a stupid claim is actually stupid.  Can we just all please agree that this new world was fun, but wasn’t unique?  Thank you.

2: He captured a ‘human’ storyline that had never been told before

This is the part that gets so many people fired up.  He captured the Aboriginal stolen generation, Terminator 2, Thanksgiving, Climate Change and immigration all in one script.

In other words, all the political messages he was selling had been sold before.

The thing is, in Avatar, it wasn’t very cleverly done because the messages weren’t subtle; they were overt. 

In fact, the political messages of this film were anything but subtle.  It was ‘don’t cut down trees’! ‘Don’t take people’s land!’ ‘Don’t go to war!’ ‘Save the planet!’ Save the whales!’ ‘Save the ocean!’ ‘Give peace a chance!’ ‘George W Bush is evil!’ ‘White Australians are evil!’ ‘Big business is bad!’ all wrapped up into one.

Quite frankly, any movie that tries to simplify complicated political issues into a fanciful film-making is a little bit lame.  While sure, some of the messages being communicated are good messages, the overall thing I didn’t enjoy is that it was needlessly political.

If I think to my favourite films, I don’t love films that hit me over the head relentlessly for several hours with political messages.  I don’t want to show those films to my friends!

If you think of the films that critics hail as great successes that try and communicate political messages, usually, they’re done very subtly.  And the thing is, if your storytelling method is fiction, then they have to be subtle, otherwise the political messages are more obvious than the storyline.  That’s what happens in Avatar.

If you try to explain the plot of Avatar to someone, I dare you not to mention a political issue once.  No, I double dare you!  Try it with someone.  I guarantee you will discuss what this film says politically within 2 minutes of explaining the plot.  That to me, for a fictional work, is bad storytelling - the politics should not be communicated at the expense of the plot.

So where does that leave us?  I think Avatar does fall into the ‘good’ film category.  And if you’re speaking purely from a ‘graphics and effects’ perspective, then it qualifies as an epic.

But, if you’re talking storyline, it was anything but epic.  It was just another Hollywood film trying to push an agenda.  The only difference this time is the fact it was filmed in 3d.  And that’s not enough to make it a great film. 

So let’s come back to my initital question: does Avatar belong at the upper echelon of great cinematic achievements, or is it another Titanic, a big budget waste of time?

The answer, as I said before, is both.

In other words: ask someone else.

1. This is a blatant lie

Click here to email Dylan about the above column.

Click here to go back to the homepage.

Avatar has attracted a lot of plaudits.

If Jennifer Hawkins was waiting,
I probably would have left the theatre
There was serious action when
the Delorean hit 88mph
Avatar was jam packed
with political messages