Posted on: December 18th, 2009 REVIEW: Avatar

avatar_poster2Before I get into the meat of this review, let me address the big questions everyone’s asking about James Cameron’s Avatar.

Has Avatar reinvented special effects? No.

Has James Cameron conquered the “uncanny valley” of computer-generated animation? Not at all.

Has Avatar changed the way we will see movies? Nope.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means poo-pooing Avatar. I think Avatar is a really fun flick. James Cameron has successfully pulled off what he really intended to do, which was tell a story while raising the bar on special effects and 3D at the same time. While I give Avatar the proverbial two thumbs up, I didn’t love it, it hasn’t blown my mind to smithereens, and the film is not without some painfully glaring flaws.

Avatar is a very simple story. It’s 2154; the earth is a war-torn wasteland, no trees, no clean air, clean water, basically we didn’t recycle our bottles and stop using deet. The humans packed up and left, and have begun colonizing a planet called Pandora, home of the film’s native aliens, the Na’vi. The humans discover a precious mineral within the planet that can be mined and used as a source of energy to revive the dying Earth.

There are some well-meaning scientists harnessing Avatar technology in which to transfer their human consciousness into Na’vi bodies. Through this they’ve attempted to peacefully integrate into the Na’vi society, provide education, things like that. A young Marine grunt Jake Sully is chosen to command one of those Avatars and infiltrate the aliens. Predictably, the Marines use Jake to gather valuable intelligence in order exploit the Na’vi, and before you know it Jake has gone all Dances With Wolves on the Human-Na’vi war-front.

Pretty straight-forward, huh? Let’s start with the good news first, as you know me, ever the optimist.

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Avatar looks spectacular. Though not an evolution in special-effects, the film features probably the best you have seen so far. The environment of Pandora is lush, the epitome of natural beauty. A digital nirvana. It just looks and feels so incredibly real, that you forget very quickly that it’s all fake. It’s the indigenous people of Pandora, the Na’vi, who snap our minds back to reality and remind us, though beautifully, that this is all fantasy. I don’t say this as a criticism though. Cameron did the smart thing by making the Na’vi blue-skinned, large-eyed cat-like people that stand 9 feet tall. He did the smart thing by creating hundreds of exotic, alien species, some so large they would dwarf an elephant, some so small they appear only as the incessant buzzing of a house-fly. Designing these characters to be unmistakably inhuman removes that moment of disassociation and creepiness, the “uncanny valley”, the arguable last step in creating seamless CG characters. In Avatar this is a non-issue, as we cannot relate to the Na’vi how Robert Zemeckis so desperately wants us to relate to fake Tom Hanks or fake Jim Carrey. As realistically unrealistic as the Na’vi look aesthetically, the animation itself, the movements, the physics, the sense of weight in the characters, is unparalleled with anything we’ve seen yet.

The film must be recognized as the first truly successful use of 3D. Really, if you have not or did not see Avatar in 3D, you haven’t really seen it. My stance on modern 3D in films has been pretty firm, and remains that way even after Avatar – it’s an ultimately pointless gimmick. Now, while I do say that, the 3D in Avatar is amazing. From frame one it feels part of the film, an intentional process and not just a flashy afterthought. If more films were to be made with this in mind, then I might slowly change my position. It is also apparent though, that Avatar was made to show this technology off. As much as Cameron is selling the audience on the story, he is selling the 3D.

The last great thing I’m going to touch on is the film’s action sequences. Cameron can really shoot good action. The film doesn’t have a ton of them, taking into consideration the two-hour, forty five minute run-time, but they are long, well-paced, and fun as hell. The film’s big finale certainly delivers, fitting well alongside the Star Wars and Lord of the Rings school of epic.

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So there’s the good. Now brace yourself for the bad.

Everything unreal about Avatar is fantastic. Everything real about Avatar, the human characters, the acting and the dialogue, isn’t. The human characters in the film are flat, overly static and uninteresting. Take into account the not-so-subtle themes of the film, the treatment of Native Americans, genocide, capitalism, the environmental crisis, etc. These themes and subtexts would’ve been totally relevant had the villains of the film not been portrayed as Snidley Whiplash archetypes. Cameron plays on real events while using such caricatures of malevolence to do so. And this isn’t just the writing, but the performances as well. Giovanni Ribisi, the corporate villain behind Pandora’s invasion of troops, is wince-inducing. I was completely removed from the film the second he opened his mouth and let out that dreadful Cameron dialogue. The film’s physical villain, Stephen Lang as Marine Colonel Quaritch, is slightly more effective and less painful to watch, but he may as well have been a CG creation as his character is nothing more than a walking, talking cliche. The rest of the acting is passable, with exception to Sam Worthington’s American accent. Seriously. Worthington cannot pull off a convincing American. At all.

I made reference to the infamous “Cameron dialogue”. Sadly, it is in full-force with Avatar. Even worse than the John Conner-Ahnold dialogue of T2, the majority of the lines delivered in this film are embarrassing.

“We bounce at o-nine-hundred”.

“You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentleman”.

avatar-20090922043156668_640wOh and those aren’t even the worst. For what good Cameron can do with action and special effects, he takes epic leaps backwards with dialogue. That being said, a fair amount of critics are citing Avatar’s screenplay as a huge sore-spot. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say the whole thing is flawed, it is very simple and very contrived. You can call the major plot points well in advance, and the film’s concept itself has been done plenty of times before. The film does lack any and all subtlety, with its subtext and reference, heck even the precious mineral the scientists want is called unobtanium. You might as well have named it wedonthaveanyum. I’ll take a positive spin at this though, and again point out that Avatar takes the path of least resistance, in this case a good thing, letting us focus on the spectacular visuals. That being said, the demo-reel is done, and I’m not at all interested or invested in a sequel.

Though I pointed out the film’s flaws rather harshly, I left the theater (and still feel now) having enjoyed myself. The film is a lot of escapist fun, and the visuals are worth the ticket price in this case. If you are going in expecting to be absolutely blown away, or if you’ve succumbed to the media hype-machines, I fear your expectations will lead to your letdown. All in all though, I expect you will have fun with Avatar.

Filed under: Movies, News, Review

6 Responses to “REVIEW: Avatar”

  1. Gavin Says:
    December 18th, 2009 at 7:56 pm

    It is surprising how far we have come from Spirits Within. The difference is that Spirits never tried to be anything but what it was. I felt Avatar was riding on too much hype and yes the effects were awesome, but nothing game changing. If we wanted to see an all CG movie, well lets see a Pixar flick or A Christmas Carol. Cameron has always relied on great effects, but the stories he told with them were natural, there were sets and more. Heck in Aliens everything was litterally on the set with a few exceptions, which is why that movie stands out so much – It looked real cause it was. Avatar is fun, but nothing earth shattering.

  2. Dale Pidlisny Says:
    December 18th, 2009 at 10:33 pm

    I’m really only interested in this movie for the 3D experience since I’m a 3D movie virgin. If I were a lad living in Calgary, where would I find the best 3D screening?

    I was going to skip the movie outright since I have to really pick and choose movies I’ll go to the theater for but after watching the Totally Rad Show compare Avatar to the top movie experiences in history I didn’t want to feel left out.

    Reading this review have brought my expectations back down to earth, but I’m still interested.

    In conclusion.

    Unobtainium is a completely ridiculous name. Naming the planet Pandora is a big eye roll. The tall blue indian cat people are unappealing, but the buzz has piqued my interest!

  3. Kiaran Says:
    December 19th, 2009 at 12:35 pm

    Good read Ryan. Funny because your assessment of the film is exactly how I imagined I would feel about this movie. I never for one second believed the hype, but I figured it would be a great escapist ride.

    Anyway, it’s a shame he missed the opportunity to make a truly poignant and artistic masterpiece (like Battlestar Gallactica, but with aliens). Instead opting for the cheap thrills and predictable ‘don’t-make-the-audience-feel-stupid’ kind of script.

    Still going to try to get the family to go watch it with me.

  4. Ryan Ferrier Says:
    December 19th, 2009 at 6:42 pm

    Dale, it’s still quite an experience, I will definitely concede with that. To get the full effect you gotta see it on the IMAX screen at Chinook. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the only way to see it. I can’t beieve it’s even being released in 2D, but oh well.

  5. Jules Cressman Says:
    December 19th, 2009 at 10:57 pm

    Can do Ryan. Even though that comment wasen’t directed at me.

  6. Amanda Says:
    December 21st, 2009 at 12:44 am

    I’m not a person that keeps track of hype at all so I went into the movie having no idea what my experience was going to be like, which is generally nice. Though that makes me a little bit of a movie-newb so be it. I ended up going to see Avatar while I ducked out of seeing the movie Ninja Assassin which I definitely knew wouldn’t be that fun of a watch and I’m glad. I really enjoyed Avatar – there were parts I guessed were coming and characters I was wondering why exsisted, like you had mentioned, but the whole world they created was pretty darned eye-gasmic the whole time.

    SO, Dale, go see it! In IMAX and 3D. I don’t think seeing it anyway would do that world justice.

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