Review: ‘Avatar’

Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana in Avatar

Well, it certainly didn’t suck. That’s me, eating a little crow.  For months I have snickered about the colossal disaster I was sure Avatar was going to become. Admit it, you thought so too. How on earth could you not be pessimistic after seeing the early trailers?

Alien creatures a hue of blue so intense it would make papa smurf puke, and waxy humans that would beat any of Robert Zemeckis’s early efforts for “most soulless rendition of a human being” did not exactly instill confidence in me. Then came the daunting news that the movie weighed in at almost 3 hours. Add the driving time in and the Avatar screening took up almost half a day. I disliked the movie before I even slipped on the  exquisite 3-D nerd-spectacles that I so love.

A funny thing happened when the movie began. I was captivated. I rarely looked at my watch, and the three hours kept me glued to my seat. I became completely immersed in the alternate reality that James Cameron (Titanic) created, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. Now, I am not jumping aboard the fanboy express like 90% of the critics I know. This  is not the end-all, be-all of epic movies.  I don’t think that it will “change the way we watch movies forever”, and I hope it doesn’t quite frankly.

As a stand alone experience, I absolutely recommend Avatar, but I won’t be going to the theater for repeated viewings. Avatar is innovative and visually spectacular, but its story and woeful dialogue keep it from being a truly great movie.  However, I will give James Cameron props for once again delivering a truly ground-breaking experience.

The story takes place in the future.  American mercenaries are invading the planet of  Pandora in order to mine unobtainium, a precious resource, from the planet. The inhabitants of Pandora are considered hostile because they dare to defend their land, so alternative attempts are made to communicate with the people, including using avatars. Avatars allow for a human to “virtually” connect to a body that physically looks like a native Na’vi, the tall, blue people that are indigenous to the planet.

The idea is that an avatar can walk among the real Na’vi and glean sensitive information about the people to pass on to the Americans. Jake Scully (Sam Worthington) is brought on board because he has military experience, and he is a genetic match for his brother who was training to be an avatar, but died.  Jake also happens to be a paraplegic, presumably injured in battle. He quickly acclimates to the job, and his first moments as an avatar are truly touching, as he  finds that he has use of his legs while in the avatar.

Jake not only infiltrates the Na’vi tribe, but he predictably falls in love with the chieftain’s daughter (Zoe Saldana), and comes to have a greater appreciation for the Na’vi ways, which include worshiping the forest and all living things. Falling into Hollywood’s favorite cliché , Jake is uncaring, calculated, and cold when he is an American, but kind, appreciative and honorable when he sides with the Na’vi.

The film takes an il-advised turn into an allegory for the Iraq War, and United States foreign policy. Hey, we get it. George Bush bad.  George Bush evil.  Iraqis good.  Iraqis innocent. This may have been cutting edge commentary when Cameron began working on the film 11 years ago, but now it is just beating a dead horse.

The biggest sin in the entire movie is making Colonel Miles Quaritch (Steven Lang) clownishly despicable and callous. Lang’s character actually says things like “shock and awe”, “preemptive strike”, and “we’ll fight terror with terror”.  Subtle. Giovanni Ribisi’s project manager Parker Selfridge comes off  slightly better.

There is plenty of cheesy dialogue peppered throughout the three hours. At one point, I even anticipated the exact line that Sigourney Weaver’s character (Dr. Grace Augustine) would say to Jake, that’s how uninspired the dialogue is. It just isn’t on par with the visual presentation of the movie, and it waters down the overall effect of the film.

The 3-D is not flawless, particularly in the scenes on the avatar research base, which predominantly feature humans.  For me, objects in the foreground were consistently blurry. I also felt like the humans still look “off” in some way that I can’t put my finger on.  I’m just not sure that making humans 100% realistic is ever going to be possible.

I think that it works better when you make them somewhat cartoonish, like A Christmas Carol did earlier this year. Otherwise, why not just use humans and green screen?  It certainly would be cheaper.

However, once you enter the world of Pandora, its an entirely different story. The 3-D flawlessly integrates into the overall experience.  The lush tropical forest  is brimming with fantastical, colorful creatures and fauna. Unconventional colors (neon) are employed and actually work.

The creatures really blew me away.  The sheer imagination that went into their design is admirable.  Great attention to detail is evident in every single frame of this movie, and I absolutely can see why it took so long to develop.

The final battle sequence of the movie is truly epic, and intense. The Na’vi are mounted on their various creatures, and the big, bad mercenaries arrive in their fancy  military machines.  This is a movie, so I am sure that you can figure out who wins. If you are thinking about taking the kids, leave the little ones at home.  I think some of the scenes are just too scary and intense for kids under the age of ten.

Avatar is a stunning feat on a visual level, and for that reason I whole-heartedly recommend it.  It is the ultimate popcorn movie event, no thinking cap required.

  • Dan
    December 28, 2009 at 5:18 am

    Did you guys ever see this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=23JOQbiAUM8

    The Aborigines in Australia have had this strong connection to earth. But the australian governemnt actually built houses and streets for them – and guess what: they didn’t want it, so it became all shebby. It is absolutely identic with the movie. And it happens right now! I’ve been to Australia two years ago.

    Cameron isn’t Moore. He doesn’t take only one issue. So you must not see the Iraq War only. By the way, it’s definately not ill-advised. It’s just a tiny piece of the whole thing.

    For me this movie is much more than a technical thing. In this case I really don’t care much bout cheesy dialogues or 3D effects. This movie is a huge metaphor. And it has a huge massage to everyone here on earth.

    If you couldn’t see that – go and watch it again.

  • Shannon Hood
    December 25, 2009 at 6:28 pm

    Nguveren,
    Yes, to clarify, what I meant was why don’t they do a combo of live action and animation? It seems like a lot of resources are being used to produce realistic looking humans, but you have the real live actor right there in front of you. I just wonder if they would use the actual humans (not the animated humans) in the final movie product. Yes, they are already acting against a green screen, but why not use the actual footage.

    I’m not a film maker (obviously) so I am just kind of thinking out loud.

  • Nguveren
    December 25, 2009 at 5:41 pm

    I also felt like the humans still look “off” in some way that I can’t put my finger on. I’m just not sure that making humans 100% realistic is ever going to be possible.

    I think that it works better when you make them somewhat cartoonish, like A Christmas Carol did earlier this year. Otherwise, why not just use humans and green screen? It certainly would be cheaper.

    All in all I agree with your review, however I don’t understand the above comment. Didn’t they use green screens and real actors for the human shots?

  • Shannon Hood
    December 19, 2009 at 2:04 pm

    @Jamie M. As for the age cut-off, it is subjective of course. My 7 year old could probably handle it, but I know some of her classmates couldn’t. I just urge people to think a second before they take their kids. You and I both know that too many parents don’t think, and drag their toddlers to stuff like this, and it is just too intense for toddlers.

    To me, the unobtainium seemed to obviously = oil, and the “we’ll fight terror with terror”, “shock and awe”, etc was a direct reference to the Iraq war, although I totally agree with you that it has far greater reaching themes. I didn’t even get into the environmental themes, because I easily would have ended up with 3,000 word review.

  • Jamie M.
    December 19, 2009 at 11:48 am

    I agree with your review for the most part but a couple of rebuttals:

    I didn’t see any allegorical parallels to the Iraq war. I did see an allegorical connection (which you’d have to blind to NOT see) to westward expansion and the genocide of the Native American population as European settlers encroached. They even try to “relocate” the Nav’vi. The only thing more they could have done was give them smallpox tainted blankets.

    I saw the film with my 8 year old daughter and her friend. The both loved it, so I think a better cutoff age is perhaps six or seven. The film is VERY violent, but it is not pointless and gratuitous violence.

  • Shannon Hood
    December 18, 2009 at 5:09 pm

    @Rikus
    So you saw the 2d and loved it? I thought the movie would still look good in 2D, the 3D is not essential, but enhances the movie. I’m sure you will be thrilled with the 3D.

  • Rikus
    December 18, 2009 at 9:58 am

    Sometimes a movie falls prey to a certain formula that is all too common in any kind of story, particularly tales that involve alien races or worlds, trigger-happy mercs, and a native princess who happens upon a male protagonist. What I love most about Avatar (besides how staggeringly awesome everything looks) is that while the story does follow a somewhat predictable formula it does so because that is what would happen in such a setting, and the formula becomes prey to the movie.

    Another thing I really appreciated was the foreignness evident in the body language and speech of the Na’vi, and everything else on Pandora. Fantasy at its best.

    I really enjoyed the film and would love to experience it again (perhaps this time in 3D).

    Bravo Mr. Cameron, bravo.

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