Movie Review – Avatar

James Cameron’s latest film since Titanic is now in theaters. The film combines humans with digital environments in a way that no-one has done before, and takes visual effects to places which they’ve never been to before. That’s all well and good, but the movie sucks then you don’t get anywhere. So – with the amount of hype coming out for this movie, at a level on par with Episode I, does it suck as badly as Episode 1 does, or do we get a movie that meets up with the hype?

Cast, Crew & Other Stuff

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully
Zoe Saldana as Neytiri
Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine
Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch
Michelle Rodriguez as Trudy Chacon
Giovanni Ribisi as Parker Selfridge
Joel Moore as Norm Spellman
CCH Pounder as Moat (Note: not pronounced like the pool of water around a castle).
Wes Studi as Eytukan
Laz Alonso as Tsu’tey
Dileep Rao as Dr. Max Patel

Written and Directed by James Cameron
Music by James Horner
Special Effects by Industrial Light and Magic, WETA, and Stan Winston Studios.

The Premise

Jake Sully is a former marine who was wounded in action and lost the use of his legs. When his twin brother, a scientist, was killed in a mugging, Jake takes his place on a mission to the planet Pandora, to take part in the Avatar Project – a project where he will remotely take over the body of a specially grown member of the indigenous people, the Na’vi, in the hopes of forming diplomatic contact with them – to get them to allow the corporation (no name is given) to mine an rare mineral. Dr. Grace Augustine, the expert on the Na’vi, and the founder of the Avatar project, wants the Na’vi to be left in peace. Colonel Miles Quaritch, the commander of the company’s private security force, would like to wipe the Na’vi out. the corporation’s representative, Parker Selfridge, wants the to maximize the company’s profits, no matter what the cost to the Na’vi.

My Thoughts

I’m going to change from the usual “High Points & Low Points” here, because my thoughts on the film don’t necessarily fit that format, and I’m going to go off on a bit of a tangent here as well – while staying relevant to the movie.

I grew up reading science fiction novels. The first novel I read was Sci-Fi. The novels I read, by Niven, Pournelle, Heinlein, Asimov – particularly the ones about planetary exploration, have never really, in my opinion, been represented or otherwise captured on film – most likely for budgetary reasons. Probably the film to get the closest to getting there is “Forbidden Planet”. Nonetheless, I’ve waited for years for films to do the kind of science fiction story I’ve been waiting for. This does that. This is the science fiction film I’ve been waiting my entire life for.

That said, this isn’t a story that could only be told in the medium of science fiction – which, I’ve heard one critic describe as the only meaning of science fiction. At one time I agreed with him on this point. I don’t agree with that anymore. The way I see it, Science Fiction can be three types of stories. Science Fiction can be stories that exist to discuss and address the effects of technological growth and development on society. They would be stories that, at the base level, only work because they’re using a character which is an artificial intelligence to discuss what it means to be human, or where time dilation puts strains on one’s connection with other humans (Voices of a Distant Star and 2001: A Space Odyssey are good examples of this). My second type is stories that would fit in another medium, but the creators used Science Fiction as a way to tell the story, and used technology, and technological developments as set dressing, or as plot elements as needed. Star Wars, Altered Carbon, and Firefly are good examples of this. My third type is stories which use the trappings of Science Fiction to address a social issue in an indirect fashion. Rather than directly, outright covering racism, pollution, or other issues, they use the trappings of science fiction to slip under a reader or viewer’s radar, and subversively get their message across – the classic example of this being the Star Trek episode “Let That Be Your Last Battleground” and to a certain extent (from what I’ve heard second hand) District 9. Though, the second and third types can be combined as well – but I’m not going to define that combination as a fourth type (Avatar would be a combination of types 2 & 3). So – moving back to the usual formula.

High Points

This film manages to pack in a lot of Crowning Moments of Awesome here, and paces everything enough that I found myself cheering for a Deus Ex Machina (or would it be Deus Ex Planeta)?

Also, the Na’vi are very well handled. The people have references elements to Native Americans (from both North and South America culture), plus I think a couple references to some of the Pacific Island native cultures as well. Vocally, native Na’vi’s voices both when speaking English and their native language, have what sounds like an African cadence (and it helps that African-American actors were cast for the major native Na’vi roles), which provides excellent auditory shorthand for distinguishing between when an native Na’vi is speaking and when one of the avatars are speaking. I think it also pretty much covers most native civilizations that were exploited heavily by Western colonial powers and which are still trying to recover from that damage.

Additionally, like Nausicaa, the film’s ecosystem feels fleshed out. All the plants and animals seem to fit pretty well in the planetary ecology, from what we see of them, and in general the planet feels alive.

Low Points

Colonel Quaritch is an incredibly two-dimensional villain, and as for Parker… well, if you’ve seen Aliens you know exactly what he’s like.

Content Notes:

The film doesn’t have a lot of blood, particularly. However, there is a fair bit of profanity (with a lot of use of “s***” for a PG-13 movie). Also, Na’vi women don’t particularly worry about having their breasts covered. Usually there’s strategically placed stuff, but occasionally there’s a visible nipple, but nothing big is made about it. Honestly, you’ll find more female nudity in an year of National Geographic than in this movie.

The Scores:

Originality: The film isn’t totally original. The plot has parallels with Dances With Wolves (and some people have suggested Ferngully, which isn’t totally an unfair comparison – though I’d say Nausicaa is a bigger paralell), plus Parker is taken right out of Aliens, and you can argue that Trudy is too (as a combination of the drop ship pilot and Vasquez). Plus, readers of the Green Lantern comics are probably very familiar with the concept of a planet being alive. That said, the combination is in a fashion that I don’t think has been done before, and is very well executed. 4 out of 6.

Effects: Gorgeous. Just freaking awesome. This is the most visually stunning movie I’ve seen in my life. I’d also like to say that the 3D effects are handled very well, without particuarly anything gimmicky being done with the effects. 6 out of 6.

Story: As mentioned previously, it’s Dances With Wolves with a side of Nausicaa and drizzled with Aliens sauce and served IN SPACE (sort of). All in all, that’s pretty delicious in my opinion. 5 out of 6.

Acting: The performances are solid across the board, for the Human scientists, and fantastic for Jake and the Na’vi. 5 out of 6.

Production: Aside from the excellent visual effects, including for the surface of the planet, the sets are extremely well designed. The powered armor also is handled pretty well, and is probably some of the best power armor I’ve seen in media in general (including real robot anime series like Patlabor and Armored Trooper Votoms). Plus, the language of the Na’vi feels reasonable and logical, something that I feel like I could learn just as much as I could learn Elvish, Dwarven, or Klingon. 6 out of 6.

Emotional Response: The movie got to me in a good way. I came to care about the supporting cast (as little of them as there was), just as much as I did about the stars. 5 out of 6.

Overall: It’s a sci-fi film, so it’s probably not going to win in the major categories at the Acadamy Awards. However, if it doesn’t win (not just get nominated, but win), Best Dramatic Presentation Long Form at the next Hugo Awards, it will be highway robbery. 6 out of 6.

In Total, Avatar gets 37 out of 42.

18 replies on “Movie Review – Avatar”

  1. Sounds like the plot has more parallels with Poul Andersons “Call me Joe” from 1957. How humans try to explore the surface of Jupiter by using remotely controlled artificial life forms. And focuses on a disabled man whos consciousness is transferred into such an artificial body.

  2. There’s a reason that the language sounds like something you could learn; it is. I doubt it has any where near as many words as Klingon, or some of the LotR languages, but it does have a defined structure which is a major first step. Besides, since James Cameron has hinted that the film could become a trilogy, there may be plenty of scope for the vocabulary to expand.

  3. While I enjoyed the movie, I give it a 1 on originality. It was completely predictable, and I spent the first half of the movie wondering how they were going to do what they did at the end, which was answered halfway through. The only surprise was that they waited until the very end to do it.

    The animation was an incremental improvement, but they still have a long way to go to “realistic”, so I only give a 4 or a 5 for effects, but on this point, I have to admit that I only saw the 2d version. The people I went with complained that 3d gives them headaches, so I’m going to go see the 3d version tonight on my own.

    Bones episode “Season 5, Episode 9: The Gamer in the Grease” has one of the most overt product placement deals I’ve yet seen, while at the same time being an amusing inside joke and well integrated ;-) (For those who can’t easily or don’t want to watch it: intern Colin Fischer, played by Joel Moore, who plays Norm in Avatar, scores tickets to Avatar, and several characters in the show take turns waiting in line to see the movie; Colin ends up having sex in the tent in line instead of watching the movie)

    • I agree. I’m shocked the Bureau is throwing such a softball at it. All the CGI in the world can’t hide a, poor, rehashed plot. Maybe it was the mumbo jumbo tree brain thing and the aforementioned Dues Ex device to tie up the character’s conflicts that made me roll my eyes and think “lame!”

      Oh, and unobtanium? I get the in-joke, but cmon… How about some explanation of what they use it for, or why it’s so important to Earth?

      There’s no good reason that the guy didn’t do the body transfer before the big fight. Just another lame excuse to have a dramatic end battle. Cameron has jumped through logic hoops for that reason before.

      Finally, though I appreciate your intro to the review I think it would have been better suited for a blog or a reply to the review. It breaks the format in my opinion…

        • Oh, and I do appreciate your feedback about my aside. I felt the content in that was important to the review, and how I was coming in to the film, but I wasn’t sure how to fit it into either the High Points or the Low Points.

  4. As impressive as the movie was the control room and the aforementioned two-dimensional Col. Badass were the highlights for me. I’ll admit it, I nerdgasmed at just about every shot of the control room, the level of detail was amazing. This is the type of movie that people will buy/upgrade home theater setups for. I know that when I get this one way or another it’ll be the blu-ray edition (assuming standard DVD is even kicking around then).

  5. Cliche as he is, “Col Badass” was done really well, and I have to admit, the control room was pretty cool — even more so now that I’ve seen the 3D version. One thing that surprised me about comparing 3D was (and perhaps it’s just because I was looking more carefully) that I thought it brought out a lot more detail, and in particular, I thought the avatars were much more realistic being able to see the skin texture better. Still a ways to go to be “realistic”, but it’s a bigger step forward than I gave it credit for before. Also, despite being so predictable, it was still a fun ride and held up to repeat viewing quite well. So I think my score changes remain, but before I thought that was still too high a score, and no longer do.

  6. FYI “the corporation’s representative” needs a capital, and it’s not obvious that there are words after “Deus Ex Machina”. Great review, just those minor things combined with a tired me == confusion :)

    I felt like the “unobtainium” was OK as the point was that there just needed to be something of value, and that the object itself didn’t matter. The biggest problem that I had was with the message about Jake’s legs getting back in a few months; given that the ship didn’t break light speed (6 years for ~4 light years), I don’t see how their message could have. Also, the very last one-on-one battle seemed a little contrived.

    It’s very strange watching a violent movie without blood. While I understand that they wanted to get a PG rating, I feel that the impact of the war on the characters was lost by how much injuries and death was glossed over.

    • The spoiler style for comments is now dark gray on dark gray, which is good. But the main article still has black on black, which causes the problem mentioned by deviantintegral (about the words after “Deus Ex Machina”). I would recommend changing it if you can.

  7. Gotta say, I think people complaining about the plot are totally missing the point.

    Star Wars (“A New Hope”) had an incredibly tired, lame Disney-style plot (“farm boy (really a prince in disguise) recruits a motley crew to rescue a princess from an evil usurper and then defend the loyal true subjects”). For both Star Wars and Avatar, the plot wasn’t the point – the scope and attention to detail in visualizing the world in which the plots occurred each blew all previous attempts away and provided an unparalleled experience to movie-goers.

    • I won’t argue with that. I never believed the plot was the point. My criticism is with a bullet point review giving the plot such a high score.

      • I’m more with octa here. Putting aside the fact that James Cameron has never had an original thought, and putting aside the utter visual brilliance of this film:

        The original 1977 Star Wars deliberately combined mythic and cliche movie tropes at a time when (1) both were in disrepute in the culture at large and (2) this hadn’t been done in the mainstream much in SF/fantasy. It did so in a way that was half tongue-in-cheek and half-serious, and therefore seemed very fresh at the time.

        I don’t see that in Cameron’s simplified “noble savage” enviro/indigenous-culture/smack-the-head-with-the moral storyline. I liked the film, put I found the script lacking.

        Visually brilliant and entertaining? Yes. Absolutely.

        And at some point, likely at a Con, I really want to get into a debate about the film’s problematic philosophy, a high-tech film presenting a pie-in-the-sky vision of low-tech cultures. Cameron invites that debate by firing moral postures at his audience like so many arrows.

        As a family-ish film, of course, it couldn’t end with the Na’vi losing, and the film, say, flashing forward to a time when the Sky People have all the unobtainium they want, and vacation on Pandora, staying in hotels shaped like Home Trees and living vacuous lives while watching films about the nobility of the people they slaughtered….

        Yep. Love those visuals. See this in 3-D.

  8. Beautiful to look at, thin on plot. Most of the movie I kept remembering Chekov’s first law of narrative: “A gun on the mantelpiece in act one will go off by act three” to the point where one of the people I saw it with asked me after the movie why I kept mumbling about a gun on something.

    It’s Dances with Wolves in Space, with Space Marines and Blue Aliens in lieu of Natives and the Calvary. There is nothing there that I dislike, and together they seem to work, plus how cool was Colonel Quaritch jumping out of the exploding ship in power armor? Pretty cool in my opinion, just predictable.

  9. As stated all over the place… The plot was predictable. This is coming from me, and I try hard not to think ahead because I want to experience movies as intended as much as possible. The plot was simply very predictable.

    I also dislike heavy soapbox pounding.

    I also dislike the unrealistic idea that the Na’vi would win in the end. If you’re doing to bother pushing the moral so hard, then end it as it would end, which is with the Na’vi on reservations and the Sky Corp. wrecking the planet. That would also draw a bigger emotional reaction as well. Clearly the idea was to draw that reaction, but they couldn’t sacrifice the typical hollywood ending for it.

    All that being said, the entertainment value, effects, and overall emotional response that I had was really great. I gave it a 4/5 stars on Netflix, and that’s a pretty great score from me. I saw it in 3D and it was really spectacular.

  10. Yeah the plot was thin but it worked well enough. I saw it in IMAX 3D and it was breathtaking to see.

    For those that get headaches with 3D, you should try this. It is very different from 3D of old. It is unlikely you will get a headache from it.

    My biggest gripe is that when I get it on home video I can’t see any way of replicating the experience I had in theatre. Even with the new blu-ray 3D initiative and my nice home theatre setup (and it is nice) I can’t see it being anything like what I saw in theatre. Quite possibly one of the best theatre experiences I’ve had.

  11. Finally got to see it today (3D, no IMAX) – simply breathtaking! One of the most enjoyable movies I’ve *EVER* see!

    The two main low points, as I saw them:

    * WTF were the thinking of with the calvary charge at the end? There was no way it could be anything other than a massacre

    * As someone else mentioned above, why didn’t Jake move his soul/energy/personality into a Na’vi before the final battle, did they skip it because they just didn’t have enough time to deal with it at the time when there was a massive battle about to happen that they had to prep for?

    This is a movie that people will upgrade their home entertainment systems for, and fancy that, they just announced a new BluRay standard for playing 3D movies, which Sony will support in the Playstation 3 via an OS upgrade.

    Of course while thinking of that I was also left thinking how many indigenous populations have been similarly massacred in the name of the almighty dollar so that we can use those elaborate home entertainment systems to watch a movie about indigenous populations being massacred?

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