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Avatar (2009) Review

By   Dec 19, 2009 02:30 PM EST
It turns out you cannot count James Cameron out.  It appeared kind of telling that the trailers for the movie had to tell you who this guy was and why we should care.  The likely 20-something targets for the movie were maybe 10 when Titanic came out (2007), and think of Terminator as an old movie where people have funny 80's hair.  To  them, Aliens was one of a mediocre 4-part quadrilogy that sometimes plays late nights. Terminator 2: Judgement Day stars that guy from California politics back when he was an actor. 

So when I heard that Avatar was coming, I wasn't that impressed.  It would have been dismissed as Halo crossed with Fern Gully, and that turned out to be, for various values of Halo + Fern Gully, pretty accurate to the script or plot.  In fact, the plot of the movie is in no way challenging or surprising. There is an alien world around Alpha Centuari called Pandora.  It holds a resource called 'unobtanium' (this is an 'in-joke' name for a substance you know you can't get hold of). 

On top of a huge deposit of it, are a tribe of primitive aliens called the Na'vi, who are three-meter-tall, blue-skinned native-American types having a deep connection to the ecology and worship a planet-goddess mother who is not called Gaia, but might as well be.  The company (presumably the same one as in Aliens that is pretty much pure capitalist evil) has a giant force of para-military guys and wants to either make nice with the Na'vi or relocate them "forcibly".

There is an iron-jawed, mercenary Colonel who is overseeing the military part of the mission.  There is Sigourney Weaver who reprises parts of her Gorillas In The Mist role, as well as a little from Aliens, the head science researcher who wants to protect the aliens.  Sam Worthington comes in as a crippled marine who is on the mission because his twin brother, who was trained for alien contact, was killed.

Worthington, Jack Sully, is a genetic match for his brother which is important because the scientists use human-Na'vi hybrid bodies to interact with the aliens.   Having the same genes means he can drive it, even if he has no experience as a scientist.  What follows is a lot like Dances With Wolves.  It is a little like Princess Mononoke.  It is a lot like a lot of things and none of it is especially surprising.

Cameron is a consummate action director, and he has not lost his touch.  I was even glad that Avatar is not as mercilessly relentless as he is capable of being.  It has a high tempo, but even at two and a half hours, it held me glued to the screen the whole time.  Sometimes, I could see events unfolding and realized how they would come together later as the plot developed because I knew it must.  However, a lot of the time I just enjoyed the incredible sights and sounds of the alien world.

In order for me to give a movie an 'A' rating, it has to do more than just hold my attention; it has to challenge me in some way.  Avatar's narrative structure simply does not.  It is Hollywood all the way, and Cameron admitted as much when he talked about his inspirations for it.  But that isn't all there is to the movie.  Avatar is also something new.

In signature fashion, when Cameron set out to make it, he wanted virtual actors.  Technology wasn't ready, so he worked on it.  He wanted to immerse the audience in a virtual world.  The 3D technology wasn't up to it, so he worked on it.  He created special cameras for a higher frame rate.  He used a new method for virtual staging, so he could direct in real time and look at action sequences.  He worked on new methods of getting life-like facial expressions from his actors into their virtual, well, Avatars -- and it all works.

When Avatar begins, there are no credits; it simply opens in the incredible world of Pandora and the future and invites us in without telling us we are in a movie.  I expect this is fully intentional.  When watching the show, I forgot that these virtual actors were not on a real set.  The jungle from its tiny insects to soaring trees is entirely fabricated -- nothing is real -- and we forget that.  It is challenging in a way the script cannot convey.  It's craft exceeds its plot.

Avatar gives us some of the first virtual actors we can really believe in.  It gives us a new 3D experience that has nothing to do with making the audience duck or adding depth to a computer-animated film.  It is a new way to immerse us in the story and for the entirely long runtime of the movie, it captivated me.  I forgot that there are some questionable plot points, e.g. why does the human-Avatar link and overly obvious elements work when no other signals do?  I did take notice that one of the pilots had my same last name -- but what are you gonna do?

Avatar is a new experience, and one that demands the big screen.

Purchase Avatar On Amazon   Purchase a DVD/Blu-ray/4K UHD physical copy of Avatar today at

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Directed By:

MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 189 minutes
Distributed By: 20th Century Fox

For more information about Avatar visit the FlickDirect Movie Database. For more reviews by Marco Chacon please click here.

Avatar images are © 20th Century Fox. All Rights Reserved.

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