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

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Great fun, but could have been so much more

  • Dec 29, 2009
  • by
James Cameron's Avatar. What more is there? This is a movie I've anticipated for years and the pay-off is a spectacle of mostly seamless special effects partnered with slam-bang action. It is an entertaining film well-worth the price of admission and is one not to be missed this Holiday Season.

However, that being said...Avatar suffers from several flaws mainly concerning its plot and cheap dialogue fused with dues ex machina devices that come close to muddling down the feel of the entire film. You can tell when actors don't improv because, I hate to say it, but Cameron's dialogue is not very believable, nor is it engaging in this film. Veterans such as Sigourney Weaver (who ad-libbed the most famous line from Cameron's ALIENS) proves to be (for me) the most likable character in the entire film; Weaver's a veteran and she flows smoothly in her role. In fact several performances in here are very good. The rest of the supporting cast is also utilized effectively...That is until we get to our star, Sam Worthington (who earlier this year starred in the weak Terminator: Salvation).

I have to compare Worthington to Keenu Reeves in the Matrix movies just because this is another case where it seems the entire supporting cast has more talent and enthusiasm for the project than the lead-actor. This guy just doesn't seem interested in the material at all! He just gives the vibe that he's reading directly off a teleprompter whenever he speaks. There was very little depth to this performance and never did I identify with the emotional responses conveyed by Worthington (even WITH CGI motion-capture fix-ups).

That brings me Worthington's character Jake Sully...I don't know whether it's Worthington or Cameron's script but I often found this character unbelievably bland. He's obviously supposed to represent an "everyman" but even being wheelchair bound he failed to catch my interest as an individual. Backstory is cliché, as is most aspects of this character and he just felt like a tired retread of "that dude who makes things happen." In fact I don't think this character had ANY flaws outside of being crippled; no emotional issues, obsessions, or anything that could complicate his character. In short: He could probably try out for sainthood.

Not to worry, for our supporting characters manage to win my praise. Stephen Lang (Gettysburg) is the particularly cold Colonel Miles Quaritch proving to be a very intimidating screen presence in his apathetic tone towards the violence surrounding him. Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine just about steals away the entire movie with her limited screen time and throughout the film I was wishing the plot concentrated more on her.

Zoe Saldana through the magic of motion-capture and computer wizardry plays our female lead of Neytiri and I'll say this: she is far more engaging of a character than her male-lead. She does suffer from some clichés as the Worthington character did, but this actress gave a lot of spunk to this gal that made it very easy to forgive her shortcomings in the script.

The rest of the Na'Vi...they're okay I guess; nothing really unique about any of them. Chief, medicine woman, lead warrior...that's basically the only other characters there are because for a movie that tried to center on the Na'Vi we only really get to know is Neytiri. The rest are basically CGI rendered, moving backgrounds running around without any unique features (though, towards the end we get a 10 second look of the female chief of the coast dwelling Na'Vi who has a red triangle painted across her chest: in those seconds she already became more interesting than most of the other Na'Vi characters).

As for the visual look: it is fantastic, as you would expect from its budget, but that being said: like the plot it also has its fair share of flaws.

For the human compound and vehicles Cameron basically copies many designs previously employed in ALIENS, and as much as I loved that film's designs, I didn't want to see them being used again in this manner: it feels at times like Cameron was too lazy to come up with new designs so he spruced up his old ones and refurbished them.

The jungle obviously had the most work put into it. There are beautiful shots of floating mountains (still bothers me that those are NEVER explained: I can only suspend disbelief for so long without so much as an illogical explanation). Every creature, tree, and aspect of this screams of adventure...but some of the things just seem like Cameron wanted to blow his budget in as many ways as possible. Everything is beautiful, but some of the things in this jungle make such little sense that I doubt they were created except as an excuse to fully utilize the budget.

Also, the Na'Vi are impressive visual achievements, but given the budget I am enormously disappointed by Cameron's lack of diversity with these characters. Most of them look EXACTLY the same. At one point we are show several of the tribes across the planet and all they have are different cultural garb...otherwise they are all exactly the same color, design, and look. Was it too hard to change the skin tones between these regions? This is the most expensive movie ever made and they aren't going to try and diversify at all? It would have added a whole other degree of realism...maybe he could have done that instead of having lizard-insects that flew like little helicopters.

Wrapped in Cameron's veteran direction the film at least succeeds in being constantly thrilling to the eyes.

So I've mentioned art, direction, acting, characters...so there's only one thing left.

My biggest gripe about this film is the plot. It is very generic as well as predictable. Every character you meet in this film you essentially know the moment they speak what role they're going to play in the plot. I'll list a few types here:

Movie's villain
Corporate official more concerned with profit than life
No nonsense doctor
Guy who begins hating lead than allies himself with him

You also can predict EVENTS far before they happen. Most of the movie is self-spoiling, and not in the Greek tragedy foreshadowing type of way.

Hero starts out of place
Hero does what no one else could
Falls in love with other
Hero is accepted into group after short amount of time
Hero becomes the leader during this short time
Hero chooses to side with new group

The list goes on, but I think you get my drift. As for the plot it's a generic "outsider" story with a few new twists, but overall it's the same story previously found in Lawrence of Arabia and The Last Samurai...if you mixed them with...Romance...Ugh, it just did not work in this film. Every. Single. Bit. Of romantic dialogue fell flat in this piece, as well as having Cameron's most spontaneous sex scene since The Terminator in 1984 (convenient that the aliens here have the EXACT same ways of showing affection, and mating as modern USA citizens, is it not?).

As well-done as it is the film can't help but leave gaping plot holes every which way it goes while ramming obvious symbolism and messages down the audience's throat to the point that I wanted to write a letter to James Cameron saying "I don't want to be lectured about environmental issues by someone who just spent over $300+ million on a bloody movie." Is he subtle about these messages? Nope; not at all. Unless you have NO knowledge of European/USA forces dislocating Native Americans or the Iraq War the symbolism you may find yourself sighing at the dialogue where they essentially lecture the audience about things any adult should be well-aware of.

I also don't like how human the Na'Vi were made out to be. I had a similar gripe with the very-human aspects of the Prawn in District 9, but at least in that film the aliens looked...well, alien. Here we essentially have giant Native Americans, painted them blue, threw on tails, and tossed them out for a sci-fi reenactment of American history (but with a happy Hollywood ending). This also means we get some horrendously cliché dialogue modeled off what must have been Indians in 1960's Westerns; it just wasn't believable in the slightest. Never ONCE did I believe the Na'Vi to be aliens or that culturally they were different from human tribes.

As a visual achievement the film is astounding, but I don't feel it's really left a lasting impression on me; it doesn't come close to topping the visuals of Pan's Labyrinth as the most visionary movie of the decade. Avatar is a fun, engaging ride that leaves the viewer thoroughly entertained, but in the end isn't much more than a well-made blockbuster that doesn't transcend greatness as other films of the genre had. Cameron just seemed at times that he did things not because the plot required it, but because he wanted to be praised as a "visionary." I wish he had spent more time on his script than he had on the look of this film.

4/5 Stars

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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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