Review: Avatar

Genre:  Action/ Adventure/ Sci-Fi / Thriller

Director: James Cameron

Writer: James Cameron

Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Stephen Lang, Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi, Joel Moore, CCH Pounder, Wes Studi

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for intense epic battle sequences and warfare, sensuality, language)

Summary: In the future, Jake, a paraplegic war veteran, is brought to another planet, Pandora, which is inhabited by the Na’vi, a humanoid race with their own language and culture. Those from Earth find themselves at odds with each other and the local culture.

Run Time:  162 minutes

View the Trailer HERE

[This Review Contains Spoilers]

These days when money is tight, you have to pick and choose carefully what you spend your hard-earned cash on. With all the hype surrounding this flick you’d think that it’s a no-brainer. After all, “Avatar” is winning awards even before it comes out, so it must be good, right? This is exactly why you should read this review before you head out to the theaters and spend nearly twice as much (or more if you’re set on seeing it in the IMAX theater) as you would for a regular movie ticket for this 3D film.

James Cameron’s “Avatar” is spun with great hype for the technological advances this film has made for the film industry. It created and utilized the new tech of motion capture to integrate actors’ performances into an animated characters and created a whole entire world, rich with flora and fauna in 3D. That said, let’s first talk about this film as a storyline and characters before launching into the technical aspects of “Avatar”.

The story of “Avatar” follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a crippled war vet who takes over his twin brother’s slot in an experimental program where scientists plug in and operate “avatars”which are ten-foot tall, blue, hybrid bodies made from the scientist’s own DNA combined with the DNA of the native Na’vi population. The scientists’ goal, of course, clashes with the private sector goal on this primal moon, called Pandora. The politically-correct plan was to use these avatars to learn the natives’ culture and what they know about the planet’s flora and to better negotiate a relocation of the native people away from the site of interest. Jake is accepted into the native population and learns their ways with the orders to report back on weaknesses and best plans of attack. Instead of allowing the natives to be destroyed, Jake goes ‘native’ and sides with the native Na’vi people. So yes, the plot is indeed very “Dances With Wolves”.

The plot-line and dialogue of this film seems forced and even corny at times.  It felt like a screwdriver was used to force the plot to fit to Cameron’s purposes. Audience members at the screening I attended even laughed at dramatic parts of the movie because it was so bad! There are also serious plot holes like “Does Jake not rest at all?” Because when his avatar is sleeping, he is up and active in his human body and then he has to go back to do a full day in his avatar right after! There were times in the movie where I did have the eye-rolling reaction- mostly where long monologues were inserted to make up for lack of quality story-telling!

The Na’vi people are interesting and engaging enough, but they themselves cannot sell the film! Sam Worthington’s Jake Sully was good enough to move the plot forward. Sigourney Weaver’s head scientist character and Michelle Rodriguez’s pilot character were strong enough to form an awkward balance between the strong female characters on human and alien sides (Zoe Saldana and CCH Pounder play the roles of the princess and sha-woman of the tribe).  The actors’ performances were severely restricted by the lack of a strong script. Seriously, a guy in my row literally fell asleep and snored for about a half hour in the middle of the film.

But wait! Zoe Saldana’s character, Neytiri, the Na’vi princess and Jake’s love interest, is the shining star of the film. Her performance almost saves the entirety of this crap-tastic storyline. Neytiri is the most fleshed out character of the film and you can really feel her and relate to her. She makes the existence and culture of the Na’vi feel real and vibrant! Cameron should pay Saldana more for saving his ass on this film.

The story of “Avatar” itself is not good enough to see in a 3D treatment, but the animated world of Pandora , created for this film is indeed amazing and more worthy of this high-priced viewing. The 3D of this film is not the gimmicky look-at-this-ax-flying-at-your-head sort of 3D, but rather it is used as a way of enhancing the depth and detail of the visual environment. There was one scene in particular that was breath-taking- the scene with the seeds of the sacred tree dancing in the air around Jake and Neytiri. I admire the film for the creation of an incredibly rich world history, culture, mythos, and interesting creature designs. The flora is very marine-life inspired and that in itself is delightful to see how the creative team behind Pandora adapted these inspirations to a new world of flora.

Now, the rendered landscapes elicited a mixed reaction from me. On the one hand, it is difficult to light a rendered environment in a realistic fashion in harsh and bright light, so I suppose that I give them an “E” for effort on that aspect since I felt that the landscapes and built environments had a video-game-like feel to them. There also seemed to be a haze on top of everything outside to perhaps blur out imperfections? A complaint on the look of the fauna – the textures on the animals felt too uniform, like they were all of a similar painted vinyl fabric texture or something resembling a Fruit-Roll-Up.

One thing that Cameron does well as always is the tech dreamt up for these futuristic contexts. The Command and Control Center of the base on Pandora, mech body suits used in the field, aircraft, and avatar pods were designed in a believable and near-future fashion.

The technological advancements mentioned earlier in this review include new motion-capture tech to capture every eye movement and minute facial expression of the actors. This was supposed to make the animated characters appear even more life-like. I thought it was well done, but even this tech did not break through the wall of believability to me. Perhaps that fact that these characters were blue with tails and that I am not used to seeing that type of alien kept me from believing them as true creatures!

A good deal of the film is a combination of rendered environments melded with live action footage. This melding is done in such a way that it is hard to tell which is which. This is both good and bad at the same time because it still looked odd to me. I cannot tell if it was odd lighting or perhaps the too-perfect textures in both live-action and rendered footage, but something was wrong. It’s like being trapped in the narrow valley between what is real and what is not in a way that leaves you on the side of disbelief.

Here’s the bottom line: You cannot deny the technological achievements of this film, but as a film, “Avatar” suffers from a predictable and labored plotline. This film is more of a high-tech spectacle than anything else, save Zoe Saldana’s character. Go see it at a matinee price if you can!

When I was leaving the theater, no one gushed about how great of a movie it was. I think it was more like “OMG, I just spent how much on seeing that? I’m keeping my damn 3D glasses!”

On a side note, if you wear eye-glasses, I have a piece of advice for you. The 3D glasses that you can put over your glasses are a bit awkward and mine tended to slip off my frames through the entire latter half of the film if I wasn’t holding my head just right. I’d advise wearing contacts or to bring some tape to adhere those things onto your glasses!

Also, audience beware, this film seems to have drawn all types of people to it!  There was a whole group of non-geek people in my row that literally talked through the entire movie.

One last note: Unobtanium? Seriously? I can’t tell if this is a nod to geek language or because Cameron was lazy!

I give “Avatar” Two Out Of Five Stars

Lillian 'zenbitch' Standefer
Written by Lillian 'zenbitch' Standefer

is Senior Managing Editor for SciFi, skips along between the lines of sci-fi, fantasy, and reality, and is living proof that geek girls really DO exist!