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AVATAR (2009)

January 18, 2010

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written by: James Cameron
produced by: James Cameron & Jon Landau
directed by: James Cameron
rated: PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking)
runtime: 162 min.
U.S. release date: December 18, 2009
 

When writer/director James Cameron released the first underwhelming trailer for his much-anticipated new film, he had already proclaimed how the special effects and 3D technology would change the way film is made and viewed. With that kind of build-up, this was to be a movie like nothing we had ever seen before.. Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily the case here. Cameron the director is right, this is a stunning film yet Cameron the writer forgot to proclaim just how lazy he was as he plotted out his intergalactic eye candy.

Clearly, the twelve years it took to make “Avatar” all went to the CGI and art direction. Like George Lucas before him, Cameron gives us lousy dialogue with amazing visuals, this time with a story that has been told time and time again.

The question now remains whether or not Cameron’s visual storytelling can make up for such an obvious lack of originality. It’s been over a week since I saw it in 3D on opening weekend with a packed and excited audience. As I watched it, I felt enraptured. I felt like this was the best use of 3D I’ve ever experienced (and I’m generally not a supporter of 3D) but I couldn’t help but notice many flaws.

 

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I knew going in how folks were saying it would be “Dances with Wolves” in outer space but I also saw “The Last Samurai” and “The Mission” with traces of “The Lion King” here as well as “She’s All That”. Currently, the box office shows that this hardly matters and will have little effect on the film’s eminent success. The more distance I have from my viewing, the more disappointed I am in the story but that won’t stop me from recommending this film. As a fan of the genre, it’s kind of hard not to.

In the year 2154, mankind has reached for the stars, specifically the abundant world of Pandora. An aptly-named exotic moon filled with a dazzling array of unharmed plant and animal life, it’s a biologists dream. Unfortunately it’s also filled with a sought after mineral named Unobtanium (no, really), making it a dream for industrial miners’ and the mercenary guard dogs they employ, as well. Enter Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a crippled marine who happens to be genetically compatible to an artificially created Avatar used to interact with the Na’vi, the planet’s indigenous people. It was designed for his twin brother, who recently died in battle, yet he’ll do despite his jar-headed thickness.

After becoming acquainted with the use of a fully mobile body again, albeit a large blue one with a tail, we become just as awestruck as he is with the beautiful world he must infiltrate. His mission isn’t made very clear. He’s told by the lead gung-ho, Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang), that he must gain the natives trust and find out everything he can about this sought after resource. Sully is then to report back and then what? Who knows? It doesn’t matter since we obviously know what will happen. We get the sense that regardless what “negotiations” could be made with the Na’vi, the corporation backing these mercs will be obliterating anyone in the way of their goal.

 

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A viewer sitting in the theater literally feels immersed in this world, at least in 3D. The environment becomes alive and is a spectacle to behold. It’s hard to imagine it would have the same effect in 2D. It’s a film that is moreso a sci-fi/fantasy than a straight-up sci-fi film and Cameron’s attention to every minute visual detail is what sells it all.. Cameron and crew have created a world that interacts and flows with everything in it. He’s put just as much effort into all the nuanced elements as he has into the big stuff. Never at any time did I think anything was fake or overdone which could have easier taken me out of the film. Instead, it was the lame dialogue and unforgivable plot flaws that pulled me out. Now, Cameron is not known for his amazing screenplays, but that didn’t stop me from hoping from something unique.

For the most part, all of the characters are one-dimensional since the look and feel of the film is the main star. Zoe Saldana really got into the physicality of the role yet her character is best when she isn’t relegated to tour guide for Sully’s avatar. Lang fits the role of an obsessed mercenary yet his lines become laughable as his actions become all too predictable. Would it be so hard at the end for just one of these hard-nosed military guys to realize the devastation they are causing? Maybe Cameron is saving that for the sequels he has already has planned.

 

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Another glaring sign of laziness that’s hard not to notice is how Cameron rips himself off, copying and pasting other characters and concepts from his previous films. As idealistic scientist, Grace (Sigourney Weaver) who is concerned for the preservation of Pandora and its inhabitants, I couldn’t help but think of Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s wonderful role in “The Abyss”. Then there’s also the corporate hand puppet Giovanni Ribisi plays named Selfridge (nice name) who resembles Paul Reiser’s role in “Aliens”. I can go on about how the tough chick ex-marine, Trudy (Michelle Rodriguez) is similar to Vasquez from “Aliens” and Quaritch is basically the crazed marine Michael Biehn played in “The Abyss”, but maybe it’s just obvious to those familiar with Cameron’s work. Thing is, he already knows he has a fan base so why not give us a more unique story?

Some fans of “Avatar” feel that the story and dialogue isn’t what the film is about. There are even those who feel that because the story suffers, the film is then deemed incomplete. I don’t subscribe to that. A film can standout visually and still be entertaining despite a lazy story. That being said, it’s a great movie for kids ages eight and up (McDonald’s feels the same way) to get lost in. I’m curious as to how a film that is meant to be a theatrical experience will play out come DVD time.

Will Cameron wait 10 years to revolutionize the home viewing experience as well? I’ve always enjoyed his work and had a good time here but I hope Cameron doesn’t get in the way of whatever he tries to do next. Time will tell. For me, “Avatar” remains an unforgettable visual experience with a forgettable story.

 

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RATING: ***

 

 

 
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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Brian Whiz permalink
    January 18, 2010 3:35 pm

    Couldn’t agree more with everything you said.

  2. windi permalink
    January 18, 2010 10:50 pm

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Unforgettable visuals….overdone story line. Unique stories are hard to come by these days it seems…

    I enjoyed the ‘experience’, but it’s certainly not Oscar-worthy.

  3. January 22, 2010 3:56 am

    I know I am vfx guy, but I am also a Creative Director and from both sides I would like to present you with a different perspective. It is true that the idea, the story matters and that a really good story makes a movie desirable to see and praise worthy. However all stories are re-told, for there is nothing new under the sun, as a much wiser man than I once said. And some of the deepest symbols are presented to us in some of the simplest stories. If a story is full of predictable cliches it does not mean is less valuable- especially if it presents some very actual issues in a way that will persuade an audience with a lessened ability to decipher symbols. For the gamer and internet native generations, the tools developed for Avatar are perfect for creating the visuals needed to re-tell all the great stories of the world. Maybe this way the younger generations will actually start the journey back from form to meaning, to symbol and finally the truth behind the symbol. For this alone and I think it deserves 5 stars.
    Visually we all agree it is a stunning piece of work, the detail in the development of the environment of Pandora is amazing.

    • David J. Fowlie permalink*
      January 22, 2010 7:46 am

      Tudor, I agree with everything you are saying here except this part….

      “If a story is full of predictable cliches it does not mean is less valuable- especially if it presents some very actual issues in a way that will persuade an audience with a lessened ability to decipher symbols.”

      ….in this case, Cameron’s “predictable cliches” do nothing to diminish the visual spectacle of the film but also, they do nothing to help the film. Then again, most viewers with a “lessened ability” will not see such elements. If that is the type of viewer Cameron is going for (and I don’t think he always has; more on that in a minute) , then he film is just “fun” for me. That’s it. There are more successful ways to “persuade an audience” than to distract us from such cliches by providing an amazingly dense world. For me and a small fraction of others, Cameron’s visual masterwork is not enough.

      Looking back the only one of his films I can think of where he did not let his ground-breaking visual effects get in the way of a captivating story and actual character development is 1989’s “The Abyss”. There’s real human drama here amidst palatable danger and emotions in a film which made “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” possible. It even shows elements that we’ve seen before like greed, gung-ho marines, environmental insensitivity, and sacrifice but she “shows” these elements instead of “tells” them. Well, in the Special Edition, he’s a lil more blunt at the end, but even by then, he’s invested us emotionally (just no present in “Avatar”) with these characters that it didn’t matter. Then again, maybe because “The Abyss” didn’t have enough whiz-bang visuals for viewers since it never really found a theatrical audience.

      With “Avatar” there is more damage in this film than some awful dialogue and blatant stereotypical characterization. The advancement of the use of visual effects over the years should never be employed in a way that overshadows any human connection. It’s that connection that stays with the viewer. After the spectacle wears off, what are we left with? This is just one of those films that people can go to and have a good time. Enjoy it. Have fun. I get it. That’s one of the reasons why I gave it 3 (out of 4) stars.

      Does that make the overall film award worthy? Surely not.

      In order for that to happen, a film’s entirety should be taking into consideration. For it to win, say….Best Picture, it should be scoring high points in every aspect of the film, not just in visual effects. I just don’t see it here. But it’s all about the box-office numbers and the millions a film makes. Clearly, not any director can do what Cameron has done here and he should be recognized for aspects of his film but not the film in it’s entirety. It’s just not there.

      So yes, we agree in some areas. We don’t even have to agree but one thing we should do is take a film as a whole and evaluate it appropriately. What is breathtaking and amazing and considered by so many to be a “game-changer” about a film should never overshadow glaring laziness in storytelling. It all starts with story.

      I appreciate and value your input, my friend.

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