Avatar

Since seeing Avatar on opening weekend, I’ve read a number of reviews and comments, most of which seem to fall either into the “This is the most awesome movie I’ve ever seen --- James Cameron is a god,” category or the “Who cares about the special effects when the plot was tired and the characters were one-dimensional” category. I didn’t find too many “somewhere in between” opinions (perhaps due to the general nature of commenting on the internet). It seems you either love the movie, or hate it. I’m actually somewhere in between. I didn’t think it was the greatest movie ever, and it wouldn’t make my list of all-time favorites, but I really enjoyed Avatar and it completely lived up to my expectations.

Warning: The rest of this review contains spoilers.

The film was certainly a visual masterpiece. I saw it in 2-D (because 3-D messes with my eyes and gives me headaches), but was astounded by the richness of the visual landscape and the seamlessness of the effects. Only once or twice during the 2.5 hours did I find the visual effects to be glaringly noticeable. The rest of the time, I was completely sucked into the world. I was particularly impressed with the Na’vi. They felt as “real” to me as the live actors, and that is no mean feat. As always, James Cameron is a master at pushing the technological envelope.

The story, on the other hand, was extremely predictable and often evoked moments and themes from movies past. Certainly the tale of the outsider being brought into an indigenous culture, finding himself more aligned with their beliefs, and then rising up against his own people (and, of course, falling in love with the chief’s beautiful daughter) has been done countless times. It’s no mystery why people are calling the movie “Dances with Aliens” or a re-imagining of the Pocahontas story. Even beyond that basic familiarity, some of the twists and turns were pretty obvious. As soon as Neytiri told the story of her ancestor riding the Great Leonopteryx and uniting the tribes, I knew we’d see Jake on the back of one at some point. And when they tried to transfer Grace’s life force to her avatar, it was painfully evident that this is what was in store for Jake before the movie’s end.

And yet, none of that familiarity or predictability bothered me. Every story doesn’t need to be a completely new tale. Many of the stories that resonate with audiences do so because they evoke classic themes and tales. Countless hero stories, romances, and adventure tales tread familiar paths, but so long as they are done well, with characters that engage the heart and mind, they can be perfectly entertaining. With Avatar James Cameron created a world and cast of characters that engaged and captivated me. It didn’t matter that many of the characters were rather one-dimensional or that I could see exactly where the story was headed --- I still enjoyed the ride. I liked Jake, was stirred by his love story with Neytiri, and fervently rooted for the evil Sky People to get crushed by their native foes. I was even moved to tears at times (not that it takes much with me), and could hear sniffling throughout the theater at several points. I was particularly affected by the destruction of the Mother Tree and the moment when Jake and Neytiri finally “see” each other with their own eyes.

Cameron has a gift for taking a really simple tale, centering it on characters that he makes you care about, then combining it with kick-ass visuals and action to create a satisfying whole. This is the expectation that I brought to Avatar, and I left the theater very satisfied.

Final Analysis: Avatar is both engaging and visually astounding. It may not break any new ground with its story-telling or present overly complex characters, but it is still an enjoyable experience and well worth the price of admission.

Jess Lynde is a highly engaged television viewer. Probably a bit too engaged.

11 comments:

Josie K said...

Thank you for the great review, Jess! You've convinced me to see it--although I will probably give 3-D a try.

Remco said...

I shouldn't like this movie. It's derivative. The characters are one-dimensional. The politics are simple. The plot developments are at times illogical and at other times predictable.

Screw all that, I liked it. It's a beautiful movie, it is well-acted, and I liked the whole nature thing.

I also liked the idea that the planet works like a giant nervous system, storing lost souls. For someone who doesn't believe in a magical after-life, the fear of dying sometimes rears its ugly head. I consider my mind to be my most valuable possession; I don't want to give it up. A few months ago, I followed a course on Neural Networks, and that has strengthened my belief that thoughts are not at all confined to your physical and mortal brain. I honestly believe that something like what happened in this movie is the scientific path to life-after-death, which so many religions have predicted. It's also something that works for me in Dollhouse. Of course, realistically, we'll die. Even if it's possible, we'll be dead before it's ready. But we can dream.

Random observations:

- 3D kicks ass.

- I had to laugh every time they mentioned 'unobtanium'.

- The audience was cheering when the credits rolled. This does not happen often.

- This should have aired on cable. Give those animators at Weta some hot sex scenes to develop. ;)

It's not the best movie I've ever seen, but it's certainly worth watching. Don't expect a clever plot, but expect to be entertained and expect to be moved.

Nick said...

Oh for once, a nice balanced interview. Comes off as sensible. I'm inclined not to take too seriously the "best movie EVER!!" reviews and the "this totally SUCKS" roviews. I felt it was somewhere in between as well. The story is nothing new, the political and social commentary a little obviously and repetitively done, the plot absolutely predictable. But it's not an unlikable movie.

James Cameron is a god if only for the fact that he is pretty damn good at world-building. I found the whole made-up language and stuff lame but the effects are fantastic. Putting a CGI character alongside a real person without it being jarring is a huge feat. In the end, it's the effects that really pull off the movie. They mesmerise you enough that you don't really notice too much the somewhat bland characters and the plot, and even if you do, you won't care much.

That said, were it not for said effects...I would probably have hated the movie. As it is, I liked it but not loved it, I thought "unobtanium" was the funniest joke they made, I love the whole "united ecosystem" thing (which reminds me of some book I read about...). The only thing that really got me was the length of the film, which was...a bit too long. Hard on the bladder, you know.

Jess Lynde said...

Glad to know I wasn't the only one who enjoyed the movie in spite of a predictable plot. :)

One of the friends I saw the film with is a scientist, and he said he was mentally chuckling every time they said "unobtanium" because it is actually a term they use in scientific circles and he loved the way they used it here.

Nightowl said...

Excellent review, Josie. Yes, the plot is somewhat old, but then aren't almost all plots? I've read at least four sci-fi novels with unified/neural network eco-systems, but it didn't bother me here. I'll bet it was new to most non-voracious sci-fi readers.

As for the revolt of oppressed natives against technologically advanced invaders wanting their resources, I found myself yelling at the screen at the end of the battle, "Hurray! This time the Native Americans won!!!!" I love an underdog winner, no matter how many times the story has been told.

However, what for me elevates this movie to one of the very best is that the wonderous special effects were integral to the story... and the story integral to the special effects, unlike most of the effects-heavy movies nowadays, where they seem to be unable to afford writers after spending all their money on the CGI. The world created felt real, and as you stated, Josie, the human characters along side the CGI characters actually worked!

The 3-D, while interesting, is something I could do without. Maybe it was because we got to the theatre late and had to sit way down front and to the right of the screen so the angle was wrong for my trifocals, but I was car sick almost the entire last half of the movie. So, I'd suggest anyone with glasses going to see the 3-D to do their best to get there early so they can get centre seats facing the screen directly.

Loved "Avatar", although I agree it wasn't the best ever made ("Gone with the Wind", however, dated and of a totally different genre still tops *my* list). My friends and I are definitely planning on going to see it onscreen at least one more time, preferably in 2D this round.

Billie Doux said...

Finally saw it.

This movie is a spectacular visual feast, and I do mean spectacular. Unforgettable and mesmerizing. I wasn't bored for a moment, and I'm even tempted to try it in 3-D just to spend nearly three hours looking at it again.

But I also found the one-dimensional human characters and recycled plot disappointing. Cameron is probably my favorite director and has always put the story first; he's always understood that the effects are supposed to support the story, not the other way around. I don't feel that he put the story first this time. It wasn't just Dances with Wolves; I kept seeing bits of Aliens as well as the Ewoks from Return of the Jedi. I knew exactly what was going to happen and how the movie would end, and I hate that.

So I liked this movie a lot. But I wanted to love it, and I didn't.

Jess, thanks for another terrific review -- you nailed it. I'm not feeling compelled to do a separate review myself.

Jess Lynde said...

I was getting Aliens and Return of the Jedi, too. I actually thought to myself during the movie "OK, so Giovanni Ribisi is the Paul Riser of this movie." And how could any sci-fi fan not start flashing on the Ewoks vs. the Empire with the whole ending sequence?

Glad you finally got to see the film, Billie, and loved the visuals enough to consider the 3-D version. But sorry to hear you were a bit disappointed, although I completely understand why. I'm not really sure why the predictability didn't bother me or leave me feeling disappointed. But it didn't.

Mark Greig said...

Finally got round to seeing Avatar, now officially the biggest movie off all time! Held off this long so I could see it in glorious IMAX 3D!!! Better late than never, eh?

Like Jess and everyone else I thought it was visual masterpiece made even better with the extra depth that 3D offers (totally worth the headache). Even after a 12-year hiatus no-one does widescreen spectacle better than James Cameron.

I was a little disappointed with how unoriginal and predictable the story was. At time I thought I was watching nothing more than James Cameron’s Greatest Hits. Cameron may still be one of the finest filmmakers around but his storytelling skills are a little rusty.

Despite its flaws this is the sort of big budget, unapologetically sci-fi epic I wish Hollywood would make more often.

Anonymous said...

I found this film to be so unimaginative. Cameron could have really gone to town making this alien world, but instead he served up a lot of generic African tribe stereotypes and made them big and blue. I also found it quite hypocritical that Avatar's main selling point was it's revolutionary special effects and the moral of the story was to reject thechnology. :( very dissapointed.

Patryk said...

I also loved the visuals and saw everything coming but i what i most connected with is Jake doing what's essentially playing the most immersive MMORPG in history. :) He even totally forgot to shave and excersise, he was eating through meals so fast just to get back into the game. And in the end he died while playing... This is what awaits us when we develop mind transfers.

Also on another note, the ending isn't really happy. The Na'vi (oh and funny that an ex-marine joined the Na'vi, good he wasn't army huh? :D) just pissed the humans off... Just imagine the Sky People coming back with tactical nukes and bombing the planet. What's going to stop them then? After all unobtainium can be mined just as well from a lifeless rock...

celticmarc said...

This movie will remain a classic, at least for me, for this simple reason : the 3D here is truly and spectacularly real. The other movies that I saw in 3D do NOT match the magic that we have here. It is a beautiful immersive experience.

And I recommend watching the 2D version......yes, on a Mac. Stunning.

But ! As far as the plot goes...well, yes....been there, done that.