DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Avatar

Tuesday, 22 December 2009


Avatar (2009) dir. James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Giovani Ribisi


By Alan Bacchus

If you like nine foot tall blue humanoid aliens, flying dragons, giant lizard creatures, floating mountains, neon willow trees etc ‘Avatar’ is the movie for you. If not, you will hate it. “Avatar” is a film so processed, so glossy, so colourful and so outside of the realm of reality it's purist fantasy of the highest order. But for this reviewer, there’s nothing I wouldn’t have wanted substituted for a real person, a real earth landscape, a real horse instead of a lizard-beast etc. So I therefore must admit, pure fantasy doesn’t turn my crank, so take this all with a grain of salt.

What does turn my crank is balls out action - that is, running, flying, chasing, gun firing, explosions, knife fighting, arrow throwing etc., On this level of filmmaking ‘Avatar’ is a triumph.

The story features a pretty cool sci-fi concept, the idea of a human having the ability to project their mind into the body of harvested aliens, In this film humans are the baddies, an invasive species into the world of Pandora - a pastoral planet full of lush greenery, mountains which reach into the sky, lovely waterfalls, neon trees etc. Two factions of humans have come - the scientists who want to study the species from an anthropological point of view and the military naves who want to rape the land of its natural resources at the expense of the lovely blue aboriginal inhabitants.

A paraplegic marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on the planet looking for a way to live the reckless lifestyle he led before he was injured in battle. When he infiltrates the blue native people’s society his orders as a spy comes into conflict with his new found love for one of the aliens and their eco-friendly lifestyle. The rest pretty much plays out like ‘Dances With Wolves’…

Additional plotting, characters, dramatic arcs and story beats are all rooted in familiar storytelling, borrowed from films like ’Braveheart’, ’Last of the Mohicans’, ’The Matrix’ and a number of westerns. Although I’ve heard James Cameron expound again and again that ultimately, ’it comes down to story’, it’s all BS because clearly story here takes a backseat for special effects and spectacle. So let’s leave the story as that - a functional skeleton for Cameron to hang all his fantastical creations.

The creatures are all rendered as perfect as can be compared to other CGI films. The blue creatures look almost real. But of course they can never look 100% real, because there is no such creature as a Na’vi. They run just like humans, can shoot guns and arrows just like humans and embrace and kiss just like humans. Everything works as good as it can. But their computer generated facial expressions can never substitute for the expressiveness of the humans - though Cameron would argue against that as well. And so, true immersiveness into the material comes down to whether you don’t mind watching nine-foot talk blue people interact and act like humans. ‘Titanic’ had worse dialogue and worse characters, yet when Jack was saying goodbye to Rose as her lifeboat was being lowered into the water the moment hit us in the gut because Leonardo Di Caprio was a real person and Kate Winslet was a real person. Avatar does not have that luxury and thus these moments never quite work as well.

As for the action, it’s a marvel and mindblowing. The final twenty minutes is a Transformers-like army vs. army battle, the kind of battle which could have easily been a wash of random swooshing imagery, quick cuts and incomprehensive movement. But even after 15 years since Cameron’s last action picture he hasn’t lost a step. Done.

Now let’s get down to the 3D… I am sure that I will never watch another 3D dramatic feature film ever again until they can do it without glasses. If this movie is supposed to revolutionize the medium and make a profound paradigm shift toward three dimensions of film, it still doesn’t work for me. Don’t get me wrong though, it’s pretty good, but unless its perfect, it’s distracting. I’ve mentioned this in other 3D reviews, but:
a) it takes a miniscule fraction of a second before each shot for my eyes to adjust to the 3D dimensions, thus distracting me from the movie
b) the 3D process, especially with wideangle lenses actually reduce the feeling of scope of the picture. Making the screen seem small, like I’m looking into a tiny diarama or through a kaleidoscope eye
c) The tint in the lenses actually dull the brightness and reduce the contrast of the picture.

Ok, Sure, I sound like an old curmudgeon refusing to accept the future of cinema. Maybe one day 3D will become perfect and equal that of flat 2D imagery, but until that day, 2D will always be the superior way to watch a dramatic film. As long as films are co-presented in 2D and 3D, I’ll be in the 2D theatre. Call me in 10 years or so.


Anonymous said...

You're a total wet blanket, you old fart ;)
I think this was a notch better than D9. The main reason being you felt genuine sympathy for the aliens in Avatar. I admire what D9 did with a fraction of the budget (relative to Avatar), but as a whole Avatar is a better film...
Rottentomatoes has both Star Trek and D9 as being 'fresher' than Avatar though it is better Sci-Fi. I think it suffered from the hype, naturally. Expectations could not have been higher for it. I really think that if you came into Avatar blind as you did with D9, you'd love it as much. But I'm sure you'll disagree with that.

Anonymous said...

Avatar same rating as New Moon? What's wrong with you?

Mark A. Fedeli said...

"Ok, Sure, I sound like an old curmudgeon refusing to accept the future of cinema. Maybe one day 3D will become perfect and equal that of flat 2D imagery, but until that day, 2D will always be the superior way to watch a film. As long as films are co-presented in 2D and 3D, I’ll be in the 2D theatre. Call me in 10 years or so."

Alan, great review except for the above quote. Don't be apologetic. Just because 3D exists doesn't mean we NEED to use it or that is MUST be a part of cinema now or cinema future (or that we even need to treat it like a respectable technique). It's just another thing like all other things.

And to Anonymous, Avatar fans need to find a new excuse for critical disdain other than the ol' "you set out to dislike it anyway" routine.

That's great if you felt sympathy, Anon, but it doesn't mean that Alan would have (regardless of his approach to the film). Christ, some men still ball their eyes out after 40 viewings of Field of Dreams and some have always seen it as silly manipulative melodrama. Neither are wrong. It's not a zero sum game.

Alan Bacchus said...

I did say to take everything I said with a grain of salt, because fantasy is not my preferred genre. Also with all the praise the film's been receiving, i didn't see a point in repeating the same stuff over and over again. That's why I basically skimmed over the good points of the film (the action) and nitpicked it. Unfortunately expectations do play a part in the viewing of a movie, and i;m not immune to it, so yes if I saw this film not knowing that Cameron directed it and going in blind I would probably sing its praises. My 3 stars would stay the same though.

I do change my opinion though (as with D9) and when I see Avatar in 2D I might have a different reaction. But the 3D process was so overwhelming to my viewing experience I couldn't discount it.

As for the comment about New Moon - I enjoyed the theatrical experience of New Moon as much as Avatar.

Sorry for being a grump...

Greg Klymkiw said...

Jesus! What until "Anonymous" reads MY review of Avatar. Alan is far more charitable than I will be.

Pasukaru said...

I kinda agree with Anon on this. Star Trek and D9 got a lot of more praise despite being inferior, in my opinion. They were considered 'surprises', thus the better reception. Defenders of Avatar, and I'm one of them, is that bad reviews are often not based on the film, but on the hype surrounding it. I think that's what Anon was getting at, and its a valid argument. Avatar is not perfect, but the review was evidently influenced by the hype (he admits that much). What, is that what all Avatar fans are saying???

Mark A. Fideli, your Field of Dreams argument is aesthetic relativism, no? Are you saying opinions should not be argued? "Neither are wrong?" What? So people should not disagree and just get along? That's no fun.

Nonetheless, I understand the problems with 3D mentioned by Alan. I kinda agree to a certain extent. But right, because 3D exists doesn't mean it MUST be seen that way. He might have enjoyed Avatar better without the third dimension. He might have hated New Moon in 3D. Who knows. Personally, I'm looking forward to my first 3D porno.

Alan, your comment that "expectations do play a part in the viewing of a movie" is a fine one. But shouldn't you be able to sort that out and judge the film for what it is? Maybe that's impossible...

Klymkiw, I assumed you'd trash Avatar. No surprise there.

Blair Stewart said...

The Na'vi are a blue thin-skinned people...

hope chest said...

James Cameron never fails to amaze me with his great works! He really is a genius, a master. The movie is worth watching!

Greg Klymkiw said...

Well, my dear Pashku (Slavic way of addressing someone fondly): You assume I am trashing it. You will see how wrong you are in this assumption when you read the piece. I only stated that our dearest Alanychku was "more charitable" in his assessment/approach. Make of this what you will. :-)

Mark A. Fedeli said...

Pasukaru, of course I am not saying opinions should not be argued. in fact, i hadn't even addressed that subject.

my point, which i believe i made pretty darn clear, was that a work of art will cause myriad responses, each one equally valid to the person having the response. right and wrong are borderline irrelevant in the critical discussion of art. thus, we have these wonderful debates.

hardly a person alive does not have some pre-conceived notion or influence prior to viewing a film, and it's not just due to hype or marketing (though, those are factors as well).

it's reasonable to suggest that a person who thinks Ambersons, Rules of the Game, or Sunrise are the greatest pieces of cinema ever made, MAY come to Avatar with a skepticism.

just as it is reasonable to say that a person who loves James Cameron, or sci-fi, or The Phantom Menace, MAY come to Avatar with a more apologetic mindset.

for Alan, as a critic, it's his life experiences, in cinema especially, that make him a good critic. are there any film critics for which this isn't true?

Greg Klymkiw said...

Dear Mark: With respect to your thoughts on pre-conceptions - I have now, for many years, gone out of my way to see and subsequently often review movies under the following circumstances:

1. I do not read reviews of anything I have not seen.
2. I do not read advance puff pieces of any movie before I have seen (and often do not bother even afterwards).
3. I do not watch trailers as a rule. I enter the theatre late or I play with my iphone or close my eyes while they are unspooling.
4. While I have often read the books and/or plays of movies adapted to film - it is usually only the "classics" I have read.
5. I do not watch TV, so I miss every bit of hype on movies that is spewed out there.

For me, my impressions must be as unsullied as humanly possible. It makes for more rewarding viewing, more honest reviewing and a fresher mind in general.

Alan Bacchus said...

Greg, you're dedication to making your movie-going experience the absolute best is astonishing.

Mark A. Fedeli said...

Greg, I do not doubt any of that for a second. and that truly is great for you. personally, I don't find it admirable because I get almost just as much joy reading movie criticism as i do seeing a film. it's the main reason i am in love with what Jim Emerson is doing on his blog these days, most recently with respect to the hype surrounding Precious.

not being a professional critic, it is not my job, nor do i have the time, to see every film released. the ones i cannot or do not intend to see, i see vicariously through film criticism. and that turns my crank.

And it seems, just as before, I have to again clarify something I believe I made extremely clear.

I was talking about a lifetime's worth of cinema knowledge that a critic brings with him to the table. i specifically said "it's not just due to hype or marketing", clearing my way to talk about other factors that DO NOT include hype, marketing, etc.

In fact, in the beginning of his review, Alan does say that it's the genre that made the film not necessarily his bag. which is exactly the point i was trying to expand on.

happy holidays to everyone!

Greg Klymkiw said...

Dear Alan: As movies mean more to me than pretty much everything and anything, I have gotten into this habit to do exactly as you say - to make the movie-going experience the absolute best it can be. While you are welcome to find this "astonishing", the reason I do it probably has more to do with the era in which I first fell in love with movies. In the 60s and 70s, trailers were designed to entice you by showing cool shit and not to give you the whole story and/or ruin true surprises. They were an art-form unto themselves. There was virtually no such thing as advance puff-pieces in print or on television that gave away every single detail of the movie-making process, thus removing the magic of movies that began in the 80s with horrendous publications like Premiere and everything else that followed. If one wanted details of the movie-making process, that could be found in great books that appeared long after the film was made (and after one had seen and considered the movie in a rather un-sullied fashion). As well, during this period, film reviews were not the kind of awful, glib consumer reports that they've become now. Reading great reviews was like engaging in a dialogue with a fellow movie geek. They were also not reduced to 500-word-or-less glorified capsules. That said, even the genuine capsule reviews were better then - especially in The New Yorker and Time Out - and an art form unto themselves.Starting in the 80s and getting worse every year since then, I have been forced into watching movies this way. In fact, I even make choices at film festivals by looking only at the schedule - title, director, country, running time, section of festival and starting time and venue. I only read the program notes and subsequent coverage AFTER the festival and only for the movies I have seen.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Mark, I too love reading film criticism, but for me, it needs to be AFTER seeing the movie - especially since it works for me (when it's exceptional criticism) as a dialogue: I see a movie, have a response, think about it, formulate my own thoughts, THEN read what people who I respect have to say. Sometimes it corroborates my own feelings or refutes them or a bit of both, and when it's REALLY great, it tells me things I do not know, which is the most wonderful experience of all.

I haven't worked as a professional critic for at least 20 years, so I too consider myself just a big old movie geek/fan - albeit one who obsessively tries to see every movie (or at least as many movies) as humanly possible.

My problem, is that I've seen over 30,000 movies - not much is new or fresh to me, so it's important that my viewing be as pristine as possible. Even now, for example, I know there is a movie coming soon called "Shutter Island" and that it's directed by Scorsese, is a thriller and stars Leo. Even THAT is too much information for me, but alas, it's the sort of information that even I cannot completely avoid being exposed to since every bloody theatre lobby has huge standees proclaiming that it's on its way.

I understand your point about a lifetime of knowledge all to well, I'm afraid. I have been obsessive about movies for 45 of my 50 years on this Earth. And THAT, always tempers my viewing and all the more I need to put pre-release blinders on to enjoy the movie(s).

Alan, of course, is often more charitable than I in revealing his preferences/biases/tastes at the outset of a piece. I tend only to do so when the movie inspires me to do so.

A Merry Christmas to you and everyone, as well!

happy holidays to everyone!

r4i said...

When I saw the full immersive experience on an IMAX screen in 3D, I knew I would have to see this in the theater. I'm not saying it is a game-changing movie, or that it will be the best movie of the year. What I am saying is that I have never seen a movie scene that felt like I was actually in the same room as the characters. The 3D process Cameron uses for this movie is incredible. It didn't feel artificially created like a Viewfinder, where there is a flat background and 2 or 3 objects in the foreground in 3D. This looked like the same quality of depth that you see when you look at a room full of people and objects. It will be worth the cost of admission for me if for no other reason than that...