Review – Avatar

Avatar [2009]

Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver
Director: James Cameron
Screenwriter: James Cameron

Note: I saw this movie in IMAX 3D, and so my review reflects that experience of the film. I can’t comment on seeing it in 2D. But given the fact that Cameron suggested people see it in 3D, and IMAX if possible, I think my review is reflective of seeing the movie “the way it was meant to be seen”, especially if you’re one of those people who believe that the medium is the message.

One of the most pleasant feelings in the world for me is for my skepticism to be proven wrong. I love going into a movie and coming out feeling fully satisfied. I love wonderful surprises where what I think might be a mediocre experience is an exceptional one. Let me begin by stating that leading up to seeing this movie, I was a huge skeptic. I have never been a fan of 3D, and was thoroughly unimpressed by the first “teaser” trailer. I mocked and derided the film with my friends, playfully, but still mocked it nonetheless. Yet as I sat in the theater, watching Avatar unfold before me, my skepticism and doubt quickly faded away, and an elated joy took over. James Cameron had done it.

The story takes place in the distant future, and human’s have gone to a distant planet called Pandora to pillage its resources, specifically one mineral that apparently has an invaluable use back on Earth. The main problem facing the humans is that there’s an indigenous race on the planet, known as the Na’vi, who are around ten feet tall and blue, and are sitting on the largest mine of said ore. The film follows a paraplegic ex-marine named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) who, because he’s an exact genetic match to his deceased twin brother, is hired to take his brother’s place in the Avatar Program on the distant world of Pandora. The Avatar Program essentially transplants the consciousness of a human into the body of a Na’vi (specially genetically grown ones), and was made in order to foster better relations with them. That didn’t quite work out the way it was supposed to. This leads Jake to being caught between Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who wants to try to better relations with the Na’vi, and Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who really just wants to wipe them out.

One day, on a small mission to collect plant samples, Jake gets separated from his party, and has to fend for himself. Little does he know that Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) has been spying on him. But when she has the chance to kill him, she instead saves him, and brings him back to her village. There, he convinces the Na’vi to give the humans one more chance, and he is hesitantly accepted into the village. Neytiri, the daughter of the village elder, is given the task of training Jake not only in the ways of the Na’vi, but also as a warrior. All of this is told through some of the most unforgettable sequences I’ve ever seen.

Avatar truly transports the viewers onto Pandora. It truly brings the viewer into the world of the Na’vi. Not for a second did I ever feel as if I wasn’t really there, and not for a moment did I feel as though the Na’vi weren’t really living, breathing beings. I loved every minute of it. How does one describe the indescribable? It’s difficult to say more than, “you just have to experience it for yourself,” but that’s really what one is left with. And “experience” is the right word. Avatar is not so much a movie as it is a totally immersive experience, transporting the viewer to a time and place that none of us will ever go. And it makes you believe in it, all of it.

The Na’vi, for example, are as flawlessly created and presented as is possible under today’s technology. They looked, sounded, moved, and felt completely real. As many people have noted, Cameron has obviously drawn upon Native Americans in creating and presenting the Na’vi. But I think that he also draws upon native African cultures and societies. The Na’vi overshadow the humans most of the time (which is not a negative by any means), and in many ways are the film.

If there are some problems with the film, they are few, and do not distract from the overall quality. Sure, this is a story that we’ve all seen before (Dances With Wolves, I’m looking at you). But so what? Stories are told and retold, and then told again. The magic of retelling a tale we’ve seen before is in doing it like we’ve never seen it told before. And if that’s the metric by which we can judge whether a movie with a so-called “tired” plot succeeds, then Avatar succeeds beyond expectations. The dialogue is at times dull, though not always. The movie has been criticized for a bland script, but I disagree completely. Although some of the dialogue is not the best written, Cameron has done an admirable job with the overall script. As I said, he tells a tale in a way we’ve never seen. The music fits very well with the rest of the film, and I commend James Horner on finally doing a score since Titanic worth remembering.

The acting is all decent, and gets the job done. Stephen Lang as Quaritch stands out above the rest. His performance never falters, and never lulls. It’s always on point, but never so extreme that we chuckle. We distrust him from the get-go, but by the time the film is coming to its conclusion, we truly despise him. I must also say that the performances by those playing the Na’vi, especially Zoe Saldana, are flawlessly conveyed. By that I mean that James Cameron has done such a brilliant job with the motion capture that I can say it’s not simply capturing the motions. His technique honestly captures the performances. Every motion capture character henceforth will be judged by Cameron’s standard in Avatar.

As for the 3D. I’m surprised at how well it worked for me. Is it perfect? By no means. But for the first time I actually felt as though 3D could be a viable medium for film in the future. It has its issues, such as when the camera movies too quickly, things tend to blur a bit, and if you move your head to the side (such as to grab some popcorn), the 3D effect doesn’t quite read. Perhaps one day soon the technology will be there for 3D projection without glasses, which I would gladly welcome.

James Cameron has created a technical masterpiece, and a strong, beautiful, if slightly flawed film on the whole. But very few times have I felt so elated coming out of a movie theater, so full of life, so speechless at its absolute wonder. Certain scenes, landscapes and images were so beautifully made that they brought me to tears. James Cameron made me a believer. Go see Avatar and let him make a believer of you, too.

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11 Responses to Review – Avatar

  1. Kevin Schreck says:

    For me, virtually all of the negative expectations that I had for this movie were met, and sometimes even more exaggerated than I expected. But it was still pretty cool.

    As for the script, I agree: it’s not that bad. It’s nothing extraordinary, but it’s fine. It’s remarkably unremarkable, actually. However (and this is a minuscule detail), one thing I liked in the script was the Na’Vi’s name for the great leonopteryx: “last shadow”. Again, practically insignificant, but it’s a nice little highlight demonstrating Cameron’s obsession with details in creating such a massive universe. It shines nicely in that small example.

    • Nathan says:

      While I had certain negative (and positive) expectations about the film, the fact that my negative ones were met is outweighed greatly by the fact that my positive ones were not only met, but exceeded. On top of that, I found other things I liked or loved about the movie that I never knew I could, such as t he 3D for a big and obvious example.

      The film is not perfect. But it is one of the most entertaining films I’ve seen all year, and one of the most beautiful ones I’ve seen ever.

  2. Leandra says:

    I really enjoyed the movie, which surprised me because I was just going because my dad wanted to see it. I agree with what you said about the plot, while it was not a new story it was compelling and at times heart wrenching. You could hear everyone sniffling when the big tree fell. What I thought was good about the straightforward story was that it left plenty of time to admire the special effects, which were beautiful. Instead of being bogged down with plot twists you could just sit there in awe of this beautiful world. I also loved the music. I am pretty critical of soundtracks and I thought this one was appropriate and unique and just plain beautiful. While I was not a fan of the 3D (it makes me sick) I think it was well done and I still really enjoyed the movie. With a story everyone can relate to and special effects you can take for real life this will be a movie that I watch over and over again, even if it’s just to admire the unique and beautiful world of Pandora.

    • Nathan says:

      I felt the same way about the plot. Its familiarity wasn’t necessarily a detriment, because without extraneous twists and turns, it allowed you to focus more on the visuals than you otherwise would have. I wish more people would recognize that aspect of it, but it seems to many, simply because the plot isn’t utterly and completely original, it’s a huge impairment to the film. I utterly disagree.

    • Kevin Schreck says:

      Leandra: I confess, I also felt bad when (>’.’)>–O.o**SPOILERS!!!!**o.O–<('.'<) the tree fell; but I'm like that with trees in general. It's kind of pathetic. A fallen tree or beached whale is like the saddest thing in the world to me. But I felt the same way with that huge (and very convincing) CG tree as I would a real one, so kudos to the film and filmmakers on that note.

      Anyway, back to the movie: as much as I admire Cameron's attention to detail, I was disappointed with Pandora to an extent. The 3D was superb to me, but I wish the world itself, and especially its flora and fauna, was more unique. For one thing, I felt it was a bit inconsistent to have the Na'vi be the weirdos of the exo-planet by not giving them six limbs like every other animal (even if that made more sense technologically for the motion-capture). That's partly why I'm looking forward to sequels: I want more, and better.

      The music: I had mixed feelings. At times, very affecting and powerful. At other moments, it was the most cliched tripe I've ever heard, sometimes laughable. Like "Lion King" muzak. Particularly any chords or instrumentation that perpetuated the whole "noble savage" trope to even more exaggerated heights. I downloaded the soundtrack (have yet to listen to it), but score isn't the same without watching the film. Maybe I should see the movie again before I give it a more indepth analysis.

      • Kevin Schreck says:

        Re: myself: Pandora also had too many Earth-like animals. Horse-monster, cat-monster, bird-monster, etc. And half of the plants I have in my backyard. Come on, Jimmy; go full-nerd. Use those ethnomusicologists, botanists, zoologists, anthropologists, etc. to your advantage and go nuts.

      • Nathan says:

        Your criticisms are well taken.

        I don’t know whether he consulted with ethnomusicologists, zoologists or anthropologists, but I can say that he did consult with a botanist: http://j.mp/5FQ2zW

        Funny you should mention all that, though, as after I got out of the movie, my girlfriend and I were talking about how Cameron probably did consult with them a lot. I think she told me she read he actually did consult with ethnomusicologists, which would not surprise me in the least. I’d ask her about it if she wasn’t in India at the moment.

        SOME SPOILERS FOLLOW – YOU’VE BEEN WARNED

        Also, one thing I realized is that we didn’t see all the creatures on Pandora. We saw a few of them, but not all of them. We also only got glimpses of parts of Pandora further from the forest. I’m sure there’s tons of places to explore beyond what we saw, such as the plains and the oceans. I realized that we had actually only gotten a small taste of the whole moon.

        Did the flying creatures have six limbs?

        SPOILERS END HERE

        Anyway, it didn’t bother me as much as it seems to have bothered you. Then again, I never really wondered about the evolutionary points of aliens in Star Trek or Star Wars, either. Thinking about it, it seems kind of evolutionarily wrong that giant slugs like the Hutts would inhabit a barren wasteland of a planet, rather than one rich in moist nutrients. …Now I’m just rambling.

  3. Kevin Schreck says:

    The Hutts aren’t from Tatooine; they colonized it as a crime planet (see, Cameron should go full-nerd like me; but more original).

    I think the flying creatures had six limbs. The smaller ones did. The big ones had a vestigial pair.

    And Cameron said he consulted those professionals in at least one promotional video featurette online.

    Those things ought not to bug me, but I expected more from James Cameron, who does seem to care about those details.

    • Nathan says:

      It’s science fiction/fantasy that deals heavily in themes related to religiosity and spirituality. It’s not grounded purely in realism, so I never expected it to live up to purely realist expectations. I welcomed the fantastical elements.

  4. Allyn Armor says:

    Nice review, I have only seen 2D version. I love Pandora too, a beautiful world!

    Allyn Armor
    https://twitter.com/allynarmor

  5. Allyn Armor says:

    OMG, why my avatar is a man

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