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December 27, 2009


Movie Review – Avatar (2009)


Avatar (2009)

Avatar is writer-director James Cameron’s first feature film since 2007’s Titanic. Much like Titanic, Avatar is an astonishing technical achievement and great visual artistry in the service of a third-rate script.

Far and away the best part of the film is its computer-generated 3-D setting on a distant alien world called Pandora. Rapacious humans are on Pandora to strip-mine it. The human mission, largely staffed by soul-less mercenaries often resembling biker-gang rejects, is based in a highly fortified, atmospherically sealed compound with a- for didactic purposes- mud-colored decorating scheme. Outside the compound is a lush Amazonian rain forest of majestic trees, exotic plants, fearsome creatures, and sudden sharp drop-offs. The forest is home to the Na’vi, a race resembling blue-skinned supermodels with tails and habitat appropriate clothing. Blue is one of the dominant colors in the vibrantly colored landscape, joined harmoniously by deep purples, greens, and reds. There is also a sacred tree with white semi-translucent hanging vines and delicate spores that float through the forest beneath the tree canopy to deliver signs to the Na’vi, who live in not only mystical but also actual biochemical communion with their spirit-of-the-earth deity.

Although we get a few brief glimpses of other eco-systems inhabited by other blue-skinned tribes, the only other geological feature of note is a mountain range above the forest where huge rocks hang suspended in the clouds. It is a lovely and striking landscape, but the film’s great triumph is the beautiful and beautifully realized forest.

A large part of the film is spent simply exploring and discovering this world through audience proxy Jake (Sam Worthington), a paralyzed former Marine. Jake’s consciousness is projected into a lab-grown human-Na’vi hybrid body (that’s how it’s described in the film, although the only apparent human element is facial features somewhat resembling the operator’s) called an avatar. The title doubles as a description of the computer-generated Na’vi and Na’vi-avatar characters inhabiting the computer-generated forest.

Cameron has created a visually unified and wholly convincing artificial reality. The technical-artistic achievement by itself keeps Avatar engrossing for a remarkably long time.

Avatar is highly derivative in its plot, worldview, and characters. It can most efficiently be summarized as the hybrid offspring of Dances with Wolves and Princess Mononoke, although without the latter film’s nuanced view of industrialization. (It borrows from numerous sources, including Cameron’s prior films; the imagery in particular is strongly reminiscent of the films of Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator and filmmaker behind Mononoke.) The paint by numbers plot and perfunctory characterization would not necessarily be significant flaws if Avatar was a briskly-plotted genre film. It is, however, a self-serious drama with a weighty, explicit, and aggressively delivered spiritual-environmental message. It needs– demands– a strong foundation.

The flaws are magnified by the film’s excessive length. A drama with a 162 minute running time has no excuse for superficiality.

Jake is by far the film’s best developed character. As the main character he has the most screen time and the plot revolves around his spiritual journey; he also reveals his thoughts in a sometimes awkwardly integrated voiceover narration.

Jake’s guide in his immersion experience is Neytiri (voiced by Zoe Saldana), the feisty chief’s daughter and shamaness-in-training tasked with teaching Jake the ways of the Na’vi, consisting largely of teaching him to be a hunter. (The women are co-equal hunters with the men; no word on whether men share in the housework in Cameron’s romanticized pre-industrial tribal society utopia.) Neytiri has enough screen time to reveal a personality, although she is primarily a type- love interest combined with spiritual guide. The other Na’vi are only types: Neytiri’s initially hostile father (Wes Studi) and mother (CCH Pounder), who double as, respectively, tribal chief and shamaness; Jake’s disappointed rival in love and war; the nameless extras who fill out the evidently harmonious if impressionistically drawn community.

The human supporting characters are also types. Sigourney Weaver overcomes the limitations of the script to transmute her nature and other cultures-respecting scientist into the film’s most interesting supporting character. Michelle Rodriguez, Joel Moore, and Giovanni Ribisi made me wish they had more to work with. The psychotic military commander played by Stephen Lang is an indefensible caricature.

2 1/2 stars

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. miriam
    Dec 27 2009

    Pandora’s box was full of all kinds of things humans were better off without and this movie strikes me the same way. It’s a pretty shell containing nothing but trite story elements, superficial characters, and disappointment. Ultimately, it was boring and I twitched to look at my wrist where I no longer even wear a watch so anxious was I to know how much longer I would have to sit there. One famous movie critic said I’d cheer and I did, that it was over!

    3D is not a revolution in cinema like sound was, it’s a technology gimmick like cinerama. Once I’ve swooped a few times or admired the floating bits I want a compelling story. That’s something the technology fixated still don’t understand or perhaps don’t value.

  2. doc
    Dec 27 2009

    With some self-indulgent movies, you find yourself wondering “where did the money go?” Here, at least, you can appreciate the vibrant colors and imaginative features of Pandora’s forest landscape.

    It’s harder to say good things about the use of 3-D. The basic technology has been around for more than half a century, and the gimmicks (such as projectiles bursting out of the screen at you) have been around just as long. You still need glasses, and they are just as ill-fitting as ever. If this is the best you can get for a third of a billion dollars invested, it cannot be the wave of the future. Invest a tenth as much in a creative script and you’d have a far better film.

  3. miriam
    Dec 27 2009

    Don’t get me going about the glasses! Those of us who wear glasses had to wear them double!!

  4. Will
    Dec 27 2009

    As much as I appreciated the film for its technical (literally) merit – I stood up and cheered during the credits for IT Support – even I found the story very simple. However, what really struck me was the comments of the people around me… It really took the whole length of the movie for them to understand what I picked up in the first 5 minutes of Neytiri’s face to face encounter with Jake.

    My personal deja vu moment with the script was “A Man Called Horse”, which may have made it under the radar due to its age. I can definitely agree how the use of archetypes was liberally employed to give some depth (in some cases, the only depth) to most of the supporting characters (the emotional turmoil and angst of Tsu’tey was vastly under represented). Without the use of the audience’s previous knowledge of the character types, the story would have completely floundered, pretty pictures or no.

    I was able to appreciate the cinematography, particularly after watching the new Battlestar Galactica, evident in the zooming shots during the massed air raid with the shuttle towards the end. I must admit I did not notice things “coming out” of the screen, a nearly comical element almost always shown in 3D movies (Journey to the Center of the Earth, anyone?). It seemed instead a window into the world, and the quality allowed the illusion of literally being a window, as real as the surrounding theatre. The only real glare was making the photos on the fridge 3D as well, when realism would have been better served leaving them as 2d.

    Overall, I liked it (because I already liked the story – or stories – it was based on). I am sure it will be heralded as a technical achievement, but claiming it “changes the way movies are made” is blatant hyperbole. Good to see, especially in 3D, but don’t expect it to change your life.

  5. Nir Shalev
    Dec 28 2009

    See Helen? I told you to keep your expectations low. Great special effects never make great films. They have to support the story, not gloss over it.
    Rule number one: if you have a good script you have a good movie. It looks like James Cameron thought he could skip a few rules.

  6. Helen
    Dec 28 2009

    @Will: Thanks for the comment. I really did love the Pandoran rainforest. It was especially beautiful in the nighttime scenes lit by the phosphorescent plants.

    @Nir: I think we can acquit Cameron of not caring about the script. It wasn’t good, but it was sincere. Actually, less sincerity would probably have been a good thing, since it would probably have meant a shorter movie.

  7. Nir Shalev
    Dec 29 2009

    I keep telling everyone that this film’s greatest perk is that it’s shorter than Dances With Wolves. Ironically, it’s nowhere near as great, though.

  8. Aaron
    Dec 30 2009

    The environmental message was assuredly not sublte (Check out Wall-E for one that does it well).

    I must agree with most of you. Most of the characters were one-dimensional archetypes, the story was predictable, and the main villian was ludicrous. Sigourney Weaver impressed me, though.

    However, the special effects made the film worth seeing. And I enjoyed the 3D.

    I don’t think I'[d want to sit through it again anytime soon though. There’s just not enough intellect in the film for me to think. Plus, the bashing over the head with dialouge (and non developed villians) made me cringe.

    Don’t get me wrong though, I’m all for a well written eco-friendly film.

  9. Nir Shalev
    Dec 31 2009

    In this film we can see “The New World”, “Princess Mononoke”, and “Dances With Wolves”, two of those films showcasing Native Americans, but that doesn’t hinder Avatar’s astounding special effects. The CGI compositing and motion capture technology had actually impressed me.

    I detest movies that showcase special effects for the sake of special effects and no doubt this movie is nothing more than that, but they are dam nimpressive and worth every penny. The reason I dislike James Cameron is because he now refuses to shoot another movie with film. He says that he’s shooting in digial ’till the day that he dies. The only upside to that is that Ridley Scott is now going to direct an all 3D/CG version of “The Forever War”, one of the best book I’d ever read.

    Avatar: yay; The Forever War: woohoo!

  10. Helen
    Dec 31 2009

    @Aaron: I’m finding that Avatar is one of those movies that I like less the farther away I get from the experience of watching it. The surface is wondrous but the substance was lacking. (Oh, and a technology-obsessive lecturing on the evils of technology? Pardon me while I choke on the irony.)

    @Nir: But just think of all the exciting years of waiting you’ll miss out on.

  11. Nir Shalev
    Dec 31 2009

    @Helen: thank you for that. And on new Years Eve too!


    Happy new year to everyone at CT and to everyone else who’d posted on the website!