Movie Review: Avatar (Dan’s Take)

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After months of build-up and expectation, James Cameron’s Avatar has arrived. Playing against its hype, Avatar isn’t going to change your world, but for 2+ darkened hours, it’s sure as hell going to rock it.

James Cameron has delivered a visually resplendent, excellently paced and fully engrossing movie experience with his ode to 10 foot blue people and the humans who want to be them… or at least rape their planet. Avatar is a film built on the chassis of a summer blockbuster and delivered in a tight holiday package that’s rife with the reasons we go to movies: fun, escapism and perhaps most importantly, to feel. In short, Cameron may not have delivered a flawless masterpiece, but he’s certainly delivered his version of a close relative.

Avatar will inevitably draw criticism from a stodgy segment intent on reviewing the film amidst its din of hype and expectation, and while much of the sizzle is slightly overblown (as 90% of hype always is), Avatar shouldn’t be judged on that criteria, but rather on what unfolds during its two hour and 40 minute run time. This film is long, but never sags. Its pacing is quick and its exploration so enveloping, the 2.75 hours becomes a footnote, not a factor. On that note, make certain you don’t drink anything two hours before you enter the theater and make sure you hit the bathroom five minutes before showtime. You don’t want to miss a moment.

To anyone at all experienced in movie storytelling, Avatar holds no surprises and is happily beholden to a “been-there-done-that” story arc. The observation that Avatar is Dances With Wolves in space (with a sadly generic James Horner soundtrack) is warranted, but honestly, does it matter? Dances With Wolves is a fine, compelling template and one that absolutely needed a space remake set amidst exploratory adventure and lush world-building.

AVATARAnd the world-building is impressive. Cameron introduces the audience to the fantasy world of Pandora. This misty jungle planet is home to an entire race of tribal, ten foot tall N’avi– aliens whose females are genetic inheritors of the perkiest, most strategically exposed breasts in the universe; A feline-visaged race who are so in touch with their planet they carry biological USB ports in their pony tails– pony tails which they can use to peacefully and literally connect to virtually every creature living thing on the Pandora. Even the planet itself is alive, every tree connected via a network of electromagnetic impulses. The flora and fauna are at once alien and familiar, full of light and detailed wonder. The world building is absolutely massive in scope and there’s an underlying feeling every detail, every bit of Wayne Barlowe inspired biology/botany has a purpose and explanation for existence.

2009_avatar_010The humans– employees and contractors of a plundering industrial corporation who are mining the planet for the cryptic element Unobtanium while under protection of a for-hire military force– are simply meat on Pandora. Unable to breathe the air and unable to compete with the local wildlife, they live inside a military-industrial compound of cold steel, airstrips and belching smokestacks. The humans and N’avi don’t often interact, and previous contacts have ended badly. In an obvious nod to Iraq, Afghanistan and the Army’s current Human Terrain Project, the humans don’t understand why, amidst bombing and violence, the N’avi can’t be bought with schools, health care and food. In turn, the N’avi refuse to vacate a massive tree they call home– a tree sitting on a huge deposit of Unobtanium. Negotiation and goodwill are long expired and arrows and bullets are about to fly.

AVATARAs part of the pacification/anthropological negotiation process, humans have been working on prefabricated N’avi bodies to better interact with the local population. Since the N’avi clones are only compatible with their human hosts biology, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is selected for the job when his twin brother passes away mid-project. Of course now the mission is being subverted by military forces and involves less anthropology and more infiltration seeking tactical details on how to flush the N’avi once and for all.

The human contingent consists of Jake Sully, head of security Colonel Quaritch (a scene-chewing Stephen Lang) and Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver channeling her portrayal of Diane Fossey from Gorillas In The Mist, but with a Cameron-infused non-nonsense bit of kick-ass). The leads are given terrific backup by a supporting cast including Giovani Ribisi, who takes a thankless turn as the corporate stooge (very reminiscent of Carter Burke in Cameron’s Aliens), but with his big watery eyes, conveys a sense he’s not all ledger sheets and quarterly reports. Instead it’s Lang’s no-nonsense portrayal of Quaritch that draws audience ire as the typically callous military cliche itching for combat. When he finally gets it, Quaritch casually sips coffee while obliterating N’avi in a “shock and awe” show of force. Lang chews his character’s scenery so well, his simple villainy becomes the type to cheerfully root both for and against.

2009_avatar_001Still, amidst all the biological human drama, the humanitarian element of the story is all N’avi— and particularly Zoe Saldana’s (Star Trek) motion capture portrayal of N’avi princess and Jake Sully love interest, Neytiri. Saldana’s character is richly animated and while there were few times she’d be recognized as a living, breathing blue alien, her character is the most fully realized of the bunch. This is thanks, in large part, to Saldana’s anchor as the emotional heart of the Avatar. Her emotionally roiling performance is fantastic and the best mo-cap, if not better, since Andy Serkis’ Gollum in Lord of the Rings. In a genuinely emotional moment, Neytiri watches in helpless horror as the literal memories of her ancestors are plowed over and destroyed– the impact of the scene is painful and meaningful through her heartfelt performance alone. Tragically, it’s almost certainly going to be passed up by the Academy, but it’s an uncanny valley-busting example of craft that deserves serious consideration and accolades.

2009_avatar_020Cameron borrows heavily from current conflicts, incorporating story elements lifted wholesale from U.S. fumbling in Iraq/Afghanistan. His subtext is a patently anti-Bush/right administration epilogue that feels almost passe. When Colonel Quaritch lectures his troops and justifies their war by “fighting terror with terror”, the statement feels shoehorned as a day late and dollar short swipe toward a bygone and increasingly irrelevant administration. The Bush-isms are overplayed, but Avatar‘s sentiments of understanding, compassion and abolishing of myopic self-focus are in the right  place.

Conversely, the real-world fabricated spirituality of the N’avi can be eye rolling in its sincerity at times, as when the tribe gathers around a special tree and holds hands in a swaying orgasmic kumbaya. The message is heavy handed- the consumerist military industrial complex sucks life and soul; the zoological embrace of earthy spirituality gives it. And when Pandora uses its sentience to fight back against its human molesters, the cheese comes close to bubbling to the surface. That could be problematic for a lesser film– especially when a tender moment between human Jake and giant N’avi girlfriend Neytiri elicited audience laughs. Still, the same audience erupted in applause when the credits began rolling and that dichotomy is all Cameron. He knows Avatar isn’t high art- it’s pulpy, scifi adventure and he transcends these kitschy elements to tell a solid story amidst cinematic exploration.

2009_avatar_018As can be expected from Cameron, Avatar‘s action is a master’s exercise in relaying space and reference that are easy to follow. There’s a ton of visual information here, but not so much that Cameron ever allows the audience to lose focus on what’s happening. And while so much of the experience is CG, the reality is an easy buy thanks to a seamless divide between pixels and the real. When characters climb in and out of their military vehicles and those vehicles interact with their rendered environments and live actors, it’s “wow” inducing. The military equipment is surly, tactile and brimming with machismo– so detailed and real-world you could expect to find it in the 2010 Jane’s Defence. In contrast, Pandora’s creatures and plants are imbued with the feminine touch of mother-Pandora and evolutionary menace. Since the humans and N’avi seldom interact in the same scenes, scale isn’t a factor until things get close and dirty. When it does, the N’avi size difference receives viscerally highlighting. Their arrows become massive spears as they perforate human baddies and the N’avi morph into day-glow Goliaths who toss tiny human aggressors with impunity.

There’s been a great deal of hoopla over Avatar‘s new 3D techniques*. It’s the way to see the film and the intent with which it was all shot. And while it’s kind of neat, the 3D doesn’t validate itself as the wave of the future or allow any more immersion than a 2D film. It does, however, prove it can be used as more than a gimmick. There are no arrows or missiles rocketing into the audience for cheap thrills. Avatar is more akin to viewing a film through a window. Its depth of field isn’t quite jaw-dropping, but does add a dash of gee-whizery. In fact, by midfilm the 3D effect was all but forgotten– and that being the case, the technology almost goes to disprove its own necessity.

AVATARIs Avatar a game changer? On a technical side, yes- in that evolution in technology will always move effects sciences forward. On the viewers side, no. But that’s absolutely not a reflection of poor quality. Avatar is great, epic entertainment stuffed with solid film making, a proven story and thrilling world creation. Avatar is an adventure worth taking, and an adventure I can’t wait to revisit again and again.

*As a side note, some media outlets reported audience members feeling nauseous in early screenings. These reports were poo-poo’d, but I can attest they aren’t exaggerated. In the middle of Avatar, a woman stood up and made it halfway out of the theater before projecting her dinner as a dark, chunky stain on the floor. I felt a mild sense of her pain. There’s so much visual information to process in the depth of field and fast sweeping action, the eyes get a work out and I walked out a little woozy. Still, in a 3/4 capacity theater, only one person actually committed to a technicolor yawn.

7 comments On Movie Review: Avatar (Dan’s Take)

  • Good review Dan.

    Just a suggestion and i may be way off here so take it with a grain a salt.
    I dont need to see two reviews of the same film from you both, it seems to me part of the reason of having two buds team up for a movie site is that one helps split the workload off the other so it frees up time for other things like video games n hot i mean the wife..and maybe the kids.

    That said im sure everyone enjoys both reviews, i just know it aint easy writing well thought out reviews much less having to watch every relevant film out to even form an opinion in the first place and tbh whoevers review is out first thats the one ill read while the 2nd usually goes unread.

    This is me though, cant speak for anyone else, again, grain of salt.


  • No– thanks for the feedback Danny. It's definitely appreciated. The double reviews are actually something we've talked about. Unfortunately, I'm too egotistic not to post a review– that and we both enjoy it.

    We tend to think our reviewing styles differ enough that reading both (hopefully) will be interesting in some aspect. Still, we realize the redundancy might lower chances of double-reading and that's OK, too.

    But you, sir. You expect to read both, so stop being so lazy.

    Thanks again for the feedback and never fear, we always find time for for wives, hot chicks and video games.

    Stop being lazy and read both.

  • This movie really blew me away. It gets ***** from me.
    I watched a JC interview with pop mechanics where he was explaining the 3D and CGI and its director – actor interaction. Truely “cutting edge” stuff but I disagree with Dan as to the art. The creation of the planet Pandora in all its biological diversity (love the bit where he touches the spiral flowers), along with the nubile Na'vi and their USB tamed critters is a sublime work of art.
    The plot is an adequate vehicle .

  • jbean2002: Thanks for dropping by.

    I can definitely get behind your sentiment. But while I loved Pandora, I didn't think it was all that original as most of the flora and fauna could be traced to paleontology and Wayne Barlowe. I'd say it was “Cobbled art” with excellent execution. Not to say that's negative at all– as you stated, it's still a sublime visit.

    Of all the films you've seen this year, how would you rank Avatar?

  • We saw this in 3D on Sunday.

    I was immensely excited to see this in 3D, i couldnt wait to experience this new 3D tech Cameron's using.

    From the first frame flying through the clouds and hovering over pandora my excitement was immediately dashed away, i said to myself “uh oh..what the hell is this? Is the projector in this pos theater out of adjustment?” But as i sat there turning my head observing others my stomach sank..The woman and me looked at each other like what is this? Is it us?

    I've never had an issue seeing 3D at the theater.
    We saw UP in 3D and The Christmas Carol 3D and both were fine, i got the depth of field and all was nifty.
    But this..this was bad..lines meshing through lines, focus slightly off, going crossed eyed when subtitles would pop up on screen, there was 0 3D effect for me. WTF! I wanted to friggin cry man!

    I'd like to note i have 20/20 vision.
    Our experience was completely ruined, I couldnt focus on the amazing spectacle this film was, it was actually better when i took the glasses off, the woman and me switched glasses with no change in effect whatsoever.

    After the movie i asked people if it was at all bad for them and we got a resounding “it was awesome!”
    I asked some employee's if they'd had any complaints, none..
    I then went and spoke with the manager and she was shocked at my complaint..

    Im going to try a different theater later this week and see what happens, maybe were the minority here and just cant see Real3D tech.

    Im one bummed dude..ive been looking forward to this film for years now and it seems either i cant see it correctly or people out here are retarded and our theater's projector is jacked to hell.

  • I had issues in the very beginning, but it all came together. The fact you had lines crossing may be the theater. Get thee to Las Vegas and see it in IMAX.

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