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James Cameron's epic sci-fi fantasy film released in 2009.

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Avatar: Is "Not Bad" good enough?

  • Jan 12, 2010
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 Is “Not Bad” good enough?

That’s really the question when it comes to assessing the quality of AvatarJames Cameron’s first film in over a decade. His first major theatrical release since Titanic, it has been obvious for a long time that Cameron and the studios had every intention of making Avatar as much of a blockbuster epic as its Oscar-winning Leonardo DiCaprio-starring predecessor. 
After two successful weekends in the theater, it is now safe to say that it isn’t the bomb some might have feared or hoped for. This was actually evident before the first box office receipts were in, when the short-lived review embargo (usually the first clue that the film is a potential flop) was broken by film critics eager to share their mutual surprise that the film wasn’t this decade’s Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate. Since then there has been a virtual love-fest between the media and the studios, and a $75+ million opening weekend despite a blizzard-hampered East Coast has dispelled any fears that the audiences wouldn’t bite. The mutual consensus: It isn’t bad.

But, again; does Not Bad = Good?

Avatar’s notoriously gargantuan $400+ Million budget actually delivers on its overall promise of over-the-top 3D and special effects. Over half of the film is dominated by advanced CGI-rendered characters, animals and Day-Glo jungle environments. And yes, they are quite amazing. Seen in 3D or 2D, you can see where all the money went. But when it comes to justifying the amount spent, the lines of reason and good taste begin to blur.

The main chorus being sung by the film’s promoters and apologist film critics (speaking of blurred boundaries) is that these are the most realistic CGI rendered characters you will ever see. To paraphrase one of many identical review/interview/commercial spots, the realism invoked by these realistic animated characters is so overwhelming that you will actually come to believe that they are real beings.

This, of course, is a load of crap.

As impressive as these computer generated characters are, there is no point during the film that any rational adult will find themselves wondering how they managed to make the Navi look so real, because they don’t look real; they look like what they are, extremely impressive computer-generated characters. Now, children in the audience might feel differently, but kids aren’t an especially discerning audience. Decades ago, millions of underage film-goers were more than willing to believe that a bunch of midgets in fur suits running around the screen in Return of the Jediwere actually a race of heavily-merchandised half-pint Wookies. 

Its called the Suspension of Disbelief, an integral part of the movie-going experience that is not necessarily increased exponentially with the amount of money spent on the effects budget.
As much as the propaganda-heavy news reports and film critic reviews would like you to believe that special effects are what make characters endearing, the truth of the matter is that screenplay and actor performance easily trump that list. In the case of Avatar, the performances are only as good as the special effects and script allows them to be. Considering the weak story presented behind the 3D CGI spectacle, this leaves them all at about half-mast.

The lack of a decent script is almost understandable; when you are completely focused on delivering groundbreaking visuals worthy of a half-billion price tag, you’re going to want to keep your script as lean and simple as possible. And simple it is. Anyone who has ever seenDances with WolvesThe Last Samurai or Enemy Mine already knows this story (aka Plot #17) inside and out: Main Character battles Good Group on behalf of Evil Group, but eventually indentifies with Good Group and helps them defeat Evil Group. Roll credits.

But again, apologists are eager to claim that the amazingly expensive special effects more than justify the extremely light and simplistic screenplay. After all, the nearly half-billion-dollar special effects made the Navi almost seem like a real race, right? My rebuttal to this nonsense is last year’s surprise sci-fi hit District 9

In District 9, we have yet another film featuring humans interacting with a computer-generated alien species. Instead of the tall, wasp-waisted Navi (yet another Hollywood attempt at increasing eating disorders in young girls) frolicking in a jungle paradise, District 9’s aliens are giant grubby-looking insectoids, affectionately dubbed "Prawns" by their South African benefactors. Both films feature themes regarding the treatment of foreign races and cultures utilizing metaphoric alien races, but District 9 takes the time to explore the relation and exploitation with more attention paid to the complex nature of such situations, with a storyline and character development that doesn’t feel like a black-and-white storybook parable. It garnered rave reviews, also including the realism and believability of its alien creatures, and went on to earn nearly quadruple its
budget during its American theatrical release.

District 9 might not have been a pillar of originality either, arguably being a remake of Alien Nation. But it still treads on far more philosophical and socially relevant ground than sour-milk-drinking populated pun-titled predecessor. Also, while not achieving the extreme ratio of CGI to real world screen time, District 9 managed to achieve the same level of critical and financial success as Avatar, and with a vastly superior screenplay. Its budget: A measly $30 million, less than a tenth of Avatar’s price tag. 

So, does Not Bad mean Good? Not really. It doesn’t necessarily mean Bad either, and considering the money it is bringing in, that’s all that matters. Weighing the amazing visuals against the uninspiring script, the only fair assessment is that the film is just your typical Hollywood mega-budget blockbuster; big on spectacle but lacking in substance, no more or less deserving of its box office totals than Transformers 2 or 2012.

But let’s stop making excuses for the obscene amount of money thrown at what is nothing more than another unforgettable weekend blockbuster extravaganza. As much as the Hollywood elite might feel the need to engage in these annual meg-budget pissing contests, special-effect stroke-fests are no substitute for quality filmmaking. And contrary to popular belief, there is a difference.

Post-Oscar Update:

So, no Best Picture or Director Oscars for Avatar. But fear not, Avatar Fans, It took home a truckload of technical awards, which is all it ever really deserved. It never should have been nominated for Best Picture, and no doubt it only made the ranks so the Avatar-sympathetic masses wouldn't boycott the awards ceremony. So they not only nominated it for Best Picture (which might not have happened in a less-then-ten slot category), but bent over backwards to justify the action by also nominating the superior District 9, just to prove that they weren't giving Box Office Receipts consideration over actual film-making. In the end, the Oscar went to a real film that actually had something to say about war and the soldiers who wage it, and not a remake of Dances with Wolves with the Native American Indians replaced by Giant Smurfs.

Since the worst of the storm seems to be over, I thought I would come back and touch on the subject one more time while it was still sore and tender. 

Now, I'd be lying if I claimed I sat through this film groaning and gnashing my teeth. Like most movie goers, I also went along for the visual ride and took in the 3D sites while munching away on my Bucket 'o Carbs. But when it comes to relentlessly praising a film, I think you should be able to say more about a Best Picture Oscar Nominee than "It Looked Pretty and Was Against War." That's not an Oscar Film, that's Susan Sarandon.
What some people and most Avatar fans seem to miss is that most film reviews (mine included) are about the craft and structure of the film itself, and not whether you should like it. People like what the like, and no amount of analysis or criticism is going to change that. The fact that you liked it doesn't mean it's a good movie. My affection for Ernest Goes to Jail is a firm testament to that.

So don't take it so personal. People will no doubt purchase special edition DVDs and 3D televisions in droves so they can experience three hours of Shiny all over again, no matter what I say, and they are more than welcome to their obsession. But don't attempt to legitimize your affection for the film by trying to convince me that a screenplay plagiarized from Pocahontas and wrapped in a half-billion dollars of special effects wizardry is anything other than commercially successful eye candy.  

(reposted from MovieSucktastic by the author)

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July 22, 2010
Wow. I thought I hated this movie. I at least gave it a positive mark since the effects and digital world WERE nice. I HATED this movie's patronizing attitude which amounts to the epitome of white guilt from recycled scripts. My love for James Cameron really took a hit with this since he really has written better stuff in the past.
January 21, 2010
Haha not a bad review. But I actually really enjoyed the movie. I think too many people forget it is a movie not based on actual events, it is a sci fi film. I am not a professional critic but I really felt the entire world including the fake navi looked extremely realistic. Its too easy to say that they didn't look real because they weren't. The story while not completely original was still good. I am part of the mass population that felt this movie deserves an A. Guess I'm just an average joe that doesn't expect a movie experience to change my life as some critics seem to expect. Eating disorders in young girls??? How bout the eating disorders of like 75% of the obess US? Haha funny folks. Anyways great movie imo.
March 09, 2010
Thank you for pointing out that Avatar is not based on actual events. First thing tomorrow, I'm tracking down that guy who convinced me to donate to the Pandora Relief Fund.

Also, kudos for pointing out the humor in weight related illnesses. You are quite right; when compared to America's growing obesity epidemic, the thought of teenage girls and young women starving themselves to death (anorexia) or slowly destroying their bodies (bulimia) in a desperate attempt to duplicate the extreme female body type they are endlessly bombarded with by popular culture is, once you think about it, quite funny. Haha funny folks indeed.
July 22, 2010
I like that "Pandora Relief Fund" part. On redlettermedia.com the site owner talking about this plays the trailer where you hear "They've sent us a message" and he says "I'll listen to my answering machine if I want a message" he proceeds to play his answering machine with a guy on the machine saying he's from the dept of cultural guilt and to keep feeling guilty.
January 12, 2010
I applaud your review, man. I enjoyed the film as much as I enjoyed the popcorn I ate while watching it, and like the popcorn, after I finished Avatar it was pretty much "out of sight, out of mind." The 3D was definitely lush and great to look at, but I don't know that it was any better than what I've seen before (mind you, I didn't see it in 3D like most everyone else). And the plot was, as you put it, a rehashing of Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai. Anyway, when it comes to popcorn movies this was a good way to go – but not the epic masterpiece I've heard it called over and over again.
March 09, 2010
Glad you liked the review, thanks. I'd be lying if I claimed I sat through the film groaning and gnashing my teeth. Like you, I also went along for the visual ride and took in the 3D sites while munch my Bucket 'o Carbs. But when it comes to relentlessly praising a film, I think you should be able to say more about a Best Picture Oscar Nominee than "It Looked Pretty and Was Against War." That's not an Oscar Film, that's Susan Sarandon. What others seem to miss is that most film reviews (mine included) are about the craft and structure of the film itself, and not whether you should like it. People like what the like, and no amount of analysis or criticism is going to change that. But just because you liked it, doesn't mean it's a good movie. My affection for Ernest Goes to Jail is a firm testament to that.
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S. Michael Wilson ()
A writer, poet, and film reviewer working out of central New Jersey, editor and coauthor of Monster Rally,author of Performed by Lugosi, andco-host of the podcastsMovieSucktasticand Strangers in a Strange … more
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Avatar is a 2009 American science fiction epic film written and directed by James Cameron and starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez and Stephen Lang. The film is set in the year 2154, when humans are mining a precious mineral called unobtanium on Pandora, a lush moon of a gas giant in the Alpha Centauri star system. The expansion of the mining colony threatens the continued existence of a local tribe of Na'vi—a sentient humanoid species indigenous to Pandora. The film's title refers to the genetically engineered Na'vi and human hybrid bodies used by several human characters to interact with the natives of Pandora.

Development on Avatar began in 1994, when Cameron wrote an 80-page scriptment for the film. Filming was supposed to take place after the completion of Cameron's 1997 film Titanic, for a planned release in 1999, but according to Cameron, the necessary technology was not yet available to achieve his vision of the film. Work on the language for the film's extraterrestrial beings began in summer 2005, and Cameron began developing the screenplay and fictional universe in early 2006.

Avatar was officially budgeted at US$237 million. Other estimates put the cost between $280 million and $310 million for production, and at $150 million for promotion. The film was released for traditional two-dimensional projectors, as well as in 3-D, using the RealD 3D, Dolby 3D, XpanD 3D and IMAX 3D formats, and also in ...

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Director: James Cameron
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Sci-Fi
Release Date: December 18, 2009
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Screen Writer: James Cameron
Runtime: 162 minutes
Studio: 20th Century Fox
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