Review: James Cameron’s Avatar

James Cameron Avatar Poster Avatar’s hype did not impress me.  The initial trailers I saw were lackluster, and that’s me being nice.  The special effects looked hokey, and the plot, from what I had heard of it, was Dances with Wolves in space.

I was not interested and had pretty much written Avatar off my list.

But my wife and I went to see it anyway because despite all that, we had heard rave reviews. (Roger Ebert said that it was like seeing Star Wars in 1977.)  Rave reviews which we both wholeheartedly agree with now.

To begin with, the plot in Avatar is serviceable but compelling.  The story is, indeed, Dances with Wolves in space, but I prefer Sam Worthington to Kevin Costner and space aliens to Native Americans.  There are very few deep or hidden meanings in the narrative and even less symbolism, but the corporation/military vs. nature/noble savages conflict is engrossing.  I’m no tree hugger in any sense of the word, but I was moved to hate the military industrial complex by the end of the film.

The acting is spot on, too.  From the too-gruff army guys to the stereotypically native Na’vi elders, I believed everyone in their role.

Zoe Saldana really stole the show, though, and was completely recognizable even with her CGI makeover.  When she hissed ferally at Avatar Zoe Saldanathreats, there was no campiness; it was the character.  I really liked her in Star Trek, too, and I hope this means she will get future top billing in hit movies.  It took a few minutes for my wife and I to realize who she was, but once we did, we could see her mannerisms through the CGI costuming.

Equal to her was Sam Worthington, the sole reason that Terminator: Salvation was remotely watchable.  He’s not a mindless action chump like Avatar Sam Worthington Arnold was for Cameron so many years ago; he’s going places as an action star, though I think he was  bit more believable as a roughneck with a heart of gold when he had the scruffy beard.  He lost something when he shaved.  It was odd.

All that aside, there is the special effects, which is the real reason to go see Avatar.  I am not one to generally be sold entirely on presentation, but when the presentation is this polished, I have to sing its praises.  My wife said she didn’t think another Lord of the Rings-quality jump in special effects was possible until she saw this movie.  WETA has done it again, and I look forward to seeing what impersonators are spawned by this style.

Like I said, I went in hesitant.  I thought the mixture of CGI and live-action was going to be hokey.  I hated the previews, and when I mentioned to my mother that I had gone to see the film, she remarked how badly I had ranted about its undeserved hype for special effects.

But immediately, I saw that it was seamless.  I never questioned it because it was so perfectly integrated.  The actors might as well have been wearing costumes and make-up for how perfectly the CGI worked in the environments of the film.  Avatar Navi ScreamingTheir eyes and ears perked up, and even the faces were anthropomorphic enough (but more on that later) to garner emotional attachment but alien enough to remain exotic and new.  Sometimes I even had a hard time determining what was CGI and what was live-action. The movie was simply stunning and made for 3D.  If you watch this movie without 3D glasses (and I’m not entirely sold on the 3D gimmick yet), you’re doing yourself and this film a disservice.

I honestly wonder what it will look like at home without an HDTV.  I can’t imagine how it will translate.

What LOTR did for CGI a decade ago, Avatar just did again.  It was also the first 3D movie I’ve seen (outside of maybe UP) that didn’t make me want to take my glasses off occasionally to give my eyes a rest; my head never hurt, nor did the bridge of my nose incessantly tingle (my own personal way of testing the quality of a 3D movie).  Their ~300-400 million dollar budget was money well spent.

Probably the best thing about the movie was that the action scenes weren’t mindless.  Sure, some were flaunting that they could do it, but for the most part, they advanced the narrative and characterization.  Sure, sometimes the film flaunted that it was pretty with a flight scene or a chase with some explosions, but the outcome of that scene always hinged on storytelling.

The flight sequences were astounding, and make me hope that one day a Dragonriders of Pern film will be done right.  The movie has all the trappings one would need for an effective Pern film, so this is my call to action.  You hear me, McCaffrey?

So my call on Avatar is that it’s worth every penny.  My wife and I are even thinking of Avatarrescheduling our birthday outing we have planned for ourselves to be able to see the IMAX version before it leaves theaters.  While the plot has been done before, it may have never been done as well.  Sure, it could be considered Dances with Wolves in space or Ferngully 3D, but it was fun.  And that’s what big budget Hollywood eye candy movies are supposed to be about.

And at 2 hours 30 minutes long, I never once felt the time pass.  It was over before I really expected it to be.  There were lulls in the action, sure, but it never dragged.  At least for me.

My only problem with the movie is a problem that I have with most science fiction: anthropocentricism.  The aliens are all anthropomorphic and close enough to humans to have their DNA spliced to even create the Avatars.  In the wide expanses of the universe, I cannot help but find it difficult to willingly suspend my disbelief enough to get past that egotism that we are close to some genetic standard for life.  At least James Cameron did take a small step in trying to right this: the atmosphere was at least toxic for humans on Pandora; it wasn’t just Earth with new minerals.

Avatar Na'vi Until this weekend, I was certain that Star Trek was the best movie I saw this year.  It revitalized one of my favorite franchises and was bombastic, compelling, and just plain pretty.  But Avatar one-upped it in every single category except the revitalization of a favorite franchise.  I don’t want to label either movie as “better,” but picking a single movie this year as my favorite just got exponentially harder.

Comments

  1. I really liked Avatar. I would say as far as movie going experiences go, it was better than Star Trek. My only complaint was that I didn’t feel that the movie had enough balance. What I mean is, the scenes were either foreshadowing, teach exercises, or battles. Star Trek managed to keep its serious tone while still adding in some humor to offset things. This film felt very one speed, and at 3hrs it’s very difficult for me to want to sit through it again despite the spectacular ending.
    .-= Phaethon´s last blog ..Previously On Gaming – The Reason Your Backlog Is Enormous =-.

    • Yeah, you have a good point there. The film really did have its “foreshadowing, teach exercises, or battle” scenes and few others. I thought it worked, though, for pacing because I never felt that the movie dragged.

      Now that you mention it, though, I wonder how that will work for a second viewing because it was all necessary for a first-time viewer to understand the rules of the universe in which it was set, but a returning audience member won’t need the meta-tutorial along with Sully.

  2. Longasc

    It is very hard to describe the immense appeal of Avatar to people who have not seen it yet or just the 2D version.

    I found all 3D movies to be lacking so far – this one really showed that it is more than just a silly effect that causes headaches while wearing goggles.

    You are right, I fear it is almost impossible to get the same watching experience at home! But maybe this is just what the cinema needs for future survival. “Normal” movies can often be watched with friends at home, we already did so several times and did not miss the cinema atmosphere too much.

    • There are two 3D movies I found incredibly fun so far: UP and Monsters vs Aliens. Both of them used 3D as a subtle viewing tool instead of it being the main attraction (i.e. few “look at this thing coming straight through the 4th wall” moments). Even with that, Avatar one-upped the technology again.

      I saved my 3D glasses this time instead of recycling them so I can try them with some DVDs at home and see if they’re better than the cheapo ones that came with movies like My Bloody Valentine 3D.

  3. I’m all for a good Pern movie. It’s about time. I’d also like to see The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown given the WETA treatment with a competent director.

    My wife and I will see Avatar soonish. When we can make the time. I’d definitely like to see it in 3D.

    I didn’t care for Star Trek, though. It was OK, but there were too many discordant notes for me to really like it. Give me a great TNG episode over it any day. 😉
    .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Play It Again, Samwise =-.

    • Definitely take the time to find a 3D showing of it, Tesh. You guys won’t be disappointed visually if you do. Like I said, the narrative is shallow but passable, but the overall presentation in 3D actually makes up for it.

      I loved Star Trek, though. But I’m not a franchise purist anymore. I got really uptight about LOTR being done wrong a decade ago, and then took a few film classes (especially a grad level one over literary adaptation) that helped me see each film as a separate entity and work of art in its own right. I guess that’s what happened with Star Trek. It was just a fun movie for me, so I was glad to see the franchise revitalized in a way that means there will be more of it, especially after the craptastic “Enterprise” series.

      • I’m not the purist nut that I could be either, I just don’t like it as a film. It’s big, dumb, loud and flashy. That’s not what I want out of Trek. It’s a serviceable action movie, and I like it well enough for that… it’s just not the intelligent, interesting sort of entertainment that I have come to expect of Trek. (The science was *terrible*, for one.) Then again, Nemesis was *bad*, too, and Enterprise was indeed awful. It’s more that I’m lamenting what *could have been*. I can accept it handily as Just Another SciFi Action Flick.

        There’s a time and place for big, dumb action, and I’m expecting a fair dose in Avatar… it’s just that I like more out of my movies. (Which also explains why I won’t watch the Transformers sequel…)
        .-= Tesh´s last blog ..Play It Again, Samwise =-.

  4. What I like about Cameron is that now only is he a filmmaker, he really cares about the technology behind the industry. While most people will let the technology get in the way of the story, his world is lush, consistent and completely absorbs the audience. It’s not all flash and I love it.

    All I can say is I can’t wait for the blu-ray movie so I can watch the special features. I would to see some of the acting behind this movie. I haven’t seen this intense of behind-the-scene acting since Gollum.
    .-= Robert´s last blog ..The Television Christmas Greeting! =-.

    • I agree. I’m not much of a special features guy, but the behind-the-scenes documentaries will be fantastic. The motion capture acting was superb, and I want to know just how they got it done so perfectly. The Na’vi aren’t Gollum 2.0, it’s more like they’re Gollum’s great-great-grandchildren.

  5. Nice review. I haven’t seen Avatar yet and although I was quite curious I, like you, wasn’t completely sold on it (I didn’t really buy into the hype either). My wife doesn’t want to see it much but I really want to give it a shot, especially in 3D. If it’s comparable to Star Trek, then that’s high praise indeed!
    .-= We Fly Spitfires´s last blog ..I Pre-Ordered Star Trek Online =-.

    • I really think it is comparable to Star Trek. My wife and I rewatched ST the other night, and it was still magnificent, but the effects–as bombastic and awe-inspiring as they were–didn’t hold a candle to the composition Avatar presented.

      Do yourselves a favor, Gordon, and don’t see it in 2D first. You’ll be disappointed.

        • I’m kind of amazed it gave you a headache. It was one of the only 3D movies I’ve seen that didn’t. Or at least, it never made me feel like my nose was tingling, which is how most 3D movies affect me physically.

          I’ll wait to see it in 2D when it comes out on DVD; I can’t see how I’ll see it again in theaters and it not be in 3D. I can’t do that to myself.

  6. I really enjoyed the movie, particularly the religious undertones of the Pandoran culture – from the directly visceral way they connect to each other and all life, to the Trees that retain memories of conscious beings if not the consciousnesses themselves. I wonder if Cameron had real linguists come up with their language? And yes, it was so visually lush I nearly cried.

    What disappointed me, though, was that in the end it all came down to a big fight scene, and as such it’s still an endorsement of war culture – or at least a grossly uncreative response to it. As Philip K Dick has noted, the Empire can not be brought down by violence, for it *is* violence. I would have preferred a different resolution, particularly the notion of a Pandoran entering a human body, infiltrating the Corporation, and taking it down from the inside. Even if the big fight scene had included more Pandoran life-forms, like insects and fungi and spores, rather than just the big beasts, it would have represented a step away from the mindset of war.

    So, I give it four stars out of five – four extremely enthusiastic stars, and one completely disappointing missing star.

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