The X-files
Episode: 3X21
First aired: 04/26/1996
Written by: Howard Gordon
Directed by: James Charleston

A cool Skinner-centric episode!

FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner is presented with final divorce papers by his attorney, but he refuses to sign. At a bar, Skinner meets an attractive young woman and they go to bed together. Skinner awakens with a start from a nightmare in which he sees an old woman looking over him, he finds the woman next to him dead, her head twisted around.

Skinner tells Fox Mulder at the crime scene there is no reason for him to become involved. The detective on the case says Skinner wouldn't take a polygraph test and that he's a suspect. Dana Scully examines the body, detecting Skinner's fingerprints and signs of intercourse. Mulder learns that the woman is a prostitute. After Mulder leaves, Scully notices a phosphorescent glow around the woman's mouth.

The agents visit the hooker's madam who says she took Skinner's credit card the night before. Scully cites the mounting evidence against him, but Mulder stresses that they owe it to Skinner to find out what happened. Skinner has been released and he is clearly shocked to learn that the woman was a prostitute. He later glimpses the old woman again, on the streets, but when he catches up to her it turns out to be his wife, Sharon.

Sharon tells Mulder and Scully that they have been separated four eight months and that Skinner has built a wall keeping everyone out. Mulder, she adds, was one of the few work associates he discussed, and she asks flatly if Mulder thinks Skinner murdered the woman, in which Mulder replies no.

At Skinner's office Mulder and Scully are told that a formal hearing will be held the next day to determine his status. Scully tells Mulder that Skinner is behaving like a guilty man. She also discovers that Skinner was refusing treatment for a sleep disorder, dreaming about an old woman who suffocates him. Hypothetically, then, he could have killed the woman in his sleep without realizing it. Mulder notes that the woman sounds like a succubus, mythological spirits known to visit men in the night, sometimes killing other women out of jealousy. This prompts Scully to mention the phosphorescence, but when they check to body, it is gone.

Sharon visits Skinner, saying she wants to help him but that he won't let her. After she leaves he falls asleep again waking to see the old woman, with detectives at his door saying his wife has been seriously injured from having been forced off the road.

Mulder talks to Skinner, who finally admits that he had been seeing the old woman in his sleep. This had started, he says, when he had had a near-death experience in Vietnam, that she carried him away from the light. Mulder believes that the spirit is trying to protect Skinner.

Mulder checks Skinner's car, which had run his wife's car off the road, and has the airbag analyzed. Scully, meanwhile defends Skinner at the hearing. The FBI dismisses Skinner, and Mulder says they used the X-files to put them in check.

Mulder, who's found a face on the airbag that is not Skinner's, believes eliminating Skinner this way to be less obvious than another attempt to kill him. Mulder and Scully go to see the madam, but she is found dead, having jumped or been pushed off the roof. At the scene, they talk to Judy and ask her to arrange a meeting with the man, the man whose face was on the airbag, who hired a prostitute in Skinner's name.

At the hospital, Skinner's wife lies in a coma, and he tells her he won't sign the papers. Sharon suddenly comes out of her coma and tells her husband to listen to her.

Mulder waits downstairs at the hotel while Scully guards Judy in a room. Suddenly a gunman crashes through the door, dazing Scully. Mulder hears gunshots and finds Skinner standing over the would-be killer. In the investigation later, the dead man's identity remains unknown, and Mulder asks Skinner how he knew to be at the hotel. Skinner declines to answer. Alone, he reaches in his drawer and puts his wedding ring back on.

Important Quotes:

Skinner -- "I told you once what happened to me in Vietnam. That I was caught in an ambush."
Mulder -- "You were the only survivor. You also described what sounded like a near-death experience."

Mulder -- "It's not such a strange story... It's age old, actually. You may have heard it - although in slightly less clinical terms. In the Middle Ages, a visitation like the one Skinner described would have been attributed to a succubus. A spirit that visits men during the night in the form of an old woman."
Scully -- "Visits them for sex?"
Mulder -- "Usually."

Agent -- "D'ya know how an air bag works?"

Mulder -- "Your car hits somethin', a bag fills with air, you don't die."

Back to The X-files: Season 3

automagically = A = awk

avatar n. Syn.

[in Hindu mythology, the incarnation of a god] 1. Among people working on virtual reality and cyberspace interfaces, an avatar is an icon or representation of a user in a shared virtual reality. The term is sometimes used on MUDs. 2. [CMU, Tektronix] root, superuser. There are quite a few Unix machines on which the name of the superuser account is `avatar' rather than `root'. This quirk was originated by a CMU hacker who found the terms `root' and `superuser' unimaginative, and thought `avatar' might better impress people with the responsibility they were accepting.

--The Jargon File version 4.3.1, ed. ESR, autonoded by rescdsk.

(Sanskrit avatâra, literally: "descent", usually translated as "incarnation")

In hindu mythology, the appearance of a deity on Earth in human or animal form. This is not a reincarnation; rather, it is the voluntary assumption by the deity of physical form.

The phenomenon is particularly associated with the god Vishnu. Most famous of his avatars are Rama, the protagonist of the great epic Ramayana, and Krishna, one of the most popular deities of the hindu pantheon.

In the religious/philosophical didactic poem Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna explains the concept thus:

"Every time justice wanes and injustice waxes, I create myself anew. In each age, I am born again to protect the good, to destroy the wicked and to restore justice."

In Ultima series, the player's very own character's title.

There's some clashing information in the canon Ultima games who the Avatar actually is. The introduction of Ultima IV clearly implies that Avatar is just some random guy from the Earth and has no idea about the previous games. However, later parts of the series imply that the Stranger from the stats (the player in the previous three games) and the Avatar are, in fact, the same person. Which is pretty unusual because U1-3 also had non-Human races...

The Avatar lives on Earth, and apparently has fairly normal ways of spending free time, as can be seen in the intros to Ultima VI, Ultima VII, and Ultima IX (aside of the fact that the Avatar isn't even supposed to be on Earth in the beginning of U9)... and gets to the world of Britannia through moongates that appear when the world needs their hero again.

The Avatar, by appearance, is customizable so the character more or less looks like what you look like - this in the games that had good enough graphics to represent it, that is, Ultima VI, VII and SI, and Ultima Underworld 1 and 2. Basically, you can choose the sex and hair color. (In previous parts, you could only choose the sex.)

In the games, the style of Avatar's character is always the same: Usually chain mail (you can, of course, pick other armoring) with white coat over it, with yellow Ankh symbol on front and back. I think he got this cool outfit after truly becoming the Avatar, embodiment of the Eight Virtues, after Ultima IV...

However, this changed in Ultima VIII. In the game, Avatar was always male (IIRC also black-haired). This didn't matter much because you was always in armor and had a fully closed helmet, so Mario Avatar was not "emotionally attachable". This was one of the reasons why U8 wasn't that hot.

In Ultima IX, Origin used what's often affectionately called "Aryan Avatar" (white blond male). In this game, it was not possible to choose the sex or hair color either, even when the game was, according to those who played it, just a tiny bit bit better Ultima-wise than U8.

Avatar is a screenplay by James Cameron.

Earth is dying. Plagued by more than 20 billion humans who have destroyed its ecosystem, the Earth will cease oxygenating the atmosphere in less than three centuries. The oceans are dead - made lifeless and toxic by centuries of abuse. Mankind survives through technology alone: genetically engineered plants and fungi keep us on the brink of starvation and extinction.

Hoping for miracles, a group known as the Consortium, backed by manufacturing heavyweights, operates an ambitious long-distance colony project to our neighbour solar system, Alpha Centauri. There, orbiting the gas giant Prometheus, is Pandora, an M class alien world ripe for the plundering.

A strange metal energised by the magnetic feilds of Prometheus is the principal object of the Consortium's foray into deep space mining: this superconductor promises to revolutionise computing and space travel (while netting their backers trillions, of course.)

The problem is the planet. Its atmosphere is toxic hydrogen cyanide, for a start. But the plant an animal life is totally alien, and highly dangerous. A native pathogen has killed off the human cold and flu strains that the colonists have brought with them, and this 'cure' is currently being pushed through the FDA for approval in a year - a wonder drug like this is a tasty spin-off for the Consortium. But the forest is full of very nasty critters: plants and animals that could kill a human in an instant: each of them is beautiful, but deadly.

There is an aboriginal population as well: the Na'avi, a peaceful, nomadic society of catlike humanoids. They have an advanced spoken language and posess a great deal of knowlege about the world and its animal and vegetable inhabitants. They're vital to the Consortium as well, as they will be the slave labour that will build their factories. (It costs a lot to run the colony, and the Consortium doesnt want to fork out to send thousands of workers and tons of equipment).

Fortunately for everyone, the Na'avi happen to be genetically compatible with humans. Human genetic engineers combine their genome with our own, creating a hybrid. Here's the interesting part: they take the genes of a living person (called a Controller) and combine them with Na'avi genetics to create the hybrid, which is called an Avatar. The hybrids are implanted with some kind of biological control chip. Then, the Controller 'rides' the Avatar's body from a distance via a Psionic link. It is hoped that the Avatars will serve as the means for the Consortium to turn the Na'avi into a slave society to build their factories.

Set within this richly detailed world, James Cameron's story follows the tale of a paralysed, ex-Marine Controller who is thrown into the mix as he hasnt been training for years - he is picked up in a mix-up between him and his twin brother. Josh treats his real life as a dream and his life as his Avatar becomes his waking existence. As he grows closer to the forest and the Na'avi he forgets his human life, and the ineveitable confrontation between him, his Na'avi family and the Consortium looms just out of view...

James Cameron has talked about Avatar in numerous interviews. He envisages it using CGI actors, Gollum-style - and says he needs $300 million to make it a reality.

An enhanced version of ANSI screen codes.

Back in the old days of text-based bulletin board systems (BBSs), most of them used ANSI codes to change text colour, do basic animations and of the like. However, these increased the amount of data to transfer quite significantly.

Avatar was an alternative set of codes that could be used to do the same thing. However, the codes themselves were shorter, and it also included some basic codes to handle run length encoding of character streams - so rather than having, say, 40 As in the text (ie 40 bytes), you'd have a short code which says "repeat this 40 times" followed by the "A".

There were many programs (such as TheDraw) which could save screens in both ANSI and Avatar format, and also utilities to convert between the two. Of course, you needed to use terminal software that would recognise the codes... ANSI was pretty well universal, Avatar less so. I believe that some BBSs could store copies of all your graphical files in both formats, deduce what your client supported and send the appropriate ones.

cartel's writeup above, dated 2004, gives a good idea of the scope of the Avatar project. James Cameron got his wish, and spent four and a half years developing Avatar, using technology that wasn't available when he first envisaged it over a decade ago. The result: well worth the wait, particularly when watching it in 3D.

The film itself runs for two and a half hours. The plot - slightly different to that of five years ago - revolves around an ex-Marine - Jake - who lost leg functionality in combat on Earth, and has been picked for the Avatar project. He is picked as he is genetically compatible with his dead brother, who did significant work on the project. The project involves combining human DNA with that of the Na'vi and creating "avatars" of humans in the shape of the Na'vi; these avatars can be controlled remotely by people involved in the project. On the first journey into the forests of Pandora, Jake gets separated from his fellows. He is found by one of the Na'vi and taken back to their Hometree - their home, and their spiritual centre - where he is reluctantly accepted. Through the next few months, he learns about the Na'vi, the forest, and a completely new way of life. Things would be just peachy if the humans on Pandora didn't want to excavate for unobtainium - a Macguffin plot device - right underneath the Hometree...

Review (spoilers follow)

As a standalone plot, it fails. Not because of the drama (or, more correctly, lack thereof), but because it seems to follow the Hollywood Action Movie Template1 and becomes very predictable by the end. As Jake learns about the forest he rebels against his seniors who are trying to rape it. Jake's love interest is mighty pissed off when she learns that he was originally sent there to relocate them. Jake rises up against the humans and the humans lose. In the process, Jake rekindles his love life and becomes one of the Na'vi himself.

What makes the movie truly magnificent is the main reason four and a half years were spent on production: the visual effects. In 2D, it's impressive. In 3D, it's incredible. At IMAX, it's electrifying2. Not only was the film optimised for 3D, but the CGI used is pretty much impossible to differentiate from the live action, despite the 60%/40% ratio of CGI to live action. The colours and effects thereof are vivid, beautiful and appropriately chosen to complement each other. The creatures were beautiful (well, as beautiful as you can get, being a dinosaur on an alien planet) and I've heard some people describe the Na'vi as being "hot". I don't disagree. The sequences where there nothing but humans were a bit bland by comparison, however, it's apparent that a lot of thought has gone into the design, and the special effects do extend somewhat to the computer "screens" that are in the lab.

Of course, there were a few clever parts. There is a massive bond between the Na'vi and the forest, which gets all but destroyed when the humans move in and wreck the natural landscape. They survive through bonding as one, and their desire to keep the forest alive remains solidly implanted in their minds. This, to me, is a metaphor for several other incidents in the past where humans from a more civilised society have pretty much nicked all the land from the natives (being Australian, the first thing that comes to my head is the Aboriginies, YMMV) and the film seems to be a commentary on this action, putting it in a negative light. I say "civilised society" somewhat ironically here: firstly in the sense that this action is hardly civilised, depending on the circumstances (it's certainly not civilised in Avatar), secondly because it is clear that despite mankind's advances in technology, the Na'vi are much more advanced than humans in the sense that they are very strongly connected to everything in the forest (metaphorically in the case of their god Eywa, literally in the case of their hair). IMHO the Na'vi are not savages. If that was true, we would have to admit that we were descended from savages. They are peace-loving folk that have fallen victim to capitalism and mankind's capitalistic desires.

But I digress. I was impressed at a lot of the movie, if not the plot. I give it seven out of ten, but I stress that this is only because of the predictable and hackneyed plot. I refuse to shift this rating any lower because of the special effects. I realise that the effects are all that everyone is raving about (and I've probably mentioned it too many times in this review), but the ravers are dead right. Avatar must be seen to be believed (and must be seen in 3D, or at an IMAX if there's one nearby).

1I remember reading somewhere about the Hollywood Action Movie Template, to which almost all Hollywood action movie plots conform. If this is your writing, let me know, but for the moment, here is a brief description: trouble's a-brewin', and the hero is either hand-picked to solve the problem or gets caught up in the mess anyway. The hero investigates a little more, and finds a love interest. Somehow, he screws up, and the trouble advances to the stage where it's nearly armageddon. Somehow the hero gets blamed and the love interest now hates him for it, so he starts cleaning up the pieces and going after the core of the trouble, be it a ruthless money-grubbing CEO or a gun-totin' sheriff-gone-bad, or just plain meteors coming to hit the Earth. Anyway, the trouble starts killing people or inflicting some kind of pain upon them, the hero and the antagonist/trouble undergo a final battle where the hero is nearly killed, but turns the table around, mostly thanks to the love interest. The hero saves the day, the love interest loves the hero again, and everyone is incredibly happy. The end.
2Honestly, I haven't seen it at IMAX yet. However, I have two backups for my claim: firstly, everything I've seen at IMAX is awesome; secondly, those who have seen Avatar at IMAX have come out with nothing but raves.

This short review refers to the 2009 James Cameron film of the title Avatar.


This review might be considered late; I wrote it roughly a week after seeing the film and so it might suffer in the accuracy stakes. It will also contain spoilers. One could level the further criticism that this has been said elsewhere, in much the same language. This is not because I have read other reviews before writing my own, but rather because the same awful points stick out in absolutely everyone's mind whilst watching this dire film.

First, let me say that Avatar was indeed visually sumptuous. The 3D effects, by and large, were not a gimmick which was thrashed for the full 160 minutes, and was used to add some visual depth to already attractive scenes. That said, I don't feel I would have enjoyed it any less if good ol' 2D had been used; I rather get the feeling that cinemas, realising that now films can be rendered quite nicely on televisions, laptops and the larger mobile phones, know that they are rightly facing the chop. These money-grubbing, large-room-owning fools are scrabbling around for something - /anything/ - that won't be as impressive in the home as in a large room filled with red seats and unpleasant strangers. Good luck to them!

A precis of the film: Mankind is evil, lands on planet with metal deposits, rapes natives. Natives discover magic inside themselves, win.

(Mankind. In an aside I shan't explore further, this film might be said to just barely pass the Bechdel test; we have a total of four main female characters and six, maybe-seven-if-you-count-the-third-scientist-but-he-was-rubbish-anyway, male characters. None of the women were on the side of evil - so, not really allowed to talk to one another but caricatured as... well, non-rapists. Grace and Trudy briefly interact over where to first land the ornithopter - sorry, helicopter, and Grace addresses an audience of people that include, for example, Moat. A good example of the lack of subtlety in this script is the way that there is no depiction of the internal power structure of the capitalist machine, just a guy shouting orders from a robot suit.)

Ornithopter is really the more correct term, if you've ever come across Dune. The helicopter gunships don't have wings that flap, but the rest of the film really feels like James Cameron went to himself "You know what audiences hate? Deserts. I bet I could take a recent movie flop* set in a desert and put it in a jungle and it would be hailed as excellent." and didn't stop to consider until he was stepping onto that red premier carpet and suddenly thinking "Shit.".

We have a Jake Sully, who was wanted only for his genetics, moved from one planet to another by the EVIL MINING HIERARCHY. He meets FEMALE ROLE MODEL HE SOON SURPASSES in the form of Reverend Mother Grace Augustine, as well as SUPPORTING MALE CAST in the form of Norm, nee Gurney. Jake-Paul Sully is separated from his usual trappings of western power and stumbles into the hiding place of the natives. Sully immediately meets the Neytiri-cum-Chani and - for no real reason, is accepted by Moat (the spiritual leader, or "Wild Reverend Mother" as I have been thinking of her) and Eytukan-and-Tsu'tey-cum-Stilgar.

So Paul Mua'dib learns the ways of the desert dwelling people for a few months, learning to ride their gigantic beasts as a symbol of how in touch they are with nature and learning about their ecosystem to underline how the oil wealth of Arabia is not exploited for the benefit of the civil population. Blah, blah, blah. This was cutting satire in 1965. It is thoroughly depressing that it hasn't needed to be updated at all in 44 years - and yes, I am aware of the numerous superficial differences between Avatar and Dune.

I take a break from my analogy to point out how much more terrifying it is that the Arabs, cast as an insane weirdo underclass by Frank Herbert, have now simply been cast as aliens. Huge, blue aliens. Is the message that we're supposed to take away here that their target audience is now less capable of relating to people from a different continent than telepathic blue giants?

Don't tell me it's an allegory. Allegories are supposed to have some degree of subtlety - supposed to make you realise that you'd always believed something without knowing it. Any allegorical aspirations were wrecked somewhere during the scene in which the pantomime villain Colonel looks straight at the camera, chomps on his non-Cuban cigar, and tells us "It's almost as fun as Afghanistan" whilst firebombing an alien structure signposted "Alien Mosque".

I'll admit that nothing during watching the film was particularly stylistically unpleasant, but there was one major change I would have liked to have made. About forty minutes before the end, the evil men of humanity, or the Western portion of humanity anyway, had blown up most of the natives' civilisation and displaced 20% of their population. There was a child in the audience crying** to see the long lines of refugees, newly homeless, walking away from a gigantic fire.

It should have ended there, with fire, tears, and the success of the unchecked western capitalist machine in vomiting all over an intelligent species. Instead, the magic planet brain summoned up giant, armour-plated rhinocerotes to stomp on the men with guns. You know, there's a difference between "straining for a happy ending which has some glimmer of relevance for the point you were trying to make about humanity" and saying "Fuck it. Suddenly, by magic or telepathy or whatever, there were so many rhinos, and they only stomped on the bad people".

I rate this film 2/5: "Would stuff DVD of film down murder victim's throat to throw police off scent."

**Not joking, not exaggerating.


Plot: Corporal Jake Sully is a paraplegic ex-Marine whose twin brother was killed on Earth during a mugging. Because he is genetically compatible with his brother, Jake is chosen by the Resources Development Administration (RDA) to replace him on Pandora. It's quickly revealed through a fast and dirty expository lump that the RDA is on Pandora (a pristine jungle moon orbiting a gas giant where the story takes place) in order to mine an extremely valuable mineral used in superconductor manufacturing, mining which is violently opposed by the tribal Na'vi, ten foot tall blue cat-people. Jake's brother was a part of the RDA's Avatar Project which combined Human DNA with that of the native Na'vi, allowing human controllers to telepathically link with the avatar containing their DNA and to 'drive' their avatar. The hope is that by taking the form of the natives, it would be easier for the RDA to come to a diplomatic solution over the mining of the mineral.

Over time, Jake (using his avatar body) becomes involved with the local tribe of Na'vi whose hometree just happens to be on top of the largest known mineral deposit on the moon. He agrees to use his position in the clan to try and convince the Na'vi to leave their hometree and to provide military intelligence in the event that a diplomatic solution is impossible. When he is unable to convince the Na'vi to leave, the RDA launches an attack, driving the Na'vi from their homes and felling the hometree. At this point, Jake, who had become more sympathetic to the Na'vi as he learned about their culture, switches his allegiance entirely and begins to fight for the Na'vi and their world.

Jake begins to collect an army, allying the various tribes of the Na'vi from across Pandora. Fearing retribution for their earlier attack, the RDA security forces, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch, choose to launch a preemptive attack on the Na'vi's most holy place located in the floating mountains. In the climactic battle that ensues, most of Jake's Na'vi allies are killed while defeating the RDA and Jake himself nearly dies when his human body is exposed to the poisonous Pandoran atmosphere. He is saved, however, by Neytiri, the warrior daughter of the tribe's chieftain and Jake's love interest.

The film ends with the defeated human forces being sent back to Earth and with Jake permanently taking the form of his avatar body using the special knowledge of the tribe.


After writing the majority of this, I realized that it focuses mostly on the failings of the movie rather than the parts it did well so I'll start with the end and give Avatar 3.5 out of 5 stars. It lacks in dialogue and excels in cliches and yet it is easily the most immersive movie to come out in recent years. It is a good movie but Cameron has simply gained too much power as a filmmaker (power that the success of Avatar will only add to) and that prevented the studios from adding some much-needed polish which could have turned this good movie into a great one. Avatar is a little bit more than your typical popcorn flick and a lot less than your Oscar-winning art films but it strikes a good balance between the two and offers a little bit of something to everyone. Now on to the fun stuff.

Firstly, it's worth mentioning that the plot of the film isn't bad per se, just unoriginal. While not the most cliched story out there, Avatar certainly has its fair share of tropes: a dying Earth, a beautiful princess, a crazed military commander, a wise alien race in tune with nature, and mechs. Admittedly, I am something of a film snob but it appears that James Cameron, like Lucas and Spielberg before him, has developed a bad case of what I call the Steven Spielberg Syndrome. This happens when a director/producer/writer becomes so well-known and so powerful that no studio dares to disagree with their decisions (or, in the case of Spielberg, when they start their own studio). It is Hollywood hubris, the idea that the great filmmakers can do no wrong once they make one or two blockbusters. Unfortunately, these people can and almost always will screw up in a multitude of ways either by writing hackneyed dialogue (Lucas, Cameron), or by involvement with less than cinematic brilliance (think Spielberg and the Transformers franchise). The result is the declining quality of most of these filmmaker's movies as they age. You wouldn't get many people to agree that War of the Worlds was as good as Jaws or Close Encounters of the Third Kind or that the new trilogy of Star Wars films is a step above the old trilogy or that Indiana Jones 4 was superior to Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Cameron's development of SS Syndrome is obvious in the marketing of Avatar which did its best to remind us who made the movie nearly as much as tell us about the movie itself—"From the man who made The Terminator! Aliens! Terminator 2! True Lies! The Abyss! Titanic!"

The signs of SS Syndrome are also obvious in the dialogue in Avatar (written by Cameron himself) which spans the range from wooden to cringable like the Colossus of Cliches. The best (or perhaps worst) example of this is the name of the all-important mineral itself—which waverider37 correctly identifies as a MacGuffin above—unobtainium. The first mention of the name could have been tongue-in-cheek but by the second and third mention, Cameron lost most of his credibility as a writer. Seriously Jimmy, you've been developing this movie for 15 years and you couldn't come up with anything better than unobtainium? Why not Pandorite or Na'vium or even Kryptonite? (Well, maybe not that last one). 'Unobtainium' makes it sound like even you don't entirely take your own story seriously so why should we?

In the same vein, Cameron also tries his (ham)hand at political commentary and fails. The limited characterization and anti-American dialogue is irritating to those of us who understand simple metaphors but pure gold when it comes to overseas ticket sales. Describing the climactic battle as a "shock and awe campaign" is the equivalent of beating the audience over the head with a Tomahawk missile labeled TARGET: IRAQ. Likewise, when Colonel Quaritch is briefing the security forces about the growing Na'vi army, the line "We will fight terror with terror!" is the ten foot tall blue cat-man in the room.

Not that any of this wasn't to be expected: Cameron has almost without exception had a simplistic theme of 'scientists good/military bad' in his films from Terminator to The Abyss. In Avatar, he riffs a bit on his own theme by going for a neo-Luddite theme (which he ironically achieves through the use of the latest 3D technology). And yes, he does layer on the white guilt a little thick in the process. All of the major Na'vi characters were portrayed either by actors of African or Native American descent, complete with accents and tribal music to boot. The plains tribe? Check. Bows and arrows? Check. Animistic religion? Check. And though I may be reading into the subject material too much, the final battle seemed to have more than just random parallels with Custer's Last Stand. Yes, humanity has traveled dozens of light years between the stars to discover an amalgam of our own native cultures. This is Pocahontas, not Heart of Darkness. Oh yeah, the subtitles are in Papyrus too.

The African homage illustrates the startling lack in creativity in the film. While it's arguably difficult to invent something truly alien, I don't think Pandora quite qualifies as 'an original world from the mind of James Cameron'. Apparently military uniforms and weaponry won't change much in the next 150 years, right down to the digital camo. All intelligent alien life will be bipedal and have belly buttons and boobs. And no matter where we go in the universe, every planet will invariably have a dog, lizard, puma, rhino, and why-the-hell-not pterodactyl analogues. Cameron also borrows ideas heavily from marine life; jellyfish, anemones, tube worms. Everything looks cooler with bioluminescence!

And then there are the plot holes. Without getting into too much detail, there are several scenes which, while viscerally stimulating to our post-Romantic conceptions of art, make little sense in the context of previous scenes. When a pilot deserts the attack force rather than attack the hometree, no one seems to notice and there are no repercussions, disciplinary or otherwise, present in the next scene; in fact it seems as if the whole event didn't happen at all. It was all a calculated effort to rationalize the attractive female pilot staging a jailbreak in the next scene despite the fact that her previous actions would have gotten her grounded at the very least. Another example of this is the "You die in the Matrix, you die in real life!" moment. The foreshadowed catastrophic effects of a driver being 'unplugged' from their avatar rather than logging out normally never seem to arrive, even after it happens half a dozen times.

As for the special effects, they are, for the most part, forgettable. This by no means is a bad thing, in fact, I would say it's the strongest attribute of what Cameron has done with the film. The levitating mountains are so real that no question remains as to their reality, they simply exist; the Na'vi are real people, not computer generated models with the voices of people. It is a distinction of perception that is hard to describe but easy to experience. This is a step above the philosophy which seems to have dominated Hollywood for the past 10 years: that visual effects should be obvious and stylized to the point of being unrealistic. This is epitomized by The Matrix' bullet time and all the other shots it spawned as well as the extended webslinging tracking shots from Spiderman. Avatar doesn't do this. Instead, it presents the reality of the film with no ostentation or flourish.

This immersion is no doubt due to the attention to detail in all the visual effects. The schlieren lines when the atmosphere of Pandora mixes with those in the humans' controlled environments, the foggy breath in the early morning air, the expressiveness of the Na'vi's tails. With the Na'vi, Cameron has managed to leap uncanny valley and fix the 'dead eye' problem that has plagued realistic CGI characters for years (The Polar Express was famous for this problem).

As above, Avatar is a fine film for pretty much any moviegoer. It doesn't win many points for writing but more than makes up for it in style.

Shortly after the success of 1997's Titanic, director James Cameron wanted to make a film called Avatar, planned for release in 1999. The project never saw the light of day because, Cameron says, technology just couldn't keep up with his vision. Twelve years later, now that visual effects have gotten more sophisticated than anyone could have ever imagined, Cameron has decided to share his vision with the world. All 230 million dollars of it.

The question is, does the enormous price tag help make Avatar something worth seeing? Or is this just an expensive tech experiment?

The film follows Jake (Sam Worthington), a marine tasked with exploring the surface of an alien planet, Pandora, and communicating with the natives. Jake gets this position because he has similar genetics to his twin brother, who was a scientist initially picked for the job. To visit Pandora, the scientists and Jake use artificially-created alien bodies as avatars (thus the title).

The aliens -- blue-skinned cat-people made out of advanced CGI and motion capture technology -- are known as the Na'vi (with an apostrophe for decoration). The Na'vi are very spiritual beings who live in a giant tree, worship a god who actually exists, commune with the animals, etc. They are cliched nature-loving aliens through and through.

Humans are the bad guys who want to destroy the aliens' big tree, which is located on a large deposit of valuable "unobtainium" (probably the funniest joke in the movie). The whole avatar program is in place so that scientists can communicate with the Na'vi and tell them to move out of the tree. Why the government would spend billions of dollars developing the avatars instead of just killing all the aliens is never explained.

From there, the film turns into Pochahontas. Jake falls in love with one of the aliens, they have a PG-rated mating ritual, and he turns against the evil humans. Some other sympathetic scientists help Jake to stand up for the Na'vi while a generic antagonist with literally no personality whatsoever rides around in a manga-inspired mecha and tries to destroy the big tree.

It's an environmentalist film, if that was too subtle for you.

Still, even if the story is nothing special, that doesn't mean Avatar is a bad movie. The delivery is a big part of it, too. And with this much money on the table, it's clear that the delivery of this film was a big deal to Cameron. He waited twelve years because 1997 couldn't deliver.

The acting is good. No performance really stands out, but that's the story's fault. Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana do most of the movie in motion-capture, which is pretty impressive -- it's hard enough to act in the film industry when you have to do the same scene dozens of times, even harder when you're working against computer-generated creatures that you can't see on the set.

The imagination and design put into the setting is also pretty impressive. None of it is particularly original, but there's clearly been a lot of thought put into fleshing out what's there. The human technology looks very mechanistic and grey, which is played for contrast against the blue-and-green alien motif. The Na'vi themselves are nicely designed. The filmmakers cheated somewhat by making them very humanoid, but it's necessary to make the human-falls-in-love-with-alien plot work. If the Na'vi were any less human, the whole film would have crashed because the audience would no longer be able to believe that Jake could fall in love with one of them.

The CGI is gorgeous, of course. Nothing to complain about there.

I'm torn on exactly what to think about Avatar. It has an incredibly trite story that I find very annoying, but the delivery is actually pretty solid. It is a very well-made film that might be worth seeing for the effects alone. It still leaves me with a sour taste, though. Titantic, at least, had something worth delivering, and that made the delivery much more satisfying. Avatar is frustrating because it has good effects that it doesn't even deserve. It's a very boring and uninspired movie that isn't worth 230 million dollars by any stretch of the imagination.

Had the film been made in a realistic setting -- not as a fantasy with sci-fi flavour -- it wouldn't be half as annoying. The aliens aren't necessary, and the special effects only serve to distract. Just watch the trailer and you'll get the same effect. All the eye-candy without the condescending tree-hugging nonsense.

"Condescending" is the word, really. The aliens and humans are both totally one-note and boring: humans are all evil for no clear reason, and aliens are perfect paragons of good. I find myself rooting for the humans to kill everyone just because the aliens are so perfect and infuriating, and that's where the story really falls apart. Even with the cliche story, it could have come to life with some engaging characters. Avatar doesn't have characters; it has archetypes.

Watch Avatar if you want to see some really cool motion-capture. Don't watch Avatar if you want to see a good movie.

Av`a*tar" (?), n. [Skr. avatara descent; ava from + root t to cross, pass over.]

1. Hindoo Myth.

The descent of a deity to earth, and his incarnation as a man or an animal; -- chiefly associated with the incarnations of Vishnu.


Incarnation; manifestation as an object of worship or admiration.


© Webster 1913.

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