Avatar (2009) (sort of a movie review)

4 Jul
Poster for the 2009 movie AVATAR, showing the two superimposed faces of the main character, Jake Sully, as human and as his Na'vi avatar

It only took me 13 years, but I’ve finally watched it. Funnily enough, looking up details on Wikipedia while writing the review, it turns out it’s timely: apparently the first sequel comes out in December this year.

Viewer beware: imperialism, white savior chosen, ableism with magical cure, cultural appropriation of Hindu and First Nations mysticism. Also, it’s a long ass movie.

If you have never heard of the movie (fat chance, but hey, it could happen), here’s my quick and dirty summary:

A hundred plus years into the future, humans have almost killed Earth, and they’ve moved on–with white cis men in charge, natch–to other planets in search of “resources”. They’ve found just that in Pandora, but beyond the fact that the atmosphere is unbreathable, and that almost every life form in it wants to kill humans, there’s a pesky species of sapient humanoids (Na’vi) that’s getting in the way of wholesale planet exploitation. During the process of exploring the planet, scientists have found a way to create ‘avatars’ from human and Na’vi DNA. These physical bodies are each connected to the consciousness of the human whose DNA they share, but are adapted to Pandora’s atmosphere. The plan is to use these avatars to manipulate the Na’vi into letting the humans get on with their business. Of course, if diplomacy fails, genocide is always on the table.

Our main character is Jake Sully, a (white cishet male) paraplegic U.S. Marine who, after the death of his twin brother, a scientist training to be an avatar, is offered the opportunity to travel to Pandora to replace him. The entity (U.S. government, obviously, because of course it is), running the program is happy with the switch: they don’t lose the millions invested in dead brother, and they get an avatar with military experience.

Predictably, the leader of the heavily armed mercenary force protecting the human operation (or, essentially, just the U.S. interests), in Pandora, immediately co-opts Jake from “armed escort for the scientists in their diplomatic mission” to “infiltrate the enemy camp and find exploitable weaknesses”.

But what do you know, there are immediate signs that Jake has been chosen by Eywa (the global consciousness of Pandora), and as he gets to know the Na’vi, he realizes that he’s “on the wrong side” on this conflict. He also falls in love with the daughter of the leader of the tribe whose settlement sits right over the “largest deposit” of the element the humans came here to mine (UNOBTANIUM!!!).

If you have watched most any action movie, but especially say, DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) (with some POCAHONTAS (1995) thrown in), you know how this plays out.

I liked the special effects, and I like the conceit of Jake narrating the story in his video logs. There are a lot of practical details that are handwaved, but I appreciated the element of realism in that, when the human is disconnected, the avatar is unconscious, but when the human is connected, they have to be awake and aware for the avatar to function. Someone going all in into the Na’vi culture, as Jake does, will eventually become sleep-deprived, as well as risk malnutrition and atrophy of the muscles in their human body.

The art for the backgrounds and the design for the plants and animals is very well done, and the movement and flow in the action scenes is generally lovely, integrating live action with CG pretty seamlessly.

AVATAR is a ripping adventure, to be sure, which is most satisfying if you happen to be a straight white man. (Yes, the writing and design and program teams where all straight men, which is why the female Na’vi have breasts, despite not being mammals–James Cameron has said this, with his whole chest.)

The movie was the ultimate financial blockbuster, including the re-release in 2021, and to this day has very positive feedback from film critics and regular moviegoers alike, with a lot of praise for its “antiwar and green” messaging, as well as for its technical achievements in special effects.

Sadly, the people who most need to understand that message are the least likely to get it. Or, if they do get it, they’ll rail about the “woke social justice warriors” with their “fake news” about climate change and whatever else.

Furthermore, it irks me to the depths of my soul that Jake had to go to another planet to find (blue) people worth not exterminating (how many assholes have we heard say, “I don’t care if people are white, Black or purple” while being racist).

We know there are war operations the US is conducting in Venezuela and Nigeria at the time the movie is set, because the dialogue tells us so. We know the military mercenaries in charge think of the people they attack as hostiles, cockroaches, hordes, etc, because the dialogue tells us so. We know that they think of the people they’re preparing to exterminate as terrorists, and that they make themselves the victims of that ‘terror’ (“look what they’re making us do”). If we don’t realize that this is just how Jake thought of the Black and Brown humans he fought against on Earth, as a U.S. Marine…

I won’t be watching the next one any time soon.

10 Responses to “Avatar (2009) (sort of a movie review)”

  1. willaful 04/07/2022 at 3:12 PM #

    Unobtanium! *snicker*

  2. Lori 05/07/2022 at 12:50 PM #

    I thought I was the only person who never saw this movie. And after this review I’ll keep my streak going.

    Jeez. If there’s one thing that history taught us the only white savior exists in the movies. Apparently surrounded by big boobed women.

    I need a nap.

    • azteclady 05/07/2022 at 1:59 PM #

      It’s not even BIG boobs, but there are boobs; part of the whole “these are humanoid peoples with social hierarchies and spiritual lives, but they are also very ‘close to nature’ so the only clothes are loincloths for everyone, so we have to get creative in how we cover the boob nipples (not the pectoral nipples) with some extremely impractical jewelry that they wear to hunt and to fight, because reasons” reasoning that has so much “lecherous old man meets prude censorious society”, it could only be made in the USA.

  3. shallowreader 10/07/2022 at 9:54 AM #

    I saw this at the cinema when it first came out. I recall very little of the movie. Even your (fab!) review has not prompted anything beyond the image of blue avatars but I do look forward to your review of the sequel even if it takes you 13 years before watching it 😀

    • azteclady 10/07/2022 at 1:11 PM #

      Thank you!

      And yeah, it will likely be at least a full decade, if it happens. (Apparently it’s something like three hours long? Thanks, but no, thanks–make it a mini-series, with clear breaks and intermission, if you are going to do that–says I)

      • shallowreader 10/07/2022 at 5:23 PM #


      • azteclady 10/07/2022 at 7:41 PM #

        Someone probably did, but once they get this big, directors-producers like Cameron listen to no one. If and when the movie flops–which it well may–he’ll bitch about being misunderstood by the same rabble that made him rich.

      • shallowreader 10/07/2022 at 7:54 PM #


      • azteclady 10/07/2022 at 10:01 PM #

        So much UGH!

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