SF Signal
SF Signal
A community for science fiction fans!
Avatar

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

< read all 117 reviews

A Visual Masterpiece Laced With Classic Storytelling Themes

  • Apr 28, 2010
Rating:
+5

Let me come clean right up front here, so opposed to the hype surrounding Avatar was I that I literally refused to stand in line with the drones that flocked to the theatres a few months back.  Friends of mine went down one by one, succumbing to the propaganda, the rave reviews, the hoopla but alas I was steadfast in my resolve.  Hype, or so I’ve concluded throughout the years, is a film destroyer.  It has the capacity for raising expectations beyond what’s achievable and, after all, unmet expectations is simply another way of saying disappointment.  With the exultation surrounding 2009’s Avatar, I feared there was only one place for it go in my appraisal and you can be sure my having held out for so long before finally giving the film a chance was an abstention laced with ambition of discrediting those critics before me who were haplessly tripping over themselves with admiration.

After all, I reasoned, computer generated imagery is essentially the bane to modern visual storytelling and you would be hard pressed to find a movie more dependent upon it than this one.  I am the stick-in-the-mud who will always take the original Star Wars trilogy over the more recent one, Star Trek II The Wrath of Kahn over the 2009 retooling, 1981’s Clash of the Titans over the CG-heavy remake and Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings over… oh wait, so there is one example of technology-laced filmmaking that has managed to rival my definition of “classic” visual storytelling.

It turns out my plans of disputing Avatar’s unrivaled ambitions were very short lived indeed and I shouldn’t be all that surprised either.  This is James Cameron after all, the man who brought the world The Terminator, Aliens and Titanic.  It seems like about once a decade, Cameron becomes inspired enough to remind everyone in Hollywood how it’s done.  Perhaps his greatest ability, aside from having an uncanny knack for telling stories that capture the very highest highs and lowest lows of the human condition, is his knack of suppressing the temptation to simply harness the latest techniques in filmmaking, but rather to surpass them even if it means reinventing the very process itself.  But before I get ahead of myself here, let’s take a moment to review the hard facts.

Tracing its development roots as far back as 1994, when Cameron wrote an 80-page treatment for the film, Avatar is set in the year 2154, when humans are mining an abundant mineral called unobtanium on Pandora, a lush natural satellite of a gas giant (Polyphemus) in the Alpha Centauri star system.

Though officially budgeted at $237 million, estimates put the actual cost of the project closer to a little over $300 million in production alone, with some additional $150 million for promotion. It premiered in London on December 10, 2009, and was released theatrically overseas on December 16 and in North America on December 18 where it immediately began breaking several box office records.  It went on to become highest-grossing film of all time in North America and worldwide, stealing the title away from Cameron’s own Titanic, which had held the records for the 12-years prior.

Avatar was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, of which it captured three: Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Art Direction.

According to Cameron himself, the film is composed of 60% computer-generated elements coupled to 40% live action, and makes use of traditional motion capture miniatures (models) as well.  Work on the film had been delayed since the mid-1990s if effort to allow filmmaking techniques to reach the necessary degree of advancement to adequately portray the project’s unique vision. Since photorealistic computer-generated character models were an absolute necessity, Cameron integrated new motion-capture animation technologies he had been developing in the 14 months leading up to December 2006.  Among these was an improved method of capturing facial expressions, whereby the actors wore custom made skull caps fitted with a camera positioned directly in front of the actors' faces at all times; their facial expressions and eye movements were then transmitted to directly to the computers for animation layering.

Additionally numerous reference cameras were implemented to provide the digital artists multiple angles of each and every performance so as to provide unprecedented shadow effects and reflected light between digital elements.

So even in taking into account all of the inconceivable digital techniques required to make the film possible at all, a budget that could make Bill Gates sweat, a roster of production talent with credits predating the use of panoramic lenses, and some of Hollywood’s brightest up and comers and most revered veteran actors alike, what is the Avatar experience like?  It’s surprisingly impressive and I’m not referring to the superfluous visuals alone either.  Michael Bay has certainly proven to the world that eye candy alone does not a good film make.

Avatar opens with Sam Worthington’s character, Jake Sully’s narration; an appropriately drab tone that hints to the conflict within him that will later become the core of this grand tale.  There are undeniable homage cues that fans of Cameron’s Aliens will certainly recognize in the early sequences especially; long distance space travel with cryogenic suspension, a rigid and heartless military, a greedy corporation behind the financing of the operation and so on.  In fact, now that I think on it, there are even mechanized loaders present and Sigourney Weaver to boot!  All that’s inexplicably missing is Bill Paxton.

Believe it or not, a strong argument could be made that Avatar is in fact simply the inverse of Aliens- In that both tales work from the idea of human beings forcefully annihilating an alien race on their own turf.  Aliens does so with the human’s best interest in the foreground, Avatar tells the same story, only this time from the point of view of the victims.

The undertaking by which Cameron manages to switch the viewer’s loyalty from his fellow humans to the indigenous inhabitants of the alien world Pandora is nothing shy of genius.  Much of the film’s 162-minute runtime establishes momentum to accomplish this feat.  Rather than “force feed” the good guys and the bad guys here, Cameron approaches the tale by presenting the opposing points of view pretty evenly and simply steps back to allow the viewer to decide who is right in the debate.  In the end, and certainly a forgivable trait, the conflict becomes a bit more black & white. The hope of course is that by then the viewer will have chosen sides with the same conviction that drives Jake Sully. 

It would be impossible to skate through this critique without mentioning the highly publicized visuals.  And while I am doing all I can to avoid heaping praise on an already mountainous pile, the truth is that the visuals deserve a lot of the credit for taking what boils down to a typical tale of imperialism, oppression, and suspension of rights (that in many spots plays out eerily similar like events from our own history books) and turns it into an ethereal experience that isn’t soon forgotten.  For not only was the production crew charged with the arduous task of showing in intricate detail an entirely fictional world, they had to create an entire race of inhabitants that though more animalistic than human beings, were every bit as human as we ourselves (and perhaps more so at times).

Failing to inspire viewer sympathy for these primal Pandorans could very well have been the kiss of death for the entire picture but such concerns are futile as Cameron and company nail the objective a hundred times over by the film’s conclusion.  Chalk it up to a combination of solid casting and lessons learned from classic animated films from the likes of Disney, the digital animation process here uses oversized eyes and near-caricature-like overly exaggerated features of the character models to ensure the complete and utter inescapability of the viewer’s emotional surrender.

Further tying the prose together is the patented James Cameron love story; a bittersweet poignant whimsy that somehow manages to break down the emotional walls of even the most impassive (and skeptical) of viewers.  And with that comes an indescribable feeling of tension throughout the entire experience in simply knowing that Cameron is no stranger to concluding his works with the death of characters you come to know and love in the name of timeless artistic tragedy.  Throughout the film I found myself struggling to maintain a level of emotional detachment out of sheer remembrance of Kyle Reese, young Newt, and a very popsicle-like Jack Dawson.

The scoring is, as is perhaps expected from a film of such high-class production value, top notch as well.  James Horner’s soaring composures take the visuals to new heights (sometimes almost literally) while introducing a sort of tribal rhythmic tone to the formula that is ineffably appropriate.  While it presents no danger of dethroning John William’s Star Wars theme as the most whistle-able tune of all time, there is little debate to the fact that Avatar’s soundtrack will likely adorn the CD-players of countless folks who, until now, wouldn’t have considered themselves the movie soundtrack type.

So in all, would I be so brash as to suggest Avatar as a film that would appeal to nearly everyone? Surprisingly, perhaps.  A self admitted science fiction aficionado, I came in with high expectations of Avatar’s highly publicized alleged revolution of the genre.  While it wouldn’t be considered hard science precisely, there is just enough space travel and mecha usage to keep my brood satisfied.  Action junkies will surely find much to love here in this firefight-heavy roller coaster ride and even the emotional-set will likely clamber to the Na'vi ’s portrayal in earnest (box of tissues at the ready). 

In fact I could go as far as to say it’s rare indeed for a film to come along with such universal appeal but then again to do so would be to discount Cameron’s rich and extensive catalog of titles up until this one.  The man who made the world fear Schwarzenegger, admire Sigourney and cry for that kid from Growing Pains has somehow managed to raise the bar again, this time with twelve-foot tall blue skinned aliens and a story that offers irrefutable testament to the fact that no matter how jaded the world around us becomes, the human heart was, is, and will forever be one driven by love.

What did you think of this review?

Helpful
21
Thought-Provoking
21
Fun to Read
21
Well-Organized
21
Post a Comment
November 17, 2010
EPIC review good Sir, well done. This was a good movie but I kept thinking of Pocahontas and Fern Gully the whole time.
November 18, 2010
Hey thanks FM_A: You're totally right. The themes and undertones are so unoriginal here! I went in expecting that too, and at the end, while having the heart strings tugged by these giant blue aliens, was like "darn that James Cameron! He's done it again"! lol Thanks for the feedback!!
 
April 30, 2010
great review, now I'm more anxious to see it...sounds really good
 
April 28, 2010
woo-wee!! Excellent review, Jason! So glad you finally got a chance to see the movie on dvd. You rated it the same as I, and I was impressed with the way you blended the movie critiques as well as the commentary on Cameron's style and vision! Nice work, man...I am featuring this review right now!
April 28, 2010
Thank you William- When I finished the film my jaw was agape. Here I kind of put it in figuring I would be one of the first to discredit it and came away as impressed as the next guy. What a crowning achievement! But like my review states, I don't know why I'm so surprised, Cameron hasn't let me down yet and it's been 4 decades now and counting. Thanks again buddy. Now I can go and read your review again (since I had to avoid it while penning mine up).
 
1
More Avatar (2009 film) reviews
review by . March 09, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
test
   I was waiting to write this review for a while because I had only seen it in 3D. I was utterly amazed because it was the first 3D movie I had ever seen. I wanted to go straight home and write a review giving it a +5 rating. Upon talking with others who had seen the movie and reading various criticisms and analyzes of the film, I began to doubt my initial reaction. Was I letting the CGI effects and the 3D elements hype the movie to a level it didn't deserve? So, I was determined …
review by . February 23, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
James Cameron, it seems to me, creates wonderful dishware in which to place the most nourishing and satisfying of those things we humans crave. All those J. Cameron-imprinted tureens and goblets took rare imagination and meticulous craftsmanship to make. Just one piece can cost a Wall Street banker's annual bonus. They boggle. But look inside that tureen and there ain't no vichyssoise. Take Avatar.       This is one of the most beautiful movies you'll ever hope …
review by . January 30, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Fly me to the moon
              It’s when Adventure meets Art,  you’ve got the human spirit all throughout this film. The good, the bad.   Learning is a way of life. Innocence is inherent. Trust in the invisible and the unknown. The spirit within each living thing. Every day is an adventure. Entertainment at its summit!   A Dreamland. A Wonderful World. A Stunning Visual. An Incredible Imagination. A World beyond words …
review by . March 01, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
Great Ride & Groundbreaking Movie!
Well, here goes nothing.  I've not really done movie reviews before, and honestly am intimidated to a degree by the major film buffs who are incredibly adept at breaking down plots, themes, and drawing parallels to other films.  This is simply my totally novice, average schmo-ette attempt to share my thoughts ... so please be kind : )      My main take-aways: This will be the Star Wars for my young daughter's generation. I wanted to BECOME one of …
review by . November 12, 2010
posted in Movie Hype
*** out of ****   James Cameron knows how to build hype. He also knows how to spend money very well. “Avatar” is the result of how Cameron spends his time and money, being a technical masterpiece but none the less a terribly familiar trip. Sure, it’s very engaging. Sure, it looks pretty. But when watching it, I noticed that everything Cameron shows or does is something that has been done before. Some of his choices often result in “Avatar” being very predictable …
review by . February 21, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Thats Right I Didn't like this movie
Avatar is your basic outsider/broken dude finds himself in a place he dosent belong/fit in. And after being there a while he finds himself and he's a new man. Avatar felt like a play it safe movie to me. It was predictable and we've literally seen movies like this a thousand times. The 3-D in my opinion didnt really add anything to the film. So after all that why am I giving this movie a 3 and a half? Because Avatar is one of the most awe-inspiring movies Ive seen in a long time. I loved …
review by . December 29, 2009
Avatar: relegates Lord of the Rings to 'old hat'
 I bow to our friend, who prefaced his astonished and profound appreciation of the Avatar movie with "It drives me nuts.." (that they have to include the dominator thing.....) "But...."      The conversation that ensued resulted in all 8 of us (4 couples) going to IMax for the experience (that one couple's second viewing). We came out of there with 'sea legs' and we're still re-orienting.      It's significant in my little Universe …
review by . December 21, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
4 ½ + Stars: Absorbing Fantasy Adventure and Thought-Povoking Themes Make This a Blockbuster!
             Let’s get one thing out of the way, James Cameron’s “AVATAR” is the most expensive film ever made; with a staggering budget of $ 230 million (there’s a rumor that they ended up spending $ 260 mil), expectations for the film is very high. Cameron had impressed me with “Aliens”, “The Abyss”, Terminator and T2: Judgment Day” but I decided to keep my expectations low. He won …
review by . December 18, 2009
The Greatest Science Fiction Epic of All Time!
James Cameron has outdone himself!  He may have actually outdone the whole entire film industry.  Never in my life have I seen a film so brilliant and beautiful that it made me rethink the whole way in which I look at film.  Avatar is what movies are all about; transporting you into the film and making you feel as if you're really there.  Mr. Cameron has accomplished that with they way in which he has revolutionized the 3D genre of filmmaking.  Avatar isn't just another …
review by . December 18, 2009
posted in Movie Hype
It's been years since James Cameron released a film.  The last movie we got from James Cameron was the mega-huge blockbuster Titanic way back in 1997.  When you make the biggest grossing film ever, you normally have to follow that up with something big.  For James Cameron it's Avatar.  An idea he's been tinkering with for over a decade (since before he even released Titanic, in fact).  This is the time when Cameron's film could finally be done.  When he first got the …
About the reviewer
Jason Rider (AKA OneNeo on Amazon.com) is the author of the successful children's fantasy novel series The Uncommon Adventures of Tucker O'Doyle from Bellissima Publishing.      … more
Consider the Source

Use Trust Points to see how much you can rely on this review.

You
JRider
Your ratings:
rate more to improve this
About this movie

Wiki

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 ...

view wiki

Details

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
First to Review
© 2014 Lunch.com, LLC All Rights Reserved
Lunch.com - Relevant reviews by real people.
SF Signal is part of the Lunch.com Network - Get this on your site
()
This is you!
Ranked #
Last login
Member since
reviews
comments
ratings
questions
compliments
lists