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James Cameron's Avatar

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted December 18, 2009, with later edits

James Cameron is King of the World, and that world is Pandora!

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That being said, I normally wouldn't start a review with the negatives, but it's best to get this out of the way right off the bat. The story in Avatar not unique or original and the characters are stereotypical. Why does that not matter in this instance? I'll get to that in a bit.

Usually my taste in SF films veers towards the more cerebral rather than the visually dynamic, although there are times when they can be utilized equally in the same film. 2001: A Space Odyssey and Blade Runner are two examples of that. Both of them are more cerebral than Avatar, but the difference is slight so I have no reservations about mentioning them in the same context.

If the story is clichéd then why am I recommending it? The first is the pedigree of its creator, James Cameron. The man who brought us The Terminator and Aliens has proven multiple times he has the chops to create dynamic scenarios that challenge our concepts of courage, honor and heroism, as well as the depths of human greed and insensitivity. He has taken us to alien worlds (even when they are on Earth, a lá Terminator and The Abyss) and introduced us to uncommon but exemplary heroes. Only this time he spent as much time (and money) as possible developing the film, practically reinventing 3D imaging and creating totally new camera systems to accomplish the task. And he has succeeded, possibly even beyond his hopes and aspirations.

I know I am not the only person who has thought over the past few years that with CGI technology there really is nothing that cannot be accomplished on film. That has never been more true than at this specific time and place in movie history. This is a film that demands to be seen on the largest screen possible, in 3D. I may see it in an IMAX theater soon, although I would have to drive 100 miles to get to the nearest one. I was so immersed in the world of Pandora and in the plight of its people that the near two and three-quarter hour running time was over before I was ready to leave that beautiful world. The visuals are stunning, and sometimes it is hard to distinguish where the live action stopped and the CGI took over, so I decided to accept that it was all CGI and just go with the flow.

Unlike with other times I have watched 3D films, after a short while I didn't even think about it because the experience was so real and captivating, and best of all, no headache afterwards. And since the story was not hard to follow I also let my mind wander and was thinking about some other things it reminded me of, both other filmed stories as well as books not yet adapted. Dinotopia is one, the Dragonriders of Pern another. There were also many other books I would love to see adapted to the screen with this much attention to detail, and I would abandon most of my fears of remakes and reboots if they could also utilize the technology to bring the effects to this level (as long as the story does not take a backseat that is).

So, how about those negatives? If you haven't already read a synopsis of the film you should know that most people have been comparing it to the subjugation of the Native American population (some have even dubbed it "Pocahantas or Dances With Wolves, but with CGI explosions".) There is a bit of that, with the Na'vi riding horse-like creatures (they have six legs though) and their weapon of choice is the bow and arrow. But they could also be compared to any aboriginal culture on any continent on Earth. The reason why this didn't matter to me is because there are entirely too many examples in our history of these types of events. As long as there are greedy corporations and the military-industrial complex who feel that all indigenous populations are there only to be subjugated or eliminated in order to get to whatever resource their land can provide, well then, this is a type of story that will continue to have enormous relevance.

This might seem a bit callous, but I would have changed the ending of the movie. Not that this would be that big a spoiler, but I'm going to hide it anyway. Just highlight the next paragraph to read how I think the film could have had a better impact.

The Na'vi, with the help of certain human friends, are able to fight off the invading army, albeit after quite a bit of their habitat has been destroyed. I think they should have failed and that the military-backed corporation (which is eerily similar to Weyland-Yutani) should have been successful in either wiping them out completely or enslaving them to mine the precious mineral they are there to obtain. After all, that is the way things would happen in the real world, right? Might have made more people think about similar atrocities a bit differently, rather than accepting such a false fairy tale ending.


So, in a nutshell, go see it, as soon as possible and as many times as you can afford. Then tell everyone you know to see it too if they haven't already. The predictions have been that there is no way it can be a profitable film, with a production budget of over $300 million, and if you add in the cost of prints, 3D glasses, plus all the advertising promotions, it's probably closer to $400 million. But don't forget that everyone thought Cameron was going to lose his shirt (and his career) with Titanic, so don't count the man out yet. If he defies the odds once again this could very well be a remarkable turning point in movie history.

[UPDATE:] Reflections from a few years later. I'm not editing any of the above review, although my fascination faded quickly, especially when Cameron announced multiple sequels. I have no interest in them, and would rather see him turn his attention to other scenarios. So, Avatar is still a remarkable film, but mainly for the technical aspects. It's not on my list of Best Films, even Best SF Films, not unless we extend that list well beyond a hundred titles or so.


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James Cameron

December 18, 2009

Sam Worthington
Zoe Saldana
Sigourney Weaver
Stephen Lang
Joel David Moore
Giovanni Ribisi
Michelle Rodriquez

Full Credits at IMDb

Available on DVD and Blu-Ray

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