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Home > Entertainment, Film / TV, Review / Recap, Reviews > Review: Avatar (2009) or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Scripts and Love the CGI

Review: Avatar (2009) or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying About Scripts and Love the CGI

December 29th, 2009

In no way does this review intend to do anything but convince you that, despite its faults, Avatar is the Must-See movie of our generation.

Let’s get one thing out of the way now: in no way am I panning Avatar.  That movie was incredible on so many levels.  Visually I was mesmerized and made every effort to take every detail in.  I was astounded by the depth of it all and the plot was easy to follow with key, defined characters there for the understanding in a simple manner.

This is perhaps the only movie that I have told a 65 year old senior law firm partner and a 11 year old European kid that they HAD to go see, immediately, in theatres.  As a general rule, I hate going to crowded theatres and prefer to hold out for the latter half of a film’s run or even just wait for Netflix and my 60” high def TV.  But Avatar is a once in a generation type of flick.  The type of movie that changes the way cinema is shot and produced forever.  That’s not hyperbole… that’s reality.  And if people need evidence, just check the vast number of producers that are lining up to use Cameron’s new technology.

Why, one asks?  Well, how bout the fact that Avatar has made it into the black after just 12 days of worldwide release.  It’s not a stretch to say, with $600+ million in the bank and no drop in receipts, that Avatar could pass $1 billion by the end of the New Year’s weekend and be well on its way toward being the first film to legitimately challenge Cameron’s last theatrical release (Titanic) and its record $1.8 billion haul.

But here’s my problem, Avatar is a brilliant movie, but like Titanic it’s actually a pretty crappy film.  Huh?

Again, I think it’s worth noting that I loved the hell out of this movie.  I plan on seeing it at least two more times in IMAX.  The 3D was brilliantly done in that it set the mood without dominating the film.  The CGI rendering is so amazing that you think it is live film.  The Navi are so realistic that it makes you want to Darth Vader strangle everyone who screamed out “Jar Jar!” when seeing the trailers.

Cameron has created in Pandora a universe that’s almost hyper realistic.  The only thing I can compare it to, visually, is seeing the World Cup or Monday Night Football in High Definition for the first time after a lifetime of bunny ears analog viewing.  There were several times I just wanted to pause the projector and drink in the careful level of detail and striking brilliance of what Cameron’s team created.

It all was so amazing that I didn’t care about the following beefs, which I set forth below.


Kevin Costner wants to know if Aquaman was really a ripoff of Waterworld

James Cameron revolutionized cinema technology in making Avatar, but he went back to the well in sci fi themes.

It’s no secret that people have been noting the marked similarities between the storyline of Dances with Wolves (a great and original film) and Avatar.  The protagonist is a warrior for a culturally and economically imperialist entity (in each case, ostensibly, a nation with a continental and then galactic sense of manifest destiny).  He is brought to a rich and fruitful land with the duty of serving as an outpost among the natives, to tend and monitor for the imperialists.  He ends up falling in love, both literally and figuratively with the native folk.  In the end, he (Spoiler Alert… for anyone who hasn’t seen a trailer) chooses to fight with the natives against the imperialists.

Heck, we’ve even got our own, CGI versions of Tetonka on Pandora.  Of course Cameron went one step too far in his imitation.  Costner couldn’t stomach interracial love enough to resist casting the brilliant Mary McDonnell as a white girl adopted by the Sioux and eventual love interest (named Stands With a Fist).  In doing so, Costner didn’t have a cross racial love scene.  Cameron knew no bounds and had the audacity to let two 10 foot blue humanoids make sweet, luminescent, awkward love… arguably with all the life forms on the planet, as they were interconnected with their “Tree of Life” (their Tree of Voices, as opposed to their Hometree).  Though one might say that Captain Kirk’s green lover paved the way for such neon love.

Anyways… awkward Jakesully and Neytiri 3D sex aside, the indoctrination in naturalist ways, learning to hunt tribally, communing with nature and whatnot was essentially the retelling of Dances With Wolves, but with more overt references to good vs. evil, a far weaker script, mediocre acting and much bigger explosions.

The Rest of Sci Fi would also like their gimmicks back

I don’t mean to pick on Cameron too much.  After all, most art is really the reappropriation of past works from other artists.  But 10 minutes didn’t go by in the movie without me thinking that I recognized something stolen from a prior science fiction flick… not even including Dances With Wolves.

The forbidden love, it turns out, should have been between 10 foot blue aliens -- although Cameron expressed in an interview on AOTS that the one defining characteristic of Zoey Saldana's Neytiri was that she had to be "doable."

I’m not covering these in chronological order or anything, just as they come to mind:

–          Wow, I saw this tribal dance before in The Matrix.  Yep, the tribal dance at the Tree of Life is pretty much the same scene as the dance in Zion on the eve of the machines’ attack.  Didn’t work to well cinematically then, either.  Certainly didn’t give Morpheus any kind of Super Mario Brother Power-Up, but if does afford the composer the opportunity to kick up the beat for dramatic flair.

–          Wow, I saw this attack superior technology with flying people/beasts thing before in Flash Gordon.  It’s actually somewhat funny that even Flash Gordon can draw parallels with our Jake Sully… although Flash Gordon was the Jets QB in the Namath, superstar mold, while Sully is a cripple like Mark Sanchez.  But the first thing I thought when I saw the winged counter-attack on the helo-ship assault was that this whole thing was missing the With Music By Queen!

–          Wow, I saw this “the One” thing before in The Matrix, Star Wars, Dune, The Passion of the Christ and just about every sci fi movie… ever.  The whole thing is brutally overdone.  I understand it is a part of the genre, but at least have some sort of twist or some fun with it.  Here there were so many darned parallels to all of the above… even the name Turok Makto almost harkened to and sounded like Muad’Dib.  And what are the Navi if not a jungle version of the desert dwelling Fremen.

–          Wow, I saw this amazing Tree House in Return of the Jedi.  Seriously, could the Hometree have been better ripped off from Ewok Village?  OK, maybe Cameron threw some Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH in there too with the moving of the tree stump… and maybe a village in the trees is natural for a people who commune with nature.  That doesn’t mean that one can’t call a stolen plot point out.

Any movie that provides Ana Lucia with an opportunity to redeem her evil, evil ways is a good thing. And say hi to Libby for us, Ana Lucia.

–          Wow, I saw the rallying of the people across the lands last in The Lord of the Ringsor was it Flash Gordon? Whether it be sending messengers out to rally the Horsemen of Rohan to assist the tree people of Gondor… or gathering Prince Barin, Prince Vultan and Klytus together to plot against Ming the Merciless, the sending out all hails for assistance against an overwhelming enemy is nothing groundbreaking.  Heck, it’s even a poor rendition of Braveheart.

–          Wow, I saw that rallying fight speech before in Independence Day.  Granted, Bill Pullman did an amazing job of it and got everyone jacked up to kick E.T.’s ass, but the bullhorn rallying speech is just over the top.  It’s even over the top in the context of winning one for the Gipper.  I know it might make a movie seem better, but sometimes the most inspiring is what’s not said.  And there’s little silent communication in this film.

–          Wow, I saw the AT-STs get taken down before by woodland creatures on Endor.  The mecha battle against woodland creatures was played out far more effectively (or at least originally) in Return of the Jedi with the Ewoks coming out on top (with ridiculously complex booby traps made of rope and wood logs which they somehow cut overnight).  Here, it was beasts of burden (which looked strikingly like HeMan’s cat) and dogs that looked like the kind b#tch-slapped by Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil taking out the imperialist mecha exo-skeleton apparati.

OK, enough of my griping – though there’s plenty more… but wait… no… I can’t let one last thing slip.  How on earth can you have Sigourney Weaver in a sci-fi movie with mecha armor and aliens and NOT have her confront the mecha as an alien?  Heck, that would be bringing Aliens (which Cameron directed) full circle and could even have included Weaver’s character Grace defending Neytiri while screaming “Get away from her, you b#tch.”  After all the ripping off you’ve done, you couldn’t have thrown the fans one ripoff that we’d revel in?

But you see it doesn’t really matter, so long as the audience can see

I’ve resigned myself to being able to overlook all of the above because it all really doesn’t matter.  Avatar, like every Cameron movie, is relatively poorly penned and really just the high grade powder cocaine to Michael Bey’s crack rock.  He’s somehow managed to avoid being labeled a mindless blockbuster director/producer/writer, but if you really look at his works, they aren’t particularly high end.

Ultimately, Avatar is a transition into a new world. We think of Avatars in the internet way, but that's a headfake here in this movie. Avatar is a reference to the crossing over of Avatāra in Hindi lore. But it is cinema as a whole which has been reincarnated by Cameron.

One could easily argue that Titanic and The Abyss qualify as “films” and not “movies.”  Even then, I still contend that Titanic was a brilliant 50 minute dramatic re-enactment of the sinking surrounded by an hour of mindless, painful drivel on either side.  And although I enjoy The Abyss and own the DVD, it is over the top in its preachiness and loses a bit of its soul in that.

In Avatar we see both of those weaknesses emerge again.  Despite incredible imagery and effects, Avatar drags at times and is too long.  Further, it is little more than a suped up re-enactment of Dances With Wolves.

Meanwhile, its preachiness is so over the top that it embarasses even Tolkien’s time with the Ents… in fact, I think I heard Michael Moore walking out of the theatre saying “Has he heard of subtlety?”

Nowhere is this more true than with his three line run at George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld.  The references to pre-emptive strikes weren’t obvious enough, so he followed it up with a notation of the use of “Daisy Cutters.”  Apparently someone might have missed that technical term, so lets use a direct Rummy quote of “Shock and Awe.”  Yeah, we’re glad they’re gone.  Yeah, we get that yours is anti-war machine.  Yeah, we get that Darth Vader’s son was Dick Cheney.  Now stop treating the viewing public as dumber than the script for Pirhana 2: The Spawning (Cameron’s wide release debut).

And that gets to my point.  Cameron’s movies generally are just that: “movies.”  They’re not high art, they’re summer blockbusters.  They succeed incredibly in that regard without pretenses of intelligence or high art.  While Avatar and The Abyss move toward the preachy, they also revolutionized CG and had a sufficiently good storyline to make it work… even if neither was terribly original (The Abyss clearly didn’t borrow from The Day the Earth Stood Still… not at all).

But the movies still truly kick arse.  Be it The Terminator, Aliens or True Lies, you leave these movies with a huge smile on your face because they accomplish what they set out to do… to entertain.  And yeah, you think a lot harder than you do in a Michael Bey bomb-fest.  And you don’t end up hating yourself like you just ate a jar of chocolate like after watching a George Lucas movie (original Trilogy excepted… and Howard the Duck pointedly pushed to the fore).

Avatar is the crowning achievement of the master of the movie.  He has changed the way films will be shot forever.  The only other movies I can think of in the theatre age that did the same were Citizen Kane (ushering in modern camera effects) and the tandem of Star Wars and Jaws (introducing the world to the blockbuster epic).  Avatar introduced us to a sort of hyper-reality and new film technology that promises to revolutionize film and even to bleed into television and live sports (FIFA will use Cameron’s technology to record the World Cup in South Africa next year).

So the movie isn’t original.  So the Sci Fi gimmicks are reused to the extreme.  So the script is kind of crummy.  So some of the action scenes move so fast that the 3D world overwhelms you.  None of that matters because, other than with the script, no one has ever done this as well as Cameron just did.  There’s a 50-50 chance that someone will top Cameron in the next five years or so (count on someone like Spielberg giving it a shot), but until then I still say that Avatar is the biggest must-see movie event in my lifetime.

In spite of all its faults, I can’t not give this movie a 10… even if it only grades out as an 8.5 or 9 if you insist on judging it as a film.

Part of this high grade (in spite of faults) is because of the giant headfake of the title.  In the modern era, we think of avatars as our surrogate images online… a little cartoonish character we make for ourselves.  Of course that is what one thinks of when seeing the human-Navi hybrid or just the trailer for Avatar.  But this movie is far more tied to the Hindi concept of Avatāra… the reincarnation or crossing over on a spiritual and human plane.  We see the Avatāra of Jake Sully who manifests this transformation of both soul and body.  More importantly, this movie has caused cinema as a whole to cross a plane, moving forward into a new age of technology and, in particular, the hyper reality of Cameron 3D.

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