Sunday, December 20, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar (2009) - 3 1/2 stars

It's very hard for me to express just how delighted I am that James Cameron's Avatar is in the thick of this year's Oscar race. It is enjoyable, mainstream filmmaking at its finest, and rarely do we see films like these competing for Oscars, but with the Best Picture expansion to ten nominees, this is something we could see more of in the coming years. With Avatar, Cameron, a very confident filmmaker, has undoubtedly shown the vast potential for 3D filmmaking. He takes a decent (at best) story and creates a wholly immersive experience with visual effects that are sure to hypnotize audiences across the world.

Cameron transports us into the year 2154. The planet is called Pandora, and two groups of species are fighting over the land: the humans and the Na'vi. Pandora is home to a rare mineral named Unobtainium, a substance that could seemingly solve the energy crisis back on Earth. Because it is assumed that humans in 2154 are no more energy-concerned then they are in the present day, the Na'vi, a group that honors nature to a very high degree, make for a fascinating contrast. 

It seems that communication between the humans and the Na'vi has been inefficient for years, but with the introduction of a new program, there is hopefully room for improvement. The new institution is called the Avatar Program and it was created by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). The program consists of mixing the DNA of both the humans and the Na'vi to create a body that can successfully communicate with the natives. These bodies act solely based on the minds of Grace's employees, and when one of her most promising workers is killed, his twin brother is called upon. 

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is the paraplegic Marine that is in fact called to duty on Pandora when his twin brother passes away. He has absolutely no experience with the Avatar program, and his introduction makes Dr. Augustine unhappy, particularly because his brother has been so dedicated to the program for so many years. However, she doesn't really have a choice, and is forced to see what kind of contribution Jake can make. 

As it turns out, Jake's free-wheeling spirit ends up putting his avatar in a very interesting situation as he begins to form a relationship with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana). Neytiri convinces her parents to keep Jake alive, and she is enlisted to teach him the ways of the Na'vi. Jake learns of their intense belief in gods and nature, their ritualistic ceremonies, and their complex hunting practices. He realizes that the Na'vi are not the savages his commanders think they are, but rather a delicate species that deserve to have a peaceful land of their own. 

As Jake begins to become closer and closer to Neytiri and the entire Na'vi people, his human commanders become more and more hostile. The violent Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, in irresistible form) reminds Jake of the little time he has left before all out war becomes a reality. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the business man of the bunch, is a money-hungry negotiator losing more and more confidence in Jake every day. The pressure is mounting and it is up to Jake to decide where his true loyalty lies. 

The core of Cameron's story here is very familiar. We have seen films that deal with similar subject matter, but never have we seen a film bring its story to life quite like this. Cameron's Pandora is a truly beautiful place, exactly the type of setting that audiences can stare at for 162 minutes and never be bored. This visionary of a director brings the possibilities of 3D to the front of the stage and makes one hell of an argument that this could be the future of cinema. 

Perhaps Avatar is a movie that will be defined by its future impact more than anything else. It has finally arrived, it is here, and it has delivered. It will likely receive a Best Picture nomination and Cameron has a strong shot at winning Best Director, but this is a film that strives to do much more than succeed in the present moment; it strives to impact the filmmaking process well beyond its years.

I implore everyone to see this film. This isn't a festival film about a pregnant Harlem teenager or a film about a corrupt, drug-addicted detective; it is a film for all audiences. The reason why movies are so appealing is because audiences want to be transported into another world. They want to be moved and entranced by the visual presence of a film, and Cameron has hit the bullseye. Once again. 


Alfindeol said...

You nailed it here. Anyone who see's Avatar for the story has clearly missed the point.

I actually found it better than tolerable though. At least it touched on some interesting concepts. I really liked the natural network idea.

Danny King said...

@ Alfindeol: Agreed. The environmental aspects that were brought up were also very interesting to me, even if they were overdone a little bit.

Chase Kahn said...

I think it's naive to state that, "the story doesn't matter" or "if you came to see a good story, you're in the wrong movie", etc, etc.

Cameron's script is so elementary in its characterizations, its dialogue, its plotting. There isn't a surprise on screen for 160 minutes and its cliched and cheesy as all get out.

It is visually stunning - the first 3D film that really didn't look like a bunch of cardboard cutouts that induce eye-strain, and the last 40 minutes are visceral and you almost forget you're watching it in 3D, you slip into it.

I wrote a couple of days ago that "Avatar" is like the white bread of movies - when you're making sandwiches for a group of people, you don't serve them on Artisan Rye bread, you serve it on what the majority of people will be able to agree with. The common medium.

And everyone likes white bread, kids, adults, old people - it's safe, it's an easy-fix and it gets the job done and "Avatar" achieves this to a certain extent.

By the way, I like your site - I'll be visiting more often, hopefully in a more congratulatory, agreeable manner. ;)

Danny King said...

@ Chase Kahn: Thanks for the comment, and I look forward to hearing from you more. And don't worry about it, opposing opinions are always welcome.

Your criticism is the one I've been hearing the most, and it certainly does carry some weight. I think your "white bread" comparison is right on. Cameron sees himself as a mainstream filmmaker, and he likes to make films that will appeal to the masses. In achieving that goal, I think it is valid to say that his scripts are somewhat safe and cheesy, but there is obviously something about a Cameron film that draws audiences in more than any other mainstream efforts. I think he acknowledges the fact that one of the reasons people go to the movies is to disappear into the on-screen universe, or, like you mentioned, "slip into it." While Cameron's script may not be anything extraordinary, there is something special about the theater experience he has created here.

The Mad Hatter said...

It is a film for all audiences. The reason why movies are so appealing is because audiences want to be transported into another world. They want to be moved and entranced by the visual presence of a film...

Well said. By the way, I have to mention that I don't see this film as entirely "storyless". There's a lot going on with tones of environmentalism and anti-imperialism. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't award the sucker best Original Screenplay...but it's far above more brainless fun of this scale that we all seem to eat up.

Danny King said...

@ The Mad Hatter: I can certainly acknowledge the environmental tones. I thought they were slightly overdone, but effective nonetheless. I think it is more thought-provoking than most naysayers are giving it credit for. While it is mainly a visual achievement, I do agree that the script is just fine on its own.

The Mad Hatter said...

@ Danny... Agreed. I guess what I'm thinking is that the script is as good as it needs to be. It lets us enjoy the brilliance of the effects without completely insulting us along the way.

Midgard Dragon said...

I can't see how anyone could have liked this movie. It was one of the most cliched and worst stories ever, and the most over-hyped movie behind the dark knight. Didn't Nolan know that after making a ton of money Titanic he didn't have to make another movie that bores audiences to death and reduces their IQ twofold in the process

Midgard Dragon said...

Sorry I meant Cameron, not Nolan. But then again, they are alike since they both get way too big of budgets for the crap that they turn out

Danny King said...

@ Midgard Dragon: To simply compare Nolan and Cameron in terms of the budgets they work with isn't very logical. First of all, Nolan has made several films -- Following, Memento, The Prestige -- with very modest budgets, and they were all well-received. Second of all, while Cameron and Nolan (particularly in his "Batman" series) rely on a stunning visceral experience, Nolan is a much more polished, visionary screenwriter and storyteller -- his scripts have zero cliche. I agree that Avatar's script has moments of cliche, but to put it among the "worst stories ever" is just being overly-cynical.

Both of these filmmakers have proved there is no number for them that is "too big of [a budget]." Their most recent films have both grossed over $1 billion worldwide -- Avatar having achieved that in less than three weeks. So I hate to break it to you, but it looks like you're going to have to sit through more of their "crap" in the coming years.

And one more thing: These films have been just as successful critically as they have been commercially, so I'm not sure where the hate comes from. If you don't have a personal reaction to it, that's fine, but it's tough to take an opinion seriously that degrades these cinematic achievements to "crap" and questions "how anyone could have liked [these movies]."

Midgard Dragon said...

Your not God, everyone can have their own opinion. Your just a writer of a movie blog a-hole.

Danny King said...

@ Midgard Dragon: Opposing views are always welcome, but if you're going to be so harsh and cynical about it, please have the decency to defend it a little bit better than, "Your not God." If you don't care to do that, why even post your opinion?

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