With Avatar, James Cameron deserves enormous credit for wrestling his unique cinematic vision to life. Though it’s cobbled together from odds and ends we’ve seen elsewhere, it isn’t a sequel or a remake and it’s not based on a novel, a comic book, a TV show or a toy. Avatar is not (yet) a brand. It is a from-the-ground-up piece of popular filmmaking.  What’s more, there are few filmmakers besides Cameron powerful enough to pull off something new on this scale and fewer still with the energy and creative drive left to do so. At a time when studios seem to be recoiling from originality, Avatar is a miracle that should be celebrated. It’s all the more disappointing then that the old-fashioned sense of showmanship Cameron returns to the big screen doesn’t quite live up to the carnival barker’s hype. In the end, the pure spectacle he achieves isn’t enough to surmount his old enemies of story and dialogue. Avatar finally is merely a good movie when it could’ve been a great one.

But, forget about the screenplay for a minute. The main reasons most people will line up for Avatar are the action and the special effects. The former never approaches the spare, gritty, white-knuckle intensity of Cameron’s Aliens, but Avatar still delivers plenty of action thrills and the special effects by themselves are almost worth the price of admission. While Cameron and his effects team have not created credible photoreality, they have created lifelike animation with an expressiveness and a vitality surpassing anything we’ve ever seen. It takes a few scenes to adjust to the Na’vi, the giant blue humanoid creatures central to the story, but once they win you over, they’re able to convey an emotional depth unseen in animation before. This isn’t just voice acting. These are true performances by human actors and they are worthy of being judged as such.

Though the technology is amazing, it’s too bad that the vision behind it is so mundane. Cameron has created an entire new world pixel by pixel with an insane attention to detail and the freedom to make it any way he wanted, but the best he could come up with is flora and fauna that feel patched together from earthbound counterparts. The jungle is intricate and beautiful and the inventive monsters are appropriately vicious and exciting when they’re on the attack, but they’re also lacking in personality. Remember the undiluted visceral thrill the first time T-Rex opened its jaws and roared in Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park? There’s nothing like that here. There is nothing that taps into childhood fears and makes you feel like a little kid again.

As for pure creativity, there are only a couple of moments in Avatar that even approach the jaw-dropping displays of pure unfettered imagination routinely channeled by Guillermo del Toro. For example, there is nothing in Cameron’s film that even comes close to the sheer chilling wonder of the Tree Elemental scene from Hellboy II, an imperfect film itself but one of boundless and joyful imagination. Cameron’s effects (and budget) may surpass del Toro’s, but they’re deficient in their depth of soul. As a side note, the thought of del Toro with the all the powers of Weta Digital (the company behind Avatar’s amazing CGI) at his command suddenly gives me goosebumps and really ignites my enthusiasm for his upcoming adaptation of The Hobbit.

As for the 3D technology, it’s a neat gimmick, but it is still a gimmick. Yes, the immersiveness of Avatar is a step forward for cinema as a visual experience, but for every 3D advance, Cameron’s 2D script is sadly a step backward for storytelling. Larded with his trademark clunky dialogue, Avatar sags whenever genuine drama is called for. The fantasy milieu renders it less jarring than it was in Titanic, but it’s still a problem especially because Avatar so desperately wants to be more than mere spectacle. The story itself involving a planet full of noble savages and a human race eager to exploit its resources is recycled from every colonial vs. native plotline, but it would’ve been sturdy enough to get by if only the visual imagination had lived up to its promise. Instead, after 2 hours and 40 minutes, the balance of silly to amazing tips ever so slightly in favor of silly.

For all the fuss about the technology and the effects, it’s a couple of the human actors who really threaten to bring Avatar to life. Even playing borderline cartoons, Giovanni Ribisi and Sigourney Weaver inject enough energy and nuance into their stock characters to make them genuinely entertaining. Ribisi plays the heartless corporate asshole (a relative of Paul Reiser’s character in Aliens) while Weaver plays a rough and tumble scientist in the Ripley mold. Sam Worthington is adequate if unspectacular as Jake, the human hero who goes native when he falls for a Na’vi female. Zoe Saldana’s work as Neytiri, Jake’s love interest, is a little bit broad but it kind of has to be in order to sell the performance-capture technology. Stephen Lang meanwhile gets to bite off the most macho chunks of Cameron’s leaden dialogue. It’s a juicy part, but Lang overplays it. The cheesy military banter that played so well in Aliens here just seems corny.

Ultimately, there’s enough to like about Avatar to make it recommendable. Most will probably be satisfied and justifiably amazed by the result, though it’s difficult to imagine the film taking on iconic status once the technology behind it becomes commonplace and is ultimately surpassed. It lacks the soul of other touchstones of sci-fi filmmaking that are still talked about today like Metropolis, 2001, Star Wars or even Cameron’s own Terminator and Aliens.

In a climate where studios treat originality like some kind of plague, it took a blunt instrument just to get the film made and Cameron should be commended for doing so. Unfortunately, the film itself cries out for a finer, more nimble touch. With Avatar, Cameron has shaped a massive block of marble into a recognizable form, but he lacks the finesse to transform it into an enduring work of art.

Avatar. USA 2009. Written and directed by James Cameron. Cinematography by Mauro Fiore. Music score by James Horner. Edited by James Cameron, John Refoua and Stephen Rivkin. Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel David Moore, CCH Pounder and Wes Studi. 2 hours 40 minutes. MPAA rated PG-13 for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language and some smoking. 3.5 stars (out of 5)

33 Responses to “Review: Avatar (2009) *** 1/2”

  1. http://movies.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/movies/18avatar.html

    I don’t know Craig. This film has received far more than just “hype.” Rather it’s been the recipient to some glowing, even spectacular reviews by some of the critics we mutually respect, like Manola Dargis’s (above) It has a sterling Metcritic average and maybe 8 100’s. It won Best Picture of 2009 from the New York Critics Online, and others like Ebert have afforded it the highest praise one can give to a film. I am NOT doubting your judgement, in fact in a general sense I usually choose these type of films to spew vitrol at. And I have never been a fan of the egotistical, arrogant “King of the World” who spent years bringing this project to fruition. But I will go in over the weekend at some point (the HD broadcast of Offenbach’s “The Tales of Hoffman” is playing on Saturday at 1:00 P.M. across the country, so it appears AVATAR will have to wait until Sunday) and see if I come back supporting your modestly favorable reaction.

    It’s significant that you rate this under TERMINATOR and ALIENS. As it is the final sentence of this bluntly written and observant piece (without even having seen the piece I would fully endorce what you say about 3D being a gimmick, however effective in this partcular instance) I will point to this as my favorite sentence of all:

    “With Avatar, Cameron has shaped a massive block of marble into a recognizable form, but he lacks the finesse to transform it into an enduring work of art.”

  2. I’m going to be out on a little island on this one Sam. I know critics are gushing over it while i’m left to wonder what was in the Kool Aid they drank.

    At the same time, most of the reviews I’ve read, even the most positive ones, mention many of the flaws the film has. For most people, the spectacle seems to trump any storytelling concerns, but for me they just didn’t quite. And it’s not because the flaws were that bad, it’s just that the visuals never fully engaged me they way they did in some of the other movies I referred to.

    I wish it had been directed by del Toro.

    I wish the film well. I hope everyone else finds the magic in it that was lost on me.

  3. I think you keyed on the vital concern here.

    Does the spectable trump the storytelling limitations?

    For me, as with most, it’s gone both ways. WATCHMAN succeeded in this sense, while something like 2012 did not by a long distance.

    We shall see if you have company on that island, or whether you are damned to eternal solitude.

    I’m living part of my days in that solitude too. Re: UP IN THE AIR! LOL!

  4. I was fully prepared to forget about the story and dialogue if the “experience” had grabbed a hold of me, but I kept waiting and waiting and waiting for it to happen and it never did.

    None of it is bad, and maybe I’m just holding it up to too high of expectations, but there it is.

    GIve me 30 or 45 minutes of Hellboy II and it owns all 160 minutes of Avatar ten ways to next Sunday.

  5. I liked HELLBOY myself! Yep, that is really it Craig. If it doesn’t grab you emotionally, it’s a failing proposition, at least as far as it achieving the status of greatness. I have the same criteria.

  6. Regardless of my own take, that was a persuasively well reasoned and balanced review Craig. Bravo.

    “The cheesy military banter that played so well in Aliens here just seems corny.” It irritated the hell out of me the first time through Aliens. But in subsequent viewings I became more forgiving of it. In part because I was happy for the military moron characters being fodder for the aliens.

    I really rate del Toro’s imagination and ability to realize it, who could not? But Hell Boy II was forgettable for me because I found the characters and dialogue too fan boy broad. I felt nothing for them. I guess this doesn’t augur well for my likely response to Avatar.

  7. Interesting review! I’m very curious to see what my own take is, as something of a fangirl with a low tolerance for Cameronspeak. I truly have no idea yet how I’ll react.

    I like some of your observations here, particularly in regards to the “2D storytelling” taking a step backwards and what kind of shelf life you expect this to have once the effects’ razzle dazzle wears off.

    Del Toro is cinema hero to me. I’m with you all the way on Hellboy II, Craig. I love his imagination and ability to bring it to life on screen in such creative incarnations. If I could live in Del Toro’s brain, I would. I’d never say the same about Cameron.

    But here’s the real question: Did you stick around for the Leona Lewis song?

  8. That’s the thing Sartre, I found Hellboy II flawed for many reasons, but I’m only thinking of it in terms of its imaginative power. There are a handful of scenes that just knocked me out.

    I gave it the same star rating as Avatar in fact, but in a purely visual sense it’s much much better. Avatar was probably less cartoony in a dramatic sense so maybe it will balance out and you’ll find it superior.

    JB. I bolted out of the theater the instant the screen went black. There were a few moments of Horner and just as I reached the exit that gawdawful Lewis theme kicked in.

  9. I hesitate to make this remark because I don’t want to inject anything political into a movie discussion (and disclaimer, I’m a Democrat!) but… all the advance critical rapture over Avatar reminds me a heck of a lot of the national swoonfest over that guy who got inaugurated last January. Yeah, it was good, but has it really turned out to be THAT good? No. And that’s OK, but it wasn’t the Second Coming after all, was it?

  10. Good you got out intact, Kennedy. It’s hard blogging with blood shooting out your ears in protest.

  11. Alan, in both cases I tend to blame the people responsible for the hype more than the subject of the hype, though also in both cases the parties in question were happy to have it.

    JB. Nonsense. I do it every day.

  12. I just watched David Denby and AO Scott gushing about Avatar on last night’s episode of Charlie Rose. Denby directly contradicts a complaint I had about the 3D over on the Weekend Forecast thread.

    Denby talks about the depth of field and the freedom to choose what you want to look at, but I found exactly the opposite problem. They limited what you could see clearly in order to focus your attention on what they wanted you to look at just like they do in 2D movies, but the effect is more distracting. If something is sticking out in the foreground or is happening in the background in 3D my eye wanted to look at it, but it was often blurry. The focal limitations made it seem artificial where in 2D it feels natural because we’ve been watching movies like that for 100 years.

    Long story short, but I’d like to hear other people’s reactions to the 3D. Did you have a Denby reaction? Am I just smoking crack?

  13. I dug it. It’s not a great film, not one of my ten best of the year, but I thought it was beautiful, immersive experience that played well in 3d. However, I think because of its thin, formulaic story, “Avatar” doesn’t hold much interest outside of the theatrical experience. I can’t imagine being caught-up in the story on dvd. Because of that I’ll have to go see it again in theaters, I guess!

    It’s a very good movie. I’m glad he pulled it off. Yeah, he’s still HMFIC.

  14. Good to see you again Ari.

    I watched most of The Abyss last night and it made me miss the old, pre-Titanic James Cameron.

  15. I’m afraid I’d have to agree with your review, Craig. This is an OK movie with amazing effects and visuals, but if you strip those away and just look at the story and the characters it’s extremely weak. Many effects movies have weak characters and narratives, but they rarely excel visually in such a way that they strike such a strong cord with critics. However, this is no Aliens or Lord of the Rings or even The Abyss, which I will continue to argue has Cameron’s strongest emotional core over all (even with that weak ending).

    Zoe Saldana’s work as Neytiri is amazing and she (and the animators behind her performance) deserve an Oscar nomination. She is the most exciting and interesting CGI characterization since Gollum. Neytiri was the heart of the film for me and even though Worthington isn’t bad as Jake, he was far less of a hero to me than Saldana’s Neytiri. I felt the other characters fell flat or got short shrift from Cameron’s direction. Where is the ensemble cast of small and larger-than-life characters that he built a career on? Cutting room floor, maybe. Rather than build a cast, Cameron chooses to build a world. It’s impressive but has no emotional center for me to latch onto.

    Visually the film is amazing to watch and there are some entirely CGI scenes that *are* photoreal. But I kept catching myself thinking, “Wow, the Hobbit is going to be amazing!” Like Craig, I think Del Toro will take the technology and marry it to more robust storytelling.

    Sam, I can see why this film is receiving rave reviews but I think critics are comparing Avatar to most Summer blockbusters rather than honestly looking at it as a film. If we’re only going to grade the effects, then it’s an A+ effort, but if we’re looking at character and narrative elements than I’d give it a C. Split the difference and 3.5 stars seems very fair. I honestly can’t believe this is Film of the Year material or even rates a 5 star review, but I was surprised by the response to Titanic.

    And for a director whose films usually have amazing scores, this one was incredibly lackluster. Possibly one of the most boring scores I’ve heard all year. Did they redo this at the last minute?

    Great review, Craig.

  16. Oh yeah…I’m disappointed I saw this in 3D. You’re right, the focal plane issue was annoying and frustrating. There were a dozen or so shots where the 3D worked perfectly with the images and I loved it, but the rest of the film it either offered nothing or got in the way of my viewing experience.

    If they can’t make it 100% satisfying in this film, then I’m giving up on 3D.

  17. I thought the score was so awful that it took me OUT of the movie in places. I’m not sure what happened there. Maybe the one element of the movie that felt totally rushed and incomplete.

    It’s definitely far from great. The story is beat-for-beat predictable, and even though I enjoyed the straightforward, on-the-nose environmental message as something that works for spirit of the characters, some of the military, political choices such as “we’ll fight terror…with terror”, felt tacky, obvious and unnecessary.That stuff doesn’t give the story added substance and meaning, it just comes off as desperate and childish. He’s better than that.

    There’s also a slow-burn to establish the characters and world that felt a bit tedious at times, and because the story lacks dramatic tension, I actually felt like the final battle sequence was anti-climactic.

    Still, there’s a solid two hours of spectacular sights, set-pieces and sappy/fun romance to admire and enjoy the world he created here.

  18. Ari’s right in his last sentence. If you can get through the thick hyperbole that’s flying around in some of the reviews and just take it on face value, it’s worth seeing.

    I’m a little relieved a few people are expressing a range of modest enjoyment to disappointment. As I was leaving the theater I was thinking I’d just missed something. I’m not sure how Metacritic figured some of those perfect 100s since most of the reviews acknowledge deep flaws in the movie.

    Horner….yeah I don’t know.

    The irony Joel is that Saldana may be the most Oscar worthy part of the movie yet probably the least likely to get a nomination because of actor’s resistance to performance capture. I’ve heard more than a few people referring to it as “voice over”

    It’s pretty clear some folks just bought into the emotion of it and the event spectacle of it. I was never able to make that leap, but I kind of wish I was.

    I admire Cameron and his attempt, but I wish he’d delivered more in the imagination department.

  19. Well, again, the movie is visually spectacular, there’s at least one amazing performance in it, and I was engaged for most of the running time by the world Cameron had created so I think 3.5 stars is pretty fair and accurate but the film has some serious flaws that it’s visual wonder helps to gloss over.

    I was thinking that the story and the characters suffer from the origin aspect of this that bogs down most first features in any superhero franchise, since Cameron spends nearly an hour just introducing the world he’s created.

    And one more kudos: the dragonriders of Pern portion of the film is the most transcendent piece of effects work I’ve seen in a while.

  20. Sorry for the run-on sentences there. I published without editing, now the DB won’t let me clean it up.

  21. There’s good reason to not trust many critics these days. The over-praise for UP IN THE AIR is baffling. A good Clooney perf, some nice moments and a timely peek at our down-sized society, but the Gawker piece taking down Frank Rich’s ridiculous GRAPES OF WRATH comparison is more where I stand. And I swear, there’s at least three or four emo music monstages at the end. Just in case you’re not sure how to feel.

    That said, I’m off to Smurfville 3-D.

  22. There’s good reason to not trust many critics these days.

    Hear, hear. There is a lot of political stuff going on behind whether they rave a movie, out-and-out pan it or dislike it but balk at the fact, methinks.

    I have zero interest in this film, and I know this may come as a shock to some but I HATED Titanic.

  23. I liked Up in the Air but even I agree it’s way overpraised.

    Alison, it’s not a shock at all.

  24. Alison, Titanic ranks as possibly the worse movie I’ve seen. I liked the attention to detail and the CGI effects but loathed the script to the point I felt angry as hell after the film. I could never subject myself to a viewing of that film again. I’m happy for others to admire/love it, just not for me.

  25. Meant to say “I was thinking that the story and the characters suffer from the origin aspect of this that bogs down most first features in any superhero franchise.”

    Anyone know how I can get an (unpaid) intern to proof all my comments?

  26. I’ve got a monkey that can fix you up Joel…and he just did

  27. A lot of the exposition is pretty wretchedly handled. Jake talks into the camera and gets us up to speed!

  28. My mom always said “If you can’t say something nice, then don’t say anything at all” so here’s what I liked about Avatar.

    The part with the jellyfish-like seeds that glommed onto Jake was kind of lovely, though someone will have to explain to me why everything on a planet with plenty of light is phosphorescent.

    I liked how the Na’vi could plug into creatures…it’s a bit literal minded, but it worked.

    The flying stuff was great.

    Chunks of the final battle were very good.

    The part where Neytiri is standing in the burned out crater that used to be the Tree of Whatever was pretty moving.


  29. I though the opening scene was just spectacular and instantly convinced me I was in THAT world. I loved the 3-D. But agree with a few of Craig’s points, scriptwise fer sure. But at a certain point, I just accepted it as raw metaphor and nowhere is that more apparent the final moments of the final battle. Cameron has evolved in some way as has film, I’m just not sure into what yet. But I’d say it’s a peak in cinema.

  30. “A lot of the exposition is pretty wretchedly handled. Jake talks into the camera and gets us up to speed!”

    Sort of reminded me of those hokey tablet-screen news reports in that other ol’ sci-fi movie, what was it called? 2001:Something Something.

  31. Care to elaborate Christian? or are you still processing?

  32. Still collating.

  33. The film is a flat out masterpiece, and I am prepared to go to the mat. I will have a review up in the morning.

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