Utterly boring. That’s what I saw in the woods and the sky along the expressway when I was driving back after seeing James Cameron’s new 3D movie. Because if there’s one thing about perceiving color in real life, it’s immediately recognizing post-production values that set new records for my eye’s dynamic range. Things initially jostled back and forth: good visuals, or good plot? Strong lead protagonists and flat antagonists, or level-headed characters everywhere? Do I really need 3D, or will normal cinema suffice? Hint: I didn’t prefer the new tech.
But Avatar, a ~161-minute movie with costs higher than the smart-as-wood Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, at least managed to get some of the things I longed for in an adventure-action film correct. Not the majority of points like the Lord of the Rings trilogy, but more than enough to pass a year-end science fiction movie quality test. Want to spoil yourself? Jump, and don’t miss…it’s a long fall from here!
As with my past reviews, I’ll go through some of the outstanding points that helped Avatar succeed, then list the counters against it. I’ll also summarize what a Christian film watcher would need to be aware of; it’s safe to say that this film is not a District 9 for violence and language, though.
Please note that this review covers the RealD Cinema version of Avatar, not the regular nor IMAX version. Any comments related to the three-dimensional effects of this film are based on what I saw through the polarized glasses.
– Outstanding post-production visuals. If TF:RotF (as I’ll time and time refer to again, for it’s failure to deliver) flushed out money on making parts-laden robots without souls, then Avatar struck a winner at one of the most beautiful science fiction films of this year. It’s similar to Tron‘s groundbreaking neon effects, but amplified ten times in the “If we can make it glow, make it glow even more!” department for Avatar’s night scenes. And during the day, I applaud the matte painters and modelers for spending thousands of man-hours in creating realistic floating mountains, immense fauna-scapes, extensive natural vine bridges, the Hometree, and the Tree of Souls.
– One very memorable scene. One of my favorite sequences from another great film, WALL-E, portrayed the eponymous trash-compactor robot flying outside the Axiom ship with EVE alongside him, in a kind of mystical zero-gravity ballroom dance. Avatar responded loudly with a twilight embrace between Jake and Neytiri, drifting amongst the bio-luminescent foliage with their shared love in tow. And the 3D filming definitely enhanced this moment. Wonderful!
– Incredible details everywhere with seamless integration. This movie sets a new standard for blending reality along with computer-generated (or traditionally-created) visual effects. I had a hard time spotting inconsistencies – even down to the glowing foot tracks the Na’vi and Jake left at night, each step appeared to have weight.
– Creatures and wildlife abounds. The Na’vi, aside from a few bumpy instances, have believable faces with imperfections and tiny glowing spots. Multi-legged animals come alive with power and grace, especially the flying Mountain Banshees and the so-believable-I-want-one Toruk. Big, kinetically-active plants and forest undergrowth cover almost everything. I can’t imagine just how much time the conceptual and 3D modelers spent developing these assets.
– Fantastic angles. Without doing the “Michael Bay” with endless jostling and turning, Cameron’s virtual camera jockeying upped the ante for high-speed aerial rides. Combined with the Banshees and other flying creatures, we were all in for wild, yet quite realistic, journey. And yet when the time came, macro shots on Pandora allowed us a closer look at the world, like a quick episode of National Geographic with flair.
– Believable progressions in human technology, and realistic mechanical design. It’s the year 2154: we don’t (necessarily) have fusion batteries yet, there are no laser cannons, and aircraft still need to be streamlined in a gaseous atmosphere. But we do have AMP suits (a kind of stout master-slave mech), efficient turbine engines, VTOL aircraft of all sizes, and we still utilize kinetic energy weapons to hinder the opposition. Great job on not following the un-realism bandwagon.
– Not overdone with action. Again, this wasn’t a Michael Bay’s Explosions!!! concussive montage film, and both my ears and myself are very relieved. The pacing from combat, to recovery, and back to combat was predictable, but well-done. Although the final fight was a bit overdrawn all the way up to the Colonel’s death, this had more to do with subsequent expedited ending (described later).
– Decent portrayal of life in space. The spacecraft that brought Jake Sully and Co. in had believable facilities, including cryo-hibernation pods, a centrifugal gravity hub, and an overall structure that appeared typical of near-future interstellar transport. A ~5 year trip to Alpha Centauri is hard to wrap my mind around, unless we succeed in creating near-lightspeed travel, but I’ll let that slide.
– Great physics. The massive Hometree falls with power and collateral destruction. Large-scale fires burn in torrents. Droves of missiles fly fast and hit hard (albeit, with characters still flailing about from the impacts?), and VTOL propeller wash swirls the landing sites in radial patterns. Mountain Banshee wings flap gracefully, and rhino-like chargers plow away their targets. They’re all simulations that deliver realistically.
– Jake Sully, a believable lead protagonist. I commend Sam Worthington’s character, portrayed as a sympathetic (though initially very naïve) person who stood on the knife’s edge of two culturally-differing races with incompatible intentions. He did this well both in human form and in his computer-generated Avatar version. I’m not too sure about Marine Corps. training toughening his attitude up, because he still felt soft for a soldier. Oh well, more caring for him from us.
– Zoë Saldaña’s voice acting for Neytiri had its emotional moments, especially when Eytucan died from the first human onslaught against Hometree. It felt a little constrained and flip-floppy when Jake Sully first encountered Neytiri, but her acting smoothed out as the film progressed.
– A good (if heard-of-before) soundtrack and (mostly-effective) sound effects. The biggest plus? The synthesized hollers, calls, and footsteps of the lifeforms around Pandora were very authentic, with piercing highs and thundering lows, without hurting my ears.
– The plot’s mostly unoriginal and overdone. I think Tarzan and Pocahontas are knocking at the door again, so let me get them :( . Save for a few plot twists (such as Grace dying from her gunshot injuries before she could be transplanted to her Avatar), the hero-trapped-between-two-races act has been through my mind over and over, to the point of predictability. The Na’vi look human, and act like the culturally-bonded native Americans we’ve studied as children – language barriers aside. And why is Pandora an Earth clone? Sorry…you failed on these terms, Avatar.
– Word choice blues. “Unobtanium.” “Pandora.” “Avatar.” “Na’vi,” “Sky People.” The subjects they’re related to could’ve been described with a little more intelligence, particularly the first two.
– What happened to mining unobtainium, and what’s it used for? Aside from a quick scene of gigantic dump trucks and a humongous bucket-wheel excavator stripping parts of Pandora, and one hovering chunk of it in the command center, I don’t see much going on in terms of a back-story. This dark silver mineral seemed interesting (aside from its name), and I’d like to know what it’s used for, and why it costs $20 million a kilogram.
– Terrible human antagonist leads and their very underwhelming script. Two in particular come to mind: Stephen Lang’s portrayal of Colonel Miles Quaritch (a Duke Nukem act-alike AND look-alike?!) and Giovanni Ribisi’s role as Parker Selfridge. Unfortunately, neither of them have any believable character flaws – or any flaws whatsoever – that could’ve redeemed them in the end, even in the Colonel’s easy-to-predict death. They conveyed an “Ah-HA! I know who are the bad guys!” feeling within minutes of their first lines. The rest were of the disposable kind, sadly.
– A couple of cliché minor protagonists. Sigourney Weaver’s character, Dr. Grace Augustine, and Joel Moore’s human-avatar duo chacter, Norm Spellman, fell prey to one-dimensionality. Spellman had an excited, child-like act, which, though helped keep the movie from degenerating into over-seriousness, didn’t do much else otherwise until just minutes before his death – which I almost forgot. The doctor’s plot curve from resentfulness against helping Jake to full embracing before her passing also went in a jagged manner (is it me, or do all good lead doctors need to be female?). And on the Na’vi side, Laz Alonso’s Tsu’Tey carried the “jealous brother” model, failing to come to respect until Sully pulled the predictable tame-the-Toruk move.
– AMP suit was “meh.” I won’t digress again how much I like good mecha, but this I had problems with. For one thing, why is it so easy to kill someone in a AMP suit? Oh that’s right – the windshield is HUGE and are easily broken by Na’vi arrows. I think bullet-resistant polycarbonate is stronger than that. Don’t you? Please, enclose the cockpit and use armored sensors instead, or at least keep the plastic-piercing arrows out.
– Rushed ending. I can understand that it’s hard to make a drawn-out conclusion that smoothly finishes the plot curve, but this is getting annoying, especially for such a long film that should’ve had powerful story potential. Ranking Jake Sully up to Na’vi chieftain, filing the humans back to Earth, and permanently fusing Sully’s human soul to his Avatar went with little explanation, leaving my glass of sympathy for all of them short of full.
– Sound effect clichés. Listen closely to Jake pulling the pins out of the grenades while attempting to destroy the carrier and gunship. Those “plinks” sound awfully familiar, eh? As do the typical computer beeps, airlock hisses, etc., I really think sound designers should go out and record their own clips from the real world to prevent such overuse (if not synthesize their own). And these are in the same film whose wildlife ambiance is very believable? Come on…
– Physics plot holes. As said earlier, a lot of the simulated physics worked, but there are a few minor nitpicks. Fire burns on Pandora, and turbine engines perform just fine. I’m implying that there’s a ~21% oxygen concentration within the planet’s atmosphere (just like Earth’s), but the story didn’t explain why breathing the mix is poisonous to humans. What’s really in it? Hydrogen sulfide :p ? In addition, I wonder about that planet’s acceleration of gravity: natural carbon-fiber-laced bones might help, but some falls that Jake Sully’s Avatar broke seemed enough to kill from g-forces alone.
– Sound perception problems. Also a minor problem. Why do the VTOL’s blades sound like typical large-diameter 2-blade/3-blade helicopters? There are two rotor sets on the smaller craft, each with a pair of three-bladed props in a contra-rotating arrangement. I expected to hear a high-pitched whine (like that of a Eurocopter Dauphin‘s tail rotor). And this is a bigger problem: during the two battle sequences, I was hoping to hear reverberations around the Pandora forest from flying bullets and arrows, broken parts, creatures dashing about, and aircraft flying overhead. Unfortunately, the Dolby surround mix sounded like most of the action happened within a 2-meter diameter circle onscreen.
– The 3D effects worked – for some sequences. RealD Cinema uses circularly-polarized light, allowing viewers to sit anywhere and even tilt their heads without loss of the simulated depth. I stationed in the back rows near the right side (looking forward), and there was no shifting, blurring, diffraction, or other image artifacts. Great! But despite widespread use for regular movie theatres, it is still an immature technology. I could’ve viewed Avatar without the virtual third dimension and would’ve written the same comments above, because of inconsistencies in the depth of field during indoor scenarios on the human side. More than a few times, I questioned whether a foreground or background piece of equipment should be in or out of focus – and it was often the opposite…though part of the problem may be my immensely-corrected vision leading to DoF confusion. Fortunately, outdoors (especially in the nighttime scenes) the 3D delivered strongly as long as motion was kept minimal – the aforementioned “One very memorable scene” in particular. Finally, during the high-speed Banshee scenes, I started to ignore the effects for the sake of action. Overall, RealD is a bit gimmicky and unnecessary for a good film. Your mileage may vary, especially if you view other versions of Avatar and/or sit in other positions about the theatre.
Christian Viewer’s Advice:
– Violence remained relatively bloodless, even as arrows fly into and partially out of humans, and bullets through the Na’vi. Knives stab, explosions erupt, and bodies fly about in whole, a typical entourage for PG-13 action films nowadays. It was definitely not as gore-heavy as District 9, though.
– The Na’vi religion is centered on a goddess deity known as Eywa, which permeates as a life force about Pandora and is implied to respond in times of crisis (as Jake Sully did during the final battle). Most of the ceremonies of worship focus on group songs and gatherings, but there are no sacrifices of the same nor alien nor human races. The Na’vi blesses creatures stunned for food and other material before they are put down for good by knife. It is important to remember that, as Christ followers, that we are to worship only God alone, and to give thanks to Him for Jesus and the world He’s given us to live in.
– And yet again, redemption from past sins is hard to tell in Avatar except for one critical scene when a bound Jake is asked to save the Na’vi race, and when Tsu’Tey reconciled with Sully’s avatar before the final fight.
Through all praises and displease, I had fun watching Avatar. The astounding visuals kept my eyes cemented to the screen (until a bad line or two came out of the Colonel’s mouth), and I’m certain this film will not be the last that RealD Cinema will go through for improving future releases. Not a movie to watch for story alone, nor one to call a “tech demo,” this was still well worth the ~2.5 hours spent in the imaginative world of Pandora.
Have a safe and happy New Year, everyone! See you all back in 2010…