Quickie Review: Avatar

Avatar Poster

I’m feeling very sick today so hopefully this review makes a semblance of sense. If not, blame it on the unicorns dancing around my head right now. Avatar is a watershed movie, one that will redefine the way we talk and feel about contemporary cinema. What the movie misses, of course, is a satisfying plot, which begs the question, does storytelling matter?

Let me first talk about the special FX. Awesome. I saw it in 3-D Imax with my girlfriend and her family, and everyone was on the edge of their seats the entire ride. When Jake Sully and Neytiri, his Na’vi girlfriend ride banshees (pterodactyl-like giant birds) down a steep ledge, I literally felt like I was flying and had to take off my 3-D specs. There were many moments that the blue world of Pandora felt realer to me than anything I had seen on Earth. The director, Cameron took the “digital animation” ball from Pixar and shot a three-pointer. It is a movie made up of mind-melting moments, and for that alone you should go see it.

But what about the plot? It was hard to follow, longish, and filled with unneeded exposition. Stripped of its trappings, the story is both simplistic and predictable. Marine Jake Sully is part of a special project on the planet of Pandora to pacify the Na’vi, whose land rests on an important deposit of unobtanium, whatever that is. He enters an isolation chamber and through his mind, controls a separate Na’vi self, who quickly finds friendship among the tribe. Eventually, they accept “him” (his avatar) as one of their own—he even falls in love with local girl, Neytiri. But what happens when his human patrons decide to attack the Na’vi? What then? Whose side will he choose? Really, guess.

Cameron is a visionary director. He created a world of such beauty and diversity, a mirror-image of our own as strange as any in science fiction, as tantalizing as the Mars of Protazanov’s Aelita, Tarkovsky’s Solaris, or even Lucas’ Star Wars-verse. As my buddy Brian pointed out, this is a world that you cannot experience on your laptop. It simply wouldn’t make sense, like coming to the Grand Canyon for the gift shops. You need to experience this one in IMAX to understand it.

Yet Cameron still hasn’t created characters that the audience can care about. Obsessed with surface impressions of Pandora, he has yet to dig deep into his plot to answer some necessary questions. Why is unobtanium so valuable? What became of the Earth? Why should we care about the Na’vi?

Nevertheless, this is a must-see movie, as important to the future of cinema as anything I have seen in the past few years. This could be the moment the movies make a comeback—the possibilities for creating immersive universes like Pandora are endless. Whether or not you get it, you will be drawn in. Yet I still fantasize about the quieter movies, ones less visually stunning that nevertheless are far more interesting. Will fanboys and girls care about a movie that cares about characters as much as FX? For the sake of good cinema, I can only hope so.

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7 responses to “Quickie Review: Avatar

  1. I have to admit, this movie makes me nervous for the aspiring writer. I’m waiting for the writer’s fallout – if simplistic stories is all that’s needed nowadays, what’s the point of testing the writers limits?

    Still, I’ll check this movie out. It seems to be the first one defined for the IMAX 3D experience.

  2. “Really, guess.”

    LOL seriously. I knew the whole story from the commercial.

    I think, though, that Avatar (as a breakthrough cinematic experience) doesn’t eliminate the need for good storytelling. If anything, this might give writers an even bigger opportunity:

    What can we (well, y’all, since I don’t write for screen) do with this technology AND a really good script?

  3. Hey Jon,

    Merry Christmas to you, your friends and family!!!

    May 2010 be a year full of new inspiration, writings and… bird watching movies! : )

    Sarah

  4. Yes, this movie is now breaking all box office records, which makes me even more concerned. Do audiences care that this story is very trite and not at all original?

    That said, as they say in film school, I respect Cameron’s vision. He’s an innovator for sure.

  5. writer-at-heart

    Now it has grossed over 1 billion dollars! Amazing! However, it received a “black lung award” from scenesmoking.org for portraying S. Weaver smoking. Others recently receiving this “award” were “Sherlock Holmes” and “Nine.” Here’s an article about this, with James Cameron’s response:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/04/business/
    04smoke.html?scp=1&sq=avatar%20joins%20
    holiday%20movies&st=cse
    Interesting health angle.

  6. I think Cameron’s response to the smoking issue was very intelligent and fair. Thanks for sharing that link!

    Also, I finally saw Avatar, and I loved it! The story may not have been original (it was like Pocahontas meets Fern Gully meets… something with a lot of action) but it still captivated me. And the characters were a bit rough, yes, but I still cared about them. (Thank GOODNESS Cameron let the romance develop naturally and subtly instead of trying to pull a Lucas in Star Wars Episode 2… Ugh!) I don’t think it was a bad thing for films or writers at all. Sometimes we writers get so hung up on being the next artistic genius that we forget it’s okay to retell a common story as long as we make it our own. Cameron definitely made this story his own.

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