Avatar – the descent of the bad filmmaker

The spiritual strength of stories is in their ability to touch the soul. If we capitulate to poor storytelling we become the cheated instead of the uplifted. Stories matter because they connect us, enliven us, and are means of transmitting important information about who we are.

Art and spirituality share an important partnership in the telling of stories and their ability to touch and even awaken the soul. But this ability to use a story to hint at the inexpressible mystery of life does not come easily. This is why great directors, are known to say, “It’s not the story; it’s how you tell it.”  This of course assumes that you are starting with an actual story worth telling – a story that has in it the types of personalities that we can connect with and care about. As well as circumstances that, no matter how fantastic, provide us with meaningful struggles that when overcome teach us about ourselves.

Avatar, sadly, has none of these qualities. It is an arguably insane use of human and material resources, to satisfy the technological whims of an effete filmmaker. It is hundreds of millions of dollars of cinematic geek-dom with no redeeming spiritual or artistic value. Avatar is the ironic equivalent of a four-hundred-million dollar PSA by the Sierra Club. (So you cannot excuse this film by saying it engenders discussion on the environment – that could have been accomplished with 1 percent of the budget in a superbowl ad.)  It is a mind numbing display of hour after hour of digital fireworks. Like most fireworks displays after ten or fifteen minutes of oohs and ahhhs, it becomes quite boring.

Avatar is a two-dimensional and utterly un-profound movie shot in high-end 3D-CGI. This total lack of story should prompt outrage. It is important for members of society to raise the standard for our art and culture. We need stories, good ones. We should not settle for the threadbare recycling of mediocre stories, as Avatar is of the Disney movie, Pocahontas (see graphic at bottom for the plot summary of Avatar and a funny comparison.) The story Avatar – the space age Pocahontas, is a weak and sentimental approach to the condescending notion of the noble savage. People are not necessarily noble or dharmic just because they reside in nature. Virtue or dharma is a quality found in varying quadrants of life. The tendency to look at a setting like the film’s mystically beautiful Pandora and compare it to earth and lament the difference is a form of sentimentalism. In the Vedic model of reality majestically opulent planets exist in the universe, but even they pale next to the realm of pure consciousness, the spiritual goal of the yogi.

For a filmmaker to copy the story arc of another film is not always bad. It happens all the time. What is bitterly disappointing is to hear that after someone has worked on a movie for over 10 years the best they could come up with was a script that just rehashes someone else’s insipid and poorly thought out script. And trying to call the story in Avatar “the hero’s journey” is a poor characterization. The story of an unwitting dupe thrust into a new environment where he meets a cute girl, gets the cute girl, loses the cute girl, comes back with a bigger phallic symbol, (car, jet, dragon…) and gets the girl back, hardly qualifies for the dramatic and spiritual depth that constitutes the hero’s journey (which, by the way, is not even that great of mythic story arc to begin with.)

The two dimensional characters and implausible plotting of Avatar remind one of skimpiest of comic book stories.  (The guy who played the big mean army colonel looked and acted like a cardboard cutout.) It was as if Cameron and crew purposely decided that the only thing that mattered was the visual effects and that the story was of no particular importance. But technology is supposed to serve the story and not the other way around. It appears that with this film James Cameron’s filmmaking career has come full circle. He peaked with the original Terminator and Aliens and he has returned to the quality of his first film, Piranha II: the Spawning.

Avatar should be seen as an insult to the film viewer who is expected to shell out hard earned money to watch what amounts to an autoerotic techno-fest. Viewers who waste their money on this film have a right to feeling duped. A better use of entertainment dollars would be to buy the DVD set of Lord of the Rings -great movies, great stories, and great effects.

Sadly the hyped-up Hollywood fan boy awards system has already begun to give statuette accolades to this bit of techno-treacle. But that does not make it a good or important movie. It just means we are once again settling for mediocrity.

Rating: Looks 8, Dance 2

Synopsis: This film is all form and no content. See it if you are a geeky fan boy with a World of Warcraft screen-saver, and nothing better to do than waste your mom’s money.


About Atma

An organizational psychologist and intellectual visionary, Atma is a provocative, colorful personality whose commentary on the subjects of wellness ranges from opening yourself to compassion and empathy to the absolute need for personal discipline and courage. As a leadership mentor his methodology derives from his study in India of the ancient Vedic teachings to post-modern, high-tech, street level savvy. Atma brings a unique and cutting perspective to the little-understood world of marketing psychology.

Posted on January 18, 2010, in Films, Hated it. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I haven’t seen Avatar, but I recognize it takes courage to speak out against the “IT” movie, which just won all these golden globes. His peers didn’t seem too happy for him. Thank you for your candor. I may just save my money and my time.

  2. I also found Avatar a waste of money. It looked like a test reel for a job at a special effects house. But the effects are great— but the the story, drama, writing and execution all seemed to be missing.

  3. ananda goldstein

    I really liked the movie Avatar and found it useful. The fact that is seems to be copying the classic Pocohontas-seems to be business as usual in Hollywood and corporate in general. That is something I am growing to understand in the rhelm of sales and advertising. But I appreciate your candor, your analysis and especially your stating the goal of a Yogi (pure consciousness) and how much better it is than a fancy planet. That feeds my soul!:-)

  4. Finally, someone who feels the way I do about Avatar. I came out of the the theater (after having paid the rediculous price for a 3D film) thinking this was all visuals, and no substance, no story. I felt that once again James Cameron had ripped me off…didn’t like Titanic either. (The real people who were on the Titanic were more interesting than insipid Jack and Rose.). I did feel sorry for Stephen Lang, who portrayed the army colonel. His role WAS a cardboard cutout…but it wasn’t Lang’s fault. It was the fault of the writer and director. Lang is one of the best and most versdatile actors around, and he got stuck with a nothing role.

    • Thanks Xander, I appreciate your comment, and I agree with you that Stephen Lang has done good work in other movies, it was the fault of bad direction and writing.


  5. Sorry,
    but I totally disagree with Atma’s critique on Avatar. First it has a great story(nothing like Pocahontas),in that all life is connected Spiritually(Ewa) and should be protected & not exploited. Beyond all the CG and Fantasy it applies universally and is the basis of Buddhism and the Vedas(Ahimsa). The Native Avatars showed this by example, and they destroyed the Materialistic invaders. If this
    alone is understood it was worth it!

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