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

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A Visual Masterpiece Laced With Classic Storytelling Themes

  • Apr 28, 2010

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.

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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).
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Ranked #14
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
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About this movie


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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