There hasn't been a movie as hyped as Avatar in years, especially when it comes to its alleged technological achievements. We've choked down months and months of increasingly grandiose statements expounding this movie's awesomeness from both the filmmakers and random movie industry shmoes. Of course, promoting a movie is part of their jobs. But there comes a point when hyperbole-based marketing becomes abject absurdity... unless the movie actually does lives up to the hype. So I thought that the best way to review Avatar is to compare and contrast this hype (featuring the actual statements) with my experience in the theater. Let's start with the "King of the World" himself, James Cameron! Take it away, Jimmy!
"...It's not really like any other film, and I think that's its greatest asset—and its greatest deficit. You can't compare it to something else."
-James Cameron, writer/producer/director. 12/08/09
I'm not exactly sure what James meant here, but he certainly couldn't be talking about the plot. To illustrate, let's start with a plot synopsis:
In the future, a really valuable substance is found in plentiful quantities on the extra-solar planet, Pandora. There's lots of this junk under a village occupied by the Na'vi, a pre-industrial race of blue cat-people, and the evil corporation mining the planet wants to evict them. Turns out the blue cat-people don't take kindly to strangers, so the corporation tries to create diplomatic ties via Avatars, remote-controlled human-Na'vi genetic hybrids. Enter Jake Sulley, a paraplegic Marine vet, who comes to the planet with the promise of getting spinal surgery for his cooperation. Operating through his Avatar, Jake finds himself in the midst of the Na'vi. A blue cat-woman takes Jake under her wing to show him the ropes. Of course, he falls in love with her, realizes the evil of the corporation, and fights with the Na'vi to ensure the integrity not only of their race, but also of Pandora itself.
If the basic premise sounds familiar (an outsider who becomes part of the tribe and turns against the evils of his own people), that's because it is. Many have compared the plot of this movie to Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai. I haven't seen either so I don't know, but I do know that I feel like I've seen this premise countless times before. I bet there's even a Captain Planet episode based on this. It's not a particularly bad plot... it's just a little too similar to what you've already seen.
"I believe 'Avatar' will be to 3D what 'The Wizard of Oz' was to color. It was a seminal moment. If you go back and look, not only did 'The Wizard of Oz' use color it used it in such an exciting and compelling way, that's where the floodgates opened."
-Jeffrey Katzenberg, after the 3D Entertainment Summit. 9/17/2009
Sorry Jeff, Avatar's 3D was a wash for me. The 3D effects were effective at best (like the deep-space ship interior), distractingly disfunctional at worst (pretty much whenever something was really "close" to the camera, like those floating spores), and never particularly impressive. I saw nothing to justify my additional $3 expenditure. Maybe my local theater isn't optimal for the movie; it doesn't have stadium seating, which might work better with 3D movies. But if that's the case, then the 3D technology is so conditional that it's effectively worthless. If this is the best they can muster for a 3D movie, then I'll save my money and catch a normal viewing.
The digital elements of 'Avatar'... are so believable that, even when they exist alongside human actors, the audience will lose track of what is real and what is not.
-James Cameron, writer/producer/director. 10/26/2009
I'll give you this one, Jim. The effects were fantastic and there were a few shots in which the Na'vi characters really did look real. That's because the characters emoted almost perfectly, and the blend between the real and the CGI was seamless.
That said, the creature designs left much to be desired. While the facial features of the Na'vi were spot-on, the rest of their bodies were just the same spindly aliens we've seen countless times before. And the monsters of Pandora were a mixed bag. The six-limbed land animals looked like rejects from the Star Wars Prequels. And despite their drastically different 6-limbed body plan, they moved just as a quadruped on Earth moves, except with the two sets of legs in the front moving in unison. That seems like lazy character animation to me.
That's not to say that all the creatures sucked. The flying reptiles (which had four wings instead of two) not only looked awesome, but the extra wings had a purpose, namely steering. The utility of the additional feature justified its existence, which was not the case with the extra limbs of the land animals.
Speaking of CGI, I have to address the Pandoran environment. The forest had so much bioluminescence that it's like Thomas Kinkade barfed on the Amazonian jungle. And what's the deal with the floating mountains? Why and how do they float? Why don't the Na'vi float when they're standing on the mountains? Maybe I'm thinking too much about the biology and the physics of the movie, but isn't science fiction supposed to be based on science?
Jim Gianopoulos said there are about six scenes that just blow him away every time he sees them.
-Jim Gianopoulos, 20th Century Fox co-chairman. 11/12/2009
I'm not so sure about six scenes, but there are a few that are undeniably sweet. Without giving too much away, I'll say that the attack on the Na'vi village was cool. And the final battle was crazy awesome, with lots of explosions and creature mauling. There was also a scene with a pack of attacking predators that was legitimately scary. Other than that? Hm... I'm drawing a blank.
Let's not forget that the movie was waaaay too long. Come on, people, edit this thing together into something cohesive. And the dialog, especially that of the evil Marine bad guy, was so bad that it seemed like Trey Parker and Matt Stone wrote the screenplay as a goof.
I admit I was digging Avatar while I was watching it. But the more I thought about it the less I liked it. I was planning on giving it a 3-score before I wrote the review, but I realized afterwards that I really don't have much to say about it that's particularly good. However, I seem to be in the minority here; Avatar currently has a pretty good rating of 84% over at Rotten Tomatoes. It's movies like Avatar that show just how distant my movie preferences are with the film critics and average movie goers.