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Review: ‘Avatar’ Delivers on its Promise

By  · Published on December 11th, 2009

A lot can be said about the hype that surrounds any particular movie. In many cases – especially in those that involve big brands, big directors and big marketing campaigns – hype has an intense effect on the way audiences see the film. Did it live up to the hype? Was it all worth it? These are questions that plague us. And by us, I mean general audiences.

Personally, I don’t see my role in the process as having much to do with the hype other than observing it and upon reviewing the film, possibly creating it. When it comes to my opinion of the film itself, hype is not a factor. What I care most about is this: whether or not the film delivers on its promise. With Avatar, director James Cameron promised us one thing – he promised to show us something that we’ve never seen before. To his credit, this is exactly what he’s done.

We open with a voice-over from Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a marine who lost the use of his legs long ago. He is telling us of his dreams of flying, and how he’s heading deep into space to a distant world to replace his twin brother in a privately funded science project. There he will drive an Avatar, a new body that is a hybrid of his DNA and that of the planet’s indigenous people (known as the Na’vi). With this new body, Jake is tasked with aiding a peaceful scientist (Sigourney Weaver) and a not-so-peaceful Colonel (Stephen Lang) in studying the Na’vi and trying to find a way to relocate them so that the company behind the project can mine an absurdly valuable mineral called Unobtainium (cheesy, I know).

All of this goes according to plan until Jake meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), a native who sees in him something special, something that might help her people survive the oncoming invasion by the humans.

It is a simple story, yes. But also one that works perfectly for what Cameron is trying to do with Avatar. He’s not worried about you thinking that it feels like Dances with Wolves meets Ferngully, or that it is an allegory of oppression that has been done before. Where he gets you is in the execution of creating Pandora, a vast world that is familiar, but also completely fantastic. It is a world that feels every bit as big as its 10-foot tall inhabitants standing next to their 6-foot tall human counterparts. A world that is rich with color and wonder, enhanced by a depth of detail that can only be achieved through the work of a tyrannical, obsessive creative force like Cameron.

As well, Cameron understands pacing. His two and a half hour movie feels big, don’t get me wrong. But at no point does it feel bloated. It is the difference between an epic adventure story (in which something is always happening, even if it is as mundane as seeing Jake learn how to ride Pandora’s version of a horse) and a film dragged along by filler. Jake’s journey is not a simple one, and his learning of the Na’vi culture is something that is simple enough for the audience to engage, and complex enough for the audience to remain engaged. And it makes for a story that continues to move, even when there’s no action happening on screen. This succeeds because Cameron does the hard work to make it succeed.

But there is action, friends. Lots and lots of action. If there’s one thing I hate about big action directors, it is that too many of the ones working today don’t understand how to keep their promise. If you’re going to make an audience sit through two and a half hours of story (some of which is schmaltzy love story), then you need to pay them back in the end. Everyone remembers the love story at the heart of Titanic, which was at times tedious, but no one will ever forget the spectacle of seeing that ship finally go down – watching the hull crack in half and hearing the shrieks of the dying passengers was truly haunting.

With Avatar, Cameron applies the same principle and delivers a 30-minute action sequence in the film’s final act that is quite literally awesome in the truest sense of the word. All of the film’s action in the first two acts builds to this final sequence, showing glimpses of some badass machinery on the side of the humans and signs of unwavering valor in the Na’vi, but none of it compares to what we see in these final moments. If ever there was an action sequence that truly put the fate of an entire planet on the line, it is this one. It places the film’s main characters in a situation of real danger, and pulls no punches. No one is safe. In my press screening, I counted no less than 5 moments in the final 10-minutes alone that received an audible response – from a room of stuffy critics. I can only imagine what this experience would be like with a packed theater. The angles are perfect, the violence is at times quite brutal and nothing is easy, which seems to be the way that Cameron likes it.

Story. Pacing. Action. All of these things we’ve seen before. Every great action movie has them. But with Avatar, we’re seeing them all through a new lens. A computer-generated world that is photoreal. Photoreal not in that we have seen it before, but in that we believe it could exist. The quality of the Na’vi is so detailed and natural that when placed next to humans, we can believe that if these creatures were real, that is exactly how they would look to the naked eye. As visual effects go, this is an achievement like no other. No uncanny valley issues here. The Na’vi, for all we know, are very real.

Also on the plus side, the performances are strong all the way around. Worthington rises above the stale performance for Terminator Salvation, Sigourney Weaver and Zoe Saldana also command the screen, but Stephen Lang rises above them all to turn in a new twist on the military hawk obsessed with getting the job done at all costs. Lang achieves this through a sense of displacement – making jokes about things he’s about to blow up that show more as rationalization instead of outright callousness. This goes a long way in creating a more well-rounded personality and making the unfeeling, murderous moments that much more intense.

The only problems I found with Avatar were small. First, some of the voice-over work for Sam Worthington’s Jake feels faux-poetic, as if he’s trying to be poignant, when in fact they are just obvious. Jake is a grunt, a soldier and as the movie tells us more than a few times, not a smart man. So for him to wax poetic in voice-over feels out of place.

As well, there is something to the 3D version of this movie that feels too advanced for the human eye. The speed of Avatar is remarkable, and the movie’s ability to maintain an immense amount of detail in the world of Pandora while moving so fast is remarkable. The problem is that it’s so fast that my eyes couldn’t keep up. For a movie that is trying to break barriers in creating a world on a computer, this might not be a bad problem to have.

While I know there is much more to be said about this behemoth of a film – much that will probably be said in the coming week by myself and the staff here at FSR – I am left with one overwhelming thought. I can’t imagine someone walking out of a screening of this film and not being in awe. Not necessarily of the film as a whole, but of the technical achievement. James Cameron has truly delivered something that we’ve never seen before. And this achievement isn’t that Pandora looks real or that we believe the Na’vi could exist and connect with them as much as we do the human characters. His achievement is that he’s shown us a glimpse at what filmmaking could be in this century. Whether or not it will “change the game” is irrelevant (and frankly, impossible to predict), but he has shown us a realm of possibility that was previously thought to be impossible. And when you think about it, that’s really all he promised to do in the first place.

The Upside: A spectacular visual experience unlike anything you’ve seen before.

The Downside: Some bits of bad dialogue, a story that isn’t incredibly inventive.

On the Side: The movie is 40% live action and 60% photo-realistic CGI.

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Neil Miller is the persistently-bearded Publisher of Film School Rejects, Nonfics, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the Executive Producer of the One Perfect Shot TV show (currently streaming on HBO Max) and the co-host of Trial By Content on The Ringer Podcast Network. He can be found on Twitter here: @rejects (He/Him)