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I think I may be a “film snob.”

Great way to lead off a review, right? Let me back up a moment. Months ago, when the teaser trailer for James Cameron’s newest epic Avatar hit “the Intardwebz,” I wasted no time mocking, ridiculing, and berating the film. I cranked up my petty squabbling after production stills, behind-the-scenes looks, and the full trailer were made available. Like so many other jaded movie-know-it-alls I joined in the choir of fanboys shouting “THEY LOOK LIKE GIANT SMURFS!!!” Then it hit me – I was bashing a film I HADN’T SEEN YET. Now, not many of you out there know me, but one thing I try to do when it comes to films is to give all movies a fair chance to entertain me. And so, as unbiased as I could be, I saw Avatar. Did it exceed my expectations, or was I right to mock this movie? Take the jump and find out!

Avatar
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoë Saldana, Stephen Lang, Sigourney Weaver
Director: James Cameron
Company: Lightstorm Entertainment/20th Century Fox
Year: 2009

SPOILER WARNING!

(Just a head’s up… I will most likely go into some kind of spoilers with this review. Yes, I know the site’s called Major Spoilers, and release “spoilers” is pretty much what we do around here, but seriously, if you have any plans to see this flick, don’t read my review right now. Bookmark it, go see Avatar, then come back and read this. You’ve been warned.)

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Avatar is the story of Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), an ex-Marine who has been taken off the battle field due to a battle wound that has left him paralyzed from the waste down. What battle, you ask? We don’t really know. Anyway, Sully is recruited for a mission to Pandora, a planet that from space looks an awful lot like Earth. See, Earth is in the middle of an energy crisis (… really?), and Pandora is chock full of a mineral called “unobtainium” (…really?) we so desperately need to… solve our crisis. How? Again, we never really know.

Unfortunately, that largest deposit of unobtainium is nestled under the most populated “Hometree” of Pandora’s indigenous people, the Na’vi. The Na’vi are 10 feet tall, blue-skinned, and fairly cat-like. One interesting feature is that they all have a long braid of hair that contains what is believed to be part of their brain stem, which allows them to “plug into” all manner of plants, animals, the ground, each other, etc. essentially, they all have USB ports.

This is where Sully comes in. He’s been pushed into the “Avatar Program,” a scientific installation funded by the energy company who uses Na’vi and human DNA to create artificial Na’vi bodies that “pilots” can plug into and use. These avatars are used, in theory, to attempt to negotiate peace between the Na’vi and the humans. Sully’s been thrown into this not for his military expertise, but because his twin brother was a leading member of the team… until he was killed, that is (don’t bother finding out why). Because their DNA matched, Sully can effectively use his brother’s avatar, much to the disdain of the project head (Sigourney Weaver, channeling a giant blue Jane Goodall).

The last bit of background we need to cover is the military’s surly commander (Stephen Lang). This guy doesn’t want peace. This guy doesn’t like science. He doesn’t really care about the energy crisis. He just wants to blow up some Na’vi. And, as luck would have it, an ex-Marine who also doesn’t care for science can now effectively integrate himself into the Na’vi tribe. The commander temps Sully with the promise of a cure for his paralysis in exchange for detailed reconnaissance of the “alien” settlement.

After that, the plot of the film is pretty much by-the-numbers. Sully joins the tribe, learns their ways, reports to the commander, eventually learns to love the Na’vi, learns to REALLY love the chief’s fierce warrior and future priestess daughter (Zoë Saldana), turn against the military, and mounts an attack that eventually forces the Earth military off Pandora. With films like this, there’s really only two ways it could wrap up, and I’m sure some of you know what I’m talking about. I won’t give it away, but here’s a hint: Sully doesn’t die. Not even close to it.

Once upon a time, I wrote that for me, essentially, a film can’t run on stunning visuals alone. And after seeing Avatar, I stand by that statement. Take a minute to let it sink in. I just said I didn’t fully enjoy Avatar. Quick everyone, grab your pitchforks!

The CGI is, of course, nearly flawless. You can really see where the $300 million went with this one. The foliage is lush, the waterfalls are breathtaking, and the landscapes are amazing. The Na’vi come off as about as believable as CGI can get. But computer graphics will never match the realism of… well, realism. It’s like the movie Westworld – the scientists build nearly human-like androids, but they were just “off” enough to be noticeable as inhuman. I can’t fault this movie for not being completely realistic; they came as close as they’re ever going to get to real life. Good job, CGI team. Good job.

The problem I have with Avatar is the story. Have you seen the movie Dances with Wolves? How about the Last Samurai? Fern Gully? Well, if you have, then you’ve seen Avatar. Honestly, while watching this film, I found myself constantly predicting what would happen in the following scenes, and about 90% of the time guessing right. And when I got to the last scene with Weaver (if you’ve seen it, you’ll know what I’m talking about), I already deduced the end of the movie. An ending that was still 40-50 minutes down the line. If you’re the director of what could possibly be the biggest film of the decade, you should make it a point to not let this happen.

Speaking of the director, Avatar has the stink of “Look-at-me-I’m-James-Cameron” all over it. Everything is taken incredibly serious, so serious that even the “comic relief” character is stoic. I know Cameron was trying to parallel Avatar with what we did to the Native Americans all those years ago. I know he was trying to make a statement about the military’s bloodthirsty ways and our compulsive need to consume everything, even that which is not ours. I know he was trying to be DEEP. I found it kind of pretentious.

The acting was pretty good, more or less. Sam Worthington can go from bumbling and clueless to fearless and heroic in the blink of an eye, which takes talent. Now only if he could work on his American accent. Zoë Saldana is excellent as Neytiri, or at least her voice work and motion capture acting is. As I said earlier, Weaver is definitely channeling Jane Goodall for this role, and she does a great job. Our “comic relief,” played by Joel Moore, was almost unneeded, only popping up here and there to say “Hey guys, I’m part of this film too,” much like Biggs from Star Wars: A New Hope. Special mention goes to Stephen Lang, who, while incredibly 2-dimensional (ironic, seeing as this is a 3D film), is amazing to watch. He just oozes “bad guy.” And I’ll be honest here, as much as I love Samuel L. Jackson and am pumped for him to be in the next few Marvel films, I wish this guy would have been cast as Nick Fury. Seriously. Go see this move, come back, and try to tell me he wouldn’t make a perfect 616 Fury. Just try.

In closing, I’ll wrap up my feelings on Avatar with a little Christmas analogy: you could have the most amazing-looking present under the Christmas tree, with intricate wrapping paper, perfect bows, flawless seams, and just the right amount of tape holding it together, but if the present is empty, at the end of the day you’re just stuck with an empty box. And while I applaud the film for its groundbreaking effects, I just can’t see myself getting behind the story. Your mileage may vary, but I’m going to have to give Avartar 2 ½ stars out of 5.

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The Author

Sam Dunham

Sam Dunham

Sam Dunham was born at a very early age, and shortly after became entangled in the world of film. His first memories are of seeing King Ralph in his local theater. He learned to talk with the help of Adam West's Batman: The Movie. He's one of the few people to still own a working RCA Videodisc player (heck, it's where he first watched Young Frankenstein!). When Sam is not perusing his extensive B- movie collection or sitting in dark theaters with a tub of popcorn, he is usually found reading comic books, fixing computers, toiling away at his day job, working some nights at a local radio station as a "soundboard guy," and going to class so that he can one day toil away at his day job fixing computers. One time, Lou Ferrigno conned him out of $20.00. But that's another story...

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20 Comments

  1. eric
    December 22, 2009 at 10:41 am — Reply

    You know I feel the same way and I have not seen the movie. I did not want to comply with the heard of people rushing to go see it just sitting there breathing in a theatre with their 3D glasses on going OOOOOOOOOOOOOO and ahHHHHHHHHHHHH. Give me more than just some visuals. I hope it does not get an Oscar nomination for best picture.

  2. Armin Breuer
    December 22, 2009 at 11:02 am — Reply

    Nobody seems to notice that the movie’s plot is (almost) exactly like the Pocahontas story/myth…

    Anyway:
    http://n2.cdn.spikedhumor.com/1/610000/143723_demotivational_wank_1.jpg

    Great review, although I liked the visual presentation enough to give it 3 1/2 stars.

    • ATLian
      December 22, 2009 at 3:06 pm — Reply

      You can pretty much say that about many other movies as well.
      The story has been told over and over again.

  3. Ocho
    December 22, 2009 at 11:17 am — Reply

    I saw the movie on Saturday and liked it. I’ll go back and see it again; and, I’ll recommend it to anyone who asks.

  4. Ivdar
    December 22, 2009 at 11:44 am — Reply

    I agree with all of your points, Sam. Like you, I found myself predicting the next step in the plot several times.

    I gotta say, I did not like how easy it was for Jake to just turn sides and start killing his own colleagues ; I mean, sure they’re part of a militaristic and intolerant corporate machine, but they’re just proxies. As far as they are concerned, they were just doing their jobs, trying to keep the settlement safe, and then everything turns to full-blown war. Sure, they’re mercenaries, they knew the risk, but I just find it odd to se the glorification of war in a movie that’s supposedly about tolerance for others and harmony with the world. Anyway, rant over.

    Like I said, I agree with your points, Sam, but I still found Avatar to be fun. It’s a very basic action movie, but thanks to good execution, solid acting and some truly wonderful moments on this strange world, it managed to entertain, even though I noticed to cracks in the polish.

    It’s far from a great movie and I doubt it’ll make history like some people say, but I didn’t feel like I had wasted money on my ticket. If you’re looking for good fun in the theaters, I recommend it.

  5. Matt
    December 22, 2009 at 12:52 pm — Reply

    Went friday night with my wife and then took my son sunday to go see it. Must say I really enjoyed it both times. I believe there are some movies like an Avatar or a Transformers and even GI Joe that you should just go get your popcorn kinda turn off the brain and watch it and enjoy it.

    Did it have similiar plots as other movies? Yup sure did but for the most part I don’t think you will come across many movies that are truely original. Maybe a handful a year. I enjoyed it for what it was. Visually beautiful movie w/ solid acting and a pretty good story.

  6. mosdef
    December 22, 2009 at 1:35 pm — Reply

    Sam, i see your points that you made but you really went into this review ready to hate the movie which is not good.
    I really really really liked Avatar. In fact i loved it, yeah the story was predictable at certain points and there were some questions unanswered and maybe there were for a reason.(trilogy) but the film was awesome.
    The characters and visuals made the movie for me. Each character was quite different and brought something to the movie that i appreciated. It also showed the many flaws and plus’s of humanity.
    But to each there own. I give it 5 stars.

  7. Dan Hunter
    December 22, 2009 at 2:03 pm — Reply

    smurf-ahontis?

  8. Ev
    December 22, 2009 at 3:10 pm — Reply

    2,5 (or maybe 3) seem like a fair score.
    I am geting tired of overlong movies and trilogy. Overlong movies often seem like lazy editing and/or lazy storytelling.

    Avatar was fun to watch, it was ok, but I have enjoyed far better plots and storytelling while playing video games.

  9. December 22, 2009 at 4:28 pm — Reply

    So what would you go see this weekend – Avatar or Sherlock Holmes?

  10. Brian
    December 22, 2009 at 7:11 pm — Reply

    Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, The Story Of Jesus, The story of Moses, the story of Hercules, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc, etc… all share similarities, read Joseph Campbell. Did you hate Star Wars much the same way? I’m tired of this shit, railing against the story, when it was handled better than any two Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai or Pocahantas… Just get over it… It was awesome. Listen not to the blowhard with the blog.

    • December 22, 2009 at 8:12 pm — Reply

      What blowhard with a blog are you referring to? Major Spoilers is a website, not a blog. And as always, with every review, your milage may vary.

  11. December 22, 2009 at 8:14 pm — Reply

    Did you hate Star Wars much the same way?

    Star Wars is a wonderful film, but it’s story ain’t exactly ‘Titus Andronicus…’ :)

  12. Mauther
    December 23, 2009 at 4:20 am — Reply

    Went and saw this movie on Saturday in “glorious” 3D. Annoyed enough by the end product that I kept the glasses instead of recycling them, take that Cinemark!

    I’ll start with the positives. The actors were good. The script was fairly bland but Soldana, Worthington, Weaver, Pounder and Studi were all good with what they had; Lang stole the show but that’s easy to do with a scenery chewing 2 dimensional villian (see McDermot, Ian). The effects were very good, and Cameron’s got a real knack for military sci-fi. While he’s not very imaginative with the future-tech onscreen, he really fleshes out what he has and makes it feel lived in and functional. Visually, this movie is stunning.

    On the negative side, pretty much everything Dan listed in his review is accurate. The story isn’t just similar to Dances with Wolves or the Last Samurai, its pretty much the same story, only dumbed down even further. Its the same noble savage tripe, but stripped away from any moral ambiguety. And that’s really my biggest problem with this film. I’ve been hearing about this film since the early 90’s, and along with Schwarzenegger’s “Crusade” from the same period, and it was one of the great white whales of Hollywood: a blockbuster epic with possibly the greatest action story ever (or so the rumors went). When I heard it finally went into production I was completly stoked. Leaving the theater that night I was completly let down. This wasn’t some studio hack job that Cameron knocked out over the summer. This was 15 years on development, a decade and a half of thought and consideration, this is Cameron’s magnum opus. Michelangelo only took 4 years on the Sistine Chapel.

    It’s the story that is overwhelmingly the problem here. Its not just derivative. Its an out and out rip off, just go through the check list: main character narative voice over (check), broken soldier falls for the chiefs daughter (check) conflicts with young warrior cheif-to-be but earns his grudging admiration/friendship (check) but is then forced to choose between his national loyalty and these pure hearted primitives by a ruthless bloodthirsty military commander who only wants to kill the primitives (check). This broad story is common (as others have pointed out) and I don’t necessarilly see that as the problem: Last Samurai, the Wind and the Lion, Pocahontas, New World, Lawrence of Arabia, A Man Called Horse all play off the same “gone-native” theme. The difference is all of those present a more nuanced story (except maybe Horse, but that was the 60’s). Take Samurai as an example, while the story is certainly very sympathetic to the Samurai cause, it does show the violence and arrogance of the Samurai culture and explains why both the Meiji Emperor and the civilians rose up against them. In Avatar, the Na’vi are flawless eco saints who live in absolute harmony with nature and even communicate with their god (always good storytelling when you have someones god actually intervening, nothing lazy in that trope, not at all…) while the brutal humans literally rape the world. There is no flaw at all to the Na’vi, and all of the humans who oppose the Na’ve are completly without redemption (any that is at all sympathetic sides with the Na’vi. This is just lazy story-telling.

    As a further criticism, I wasn’t impressed with the apparently originallity on screen. While I was impressed with the Na’vi animation, as actually alien design they were lazy (just fodder for furries). There’s a better explanation in a Slate article by Nina Shen Rastogi (http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/browbeat/archive/2009/12/16/on-na-vi-biology.aspx) where she goes through a quick run down of the Na’vi with a FX consultant biologist. Its a good read, I’d recommend popping over. But the gist is that its again lazy to make your aliens likeable by making them hot (long legs, athletic, b-cup on a thinly veiled Zoe Soldana? Why not just use the green girls from Star Trek? Similarly the military tech (while very well done) was completly uninspired. 150 years in the future in interstellar travel and their still using helicopters and assualt rifles. The mecha – while nice – were basic steel and plexiglass. No hovertanks, no drones, no phase-plasma rifles in the 40 watt range. I mean the soldiers wheren’t even wearing effective body armor. Just as important, considering this is the guy who gave us the phrase “nuke ’em from orbit, its the only was to be sure” why is the space option never addressed?

    If this was some McG toss off “Avatar” wouldbe a solid B. But this is the Major Work of one of Hollywoods Greatest Directors. As such its a D-.

    PS: Out of these types of movies I would recommend John Milius’ “The Wind and the Lion” (Connery overacts awesomely, and Keith is fantastic as Teddy Roosevelt, great quotes) and “Lawrence of Arabia” (one of the best movies ever made and O’Toole turns in one of the best acting jobs ever…EVER. plus what a score). These show you can do spectacle and still tell a good story.

  13. December 23, 2009 at 4:34 am — Reply

    I predicted the plot in full from the first trailer (during a football game). Its “man discovers native culture is better than his because he gets to bang native hottie” plot has since been revealed to somehow be more trite than I expected. Fox’s constant hype has managed to turn off such slobbering crap movie fans as my mother (her last straw was the promo/music number during the dance-off show), and as always, James Cameron is being an egomaniacal horse’s ass pretending he reinvented the talkie.

    Sure, visually, I’m sure it’s great. But apparently, Spoilerites are in the minority that actually wants a good story to go along with the pretty visuals in their movies. I now firmly believe that anyone who uses the “turn off your brain and enjoy it” argument never had a brain to start.

    Anyone who tries to take me to see this movie gets punched in the throat.

  14. December 23, 2009 at 5:59 am — Reply

    I’m gonna go on a limb here and agree with mosdef.

  15. December 24, 2009 at 11:25 am — Reply

    I liked it just fine. The story may not have been totally original (in fact not original at all) but the way people are talking about, you’d think there were only two sides of a movie: Special effects and acting. But look at it as a whole experience: Great actors and characters, masterful special effects, an epic final battle, a strong mythology within the world with creatures that had a real organic feel to them… I think I’ll take all of that with a serviceable story. Let’s face it, the story wasn’t BAD, it was just adequate.

    I don’t think this was a perfect movie, but I also don’t think it’s a movie you should “turn your brain off for” like transformers. And I also don’t know what you mean by James Cameron being pretentious… You find it pretentious because he was trying to strike on an important note? I guess everyone who ever tried to make a strong message in film was just “being pretentious” too?

  16. Brother129
    December 28, 2009 at 10:17 pm — Reply

    I really enjoyed the film. But your constructive criticism was very fair. You have to admit, the cgi enhanced the viewing pleasure….

  17. James
    December 29, 2009 at 6:14 am — Reply

    I went to see it in the good old NOT 3d version with 7 others, and we all came out with the same opinion, while a solid movie, this was really a by the numbers film. I’m sure watching it in 3d would have enhanced our enjoyment, but not enough in my opinion to give it more them 2.5/5 stars. Of all the movies of it’s type I’ve seen, it is one of them. (Albeit in a shiny package.)

  18. tgrotenhuis
    December 29, 2009 at 9:22 am — Reply

    I agree with many of the critical comments here to a degree, but not all the way. Yes, the film had many plot elements that have been seen in other movies. But what made this film so inventive was the way they were put together. The context, of a futuristic sci-fi expedition to a new planet, and the channeling of an alien body by a human, had not been done before. Also, the final battle had so many twists and turns that even if you had an idea of how it would turn out, you didn’t know how the story would get there. I, too, guessed how the movie would end about 40 minutes before the final credits, but I had no idea that the final scene would be so gripping and intense. It’s not just the basic plotline that factors into a movie’s story, it’s also how the story moves in that direction — the details and twists and turns that get the story where it’s going. I thought the twists and turns were very creative — it was a movie unlike any I’d ever seen before, even if it did bear a strong resemblance to “Dances With Wolves.”

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