Film Review: Avatar (directed by James Cameron)

When was the last time any film became an experience for you? Not just a film that made you think or whose narrative and story exercised your mind. I mean a film that despite some of its flaws became such an experience that you became swept up with the rest of the audience in immersing yourself within the film. The biggest and most hyped film of 2009 and, most likely, this first decade of the new millenium, was such a film for me. A film over 15 and more years in the making for mega-director James Cameron more than lives up to the imposed upon hype (fair or not this film couldn’t escape the hype) which hounded it right from the very first new bit leaked about its production.

James Cameron’s Avatar is not the greatest film ever made despite what the studio heads financing it may declare. Nor does it change filmmaking the way technicolor film did during the late 50’s and early 60’s. What he has accomplished with this film is to finally give filmmakers a blueprint on how to make the intimacy between an audience and a film get much closer than in the past. Stories and ideas which in the past were said to be unfilmmable because the technology is just not there to make it happen is finally arriving, if not already here.

This film was and is an experience that should be seen whether one buys into the story or not. It is a story that is not very original and for some may conjure up a certain Oscar-winning Costner-directed film or a certain animated feature with Gully in the title. I won’t say that it doesn’t matter that it’s not original, but I will say that the story works in the film. Cliched and hackneyed dialogue and all they work within the film Cameron was making. I will never mistake Cameron’s writing skills when it comes to dialogue to be on the level of Kaufman or Mamet, but he does know how to tell a simple story and make the audience follow it and, if they’re willing, immerse themselves in it. It helps that he has an innate sense for keeping the story moving forward to prop up what may be lacking in the tale.

With that particular flaw out of the way I must say that I haven’t felt like this about a film (not even the best one I’ve seen this year) since the first time I saw The Fellowship of the Ring and, prior to that, Spielberg’s first Jurassic Park. Only a few films can truly sweep me into what I was watching and just hold on and enjoy the ride. It didn’t matter that what I was watching wasn’t the second coming of Rashomon or this generation’s Citizen Kane. What I watched I fully bought into. The new world of Pandora as imagined by Cameron and brought to life by the magicians at WETA Digital and ILM. There was a sense of dedication in what I was witnessing. The detail, clarity and realness of someone’s imagination come to life made me hopeful that some of the boundaries people said would never be crossed creatively will finally have people stepping over them.

While the film is also being shown on 2D for theaters who haven’t upgraded some rooms with 3D-capable gear I will say that Avatar must and need to be seen in 3D with IMAX 3D being the ideal format. It is the way Cameron has utilized the new “emotion capture” cameras he helped develop and create just to finally achieve that CGI-photoreal flaw which makes films like Polar Express, Beowulf, and A Christmas Carol creepy in a certain way when seen. The so-called “Uncanny Valley” which exist in past films where CGI-characters replace flesh and blood actors doesn’t exist in this film. Using the groundbreaking “mo-cap” technique developed by WETA Digital for Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings (the trilogy which finally convinced Cameron that it was time to make Avatar and do it they way he envisioned it). The computer-generated Na’Vi have taken the crown from WETA’s first CGI creation (Gollum) and are now the most realistic CGI characters ever put on screen. Cameron shows with Avatar that there’s no limit on how much CGI should be used in a film. It’s how they’re implemented and pulled off that counts. Lucas, Bay and other proponents of CGI who have failed in its creative use down the years have much to learn from what Cameron has achieved with this film.

While it took several minutes to adjust to the 3D-effect in the film the moment my eyes finally adjusted to what it was watching everything clicked for me and the thought I was watching a film almost left my mind. The combination of CGI and real-life scenes didn’t just blur but disappeared altogether. I’m more than willing to nitpick a film’s heavy use of CGI and even some of the very best and most entertaining CGI-heavy films have certain scenes which can shock an audience out of the moment. I didn’t feel that in this film and it was that total immersion in the work done by Cameron and his digital magicians which helped me overcome the story’s familiarity and, as some would call it, ordinary-ness.

Even with the kind of material the actors had to work with the overall performances by everyone involved ranged from good to excellent. While I will admit that characters who were definitely written to be villains were done so one-dimensionally the way the performers played to be done these characters did a fine enough job that I bought into them. Yes, the corporate weasel and Burke-reborn played by Giovanni Ribisi did look very cartoonish in his execution of his character’s motivations. Again Cameron is not known and will never be known for very deep and well-rounded characters. The same one-dimensionality in characterization still holds with the one character who stood out the most. Stephen Lang as Col. Miles Quaritch was scenery-chewing at its best. It has been quite the year for this journeyman actor. First he stands out in Mann’s Public Enemies and now literally steals the film from Sam Worthington’s “Hero on a Journey”. While I doubt his performance won’t win him much accolades this awards season and will probably be overlooked it still stands as one of the most riveting and grab-you-by-the-collar performance of the year. He joins an elite group of characters audiences love to hate, but still can’t forget or take their eyes off of.

For those expecting the usual breakdown and deconstruction of this film will probably think I’ve joined the Jim Cameron train and drank the Kool-Aid (the purple stuff even), but I can’t seem to wrap my ahead around why I enjoy and love this film despite the aforementioned familiarity and weakness in the story, the sometimes cliched dialogue and one-dimensional take on characters. Is Avatar just a technical and visual marvel that delivers on what Cameron has promised? Yes, it is and more so. Does the CGI and bombastic climax get in the way of the storytelling? No, I believe it actually helps it along and props it on legs as fragile and weak as Jake Sully’s own human ones.

In the end, I have to conclude that my love for this film despite all its flaws comes down to the fact that watching Avatar was an experience for me and one that only happens so very rarely with film nowadays. Yes, Cameron didn’t make a perfect film nor did he craft a film that is better than sliced bread. But what he did make was a filmgoing experience that decades from now would be talked about in the same way people talk about how they felt when they first saw Star Wars and believed in Jedis and space battles. Or how people felt when they saw Donner’s first Superman and believed that a man could indeed fly. Cameron and his Avatar made me believe that there is a Pandora and that it is a place I hope to visit, but barring that at least experience it through Cameron’s eyes as he sees it. I am definitely ready for what he has in store next and what other filmmakers can create with what he has shown them to be possible.

6 responses to “Film Review: Avatar (directed by James Cameron)

  1. Nice write up! I think the story gets too much heat, frankly. As we discussed on twitter, OS Card and Robert Heinlein have become sci-fi masters largely by recycling concepts that have come before.

    I was not on board with the acting as much as you. The second time I saw it I could not get past the dialogue in the first 1/3 of the film. One does tend to forget about such things after that. And of course dialogue is more direction and script than acting – but it is still hard to separate the two. I thought Ripley was just as one dimensional as the villains.

    The FX were stunning though. I did not think the capture effect of the navi were better than that of Gollum, but the principle applied in the movie and the complete tactile quality and alien factor of an alien land was awesome. Never has a new world been created in such detail and realism. That alone makes one forgive most of the contrivances.

    My problem is that I’ll have no real reason to own it on DVD 😦


    • I think I did go a tad man-crush on Stephen Lang’s performance. It definitely was one-note, but man did he play that single-note to an inch of it’s life. Best moment of his character IMO was when he saw Jake and his group escaping and he takes a deep breath, opens the hatch and starts firing away at them despite not putting on a rebreather mask. And he does it after firing two weapons.

      As for the perf/mo-cap effects being better than Gollum I’d still say yes in that they really captured the faces of the actors. Gollum looked great but never looked like Serkis. Both Cameron and WETA will make a ton on the improvements they made from the LOTR mo-cap tech.

      As for DVD, maybe Cameron will tell Fox to hold off on releasing it on Blu-Ray/DVD until the home HDTV 3D tech have caught up. πŸ™‚


  2. I know I’m a bit late to the party here. But I just saw this film in IMAX 3D.
    Wow, just wow. Several weeks before the film was released, I didn’t think I’d even see the film. The hype machine really turned me off on the whole thing; south park’s smurf episode just added to it. But man, I walked out afterward feeling obsessed with the film. Such color, such depth in the picture. I’m sold on digital 3d now and am fully on board with Avatar.


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