Avatar

Saw Avatar earlier tonight.

Short review: Wow! What a great movie!

Slightly longer review: OMG! What a freaking awesome movie!!

Longer review, with no spoliers (!!) below the fold.

James Cameron’s movies tend to be visually spectacular but short on plot. Titanic coms to mind. The part where the ship actually sinks was pretty cool. The other parts, where paper-thin characters say implausible things to each other, was less so.

Avatar was very much in that mold. Its just that “visually spectacular” really does not do the film justice. It is simply amazing. Strikingly beautiful with lots of imagination and scrupulous attention to detail. If one of the hallmarks of good science fiction is plausible world-creation, then this film is a home run.

Frankly, a complex, nuanced plot would only have been a distraction. Who wants to be bothered with elaborate character studies when you have a cool world to explore? It’s like bringing your homework to the Grand Canyon. Yeah, yeah, yeah, love story this and cliched evil military guy that. Whatever. Show me more of those hammerhead rhino dudes and the pterodactyl thingums. Now, that’s the stuff!

And the action sequences! Holy crap!! They were more realistic and believable than a lot of what you see in live-action films. So many action movies these days fail to observe the distinction between action and chaos. They think shaking the camera and making the action scenes a chaotic mess somehow makes them more exciting. Instead it just makes them frustrating and confusing and liable to cause motion sickness. But here, even during the most complex action scenes you could follow every detail. Every stunning, beautifully choreographed detail.

I saw the film in 3D, which was pretty cool. To be honest, though, I doubt the film would lose much in 2D. For the first half hour or so of the movie I found the 3D a little hard to get used to. I started to get that, “I have to close my eyes for a minure” feeling I get after trying too hard to get one of those Magic Eye drawings to come into focus. But then I adjusted, and for the rest of the movie I had no problem.

Anyway, between this and Sherlock Holmes it looks like I’m two for two with end of year movies. Still have Nine (sadly not yet at my local theater) and Up in the Air to go…

Comments

  1. #1 Christian A.
    December 30, 2009

    Hello Jason,

    You wrote:
    “So many action movies these days fail to observe the distinction between action and chaos. They think shaking the camera and making the action scenes a chaotic mess somehow makes them more exciting. Instead it just makes them frustrating and confusing and liable to cause motion sickness.”
    May I use this piece to complete profiles, signatures etc.? I think it is the best description of current action movies thats possible, and I couldn’t agree more. Let me just add that I think that shaky cam is used to hide bad action scene choreography (by blurring all the bad cuts that are used to hide that the actors can’t Kung-Fu for shit).

  2. #2 Jeff Hebert
    December 30, 2009

    So it’s not a very good story, but it’s pretty, so that equals awesome? I read some version of this review every day and I just don’t get it. If it’s a lame story, it’s a lame story no matter how pretty it looks. And this is a lame story.

    Yes, to be good, science fiction needs to have good world building, which aside from a consistent visual design, this movie does not do.

    I don’t want to spoil it for people who haven’t seen it yet, but there are some pretty gaping plot holes that just ruin the story for me. Regarding the ending (which is a spectacularly directed sequence, don’t get me wrong), do the words “long range missile” have any meaning for you? I mean, seriously.

    The plot is basically “Dances With Wolves”, but what makes that movie work is the audience’s knowledge of the doom that ultimately awaits the Native Americans. It gives the whole thing a tragic, noble undertone that heightens the sweetness of discovery. On the other hand, the way they ultimately save Kevin Coster’s character (both physically and psychologically) helps take it out of the “White Man Saves The Savages” mode.

    “Avatar” does none of this. We never really know why he does what he does at any point of the narrative, we’re just asked to accept it. Why did he become a soldier while his twin became a scientist? That’s important, but we’re left to guess. Heck, why does he do ANYTHING? Again, no clue.

    And let’s face it, no matter what, if you’ve got a planet full of “Unobtanium” (Worst Name Ever) that sells for that much, nothing is going to stop someone from bombarding the surface from orbit and strip-mining the sucker.

    As far as the visuals go, yes they’re nice, but I was far FAR more immersed in the world of the Incredibles, or Iron Giant, or any of a half dozen RPGs. Or “Myst” for that matter.

    The only two things that truly stood out for me were a) the facial animation, which was really good and b) the fight sequences, which were masterfully directed. Other than that, you’re left with a C-grade story told with nice, but unexceptional graphics.

    I fully acknowledge that I am, apparently, the only person in the universe who didn’t LOVE this movie, but the constant reviews of “lame story and acting and stuff but it’s so pretty I LOVED IT!” There’s more to a good movie and good sci-fi than visuals, and this film has none of it.

  3. #3 Bayesian Bouffant, FCD
    December 30, 2009

    James Cameron’s movies tend to be visually spectacular but short on plot…

    Avatar had plenty of plot. It just wasn’t original. Perhaps if you search on the phrase Dances with Na’vi it will ring some bells.

    Up in the Air is pretty good. It may be the second-best movie of the year with Up in the title.

  4. #4 jim1950a
    December 30, 2009

    Ay, it’s just a cartoon.

  5. #5 James K
    December 30, 2009

    “If one of the hallmarks of good science fiction is plausible world-creation, then this film is a home run.”

    Floating mountains?

  6. #6 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 30, 2009

    But Jeff, it wasn’t just pretty. It was really, really pretty.

  7. #7 FTFKDad
    December 30, 2009

    … and in IMAX 3D it is super-awesome-amazing-outstandingly-fabulously pretty!

  8. #8 Badger3k
    December 30, 2009

    Floating mountains are, according to Mooney at the Intersection, a product of superconducting metal that floats in a magnetic field (IIRC), although how this intense field does not affect the Earthlings equipment (and perhaps the thought transferrance process – haven’t seen the movie so I have no idea how that is supposed to work – hopefully not transmissions from a base station, that would be stupid) – eh, who knows. I do have to add that other than cost, the main reason I haven’t seen the film is all the “The effects are cool but the story sucks, so go see it” reviews i’ve read. Well, that and Cameron’s pseudoscientific leanings make me not want to give any money to him.

  9. #9 Tercel
    December 30, 2009

    I don’t understand this fixation some people have on plot as the only way of judging the merit of a movie. There is a LOT more to modern movies than plot, and ultimately the goal of paying $8 and sitting in those chairs for 2 hours is to be entertained. If that entertainment comes from a compelling plot, fine. If it comes from exciting action scenes and visually stunning graphics? That’s cool too!

    Let me be clear here, I’m not saying that the plot is never important. I’m simply saying that every movie cannot be judged on the same criterion.

    Imagine how silly you would sound if, upon viewing Michelangelo’s “David” you exclaimed “It looks nice but the plot sucks!”

  10. #10 Tercel
    December 30, 2009

    I wonder if this phenomenon is rooted, somehow, in the perception that it requires less work or creativity to make a good looking movie than it does to create a good plot. As a guy who has zero creative writing ability, but a hell of a lot of skill in numerical analysis and image processing, I find this perception a bit offensive! Choreographers, computer graphics experts, motion capture artists, and cinematographers have valid and (in my opinion) impressive talents. They deserve to be recognized in their own right, and not as some cheap thrill to be enjoyed only in the context of a deep and moving plot.

  11. #11 eNeMeE
    December 30, 2009

    I’d say the world building was pretty much non-existent (or totally inconsistent, take your pick).

    And stupid characters. Really, really stupid characters.

    It’s a movie where the more I think about it, the less I like it. That, to me, says “Bad movie”. Not Stars Wars 1,2,3 bad, but still not good.

  12. #12 Jason Rosenhouse
    December 30, 2009

    I don’t understand this fixation some people have on plot as the only way of judging the merit of a movie. There is a LOT more to modern movies than plot, and ultimately the goal of paying $8 and sitting in those chairs for 2 hours is to be entertained.

    Eight dollars? Where do you live? I pay $9.50 and I live in the sticks!

    I agree with the rest of your comment, though. I would also add that while the story was very simplistic and cliched, it was also very engaging and contained several moments of great emotional power. No small accomplishment!

  13. #13 mo
    December 30, 2009

    The world-building is awesome because of the biology of the critters: homology everywhere you look, and the skull of the big flying thing looks exactly as it should look from what it does with it. This film is so much better as a biologist. I’m only a bit disappointed that the Na’vi didn’t have 2 pairs of arms and eyes :(

    The plot is not original, but the world-building and the hints to the backstory are awesome. Go see it. And it’s cool that the scientists are the good guys.

    Spoiler: of course the planet will be bombed to hell ~12 years from the time the story is set in, as soon as the war equippment can be shipped. That’s basically an unstated truth. I hope he’ll make a sequel about that.

  14. #14 Pierce R. Butler
    December 30, 2009

    Tercel @ # 10: Choreographers, computer graphics experts, motion capture artists, and cinematographers have valid and (in my opinion) impressive talents. They deserve to be recognized in their own right, and not as some cheap thrill to be enjoyed only in the context of a deep and moving plot.

    Imagine the best seasonings & tastiest tomatoes, pickles & lettuce a gourmet could muster, applied to a hamburger burned on the outside and still frozen at the center. All the artists you mention can have their work ruined by dumbth in the director’s chair.

    Unfortunately, there seems to be some kind of rule in Hollywood that really high-grade f/x must be offset by awful scripting. The only exceptions that come to mind involve Alan Moore books set to film where all concerned have stuck slavishly to the original – and even those fall short.

  15. #15 Paul
    December 30, 2009

    Very pretty, and very lame plot. This was hardly an awesome film for me, and I can’t possibly see how a good plot would have been a distraction, it would have given everyone something (anything) to think about. Yes, our eyes can work at the same time as our minds. I enjoyed the movie, but I would have enjoyed it more with a plot that matched the visuals.

    And hey, at the end, none of the humans were wearing masks. What’s up with that? Where is the science in that fiction?

  16. #16 PPF
    December 31, 2009

    @13, I was disappointed about the Na’vi appendages as well, but look at this way: the little monkey things that were the first critters we saw are all shown with fusing arms, so at least the skin-deep plausibility of evolutionarily consistent animals was maintained! The only part I actually hated was the straight-faced reference to “unobtanium”. They spend a bunch of time building homology into animals, but can’t add a throw-away line to the know-nothing business man about how he can’t pronounce the technical name of the material for which UNOB is its acronym and so he tacks on -tanium? It might be silly, but that exchange completely drew me out of the film for a while.

  17. #17 piles
    December 31, 2009

    Avatar-one of the best animation movie of 2009 and a great example for animation students.Its superb.Its characters and their movements and all are amazing.Ne ways thanks and good job.

  18. #18 mo
    December 31, 2009

    @ 16: wanted to post the following on pharyngula anyway, but I can’t register, here is also a good place for it:

    < @ all who bash the name "unabtainium" for the MacGuffin: That is a obvious nerd culture in-joke. The same as calling the first discovered hedgehog gene (of Drosophila fame) of vertebrates "sonic hedgehog" in the 90s. That practise is called a "lampshade hanging"

    read this:
    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MacGuffin

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/Unobtainium

    http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LampshadeHanging

    It's very self-observing of Cameron to call it like that>

    the ‘monkeys’ also had only two eyes…

  19. #19 Jeff Hebert
    December 31, 2009

    Point well taken, Tercel. I guess that for me (and understanding that art is a subjective thing), the movie really wasn’t all that pretty. The jungle was nice, yes, but the jungles looked to me like someone blew up a Day-Glo factory. EVERYTHING was this intense glowy color and so it all sort of blended together in an undifferentiated mess. The animation on the various critters was off as well. For instance, the way the horse analogues ran was more like a stiff-backed rocker than an actual multi-legged creature.

    The design on the military vehicles also left me a bit cold. I liked the smaller attack choppers, those were neat, but the big huge command heli was way too fat and flat and looked like something out of one of those old puppet cartoons.

    For me personally, that’s where I get super frustrated. People are focusing on the visuals (which, as you say, if that’s what you want out of a movie, that’s cool), but the visuals aren’t really that great in my opinion. The vehicle and character designs and animation in “Incredibles”, for instance, are far better, and that was done ages ago.

    But hey, it’s art, and not everyone likes the same thing when it comes to art. That’s what makes the world go ’round. As you say the important criteria for judging a movie is whether or not it keeps you interested and entertained, and clearly, for a lot of people this movie hits the mark.

  20. #20 Tommykey
    December 31, 2009

    I looked forward to seeing Avatar but must admit I was underwhelmed by the story. Visually, it was amazing. No argument there.

    Here are some of my problems with it.

    1. The movie should have began on Earth. Let’s see what Earth looks like that makes going to Pandora to serve in a hostile environment look attractive and why mining Unobtanium is so important.

    2. In tandem with that, a few scenes of Sully trying to deal with his disability after being wounded in combat.

    3. One question I have about being in the Avatar machine that no one seems to have asked yet is how does Sully or the others go to the bathroom while they are in their Avatar bodies? They go into the machines fully clothed, and yet their real bodies are just supposed to be able to “hold it in” for 8 to 10 hours?

  21. #21 Kevin (NYC)
    December 31, 2009

    This movie was great! here is a review I posted somewhere else…

    “Man I loved it!!!

    I think it was better than south park’s “Dances with Smurfs” . . in any event it was LONGER! hahah

    and the fringy things in the hair “bonding” with the frigging flying dragons!!? way cool. I was sorry we didn’t see them having sex with their thingies attached. imagine getting brain {censored} AND {censored} at the same time!

    I think the hackneyed plot and stilted dialog served to ENHANCE the cool visuals. you could concentrate on going wow neato! rather than the stupid plot.

    my 3d was great. the flying on the dragon was excellent. I would see it again and pay for it again. ”

    and I paid $16.50! theater was packed and everyone was mesmerised. I say enjoy it for whas it was and don’t beat it up because of technicals.

    “The movie should have began on Earth” the thing was already 2hrs 20mins long.. add in 25mins of commercials and it takes forever. you want to cut dragon flying scenes to start the plot on earth? oh noeeeeessss!

  22. #22 Randy Crum
    December 31, 2009

    Avatar is an experience and not just a movie. To focus on the plot is to miss the experience and the experience is overwhelming.

    People relate it to Star Wars. I’d go back even further and relate it to 2001-A Space Odyssey. Prior to that movie all “special effects” had strings holding up space ships (and you could see the strings). Then the opening scene in 2001 shows the sun rising over the Earth as seen from the Moon.

    And it was real. Or at least it sure as hell seemed to be real.

    The plot of 2001 was irrelevant and confusing (I didn’t understand it until I read the book). But it’s the only movie that I’ve ever seen three times in a movie theatre.

    I genuinely feel sorry for people who can’t EXPERIENCE a movie and instead try to analyze it from the perspective of the motivation of the characters and all of the other crap that aren’t really a part of the EXPERIENCE. It’s clear that all of those people have lost their childish sense of wonder and imagination.

  23. #23 Kevin (NYC)
    December 31, 2009

    !! I am taking my son, two of his friends, my sister and other, and two of my friends to see AVATAR! in IMAX on sat!!!!!!

  24. #24 mo
    January 1, 2010

    I’m disappointed that my comment on “Unobtainium” was automatically hold back for moderation.

  25. #25 Caliban
    January 4, 2010

    Just saw it yesterday on the 3D IMAX. Wow! What a beautiful rollercoaster of a movie. Super fun. Even with the silly bits and that aufull, aufull song at the end.

  26. #26 North of 49
    January 4, 2010

    Loved the movie and would pay to see it again, and I’m an old and jaded movie-goer who can remember seeing 2001: A Space Odyssey and THX 1138 in the theatre.

    A couple of points. First, “Unobtainium” is a metallurgist’s in-joke, as in, “The metal with the properties you are describing is ‘Unobtainium’,” in other words, doesn’t exist. A nice chuckle for the geeks in the audience, and good for Cameron and the writers for slipping it in.

    Second, the “Dances with Na’vi” meme is one of those facile one-liners lazy reviewers like to use when they can’t think of anything substantive to say but have to get something in to their editor by deadline. Other examples are Outland “Oh, it’s just High Noon in space” (only if you plug your ears and squint), or Saving Private Ryan “Great battle scenes but it’s just another buddy-bonding movie” (only if you went into a fugue state for the middle half).

    OT note on Saving Private Ryan: it’s the only American war movie I’ve seen, (and I’ve seen hundreds) that captured the essence of the American GI as a citizen soldier — amateurs at the game of war at the beginning (remember Kasserine Pass), who turned into thoroughly expert professionals by the end. That is what Spielberg and Hanks contributed to the genre that nobody had quite managed (or possibly even thought about) before.

    Now to Avatar. Yes, the plot is (largely) unoriginal, but the sweetest thing about it is that Cameron did not turn Sully into a White Knight or Saviour, a la Richard Harris in A Man Called Horse. Nor did he make an ultimately despairing film like The Mission.

    “Dances with Na’vi”? Only if you ignore most of the film.

    Last thing: Cameron has set the bar to a new height. From now on, every science fiction or fantasy film is going to have to match what he did or risk suffering at the box office. Someone above mentioned 2001: A Space Odyssey and its special effects; that film did for the science fiction films of its day what Avatar has done. It redefines what an SF film should look like and what it should attempt in telling the story.

    Future films are going to be pretty freaking cool.

  27. #27 Steve Reuland
    January 5, 2010

    I saw it a couple of nights ago and agree with Jason’s take in its entirely.

    A couple of observations based on things mentioned in this thread:

    1. The plot is not lame. It is simplistic and at points eminently predictable, but that is different from being lame. Being simplistic doesn’t keep it from being enjoyable, and in this case, for reasons that Jason mentioned, it’s probably a virtue.

    2. I don’t get certain people’s obsession with backstory here. Cameron went out of his way to tell you that the backstory was irrelevant, and that you were to accept the characters and setting as archetypal. Naming the MacGuffin “unobtainium” and the chief antagonist “Selfridge” was a dead giveaway.

    3. Speaking of archetypal, the more I think about it, the more the film follows the hero’s quest almost to a T. Dr. Augustine is of course the Gandalf or the Obi Wan, and so I will confidently predict that she’ll come back from the dead (her mind being uploaded into the trees or some shit) in the sequel.

  28. #28 Oracle Training Pakistan
    January 6, 2010

    helo,
    well i totally agree with u . i have enjoyed this movie alot. the best part for me was that all the pandora was a reall beauty. a true genius’s creativity. thts really amazing and very inspirational

  29. #29 Lenoxus
    January 7, 2010

    I think I’m agreeing with #19 Jeff Hebert: Day-Glo, by itself, does not beauty make. A truly beautiful film has colors that sing, not scream. This is not beyond the capabilities of CGI; I’m thinking of Pan’s Labyrinth for one thing.

    The other thing that really bugged me is that the culture of the “Navi” has absolutely no flaws. No one loses patience with their children or aquires an addiction or anything. When it’s contrasted with the humans, there’s zero question on who are the good and who the bad guys. Maybe if the (ulp-gack-ugh) “Unobtanium” were shown to be vital to the survival of the human race, there’d be some real moral complexity going.

  30. #30 Marilyn
    January 11, 2010

    white guy(s) to the rescue? again? Tarzan, Kevin Costner, The last samurai? Nick Nolte? Lawrence of Arabia? Eminem? .arghh!!! so sick of it. The fact that white guys “avatar” themselves doesnt make it any better…

  31. #31 Oracle Training Pakistan
    January 13, 2010

    ok i agree with you to lenoxus #29