Film review – Avatar (2009)

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington)

There is not a single frame in Avatar that doesn’t look stunning and authentic: from the heavily militarised human mining colony to the beautiful forest planet Pandora that contains a rare mineral that the humans want, to Pandora’s indigenous Na’vi population who aren’t too happy about the human’s presence. In order to better understand the Na’vi, the humans have developed the means to mentally occupy specially grown avatar bodies that look like the giant, wide-eyed, opaque-skinned Na’vi locals. Sam Worthington (Terminator Salvation) plays Jake Sully, a paraplegic marine who adopts one of the avatar bodies in order to infiltrate and gain the trust of the Na’vi.

Describing Avatar as “Pocahontas in Space” would not be too far off the mark as Jake’s relationship with the Na’vi people follows the white-man-assimilates-into-Native-American-Indian-culture narrative of many post-colonial films. However, Avatar is more in tune with Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) rather than films such as Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans (1992) or Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005), which both contained a slightly more complex exploration of racial and cultural identity.

Neytiri (Zoe Saldana)

Avatar is still a white-man-saves-the-day film and it is occasionally guilty of some rather naff moments when depicting the Na’vi as noble-savage types. However, at the core of Avatar is a very simple yet sincere environmental and anti-colonial message that removes all doubt about the film’s good intentions. Besides, such gripes are just so incredibly minor compared to the sheer beauty and exhilarating visuals at the forefront of Avatar. The scenes depicting the forests and floating mountains of Pandora are truly wondrous, the Na’vi and the avatars look incredibly realistic, and the action is exactly the sort of thing audiences have come to expect from writer/director James Cameron.

Cameron has long been at the forefront of setting new standards for high quality spectacle cinema with films such as The Terminator (1984), Aliens (1986) and Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) rightly regarded as classics of the science-fiction/action genre. With Avatar Cameron not only sets new standards for the use of computer-generated imagery special effects but also the use of 3D photography, which has a full depth-of-field and is integral to the texture and sensory impact of Avatar. Cameron has made no compromises with Avatar from a technical point-of-view and in time it will come to be regarded as a benchmark film.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2009

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  1. I suppose when you spend $300 million, give or take a hundred mill or so, you have to make compromises that ensure you don’t alienate the mass audience needed to recoup the investment. And so Cameron has sacrificed some of the writing, which really doesn’t compare with earlier films like both Terminator films and Aliens. In context, I don’t have a problem with that per se.

    Benchmark in time? I think it sets a new benchmark in 3D right now – but 3D is not everyone’s cup of tea. Myself, I find it distracting, and I think it’s important to focus on the film as a whole and not on the effects, else you might be prone to fault it. There’s no question that the effects are impressive and should be seen for that alone. Their application to all the fantasy creatures is a joy to behold.

    What did you think of the length, Thomas? I thought the 162 minutes were paced quite well and it didn’t have that “wait, there’s more” element that really shits me. It still felt a tad too long, maybe by 10 minutes or so. The missus definitely thought it was too long and was less impressed than I.

    In short, for me the film falls short of the hype but is an impressive step towards the goal. I don’t think any film can really deliver as long as we have to wear glasses to see it.

  2. The length didn’t worry me nor did wearing the glasses. As a rule 3D is not my thing, which is why I was so impressed by how much I enjoyed its use in Avatar. My comment about Avatar being a benchmark film was directly related to my discussion of its technical advances so I’m standing by that. I actually thought the story was a good old-school morality tale that reminded me of lots of classic (and revisionist) Westerns. Avatar is far from being an empty spectacle and I would not have rated it as high as I did if I felt that all it had going for it were the special effects.

  3. This is truly a one of kind movie, one that everyone must see. If you have an IMAX 3D theater near you, see this movie in 3D. The Visual effects are astounding. You are really able to enjoy James Cameron’s vision. After the movie I almost felt like I had visited an alien planet and returned back from it. Incredible visuals.

  4. Great review.

    If only more people understood what Cameron was trying to do with this monumental achievement. The screenplay should be easily forgiven when the filmmaker can create an entirely new world and make it feel as if it were absolutely real. I actually think any quibbles other critics find wrong with Avatar make it a better film. On its own, without using a quintessental “Bible of filmmaking,” Avatar is really a sensational film. It opens doors. Creates new chapters for that Bible. Changes the way we look at movies. I don’t care if the screenplay was actually written by a 5 year old, what Cameron did with the CGI, the 3D technology and every amazing visual on film is just beyond words.

    Maybe people are so amazed by the visuals, they want to the screenplay and story to come up to that level. That would put Avatar over the top… and I mean, it would shake the very foundations under movies like Citizen Kane. As it is, the screenplay is really not that bad. It serves the film perfectly. But, no filmmaker should be expected to shake the foundations under movies like Citizen Kane. If anything, Avatar really is the Star Wars of our generation. And, that’s a pretty sweet compliment.

  5. Thanks for your comments Luke.

    Many people don’t understand that cinema is a visual art-form and even those that do are frequently biased against visual effects. It’s a naive attitude that doesn’t take into account cinema’s origins as a visual attraction that was deeply immersed in trends surrounding modernity. Storytelling came later. I think you are absolutely right about people being impressed by the visuals but feeling the need to find more to say as if appreciating the truly outstanding visuals is not a worthy enough reason to celebrate such a film.

    Your comparison to Star Wars is apt as both Avatar and Star Wars are ground-breaking event films with a strong emphasis on immersive spectacle. They are also both based on archetypal characters and popularist mythology, making them so accessible and entertaining. Having now seen Avatar a second time I was actually very impressed with how well structured the story was and how cleverly exposition and characterisation were integrated into the action. So, I actually think the screenplay is very strong for the type of film that this is. I reckon Avatar has a really strong chance of going down in film history the same way that Star Wars has.


  6. The Limits of Control is one of my top 3 films of 2009, a film I today had trouble describing to someone when asked what it was about. It’s about a hitman sent on behalf of a group of artists to kill a politician, sort of.

    But really, for me it’s all about the journey, not the destination and how we get there. The ‘how’ is really the amazing visuals. Of course, there’s other elements that enhance the experience, but the overwhelming experience for me is the sublime nature of the visuals and how well they work in tandem with the other elements.

    In essence, I’m agreeing with you, Thomas.

  7. Having read loads of reviews, I find most of them persnickity about tangential things, such as “simplistic plot”. I tell people, one could imagine a plot based on, say, the Eternal Triangle, which is obviously a well-used trope and depends on the treatment. I say that if one is Involved, themselves in a love Triangle, one certainly feels the drama of it, too much indeed. As with Avatar immersing the audience into the world and its denizens, one feels and lives its plot, which brings the drama home completely.

    Nay-sayer critics remind me of the mid-60’s when The Beatles grew and grew in impact on the culture: critics were sniping that their haircut was effeminate, that they couldn’t read music, etc etc etc.

  8. I will add that when critics mention actor Sam Worthington’s starring role, they dismiss him as “servicable” or “bland”.

    This is so off-base! When he’s a human ex-Marine, he’s suitably withdrawn into himself. Clearly these critics haven’t ever been around an on-duty Marine — taciturn says it all. As a paraplegic thrust into a foreign land as well as the unfamiliar world of Science, he would be keeping his head down to fit in and scope things out, which is how Worthington executes that facet of his persona.

    When he’s in avatar-mode, his face says it all, and it’s quite effective since we audience members root for him most vigorously, even when he ends up fighting against most of the other Humans.

  9. Hi Timmi

    Thanks for contributing to the conversation and I like where you are coming from. I think the plot is simple but by no means does that mean it is stupid. The plot follows a fairly classic hero’s journey narrative and there is nothing wrong with that, especially when its primary function is to support the immersive spectacle of the film.

    Your comments about Sam Worthington’s acting are really interesting and I like the way you’ve contrasted his withdrawn performance in his own body with his expressive performance in the avatar body. It reminds me of RoboCop where Murphy as RoboCop becomes far more emotive than Murphy as the human policemen. I think both films are commenting on how artificial bodies liberate their inhabitants from the dehumanising corporate and militarised ‘real’ worlds that they have come from.


  10. Hi all. Here we have a HUGE film and once again the old ‘technology versus story/script’ argument. Firstly, in my opinion, I wouldn’t dare compare this film to the original Star Wars of 1977. That film had wit, humour, effects, uniqueness, action and more. Avatar has technology and spectacle and does well at that, but I’d hardly compare it to that previously mentioned classic. I mean, why can’t we have both? (script and effects)..really, some of the dialogue in Avatar was worse than bad, even for 14 year old Americans, with only the ‘effect’s’ (barely) making up for it. Truly, I heard some of those tired combat/military lines like 20 years ago, and they were bad then. Surely J.Cameron is better than that…
    I didn’t mind the ‘white guy saves the day’ thing, and in truth I expected it from a movie like this for a mass audience, but for me, the key flaw was the inexcusable character development (rather, the massive lack of!) There was hardly a charcater in the whole film that wasn’t one dimensional and bland. This wouldn’t be so bad except for the fact that when they come to die, you feel absolutely nothing for them. i.e. the fierce Na’vi warrior (sorry, for got his name)…perhaps only Neytiri was a fuller character, but she couldn’t do it all alone. Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi were embarassingly under-used as well. Cameron had almost 3 hours to intro and develop characters but he didn’t. That’s just my opinion. Overall, I did enjoy the film from a popcorn, spectacle kind of view and appreciated the immense amount of work that would have gone into making it, but as far as a rating….3 out of 5 for me. Sadly too, as an end note, it will win the Best Picture Oscar coming up soon, which it does not deserve. Then again, Hollywood never ignores films that make zillions at the box office.

  11. Len, I wouldn’t compare Avatar with Star Wars, which I’ve found unwatchable. I’ve tried three times to watch it on DVD but found the dialogue puerile and had to abandon each time. I think it’s an intrinsic element of the blockbuster to be compromised in order to get a mass audience. It’s as true of Avatar as it was of Star Wars.

  12. Thanks Benicio, that review was pretty hilarious. It’s amazing how condescending film makers can be…then again, if people lap it up, they’ll keep serving it up! Hey, I went along, so I can’t really talk, haha. I guess it’s the old thing though to do with the psychology of what we accept/reject. Basically, if an audience feels ‘dumb’, like the film maker is too clever for them, then they’ll be turned off and decide they don’t like it (which is why Euro-art films don’t usually do well – you have to think!)
    hence, for a mass appeal film, you have to make it ‘dumb’ VERY simple and join all the dots plot-wise for people to ‘get it’, then they’ll be happy and accept it (even see it multiple times!). James Cameron isn’t dumb, ge’s merely played the masses for every cent they have, well done James.

  13. I only got as far as the first minute and a bit of that video Benicio. I can’t take anybody seriously when they accuse Avatar for being “anti technology, anti military and anti corporate”. The film depicts the mass murder of an Indigenous population for material wealth as a bad thing. Have we really got to the point where a film representing genocide as a negative is accused of being leftist/liberal/condescending/etc?

    Getting back to the Star Wars/Avatar comparison: I really struggle to understand how anybody can embrace one but not the other. Both are based on (and I know I’m repeating myself) popular culture archetypes and basic morality adventure tales that are derived more from Hollywood Westerns than any serious science fiction texts. Now I love Star Wars but the dialogue is naff and the characters are simple, and that’s part of its charm (for those who can embrace such things). After all, George Lucas developed Star Wars as a sort of homage to the B-grade serials that he used to watch as a kid.

    I suspect we are more forgiving of the simplicity and naff factor in Star Wars because a lot of us saw it as kids, when we were less critical, and it holds a strong nostalgia factor.

    Anyway, since we are resorting to insulting the intelligence of people who liked Avatar and posting links to other sources, have a look at the article “Five Ways to Read Avatar” by author Henry Jenkins. His arguments are far stronger and more informed than any of the counter arguments that I’ve come across. Then again, maybe it’s just a matter of taste and we’d all be a lot better off channelling our energies into celebrating films we like rather than endlessly ridiculing ones we don’t like.

  14. I suspect we are more forgiving of the simplicity and naff factor in Star Wars because a lot of us saw it as kids, when we were less critical, and it holds a strong nostalgia factor.

    Thomas, you’ve exactly articulated what I was thinking.

  15. I wasnt aware anyone was throwing around insults?

    To summarise that link (and it is a comedy review as I stated above) he simply points out the mechanisms and manipulations used by James Cameron in both Titanic and Avatar to appeal to the masses. It’s those deliberately manufactured things that really get under my skin with these movies – The same goes for the last few Star Wars films actually.

    The original Star Wars was made by a relatively new film maker at the time and it wasnt made with the agenda of being a blockbuster. Those differences are the very reason why Star Wars is held in such high esteem… And the overwhelming nostalgia factor of course.

    Sorry to see you taking criticisms of this movie so personally.

    I’ll sign off here.

  16. I’m not taking criticism of the film personally and I don’t think I come across as doing so. However, even though I have been guilty of this in the past, I just don’t like it when the audience’s intelligence is questioned simply because they enjoyed a particular film that somebody else has not. That attitude has started to seep into this discussion in a way that I feel has not been constructive.

    In response to the points you raise in your last post, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head about why there is such a backlash against Avatar and that has a lot to do with various thoughts about why James Cameron made the film. I honestly don’t have any opinion of whether it is a personal and artistic expression for Cameron or whether it was just a coldly calculated exercise in making a film that would generate big bucks at the box office. For me the only thing that counts is the film itself and in this case I kind of liked it.

    Many years ago I wrote a piece titled “The Master of Consensual Manipulation” about Steven Spielberg. I argued that what made so many of Spielberg’s films great is that although his films are manipulative, he engages with the audience to the point where they consent to his manipulation. I feel a similar way about Cameron with Avatar.

  17. Ok, Star Wars had a bit of a ‘naff’ factor, true, but at least there was some more character development and time spent with them (Luke, Han, Vader, ObiOne), I fail to see any of that in Avatar. The effects were great, the characters (and their dialogue) seemed to have been written by an 8 year old for 8 year olds, just my opinion, not insulting anyone etc etc etc. just telling you what I thought of the movie. I mean, when the marine thug says ‘Shock and Awe’ I just had to chuckle. At least Star Wars had charm and humour in a good mix, Avatar had zero. Still J.Cameron is zillions richer as we speak :) good for him

  18. Thanks for clarifying your position Len. I suppose all you can do now is move on or maybe one day give the film another go. I know when I really dislike a film that so many others have enjoyed and appreciated then I try to make a point of re-visiting it again, just in case I did miss something. I usually end up sticking to my guns but every now and then I do have a change of heart. But for now I can’t see either of us changing our position!

  19. Each film has a target audience. Some films have a large audience, some niche. Avatar is a blockbuster, with a big budget and it aims to have as wide an appeal as possible. That means it’s not going to appeal to some. That’s fine – it’s just not your thing, then. You can’t expect Cameron to spend big bucks and then make a film that only cinephiles are going to see.

    I think it’s a bit disingenuous to demean Cameron and to assume the worst in relation to his motivations. He’s a film director, an artist of sorts and he aims to make films that entertain people. He also has a history of innovation (Terminator 2 remains one of my favourite science fiction films), and Avatar is notable for its pushing the boundaries of technology.

    Sure, the “shock and awe” comments are pretty dumb and much of the dialogue is kitsch. But no more so than Star Wars.

  20. Don’t forget, “shock and awe” is a military concept, and it was a military person using the term. Seems quite natural to me. What would have seemed more natural? “Oh no, they’re using a strategy of rapid dominance!” A little too highbrow for that character, methinks.

    You’ve probably just heard the term so much in movies nowadays that it seems cheesy now. That doesn’t mean it’s not still a valid (and used) term.

  21. i thought this movie was terrible. Yes, the special effects were wondrous and magical, but the story was thinner than a threadbare carpet in the cheapest room of a flophouse hotel.

  22. I find it curious that you can describe the most defining aspects of Avatar as “wondrous and magical” and yet still regard the film as a whole as terrible. Film is a visual art form – surely its visual triumphs carry a bit of weight?

  23. Avatar reminded me of Dances with Wolves as stated above and also at times of FernGully: The Last Rainforest. I enjoyed the film but when the DVD was shut off, the movie was over. I didn’t think about it any further.

    Thanks for posting your article “The Master of Consensual Manipulation.” I respect what Spielberg does and also what Cameron provides his audience but want something more when I personally “go to the movies.” Avatar did make a strong modern-day statement about the US Military and how those with one-dimensional business interests proceed forward at the expense of great civilizations and intellectual research. That and the entertainment value are worth something.

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