Thursday, January 21, 2010

Avatar (2009)


Ah James Cameron, king of the world and maker of the dreaded “Titanic”. You see I was one of about 10 people who didn’t love “Titanic”. I thought it was good entertainment, but not the huge epic slab of genius that most people did. Combine that with the fact that Cameron had taken over 10 years to make this movie and I was afraid… in a George Lucas afraid kinda way about seeing “Avatar”. I had a feeling the movie would be a crushing disappointment even though the buzz machine was working overtime. So did Cameron pull a Lucas or is “Avatar” worth seeing?


Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a space marine who has lost the use of his legs. He volunteers to go to the planet Pandora to operate an avatar (bioengineered body of one of the natives) to aid in the operations. On the one hand he has Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) who wants to understand the native people called the Na’vi. On the other he has the gun-ho Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang) who believes force is the only way to obtain the rare mineral the corporation is after. At first Jakes loyalties are with the Colonel, but the more time he spends among the Na’vi and especially the brave Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he begins to wonder if his mission is worth the price of betrayal and destruction. Eventually Jake must make a choice, will he help the Colonel and wage war against the Na’vi, or will battle against the technologically superior forces and face almost certain death.

Good Points:

  • Brilliant visual effects create a believable world.
  • 3D technology is used to pull you into the film.
  • Compelling characters make the story and action scenes work.

Bad Points:

  • The story is very familiar, with many predictable turns.
  • The themes may be too “green” or “anti-military” for some viewers.
  • Anyone familiar with the music to “Glory” may become distracted by the score.


“Avatar” is solidly entertaining. There are moments when the story is downright predictable. And I even found myself chuckling at some of the overused film elements. But Cameron is able to create interesting (not new, but involving) characters and very believable world. Because of these elements, the twists and turns keep you interested and the action scenes are intense. Without the 3D this would be a fine, fun sci-fi action adventure film. But with the 3D, the immersive experience is very impressive. Definitely worth catching in the theaters and in 3D.

Score (out of 5)

Visual Aspects – 5

Sound Aspects – 5

Acting – 4

Music – 4

Script - 3

Direction – 4

Entertainment – 5

Final Grade – 4

Film Review

“Titanic” was really hanging over “Avatar” like a sword of Damocles. Seriously, I was afraid of this film. I blame George Lucas. Most of you know my disappointments with the Star Wars prequels, something that seemed so foolproof that I was stunned with each release how much I didn’t enjoy them. Suffice to say, a long break between projects just didn’t instill a lot of confidence with me. Sure, Cameron had been working on documentaries and producing other efforts, but he hadn’t actually worked on a film in over ten years. I was not holding my breath.

Then there was the hype machine. It wasn’t nearly as bad as it got for “Return of the King” or “The Phantom Menace” but it was out there and it was strong. All over the internet, fan boys were drooling in anticipation. I had this deep feeling that they were going to be disappointed, and bad word of mouth would kill the movie – no matter if it was good or not.

Well I was wrong on almost every count. Not only is “Avatar” better than any of the Star Wars prequels, but it was as entertaining as 2009’s “Star Trek”, something I was not expecting.

Really a huge reason for the movie working so well is the visual effects. For the most part “Avatar” is an animated film. It goes for a photo realistic look, but one that is on another world. This allows the viewer to buy into what they are seeing, especially when there are no actual human characters on the screen. The animation is very convincing because of the amount of detail in what we see.

The flora and fauna of the planet Pandora move and behave like flora and fauna we are familiar with, but with an alien touch that makes the visuals both believable and foreign. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but one that the team at WETA does with great skill. Just check out how some of the animals in the film move. We are conscious that they aren’t real, but at the same time we buy into them, because they work in their environment.

On the flip side, the human technology and world is more grounded in science fiction that we are familiar with. Much of the look here is very similar to what Cameron did in “Aliens” or even “The Abyss”. It’s got a very militaristic look, one that is based in military equipment that we have now, but taken into a more futuristic direction. Usually when the humans are interacting with their own materials, it works fine. The only break in reality is when humans have to interact with the visual world of the Na’vi. There is a touch of unreality here. Luckily it works with the story. The humans aren’t supposed to look like they belong here. But there were times where I was very conscious that I was seeing an actor working in front of the green screen and interacting with nothing (or an actor in a motion capture suit).

The added layer is the 3D. This movie really benefits from the use of this technology and it is handled so perfectly that I was amazed. About 20 minutes in, I forgot I was watching a 3D film. I bought into the visuals and was invested in the characters enough to let it become part of the film and not a gimmick. Sure some scenes were more impressive because of the 3D. Action scenes did have things flying toward and around you. And yet it was the depth of field, the details stretching back that really made the visuals effective. If 3D can be used this effectively in the future, and with better stories, then I think we have some great movies to look forward to.

The sound design and effects were also top notch. Most important were the sounds used for the animals and environment of Pandora. There are plenty of moments where the combination of 3D and a dense sound design really pull you into the world. But fans of action will not be disappointed in the organized chaos of the last half hour of battle scenes. I was really impressed here, a lot of good work, again right up there with the sound work on “Star Trek”.

At first I was pretty sure I going to give the acting a solid 3. It seemed average for the most part, with everyone filling in their roles admirably. But the more I thought about the more I realized that some serious voice acting was needed to bring the Na’vi characters to life. I did end up caring about the characters and their fate. Part of this was the excellent voice acting by Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana. So I had to bump that grade up on those performances.

Well that and the excellent work by Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch. He reminded me of Lt. Coffey from “The Abyss”, a militaristic villain you just love to hate. Lang does a great job of showing us the man’s drive, his fearlessness, and his brutality. He believes in what he’s doing and you get a sense that he is more than a little angry at what Pandora has done to him and the men under his charge. In another movie, he might be a hero. But here we see the dark side to his character and he makes a great villain.

Solid supporting turns by Sigourney Weaver, Wes Studi, Giovanni Ribisi and Michelle Rodriguez just add to the film – each plays their part well and never distracts from the overall film.

James Horner was one of the key components of “Titanic”. His score and song are still on the top of the heap when it comes to best selling movie music. It only made sense to bring him back in. In addition, Horner was charged with not only creating the music, but helping with the Na’vi language and songs. Many film music fans were waiting in anticipation of what Horner would cook up for this adventure. Well, if you’re familiar with Horner, you’re familiar with the score. His style is very evident here, and its very effective. He brings a sense of wonder to the scenes of beauty. He adds to the tragedy during the battle scenes. And he elevates the victories with great music. All in all, it’s a top notch score that really adds to the film, with one slight exception.

The main theme from “Glory” (also written by Horner) creeps in very obviously in several scenes. Now, it isn’t the exact theme, but it is really, really similar. Similar enough to stick out to me and actually take me out of the film. Now this isn’t going to be a problem to anyone but a film score fan. But the music from “Glory” is so tied to that that movie that it just feels wrong to hear it here. It’s the only reason I can’t give the music a five rating.

If there is any major weak point in the film, it’s the script. There is no subtlety here. The themes are obvious and nearly slam you over the head. Greed is bad. Nature is good. Those who respect nature are good. Those who disrespect it are bad. I know plenty of people who are sick to death of the “green” message. So this movie is just going to annoy them further

The story itself is very familiar to anyone who’s seen “Dances with Wolves” or “The Last Samurai”. Nearly all the same plot points are hit in this movie. This creates a bit of predictability. You know how the movie will turn out and there are very few surprises. It’s safe to say that Cameron wasn’t interested in doing anything innovative with the story. His focus was telling the story in a new way. For some, this will make the film feel too familiar. I was able to just roll along with it, even if I did wish every once in a while that my predictions weren’t right every single time.

Cameron has always been a solid director. He isn’t flashy with his camera work, he isn’t arty in a David Lynch way. Instead he focuses on telling his story and usually he keeps the plot moving at a solid pace. “Titanic” was the exception. It did drag a bit, in my opinion. Even the “Abyss” has a few slow moments. But when Cameron is on, he’s on. “Avatar” is a long movie, but it never feels long. Cameron keeps everything moving forward. He makes sure the exposition scenes also move the story forward.

I have to give the man a hand when it comes to directing action scenes. All of them move well and are exciting, but more importantly they are filmed in a way that we understand clearly what is going on. This is something that has been missing from many recent action scenes (check out “Quantum of Solace” for some seriously confusing action scenes). This is especially handy since we care about the characters, we like to know what kind of danger they are in, as well as look at the pretty explosions.

I found “Avatar” to be entertaining. The time flew by, and that’s usually tough for a movie over two hours. The balance of immersive visuals, well executed action and characters pulled me in and kept me there for the entire running time. A tough thing to pull off because I found “Dark Knight” a little too long the first time I watched it.

Is “Avatar” going to change the world, or take the spot of the best movie of the 2000’s? I don’t think so. It’s a worthy bit of entertainment that is well worth seeing on the big screen. If anything, Cameron has raised the bar for visual effects. Like I said before, if someone with a great fresh story can use the technology utilized in this film – we’ll be in for a real treat. But until then we’ll have a lot of copycats abusing this stuff. We also have a very enjoyable film called “Avatar” to watch, and that’s the good news.

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