Rants, Reviews, Musings, and otherwise unconstructive critisisms of what you like and why I'm always right.

Review: Avatar

 

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Is Avatar deserving of the unrelenting hype? Its status as the highest grossing movie of all time? Could ANY movie truly live up to that billing? Probably not, but in terms of sheer scope of the visuals and storytelling, it is easy to see why James Cameron’s Avatar became the phenomenon it is.I waited until the hype machine had died down a bit before seeing this movie for many reasons. With a running time of almost three hours, I knew there was a good chance of checking out on the film if I was sitting in a theater. I also despise 3D and wearing silly glasses to watch a film. I agree with those that say that if I was going to see a film in 3D, it should be Avatar. There’s no question that Cameron created a whole new way of making films with the way he used multiple cameras to create actual 3D instead of just faking it in post production like previous (and a lot of upcoming) movies. I have many reasons for hating the 3D movement, but that’s for another day. This film was impressively made and it’s easy to see that Cameron was completely passionate about what he was trying to do and took major care to make sure it wasn’t just a cash in. It’s has some of the most innovative effects we’ve seen since Jurassic Park.<br /><br />Seeing a film like this with as few expectations as possible is important to me. No one wants to hear about how I “didn’t think it lived up to the hype” anyway. Yes, this was purposefully made to create that hype, that much is clear. Cameron had set records with Titanic in 1997 and he did his best to recreate the circumstances of that films success. That being said, I honestly wanted to give this film a fair shake. And I feel that if a film is truly great, it should hold up without the 3D gimmick distracting people from what I had heard was a limited story. Thankfully, the waiting paid off. I watched this film on a 50′ plasma on blu ray, and it is easily the best looking film I’ve ever seen. The blu ray looks almost 3D anyway, so it was easy to recognize what it would have been like in theaters. The crisper picture and ability to enjoy it on my own terms made for a fantastic viewing experience that I don’t think I would have necessarily had otherwise.<br /><br />Back to the film itself. With a rumored budget of more than 300 million, there’s never any question that the visual effects are the main star here. I might run out of adjectives rather quickly in going into detail why this movie is an easy 10/10 in the visual department. Comparisons with the original Star Wars are in this way warranted. Cameron has raised the bar on film-making in a lot of the same ways George Lucas did back in 1977. For perhaps the first time, I actually forgot I was watching CGI characters interact for most of the movie. The motion capturing was as close to perfect as I’ve seen. The environments were incredibly immersive. The colors were incredible. There was so much detail put into it, so much going on in the background, but it never overdid it in a way that movies such as the Star Wars prequels did. Cameron does understand the concept of letting a shot breathe. You might see critters or other such things in the background, but the shots never get distracting. It’s definitely impressive how he created a whole world that lives before us, right down to the grass, plants, animals, and atmosphere. I could go on and on, but simply put, this movie looks fucking beautiful.<br /><br />A lot has been said about the story. Yes, it’s in no way original. Yes, it seems pieced together from other films. There’s a lot of Dances With Wolves, there’s some Ferngully style environmentalism, there’s things I immediately recognized as being taken from The Matrix, Aliens and Star Wars. The lead in to the jungle areas of Pandora were just like the tour into Jurassic Park. But take a step back and consider: Is Dances with Wolves a better experience than Avatar? Is Ferngully presented in a way that’s even half as effective? This film does aspire to be a classic like the other films mentioned, and I’m not convinced it’s really so different, at least in terms of storytelling. Avatar lacks some of the heart in terms of the character development and personalities, but the overall story honestly didn’t bother me at all. Sometimes taking a familiar concept can be ok as long as it’s improved upon. It’s a story we’ve heard before, but in this case the way it is presented never felt too forced or cliche for my taste. That being said, it’s too bad it wasn’t a bit more original. At least in Star Wars we had lightsabers and the force and all that, the fact that Avatar lacks it’s own spin in this way does hold it back from being a masterpiece. <br /><br />The other issue I had with the story was that we seemed to join it midway in, with little explanation for the motivations of the characters based on what had happened before. This seems to be a deliberate decision by Cameron, and I’m not asking for flashbacks or anything, but there must have been a way to convey to the audience what was at stake a little better. Because of this, and the way the film spends the first 90 minutes basically showing us pretty pictures, the plot and characters don’t really get truly engaging until the half way point. Around the time the romantic subplot kicked in, we were in full gear, and I had very few problems from this point on.<br /><br />There is a rumored extended cut of Avatar coming this summer, and this is one of few times where I think a film could really benefit from it, albeit in a very specific way. The running time is a factor here, so Cameron must be very careful to only add essential material, and it needs to directly address character development for our leads, and give us a greater understanding of their motivations. If he does this properly, this film could easily go down as an absolute classic in my book. Every thing else is there, in fact the movie was so good I actually felt slightly frustrated that it was so close already while just a few issues help it back.<br /><br />The cast in Avatar was a saving grace in my opinion. Sam Worthington was a good choice for the everyman main character, and Sigourney Weaver was a good choice as someone that has screen presence. Also, I was very happy to see Michelle Rodriguez and Joel Moore, as I’ve always been a fan of their supporting roles in the past. They nailed the casting across the board, which did a considerable job of making up for the otherwise less than fleshed out characters. There was a few moments of cheesy acting, but they did a good job with what they had to work with and succeeded at making me care about them by the end of the film. <br /><br />There are many that thought Avatar was heavy handed in it’s obvious messages. Knowing most of these going in, I was not bothered in the slightest. It was nothing we haven’t heard before and I can name many movies that beat its audience over the head more than this. Having pro-environment, anti-corporate, anti-greed messages in your film is fine as long as that’s not the only thing you take away from the movie, and spectacle of it all made it easy to handle these parts. In this case, I feel the detractors are just looking for something to complain about. I wouldn’t complain that the story is boring or pointless and then turn around and complain that they tried to insert a message.<br /><br />For a film with this long a running time, I was pleasantly surprised with how fast it went by. The pacing was done well and I was very thankful that the action didn’t just drag on forever with no creativity put into it. Each action scene had a point for the most part. There were interesting spots put into them that held my interest. The expository scenes were likewise not dragged out at all, in fact they could have stood to include a few more moments of development like I mentioned before.<br /><br />Let’s take a moment to take about the climax of the film. Obviously you know going in that there’s gonna be a big battle that all of this deliberate plotting it going to lead up to. And boy is it worth it. Take the opening of Star Wars episode 3, add in the Battle of Endor from Return of the Jedi, take out the annoying aspects of the Ewoks, and you have an idea of how awesome this is. It looks and sounds fantastic, it goes on for just the right amount of time and it isn’t annoying or eye-rolling at all. Pure awesomness in this reviewer’s opinion. Again, the spectacle of it all was a wonder to behold.<br /><br />I haven’t mentioned the score yet, so I’ll go ahead and say here that while it wasn’t the most memorable score I’ve ever heard, it served the film well. I immediately noticed the similarities to the score from Titanic so I wasn’t surprised to find out it was the same composer. The cheesy song over the credits didn’t bother me either, even if it was just the new “My heart will go on.”<br /><br />There were two specific scenes that bothered me in Avatar. The first was the chase scene fairly early on with the creature that resembles a Puma. It was one of the only times I rolled my eyes and thought “FAKE!” It just didn’t work for me, although I will point out I’m usually not a big fan of the huge-cgi-creature tries to kill small-cgi-creature in that there just never seems to be any genuine suspense or possibility that something won’t come off completely calculated.<br /><br />The other scene I disliked was an early scene with our hero attempting to ride on of those 6 legged horse creatures. This scene was so cliche that I couldn’t take it seriously at all. I’ve seen this same interaction of the main character falling into the mud, the girl laughing, the snobby members of the new culture saying “he’ll never be one of us,” the whole display was terrible in how badly it played out like so many other mediocre films. I started to get worried at this point but thankfully the other scenes with the main couple showed some emotion and didn’t fall prey to these same trappings nearly as bad.<br /><br />I definitely noticed how blatantly manipulative Avatar can be. Cameron really took no chances in making sure the audience felt the way he wanted them to. This may be why he chose to make the characters less complex, especially the villains. Again, more complexities would have really sold the film on my end, but I can understand why he went the direction he did. The other ways he manipulates the viewer is mostly visual, such as in how the Na’vi look and act.<br /><br />Avatar is quite the experience. It deserves to be seen by virtually anyone, and for that, it’s hard to argue with the fact that there is a lot of hype around it. It doesn’t deserve to be seen numerous times in a row, or to have people being depressed over not being able to live on Pandora (have you heard about these freaks?), but it’s an enjoyable experience that will be appreciated by all but the most jaded viewers. A few aspects hold the film back from achieving the masterpiece status that it tries for, but it’s about as close as it gets in my eyes without crossing that line. If only for the innovation on display, and the way it plays as kind of a greatest hits if you will of many classic movies that I have loved my whole life. I struggled with what rating I would give this film, and in the end I had a hard time put it at a solid 9/10 given the unoriginal story and characters. It was somewhere on the high end between 8 and 9 though, so on this scale I rounded generously. With the proper additional material this could easily rise above that, so I will eagerly keep my eyes on the extended version when the time comes. In the meantime, suffice to say you won’t find me in the camp of people that won’t continue to enjoy Avatar as a beautifully done adventure. 8.5/10

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  1. Pingback: Review Index | Life In Rewind

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