Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Movie Review: Avatar

Avatar

Directed by James Cameron

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigorney Weaver, Stephen Lang

Rated PG-13 for epic battle sequences and warfare

Avatar was released two years ago. Why review it now, or at all? Because it turned out to be a game-changer in the movie genre; it isn't hyperbole to say that this is one of the most significant movies of the past ten years. As far as cultural impact goes, this ranks up there with other influential and often-emulated sci-fi fare like The Matrix and Terminator 2: Judgment Day, and may even surpass them on some level. On the other hand, the movie has been out long enough and been seen by enough people that the need for a review is almost nil. While this is technically a review of sorts, consider it more my thoughts and musings on the highest-grossing movie of all time and on James Cameron's work in general.



First of all, the visuals in this movie are outright breathtaking. No other word adequately describes them. The color blue is extremely prevalent throughout the movie, something that is also noticeable in movies like Terminator 2 and Aliens. Somehow, this movie seamlessly combines real-world imagery with state of the art CGI, and if that weren't enough it perfected the previously un-perfected usage of 3D in a theater. In essence, it's almost like a video game in movie form. 3D is, more often than not, an unnecessary tack-on in the cinemaverse, but Avatar actually uses it to great effect. Watching it on blu-ray at home without the 3D isn't quite as impactful, but the movie still manages to wow.



Cameron is no stranger to reinventing special effects; Aliens broke new ground in animatronics, Abyss introduced the world to "morphamation", and Terminator 2 perfected said effect with CGI that was twenty years ahead of its time. Today, people are saying that Avatar has changed the face of special effects in cinema and ushered in a new era. I disagree. Avatar is in a league of its own and stands alone. It isn't the forerunner of a new era, it's simply that far ahead of its time. That new era might come along in a decade or two. Case in point: Terminator 2 was released in 1991 and has superior CGI to most of the movies released in the 00's. What Avatar does do is give us a glimpse of the future.



Side note: Notice how nearly all of Cameron's movies start with either T or A? Between that and the color blue being so common in his movies, Cameron definitely has his own patterns. There are exceptions to the lettering, of course, like Cameron's 1981 film Pirahna 2: The Spawning, best known for being total Oscar bait. No, that's a real movie. Look it up. For the most part, though, he loves those two letters.


There are a lot of tough female characters in movies these days. And they're all played by Michelle Rodriguez.

In any case, Avatar may well be the most significant movie for special effects -since- Terminator 2. Special effects aside, it's debatably the most significant James Cameron movie since then. Titanic what? No, I mostly kid...mostly. Titanic was pretty good. The fact that it held the title of worldwide highest-grossing movie until Avatar broke that record makes it obvious how James Cameron's ego got so huge. Then again, he also married Linda Hamilton. That would inflate my ego to massive proportions too. Cameron nearly won a Best Picture Oscar for Avatar; this may have caused his ego to explode like a balloon. Luckily, crisis was averted when The Hurt Locker edged out Avatar for the win. It should be noted that The Hurt Locker was directed by another of James Cameron's ex-wives. It should also be noted that while commercial success-wise it wasn't even on the same planet as Avatar, The Hurt Locker is incredibly well-done and deserved the win. Seriously, go watch The Hurt Locker right now. I'll wait.


Special mention needs to be made of Stephen Lang's performance as the tough-as-nails Colonel Miles Quaritch. In a movie full of memorable characters, the villain is perhaps the most memorable of all.

So, we've established that Avatar has trendsetting visual effects and was a pop culture and moneymaking juggernaut. But what about the movie itself? Is the story any good? The short answer is, yes. The problem the movie has in the review-verse is that it's divisive. There are reviews out there that say the story is utter trash, and there are reviews that say it's brilliant. Different people can see different things while looking at the same picture, clearly. My view is that it isn't brilliant but it isn't trash either. It's above-average plot-wise and the special effects bump it up a bit past that. It's a fairly simple story with a unique concept: people mind-meld with large blue humanoids and control their bodies from afar, effectively becoming them. This opens new doors for humans in the exploration of a newly-discovered forest moon orbiting a distant planet, as it allows humans to traverse it without asphyxiation. Of course, humans being humans, conflict soon breaks out when the military-industrial complex rears its giant, metal head.

Big shout-out to Hideo Kojima.



The story escalates rapidly and the third act is especially jarring; not since District 9 has a movie hit the audience over the head with the idea that humans can be complete dicks. Strong parallels can drawn between the story of this movie and the 2003 Iraq War, and similar parallels can be drawn with the initial colonization of North America by European settlers. The movie does not even attempt to be subtle about any of this, and one scene later on has the villain making a speech that almost word-for-word sounds like a George W. Bush State of the Union Address. The whole story is intense and - dare I say it - relevant. President Dwight Eisenhower might have approved of the overall message of the story here, which is that the military-industrial complex can't be relied on to show mercy and is dangerous when allowed to run amuck. This movie carries an anti-war message as strong as Terminator 2's anti-nuke message all those years ago.


The plot takes heavily from many other sources; James Cameron has never been known for being wholly original. The Outer Limits scandal back in the 80's showed that right off the bat, when Cameron got sued by Harlan Ellison because the opening of Terminator looks exactly like an Outer Limits episode. The guy tells some great stories, but the idea-theft reaches a new high here. Avatar lifts ideas from (ahem, pays homage to) everything from Dances With Wolves to his own movie Aliens. I guess if it's his own movie it really is an homage, but when you have Dances With Wolves flashbacks every few minutes it detracts a bit from the story you're watching being able to stand on its own.

Speaking of standing on one's own, the Avatar concept gets humanized early in the movie when Sam Worthington's character, paralyzed from the waist down, gets to run around as a fully healthy avatar. This might be the most heartfelt scene in the whole movie, as he squeezes the dirt with his toes and yells triumphantly.

Considering this movie takes place on a distant world, it sure does have a lot of humanity.

3 comments:

  1. I totally disagree with you about this movie, dude.

    I'd give avatar a 1 mostly because I think they focused WAY too much on making the movie a spectacle rather than actually telling a story.

    It is indeed the most expensive movie ever made. The graphics are cool, but there are no actual characters and the writing tries too damn hard to the point whereit's basically melodrama.

    I love T2 and Alien and the main difference is that both of those films are focused on character over anything else. Yes, T2 is a robot action movie and yes, Alien is a space horror movie. But, every character in each movie is what's best about them. Not that there's GREAT writing in those movies, but they work.

    I think Avatar doesn't. They tried too hard to make the movie look flashy and tug at heart strings when the movie itself has no heart. I agree with Avatar's anti-miltary, anti-imperial message. But, it's too heavy-handed and also I don't think most people who saw Avatar cared at all about it. That's not just because the majority of Americans are stupid, but because the message, despite being super upfront, doesn't get communicated at all because when you're too heavy-handed about a message or idea in a movie, it becomes meaningless. That, and it gets lost in the spectacle and the overwriting.

    Avatar, to me, is only creative in how it looks. I could care less about an unoriginal story. Everything is borrowed, man. Every story is unoriginal in some way. But, this movie's story feels super played out to us (causing just about everyone to recall other movies Cameron borrowed from for its concept) because those other movies told a better story.

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  2. Nick makes great points. I gave the film a 3/5, and here's my own review from two years ago.
    http://jsmyth.wordpress.com/2010/01/26/could-avatar-really-win-best-picture/

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  3. If there's an argument to be made for watering down and simplifying a message to make it reach the masses, Avatar is it.

    For the rest of us, I wonder how well the CG will stand the test of time. Most of those alien animals look less realistic than the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park.

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