Sunday, March 7, 2010

Big Screen - Avatar

Avatar by James Cameron

While I know there is a video game for this movie (which Gamezelot may eventually review), this review is about the film itself. You're probably asking yourself, "Why is Gamezelot reviewing movies?" Well, I'll tell you. Essentially, Avatar is a nearly 3 hour video game romp. It is effectively one big cutscene from a video game. Because of this fact, I have decided to review this movie here.


It's actually 3 stories in one. Boy meets girl, boy falls in love, boy betrays girl, boy wins girl back. Ok, so much for the love story. The second story is for the battle over Pandora, the planet the Navi inhabit. Humans need 'Unobtanium' and to get it, they must displace the locals (the Navi) on the planet Pandora. The third story is of sacrifice and courage by those chosen to become Avatars.

Essentially, there are two factions towards domination of Pandora. The Sigourney Weaver character camp that believes that understanding the natives is the answer. She does this by creating the Avatars (lifelike representations of Navi bodies that humans can remote control). So, her intent is to blend in with the Navi and become one with them using these Avatars. This tactic doesn't work until a handicapped marine signs on to run an Avatar.

The second camp is the military commander. He wants decisive action to get the job done. If that means destroying the Navi to get the Unobtanium, he'll do it.

The Navi are the indigenous peoples of Pandora. Ok, so that's the setup.

In the 3 hours that unfold, lots of visual effects are used and some cool and amazing things are done. This is, to date, the best live action video game yet. When we can finally get consoles that can produce graphics that look like Avatar, then we'll be onto something.


The premise behind the film is sound, but the basic stories have been dumbed down to fit into the nearly 3 hour framework. In fact, this movie would have been better served as an actual video game where you could spend hours and hours playing it and get a truly in-depth experience. But, of course, the graphics wouldn't have been anywhere near as stunning.

However, ignoring the graphics work, which is outstanding, the stories are actually fairly weak with lots of holes. The writer(s) could have done much better at sewing up the details of Pandora and the Humans, but failed to do so. So, there are a number of rather cliche and trite things about the way this movie unfolds. While you haven't seen a movie that looks like this one visually, you have seen this film before. Effectively, Cameron has taken stories that are old and tired (and somewhat politically correct) and wrapped them in a shiny new huggable CG ribbon.


Unfortunately, the characters in this film were all basically cartoons of real humans. From the unfeeling G.I. Joe to the Smoking Doctor. There's nothing very realistic about any of the characters. Even the attempt at sympathy for the handicapped marine really falls quite flat. Because his human role in the movie basically consists of entering and exiting the Avatar control pod, you get very little real emotional time with the human part of this character. The only emotional time you get with Jack Sully (the handicapped marine) is him as the Avatar which, with as well as it was done, just doesn't cut it. So, Jack Sully's character is flat and underdeveloped.

Human vs Avatar

Unfortunately, as well, there was very little struggle for any of the characters learning to control the avatars. For example, there have to be long term exposure effects of some kind. Whether that's nosebleeds or convulsions, there needs to be some negative consequences to using the avatar chamber. Something that tells the human body that it's not a good thing. That never happens. Without this element, it leaves the human world flat and emotionless. It makes the story feel all too perfect. Without this element, this leaves the story without a human antagonist that prevents the avatar from working perfectly. And, throughout this film, the avatars perform flawlessly.

Without something that ties the the audience to the cause of the humans, it leaves the audience emotionless towards any of it. It's hard to feel for the Navi fully because you realize they are simply CG characters. Worse, they are CG characters which are caricatures of real tribal cultures. You want to feel for the humans trying to do good for the Navi, but you can't because there's not enough screen time given to these elements. You can't feel for the bad-guy soldiers, so the whole affair ends up mostly unemotional.

Contradictory points

The characters tend to contradict themselves during parts of the film. For example, the tribe leader's daughter who first meets up with Jack Sully (as an Avatar), gets a sign from Eywa (aka Gaia) for her invite him in to her tribe. She doesn't understand why, but she does it. She chastises Sully for killing these dog creatures as 'unnecessary' and him being a child. Yet, later he kills an animal without remorse and it's all ok. There are other times as well where the film steps on itself with the tribal culture. So, this makes the tribal aspects not very well conceived.

High points

There are high points, but they are all there to manipulate the audience into feeling good about the situation. Like when Sully is able to pull off getting his flying creature or when he swoops from the sky and takes control of the much bigger and more revered flying creature. Hello, if it were as easy as he made it out to be, then the entire tribe would have done it.

Manipulating these feel-good points to make the audience feel happy almost seems a bit contrived. It works for the moment, but when you reflect on it you really understand how Cameron manipulated the situation for the audience rather than for the story.


The music score is fairly intense, but typical for this kind of blockbuster. There's lots of swelling orchestral movements throughout. Too many, in fact. The score is loud, but that may be partly because of the theater. In most parts the score works, but it's also quite cliche. There's nothing new here. Even though the graphics excel, the music score is standard.


The movie was good, but not perfect. If the movie had grounded the human parts in a more solid reality with more human character development, the Navi parts would have been much more believable. The struggles between the G.I. Joes and the Navi were really there to provide a battle environment... an Ewok vs Stormtrooper moment, if you will. This is the Star Wars for a new millennium, but even Star Wars kept the humanistic aspects to keep the audience grounded (at least for the first 3 movies). The later three movies felt much more like Avatar.

I'm at a loss why CG and human drama can't work. Avatar definitely shows that it is possible to do it with film (even though Avatar itself didn't succeed), but it doesn't have to be feel-good fluff. Unfortunately, Cameron took us on this journey, but primarily as a cartoon than as a real human drama. Perhaps he felt that the CG would play better if it felt more cartoony than as human drama. I don't know, but this film opens doors to the next evolution of film making. I would say that District 9 was probably closer to human drama vs CG than any film to date including Avatar.

Unfortunately, Cameron has already set the tone with Avatar. So, Avatar 2 is off the table for moving back towards real human drama. I don't fully understand the cartoonistic approach to Avatar. Cameron would have done Avatar far better and more satisfying by making all of the characters more real (from character development side) from the beginning... and also truly studying tribal cultures to ensure the approach was consistent throughout.

Oh well, there's always next time.

  • Graphics: 10/10
  • Audio: 9/10 (in parts, too loud and abrasive)
  • Story: 4/10
  • Overall: 7/10 (too cartoonistic and simplistic)

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