A film review by Craig J. Koban December 21, 2009

AVATAR

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- 2009 Theatrical Cut

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½ - 2010 Collector's Extended Cut

2009, PG-13, 163 mins 

2010, no MPAA rating, 180 mins.

 

Jake Sully: Sam Worthington / Neytiri: Zoe Saldana / Grace: Sigourney Weaver / Col. Miles Quaritch: Stephen Lang / Trudy Chacon: Michelle Rodriguez / Parker Selfridge: Giovanni Ribisi / Norm Spellman: Joel David Moore / Moat: CCH Pounder / Eytukan: Wes Studi / Tsu'tey: Laz Alonso / Dr. Max Patel: Dileep Rao / Corporal Lyle Wainfleet: Matt Gerald

Written and directed by James Cameron

Note: Below is my original theatrical review of the film from December of 2009.  For a discussion of the new COLLECTOR'S EXTENDED CUT, see "Review Addendum" posted after the main review. 

SCREENED IN
3D

The chief problem with modern visual effects heavy extravaganzas is that fail to inspire a genuine sense of wide-eyed wonder in their fabricated sights; in short, they lack magic.  Our current CGI age has allowed filmmakers to use all of the digital tools at their disposals to let their fertile imaginations run wild.  Yet, the sheer saturation of pixalized imagery has left audiences numbly complacent: we know that computers have created the visuals we see in so many films now, so the ethereal magic in wondering “how’d they do that” is all but lost.  We scrutinize the movie screen more than engage and let ourselves escape within it.  When people witnessed the immeasurably long star cruiser chasing a far smaller one in the legendary opening shot of George Lucas’ first STAR WARS, I think that movie audiences of the time were instantly transported into a legitimate state of awe.  Most contemporary CGI-centric films fail to capture that same transportative allure. 

I think that James Cameron’s long awaited science fiction opus, AVATAR, might be one of the very few CGI epics that has reignited that same sense of pure escapism in filmgoers, the same kind that made Lucas’ immortally cherished space fantasy such a revered trendsetter.  Even though AVATAR is clearly a distant second to STAR WARS in terms of establishing a resonating and widely embraced pop culture mythology (the story and characters in Cameron’s effort are derivative and largely forgettable), there is no denying that the film is every bit STAR WARS’ equal as a watershed technological marvel that has delivered one of the greatest and most convincing out-of-body experiences of the movies.  Like Lucas’ film saga, AVATAR is a film that's so generous to its viewers: there is just so much minute detail that occupies the frame that brings immediacy and credibility to the synthetic sights.  Cameron spares no expense at thrusting viewers into his audio-visual nirvana, and what results is simply one of the most jaw-dropping and astounding presentations of an alien world that I’ve ever seen.  

Not many other recent effects-driven films have felt as tactile as this one.  This stems from Cameron’s own decade-long period of research and development, during which he pioneered breakthroughs in various filmmaking techniques to bring his visionary fairy tale to the screen.  Originally based on a 114 page story treatment written in 1994, Cameron required much needed time and money to see that technology would catch up with his imagination.  During his post-TITANIC sabbatical he would pioneer his own Reality Camera System to radically rethink 3D imagery (it's essentially a camera with two HD lenses inside, which gives remarkable new depth and scope to the image) and has fundamentally pioneered new motion capture technology for his CGI characters.  This has allowed for substantially more facial expression of the actors to be captured (Cameron claims that 95 per cent of an actor’s performance is translated to their computerized doppelganger as a result). Furthermore, his new motion capture techniques allowed him to instantly see how the performers' CGI character blended in with the digitally created environments in real time, whereas previous examples of the technology required the environments to be added after the actors' characters were created. 

Yes, this all sounds very, very technical, but it's crucial for explaining the film’s $300 million (and reportedly higher) artifice.  'Tis true, the so-called “Uncanny Valley Effect” that has plagued so many other past CGI creations is still somewhat apparent in AVATAR (even in the finest and most meticulously composed shots, the CG humanoids still seem to lack bulk and weight in motion), but that is just inane nitpicking, because what Cameron has achieved here is a breathtaking step forward for the art form.  The texture and photo-realism of the images on display here utterly dwarfs other recent blockbusters, and AVATAR, throughout most of its running time, is an incomparable blending of the real and unreal.   Cameron - whom has demonstrated time and time again that he's one of the leading technological ringmasters of the cinema - has really found an a way to hide all of the strings and seams in his film’s bag of magic tricks. 

AVATAR’s story takes place on the exotic Rainforest-on-acid planet of Pandora in the year 2154, a jungle-rich tropical paradise where humans have arrived – despite an atmosphere that can kill them in minutes – in order to mine as much of a rare and valuable mineral as they can find.  Greedy and selfish corporations run the show (not much has changed in 150 years!), but the military plays support, led by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang).  The problem for the humans is that the largest collection of this mineral lays smack dab right at the heart of the indigenous population, a ten foot tall race of blue-skinned aliens called the Na’vi, which treat their lands as sacred and holy and certainly do not want any outsider imposing their will on it.  Fortunately, there is a Na’vi friendly scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (Cameron alumni Sigourney Weaver) that has spent much time as a cultural and political liaison between the humans and aliens.  Unfortunately, the corporate head honcho (Giovanni Ribisi) has become tired of the sluggishness of Augustine’s attempts with the Na’vi; he wants them relocated ASAP. 

Their way in is through “avatars,” or synthetically manufactured Na’vi that are a hybrid of alien and human DNA.  Basically, human drivers become mentally linked to their Na’vi avatars while comatose in chambers and are able to drive their new bodies.  When one marine who was genetically imprinted to one avatar died unexpectedly, his twin brother Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has decided to step in and fill his sibling’s shoes.  Jake is an ex-marine that has become a paraplegic and yearns to continue the "good" fight, but his physical limitations hold him back.  Soon, he becomes an unfortunate pawn between the wishes of Quaritch and Augustine: the former wants him to get close to the Na’vi to pass back vital tactical Intel on their culture whereas the latter wants Jake to more serenely and innocently establish a cultural tie with the aliens.  

When Jake gets separated from the humans and finds himself in the midst of the largest alien population on the planet, he manages to become close with the natives.  He also begins to grow especially close to one Na’vi warrior princess in particular named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana).  She takes it upon herself to deeply immerse Jake in everything about her culture.  Slowly, Jake begins to empathize more with this alien race than with the purely capitalistic and militaristic impulses of his human ties, but Colonel Quaritch discovers this and, seeing that one of his men has “gone native” and has failed his mission, he decides to launch a massive offensive against the Na’vi to forcefully move them…permanently. 

As stated, Cameron has more than hit his stride here as a fantasy filmmaker that transports viewers: His Pandora is a dazzling, Technicolor, and 3D-infused psychedelic Eden that is the wet dreams of sci-fi geekdom. This jungle paradise is both foreboding and lusciously beautiful:  We see everything in the frame, from countless, skyscraper-sized trees, to floating mountains, to spectacular waterfall cascades, to every possible bizarre and splendidly evocative beast you could think of.  There are snarling carnivores that look like dogs mixed with dinosaurs; gigantic locomotive-fast mammoths that look like  triceratopses on growth hormones; and even lesser, more angelic life forms, as is the case in one of the film’s most quietly serene and exquisite moments when floating creatures that look like gelatinous sea-faring jellyfish softly drift from the sky.  There are simply no details left unchecked: there is something to see and acknowledge every second on screen, and it is that obsessive dedication to detail that makes PANDORA – despite its obvious artificiality – feel so tangible.  That, and Cameron intuitively understands how to properly use 3-D to bring dimension to this world; he abstains from using bugged-out gimmick shots that pummel viewers and instead uses the technology to create an incredible sense of depth perception.  Subtlety is the right choice with 3-D, as on display here. 

Then there is the film’s climatic, show-stopping battle between the Na’vi and the military, which, by Cameron’s proud admission, took nearly two years to conceive and film.   It is a testosterone-induced maelstrom of boisterous color and kinetic movement.  We see human piloted, machine-gun equipped robots and a cloud of football stadium sized army helicopters wage an all out Pandora blitzkrieg on the Na’vi warriors, which fly above and below them on their pterodactyl-like birds of prey.  More than anything, this is a climax that totally delivers on its built up promises; it’s one of the most masterfully orchestrated and robustly sustained visual effects/action sequences of the movies.  

However, AVATAR is such an unparalleled visual spectacle that it all but blatantly underscores some of the film's most grating faults.   As much dimensionality that Cameron has given this world, it’s a shame that the story and characters lack it.  When you strip apart the layers of the film’s sumptuous art design and endlessly impressive technological dynamism, AVATAR’s story is predictable, derivative, and lacking originality.  Cameron himself has stated that his narrative influences for the film were “every single science fiction book” he read as a child, but it’s clear that AVATAR is more or less a thinly veiled revisionism of western genre staples: think DANCES WITH WOLVES with aliens substituted for Native Americans.  There is very little in the way of tension in the story because it’s so easy to foresee where the plot heads from beginning to end.  Jake’s journey from ex-marine to Na’vi-loving fundamentalist is handled with a perfunctory obviousness.  The film’s allegorical themes seem equally – and at times exasperatingly – obvious.  The film telegraphs such real world allusions to Vietnam-styled genocidal warfare, to Green Peace-inspired ecological sermonizing, to a beyond clear-cut parallel of the military’s involvement on Pandora for purely profit motivated interests to that of America’s controversial invasion of Iraq this decade.   

The two antagonists of the story - the corporate weasel that wants to earn a buck at the expense of a Na’vi holocaust and the army Colonel that’s all militaristic, shoot first, ask questions later gusto – are developed on cartoonish auto-pilot.  Although I really liked Stephen Lang (insanely buff for 57-years-old) as the wickedly vicious and single-mindedly violent war brute,  Ribisi’s capitalist stooge is never a compelling creation: he’s a stock villain that is used a story device.  Sometimes there are shots of him inserted in key moments of the film were he looks regrettably contemplative, and then Cameron never once follows through on that notion (there was a chance to invest him as a compellingly complex villain, which is never the path chosen here).  Then there is a real throwaway female grunt with the obligatory heart of gold (played forgettably by Michelle Rodriguez) that seems like a rejected extra from the squad of roughnecks from Cameron’s own ALIENS. 

The “heroes” of the film fare a bit better: It’s nice to see Weaver again in a Cameron effort, granted, her scientist character seems more like a fan-placating interest in the film.  Sam Worthington is a rising star that has easily found his niche in action films (he was rousingly good in this year’s TERMINATOR SALVATION) and he projects an earnest defiance and courageous sentiment in both his human and Na’vi incarnation.  Zoe Saldana’s kick ass – and oddly sultry – Na’vi princess is arguably the most interesting and well rounded of all of the characters, and one of the subtle pleasures of AVATAR is to see the actresses’ soulful and vehemently passionate performance under the guise of an completely synthetic creation.  Her character’s, how shall I put it,  humanity towards her people is thankfully never lost – our overshadowed – by the technology that creates her, which is not an easy thing to accomplish. 

There is no doubting that AVATAR is going to be long-revered as a pre-eminent and defining example in the annals of visual effects pictures.  It’s been garnering considerable comparisons to STAR WARS, and deservedly so.  Cameron’s ten year journey to see his vision through to successful fruition on the big screen is a monumental achievement: he has essentially created a bountiful feast for the eyes and imagination with an entire world, an entire alien culture, and an entire ecosystem that surrounds and defines this planet.  That’s why AVATAR is worth visiting, and on as big of a screen as you can possibly locate (IMAX preferably).  It’s truly lamentable, however, to see this trendsetting “king of the cinematic world” display far less acuity in marrying an original and stimulating story to his treasure trove of astoundingly realized alien delights (not to mention that his unforgivable inclusion of Leona Lewis’ Celine Dion-esque end credit love ballad, “I See You,” will have many Cameron elitists cry foul and groan with mocking incredulity).  Yet, Cameron, as he once did with the release of his soap opera disaster epic from 12 years ago, has silenced his staunchest of critics.  He has promised an escapist next-Gen filmgoing experience that has been built up to PHANTOM MENACED-sized expectations…and has delivered. 

It's scary to think about what he could do with ten more years of free time on his hands.

 
REVIEW ADDENDUM - November 19, 2010

People that are familiar with James Cameron intuitively understand his fondness for cutting-edge home video formats, which have allowed him to go back to his prominent films and edit and tweak them to his own specifications that – under certain circumstances –  he couldn't do when the films originally were released.  Two in particular that come to mind are his ALIENS (1986), exceptionally fine in its theatrical cut, but it became a whole other satisfying film afterwards when Cameron released a definitive director’s cut on the then-fledging laser disc format.  THE ABYSS (1989) perhaps best reflects how post-theatrical changes made by the filmmaker can – for the better – totally re-shape the value of the film.  He has also made different home video versions of TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY, albeit to less drastic effect. 

It seemed inevitable that Cameron would return to the world of Pandora in AVATAR, and his initial theatrical cut at 163 minutes certainly did not feel truncated in any real tangible way.  However, when 20th Century Fox decided to release a startlingly disappointing bare-bones, features-free edition of AVATAR on DVD and Blu-ray, you just knew that Cameron and company had something special planned for future releases.  True to form, Cameron unveiled AVATAR back into theatres earlier this year as a Special Edition, inserting some eight minutes of extra footage.  Considering that 3D ticket prices hover around the $14 mark, I could not justify returning back to the cinemas to see less than ten minutes of new footage. 

Now comes his hotly anticipated COLLECTOR'S EXTENDED CUT, which not only expands upon the Theatrical Edition, but also the Special Edition as well.  Cameron has returned yet again and has significantly added to the 2009 version with 16 minutes of new scenes, some of which don’t really augment the original Theatrical Cut, whereas some that significantly improves upon character dynamics and themes.  All of this is presented on a superlative 3-Disc Blu-Ray Edition just released on November 16 and it is one of the finest Special Editions released on the format thus far. 

As for the new scenes themselves?  We get some new glimpses of Jake Sully interacting more with the Na’vi tribe, not to mention that there is an infamous addition to his love scene with Neytiri, which is not any type of R-rated, hardcore alien on alien action that many thought it was going to be; it’s more subtle and delicately erotic…I guess in a strictly Na’vi manner.  There are also a few loose moments where we get to see more of Colonel Quaritch losing his marbles ever more (Lang, perhaps even more on my second viewing, comes across as more deliciously evil: he just chews up the scenery).   

One new action sequence in particular is outstandingly realized:  We get to see an extended aerial hunting sequence that shows the Na’vi atop of the pterodactyl-like steeds in an effort to ritualistically hunt and kill a bison-like alien species (okay, the DANCES WITH WOLVES allusion here becomes ever more painfully obvious, but it doesn’t matter, because the artistry and technical virtuosity here is astonishing).  Another scene that stands out is a significantly quieter one: There is a peek into what exactly happened to Dr. Augustine’s school for the Na’vi, and this scene alone does wonders for appreciably adding some dimension to Weaver’s role that was not there to begin with.   

Perhaps the largest and most crucial addition this time around is a whole new, alternative prologue that is set on a mid-22nd Century Earth.  It is a brief, but noteworthy, addition to the film that shows the trials and tribulations of a wheel chair bound Jake as he struggles to eek out a life on a planet that seems decimated by pollution, overpopulation, and rampant communicable disease (hinted at by the staggering number of citizens that walk around with surgical masks and breathing apparatuses).  The cityscape here is like the futuristic L.A. from BLADE RUNNER on LSD, and one that Jake mentioned in snippets of dialogue here and there in the Theatrical Cut.  We also witness an altercation with a semi-drunken Jake and a wife beater bar patron that results in Jake – and his wheelchair – being thrown out on to the rain swept, neon-illuminated streets.  This opening is the largest improvement that Cameron has made: he sets up Earth as a ravaged and dreary hell-hole and establishes Jake as a man looking for a purpose in life on a planet that has lost its natural way.  In one respect, it makes the transition to the vibrant hued beauty of Pandora all the more intriguing, not to mention that it adds an extra layer of dimension to Jake’s insistence on siding with the Na’vi at the film’s climax.  Humans ruined the Earth, and he certainly won’t let them ruin another planet. 

I found that this new COLLECTOR'S EXTENDED CUT improved upon the original 2009 in modest ways and it should be the one that viewers actively seek out.  The new intro to the film embellishes Jake as a heroic character and one that certainly rises from terrible conditions on Earth to be a noble leader on a new world of endless natural wonders.  The issues I had with the film are still apparent (like the fact that it’s essentially a DANCES WITH WOLVES on an alien planet, that the political commentary in American involvement in Iraq is jarringly palpable, and that Ribisi’s capitalist, money loving baddie is still a lamentably under-written antagonist).  One thing I will say is that my second viewing of AVATAR has perhaps improved my appreciation for its pain-stakingly executed artifice.  Cameron has created a world that is entirely the product of his fertile imagination and remains a film that transports us to its extra-terrestrial ecosystem and makes it wholeheartedly feel tactile all throughout the film.  AVATAR, no matter which version considered, is a technological masterpiece and it still delivers on its original promises to create a New Age escapist wonderland to get lost in for three hours.

  H O M E