Google+ Cinema Viewfinder: Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar (2009)

by Tony Dayoub

Okay. It's not that Avatar should be ranked on any end-of-the-year "best" lists, to be sure. But I had such a fun time falling into James Cameron's fantasy, I can't deny how enjoyable it is. Is it a landmark achievement in filmmaking? I think so. But the problem lies in whether it will feel like such twenty years from now, when this technology will feel commonplace, or worse yet, outdated.

A former visual effects cinematographer, Cameron has a natural inclination towards spectacle. What I also give him credit for is using his vast wealth to fund the R & D for not just his own pet projects, but projects that will help the medium itself move forward . Avatar, its fairly evident, is just such a project. In one scene, where hero Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has gotten lost in the woods of planet Pandora, he meets Neytiri (Zoƫ Saldana), one of the warrior natives known as the Na'vi. The scene is one that immerses both the viewer and our proxy Jake in the engrossing environs of the Na'vi's planet. Its CGI world simultaneously feels artificial and alive. Everything from the flora to the fauna to the heroes that populate its world have an organic relation to each other, their sympathetic bioluminescence serving as the vehicle for this holistic harmony.

I saw the film in 3-D, and to see it any other way is to lose a crucial part of the story. The paraplegic Jake, a former marine, is tempted into taking part in an experimental exercise by the opportunity to experience the use of legs again after he transfers his persona into a human/Na'vi hybrid avatar. Cameron wisely uses restraint with the 3-D, generally avoiding the in-your-face shots of projectiles launched toward the screen, visuals that usually distract viewers from any reality the film is striving to achieve. Ironically, 3-D films have long felt like gimmicks in their attempt to reach a sort of visual realism. No, Cameron's use of the effect is nuanced, his camera skimming over and past and through the dense rainforest that envelops Pandora three-dimensionally. Cameron mitigates the artificiliaty of the effect by making Avatar's central characters blue-skinned aliens, creatures that look unnatural to begin with. He also transcend the gimmickry of the 3-D by making it essential to the story. As you experience the immersive quality of Cameron's 3-D artistry, you immediately identify with Jake who is experiencing his own sense of wonder with the new virtual world he finds himself in. Good thing, too, since Cameron's script isn't strong enough to get you to connect with the film's characters on that visceral level so necessary to make the film a true success.

Some have cited the problematic nature of the film's topicality, stating that their seems to be an obvious point Cameron is making with parallels to the Iraq War. While I do see several phrases like "shock and awe," or "fight terror with terror," designed to elicit some sort of reaction, I truly feel these phrases are there due to the Barnum-like Cameron's desire to drum up critical good will in the film—irresponsibly I may add—but nothing more. It is no secret that the American (?) military is given quite a black eye by their villainous depiction in this movie (particularly by the excellent Stephen Lang as Colonel Quaritch). But the film is so clearly derivative of a specific classic science-fiction novel which predates, and in fact somewhat predicts the War on Terror, that I'm surprised more hasn't been made of this elsewhere.

Frank Herbert's Dune, like Avatar, is an ecological science fiction novel. Published in 1965, it predicts much of the current Mid-East unrest and its ties to oil production (spice production in the novel) and the disregard for the sensitive ecology of the planet, themes that dominate the news today. Ignoring David Lynch's inferior adaptation of the film, Cameron uses the novel as a template for the story. From the outsider messianically sent to deliver an alien race from their human oppressors to the insurgent tactics of a clan-like people finally united against a common enemy; from the hero's acceptance into the alien community after he tames a powerful, mystically revered beast to the hero's introduction of an aural technology to help the resistance gain an advantage over their oppressors; even his schooling in the way of the natives by a beautiful female warrior that eventually becomes his wife; many of Avatar's story beats can be found in the original Herbert novel and with a higher level of complexity.

And it is for this reason that Avatar cannot reside in the pantheon of great films. Once technology catches up with the innovations presented here, just as it did with Lucas' Star Wars and Cameron's own Terminator 2 and The Abyss, what's left is a movie with a lot of flat dialogue and story points ripped off from superior sources. I would be lying to you if I said I didn't feel the same sense of exhiliration when I left the screening of Avatar as my 5-year-old self did when leaving the theater in 1977 after seeing Star Wars for the first time. But twenty years from now when I refer the next generation to Avatar as a landmark achievement in special effects, I expect to get much of the same reaction I do now when speaking of Star Wars, "What's the big deal?"


Jake said...

I actually think The Abyss has held up well (his longer cut, at least, which fixes most of the problems) and ranks with The Terminator and Aliens in their ability to distract from his weaknesses as a writer with sheer pace and adrenaline.

As for this, the technology may indeed be commonplace, but I don't think we can dismiss its visuals. Avatar, far more than any other action blockbuster, approaches a sort of tone poetry with the visuals. The story often gets in the way -- how is it that he told us everything we needed to know in ten minutes and then dragged this thing out for 2-1/2 hours? -- but when Cameron deigns to let a moment pass in silence and wonder, it recalls Baraka.

The technology of Star Wars became commonplace too, but it's still one of the great works of fantasy even though the story, like Avatar's, is culled from Joseph Campbell and the stories Cameron liked as a youngster, and I think that Avatar could be this generation's Star Wars. That's not as effusive as it sounds, said by the 20-year-old who watched Star Wars in a film class and felt some part of his lingering 5-year-old self dies amidst the inexplicable crap British accents and brutal expository moments. But this is such a work of visual innovation and imagination that it doesn't matter, or at least matters less. I'm not its biggest supporter by any stretch, but at times Avatar overwhelmed me like no other film.

Tony Dayoub said...

I don't think our viewpoints are too different, Jake. I do like THE ABYSS a lot, and I think it holds up best of his earlier films, if not necessarily well.

I want to clarify that I never stated the tech was already commonplace, simply that its innovation won't last long and will soon become commonplace. I didn't see the poetry in the visuals as "far more than any other action blockbuster." See LORD OF THE RINGS. But Cameron does take time out of the action to allow the film (and the effects) to breathe with some nice moments, something often forgotten in films of this ilk.

As for your reference to STAR WARS as one of the great works of fantasy, there was a time I would have agreed with you. But its recent overexposure converging with Lucas' inability to let the movie exist in its original form have contributed to the franchise's ever diminishing returns.

Ultimately, I do think AVATAR is a must-see, with the disclaimer that I don't believe it will always be so.

Jake said...

I meant to say "become" commonplace, not "be," so if it came across as misreading, that's my bad. As for LOTR, I think there's a majesty to those films to be sure, but I would place Avatar, visually, above it. As for Star Wars, I don't think the prequels taint the originals, though one could spot the flaws of the film had Lucas never gone back to the saga. Though, when I brought up the Star Wars comparison in another blog, the writer was shocked that I would compare Avatar to the boring exploits of Padme and Anakin. He thought I was talking about the prequels. Oh what sad times are these.

Ryan McNeil said...

I'm intrested that you point to STAR WARS and T2 as examples of films driven by effects. Sure, when they first came out we were all blown away by the cinematic trickery we were watching...but I think in each case, the story was good enough to allow them to endure.

Neither one gives us a story for the ages, but both give stories that work with the sfx to create a memorable movie. I think T2, STAR WARS, and AVATAR have more in common with KING KONG, and less with TRON.

Great review - very insightful. I vote that we all come back to this movie in five years and see if our stupor is still at a fever pitch!

Tony Dayoub said...

Unfortunately Mad Hatter, I'm finding that STAR WARS and T2 are harder to sit through now than when they were first released. With the effects less glorious now than before, the trite dialogue really gets harder to overlook.

Ryan McNeil said...

@ Tony... Interesting. I still dig the original trilogy and T1/T2.

Different strokes I guess.

Jean said...

Found the film visually aressting but overall it was quite a letdown esp since the narrative was cliche as hell.

Sam Juliano said...

"Okay. It's not that Avatar should be ranked on any end-of-the-year "best" lists, to be sure."

Why not, pray tell? The New York Critics Online Association just named it best film of 2009, and their number contains some excellent critics who almost never choose the commercial blockbusters. Manohla Dargis, the NEW YORK TIMES'S extremely discerning critic, who favors independent and foreign language cinema by leaps and bounds, just issued probably the biggest rave she;s issued this year. But that's just the tip of the iceberg in the grand scheme. As far as it being remembered in the future, that criteria could be applied to each and every release this year in any genre or any form. Will INGLORIOUS BASTERDS be remembered 20 years from now? Will BRIGHT STAR be remembered in that span? How about UP IN THE AIR? What chance does 35 SHOTS OF RUM or SUMMER HOURS have? Will A SERIOUS MAN or DISTRICT 9 be remembered? The technology employed here is neither longer lasting or shorter lasting than any other film that uses whatever technology, or even if the work is just a drama playe dout on a bare stage. The evaluation made now is not one for a short window, but for the long haul. People do lose enthusiasm for films, as something like AMERICAN BEAUTY can attest, but I would never use the argument to temper one's present views.
Let's judge this film the same way we'd judge BRIGHT STAR, ANTICHRIST or TOKYO SONATA when it comes to artistic posterity.
And to judge the narrative as "cliche" as Jean does is to miss the whole point. The film was a visual experience, where dialogue and much of the narrative was mainly symbolic. If you didn't feel the magic that's fine--everyone reacts differently, and has varying taste and value judgement, but perceived flaws here in my view are anything but.

Tony, I saw the film in 2D and thought it was a masterpiece? What did I miss? I am going again tonight to see the 3D version with a friend and two of my kids who want to go again.

This was quite a great review and a fascinating read that I hung with every word on. But as far as this:

"And it is for this reason that Avatar cannot reside in the pantheon of great films. Once technology catches....."

I completely reject it. This film is all about deep emotion, and that transcends anyh technical matters.

Please Tony, don't be upset with me. I like you and like your site, which is a part of my blog roll, but I feel I needed to mount an impassioned defense for what may be the film of the year. (and mind you I favor foreign and independents prodominately and almost always reject populist cinema.)

Tony Dayoub said...

I am never offended when someone passionately but politely debates me on this or any forum, so speak freely.

As for AVATAR, I truly think that from a design as well as a technological perspective this film is destined to look rather dated in ways that some of the best science fiction films still don't. I'm thinking of 2001 and BLADE RUNNER which, pesky defunct company logos aside, still look like they could have been made yesterday.

I also don't see the depth that many critics seem to, critics which have compared the film to Malick's amongst others. THE NEW WORLD never approached the shallowness I felt when watching this movie basically use the Joseph Campbell 101-template to form the core of its story. The fact that it only took me one viewing to see it as a vastly inferior riff on DUNE (again, the novel... not the flawed Lynch film) was sufficient for me to recognize the film's lack of originality storywise.

HOWEVER, if it doesn't come across in my review, I still highly recommend it as a must-see. For anyone in love with the communal experience of watching a large-scale epic, this is going to be the only show in town for quite some time. And I was exhilarated by the experience as I left the theater, a rarity these days.

Though I know you stand by it as a 2-D piece, I still stand by my argument that it MUST be seen in 3-D. It is simply an essential component to the experience Cameron is aiming for (which is a stroke of genius I must admit). That is... the viewer can only FULLY (notice the preceding adverb) identify with Jake Sully if he/she is as immersed in the virtual reality of Cameron's world as Sully is in the virtual world he experiences through his avatar.

So even if I don't think the film itself is destined to be a classic, I do think it will be remembered as a technological landmark and as a unique moviegoing experience.

PS: Other critics opinions don't hold much water with me in these debates. Frequently they are riding a zeitgeist wave that, years down the road, they often acknowledge themselves. AMERICAN BEAUTY is one I and many others fell for as you brought up.

PSS: Of the other films you mentioned, I do tend to think INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, SERIOUS MAN, and SUMMER HOURS (and maybe BRIGHT STAR... maybe) will be remembered 20 years from now. Can't speak for the Denis film or TOKYO SONATA since I've yet to see those, but I would lump all the other ones you mentioned along with AVATAR as sort of shallow and faddish on reexamination.

Sam Juliano said...

Excellent response Tony, and thanks for the graciousness. I know I use that critics' trump card, and it's true that a number will ride along, but there does seem to be quite a strong reaction with people who rarely even give such cinema more than a cursory assessment. We'll have to see how it all pans out over time. Hav eyou published your 2009 list yet? Am I losing it? Ha!

Tony Dayoub said...

No, haven't published it yet. I think it will come out in January after I've had time to assess some notable films that are still MIA in these parts like THE LOVELY BONES, NINE, and A SINGLE MAN.

BTW, I think you'd be surprised to know that science fiction was my gateway into cinema. Maybe that's why I'm harder on it than most people are. But you're talking to a lifelong Trekkie here (and one who is self-aware enough to realize that series' limitations also).

Stephen said...

A good point Tony about it becoming dated but it isn't the technology that matters but what it is used for.

Avatar is beautiful and will continue to be so even when the technology is commonplace.

I thought the story was so mundane as to become invisible - but the flesh around those bare

If you're interested I've written my own thoughts - not all complimentary - here:

Tony Dayoub said...

Loved your post, and your response to the film is not so far afield from mine.

"A good point Tony about it becoming dated but it isn't the technology that matters but what it is used for.

Avatar is beautiful and will continue to be so even when the technology is commonplace.

I thought the story was so mundane as to become invisible - but the flesh around those bare"

Yes, but my point is that years from now, when the effects are "mundane" or even dated, the limitations of those "bare bones" will be fairly pronounced.

Try watching Star Wars now without snickering at the trite dialogue. Meanwhile, you could snicker at Star Trek's cardboard sets, and even Shatner's hammy acting, but the cast chemistry and imaginative storytelling of the original series, at least, have stood the test of time.

Jason Bellamy said...

So I just circled back to your review, having finally seen the film in both formats and writing my own analysis, and, wow, we're very close on this one.

It certainly wasn't hyperbole in my review when I say I was stunned at how flat and unimpressive the 2-D version feels. I'd already hoped to see the film again in 3-D, but now I must, so as to experience the film one last time (probably) before it goes away in its intended format.

I think the only place we disagree is in the amount of time it will take for Avatar to seem dated. Considering the expense involved, it'll probably seem cutting edge for maybe five more years, but no more than 10.

Credit to Cameron: He got into this new 3-D craze at just the right time. This was a land grab in which he couldn't afford to be second; not if he wanted us to thrill to the discovery.

Tony Dayoub said...

"I think the only place we disagree is in the amount of time it will take for Avatar to seem dated. Considering the expense involved, it'll probably seem cutting edge for maybe five more years, but no more than 10."

I was only being arbitrary about the number of years, Jason. I think you're correct about the timeframe. For example, ESPN and Discovery Channel plan on launching 3D channels between this year and next.

And Panasonic is working with Cameron on making AVATAR the first 3D Blu-ray release. So don't worry about it going away. Cameron's got a solid instinct for making money.

Whitney said...


I love your reviews and usually agree with you. Not this time. You may be right that for some reason Avatar will get lost somehow in the future and not remembered as such a legendary epic as Star Wars...but it should. I think it has ENORMOUS depth and don't understand why you didn't connect to it as some of us have. What I think Dune was missing was that emotional connection. I never got into Dune because there was an emotional vacancy to the film...I read the book and never felt anything from that film and I wanted me. Avatar is both masterful in the technology and the story is amazing. As an anthropologist you think I would have thought the storyline a bit cheesy and overdone...and maybe it could have been but no one is talking about the amazing acting in this film. Sam Worthington took what could have been a overdone narrative and took us there with the help of Cameron and the technology. Sam carried this movie. I though the acting was brilliant. Maybe because it was "animation" no one wants to see how the actors helped make this film so successful.

I think this was one of the best films I have ever seen. There it is....I admit it. I LOVED it. It was just as good in 2D as it was in 3D. But for some reason loving this film isn't really cool right now. No one wants to admit how really amazing this film was. I will. It was fucking amazing.

Tony Dayoub said...

Thanks for your comments, Debra. Taking some of the points you make one by one:

I did say DUNE was an inferior film adaptation of a great novel. I was simply trying to use the novel's story to emphasize the lack of originality in AVATAR even when compared to other sci-fi stories, since most of its detractors have been relying too much on the stock examples of DANCES WITH WOLVES and POCAHONTAS/THE NEW WORLD to demonstrate this. I found the story to be a little to Joseph Campbell 101.

You're right about Sam Worthington. He impressed me in another science fiction movie many slammed, TERMINATOR: SALVATION. He carried that movie. Looks like he'll be doing the same in the new CLASH OF THE TITANS remake (private to Sam: alright guy, it's time to get your agent to do some real work, and get you some emotionally complex roles).

Now, don't get me wrong. I don't see the depth that you refer to, but this film is important for its technological innovations. And as more time has passed, I'm convinced Cameron deliberately chose a basic mythological story template that would have some resonance to free him up to do his heavy lifting in the visual effects department. So I think of the film as the best "Visual Effects Test Reel" ever produced. We'll see some years down the road how this film holds up.

Thanks for your comments, though. I'm sure my fellow blogger, Sam (who defended the movie so strongly above), is ecstatic to have an anthropologist backing up his side of the debate. But seriously, your qualified perspective reframes the argument somewhat.