Posted on Friday, December 11th, 2009 by David Chen
Editor’s Note: Earlier today we published Brendon Connelly’s review. The following is a different take on the film by David Chen.
I can still remember the first time I saw James Cameron’s Terminator 2. I was in elementary school and had tagged along with some of my older relatives to a Los Angeles theater. The atmosphere was electric at the sold-out showing, and that was even before the first reel started rolling. What we, as an audience, bore witness to that day was the fact that Cameron was able to deliver something that we’d never seen before, a special effects extravaganza depicting a benevolent cyborg battling against a man made of liquid metal. When Arnold delivered his “I’ll Be Back” line, the audience erupted into cheers. It was one of the most memorable moviegoing experiences of my life.
We here at /Film have been writing and thinking about Avatar constantly for months and months, and by this point the hype (partially created by sites like ours) is pretty enormous. Industry observers, and to some degree Cameron himself, have claimed that Avatar will not only transform cinema but also the process of how movies are made. The plot details of the film have been covered elsewhere, so I won’t go into them here. My question going into the film was not whether or not Cameron could live up to the impossibly high expectations, but simply whether Cameron could temporarily restore that sense of childlike wonder I once felt at watching his movies years ago.
Let me just start by saying that Avatar is a hugely exciting sci-fi/adventure/thriller/romance/drama/war film that is well-worth your time. It’s a complicated enterprise to build a world, but with his nearly unlimited resources for this film, Cameron seems to have done just that for the planet of Pandora. From the flora and fauna all the way to the language of the Navi, the attention to detail is impressive. More importantly, the look of the world feels unified and believable. It is a remarkable creation and a stunning testament to Cameron’s ability to fully realize his creative impulses.
Two of the film’s most-touted elements are its use of performance capture and the 3-D feature. I actually think it’s to their credit to say that I didn’t really notice either of them after the first few minutes. The fusion of CGI-creatures and real-life actors is relatively seamless and you end up just completely buying the world that Cameron has put you into. The 3-D helped make the experience more immersive, but I was more impressed at the camera work in this film; the way Cameron was able to use technology to change his workflow has resulted in cinematography that feels right at home in your typical action film. It’s subtle, but it goes a long way towards convincing you that Pandora actually exists in this universe.
Undoubtedly the weakest part of Avatar is the script, which I can’t describe as anything other than terrible. Supposedly written by Cameron years ago before the technology existed to bring it to fruition, the dialogue is frequently stilted and occasionally delivered poorly. I felt this dearth of quality more frequently during the scenes with the humans, perhaps since they were in a language I could recognize.
Virtually every single significant character moment feels maddeningly rushed. Turning points in the storyline never really feel like they are given their due, and with the possible exception of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), none of the characters get enough screen time for you to learn their motivations or develop a significant emotional attachment. Thus, whether a character was making a critical decision or meeting his/her untimely demise, I was often left strangely emotionless. I wanted to be invested, but there just wasn’t enough there for me to connect to.
Despite this, almost everyone does a decent job with what they’ve been given. Standouts include Stephen Lang, who plays Colonel Miles Quaritch with a bitter intensity. Zoe Saldana is great as Neytiri; Saldana’s character experiences the full range of human emotion here, from disdain to love, defeat to triumph. And somehow, underneath all of that CGI blue, she manages to be, dare I say it, sexy? Her relationship with Jake is the one I found the most convincing and compelling, but even then, it hit the standard beats a little too quickly and I felt it needed a little bit more room to breathe.
That being said, what the script lacks in depth, it makes up for in pacing. I never, for one moment, felt bored during the film’s entire 2.5+ hour runtime. Just when you are starting to get a tiny bit restless, Cameron has an thrilling set piece or a gorgeous visual waiting for you around the corner. In fact, I actually wished the film was longer to allow us to spend more time with these people in this amazing world.
The film’s biggest accomplishment is its finale, and here, Cameron completely delivers. While the scenes of war hinted at in the trailers are indeed spectacular, it’s the very last confrontation in the film that I found to be both novel in concept and masterful in execution.
In the end, I found what I was looking for in Avatar, a sense of wonderment at the novel, and a feeling that what I was seeing is the beginning of something exciting in the world of cinema. There were sequences of such intensity that they literally got my heart pumping furiously, and scenes and moments of such beauty in this film that my inner child squealed with glee at seeing them on screen. If you’re looking for an amazing time at the movie theater, there’s more than enough here to thrill you, move you, entertain you, and even provoke you.
Avatar is the reason why people occasionally use the word “epic” to describe movies. Cameron has always been skilled at setting up a clear dichotomy between good and evil, and that ability is on display here, encapsulated in the epic battle between the natives and the invaders of Pandora. I just wish that we’d gotten to know everyone a little bit more before they all headed off to war.