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Avatar: A Review

Posted on Thursday, December 31, 2009 in Film

This post isn’t entirely conlang-related, but I’ve finally seen Avatar and have a few thoughts I’d like to share.

First, of course, is the conlang. It was great to see Dr. Frommer listed right near the top of the closing credits as “Na’vi language creator”. The language itself was incorporated fairly well into the plot, although it would have been nice to see a little more of Jake’s learning curve. The only thing we see is Neytiri correcting Jake’s pronunciation of nari “eye”. At 162 minutes, I suppose something had to be cut. I did think it was appropriate that Jake hadn’t achieved enough fluency for his speeches, asking both Tsu’tey and Neytiri to translate for him. Well played there. Overall, the actors did an acceptable job with fluid pronunciations and making the language appear “natural.” Congrats to Dr. Frommer for bringing conlanging back into focus for the general public. Although the native language was incorporated well and sounded genuine, the Na’vi’s use of English was a little too fluent and widespread for my taste. Their rejection of what the Earthlings have to offer would lead me to believe that they would not bother to continue to practice their English skills so assiduously.

One final conlang comment: The Na’vi greeting of Oel ngati kameie “I see you” was a little troubling. I saw the movie with my college-freshman daughter, and afterward she said the only thing she could think of when they said that was “Peek-a-boo, I see you.” While I understand the spiritual implications, Na’vi-wise, of the greeting, maybe there could have been a better English translation used: “I hold you in my eyes”? “I see you with my heart”??

Now, for some more kudos. The look of the film was visually stunning, but I think the massive hype inflated my expectations just a bit. I will agree, however, that Pandora is quite the bioluminescent, floating-mountain, hexapod-filled wonderland. Cameron did a great job of incorporating the 3-D into the film. This was no Monster Chiller Horror Theatre or Jaws 3-D. The 3-D effects, in short order, simply became the look of the film – not an effect. Some of the coolest shots in retrospect were in the cockpit of the aircraft with their heads-up displays. There were some shots that were bows to 3-D, but overall it was not “in your face.”

As for acting, Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch easily deserves an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Lang absolutely nailed his role. As much as I abhorred his drive to eradicate the Na’vi, he’s the guy I’d want on my side in a fight. Lang provides a very interesting perspective on his role in a recent Los Angeles Times article.

Now for some constructive criticism, as if James Cameron needs constructive criticism from the Conlanging Librarian: Avatar has grossed (as of Dec. 31, 2009) $268,886,074. In any case, here goes…

Cameron is not a subtle screenwriter, and by “not a subtle screenwriter” I mean he writes foreshadowing and metaphor with a sledgehammer. Both my daughter and I could see the ending coming several miles (or clicks) away. Furthermore, I could almost hear James Cameron’s voice whispering in my ear: “PSST, DID I MENTION THE NA’VI REPRESENT NATIVE AMERICANS!!” From the paint on their faces, to their war cries, to their horse-like mounts, the metaphor was barely a metaphor. Egads! My daughter and I agreed that Cameron could have at least given them different mounts than horses (okay, horses with tendrils and six-legs but still “horses”). How about a big ostrich-like lizard-bird. Say, a flightless version of the banshees or great leonopteryx (ikran and toruk to use their Na’vi terms); maybe call it a atxkxe-ikran “land banshee”. I would also rather have seen the Na’vi patterned after a more “exotic” indigenous population (at least to mainstream North American audiences) such as those in Polynesia or Central/South America.

Overall, I’m definitely glad that I saw it, was impressed with the visuals, and was happy to see conlanging making a dent in the media. The story, as has been pointed out elsewhere, was basically “Indigo Pocahontas Dancing with Wolves in Space”. I wasn’t blown away, but I’d definitely suggest people go and see it. It’s an important film, both technically and conlang-wise.

I have a feeling we’re going to be hearing more about Pandora and the other moons of Polyphemus.