Theatrical Review: Avatar

It’s the year 2154, and former marine Jake Sully has been offered the chance of a lifetime. Jake has lost the use of his legs, and his twin brother was originally supposed to be a part of a scientific expedition on the planet Pandora, a planet whose atmosphere is lethal to humans, but after his brother’s untimely death, Jake, being as good a match as they can get for this expedition is offered the chance to take his brother’s place. Using genetically-bred bodies of the natives of Pandora, and a cybernetic process for controlling those bodies, Jake’s mind is implanted in the artificial body and with a few other humans taking part in this, he’s able to walk again and experience the wonders and dangers of Pandora firsthand. But the corporation in charge of this expedition, has ulterior motives to mine the planet for an ore of great wealth and the marines protecting this expedition want to use Jake to find out the ways of the native people, the Na’vi, and Jake, being a former marine readily agrees and gets way more out of the bargain than he would ever expect…

And that’s where I’ll leave off with the premise to Avatar the first dramatic movie from writer/director James Cameron since he made Titanic. Cameron’s had this idea for a movie since he was a kid, and has waited for the technology to catch up for him, and it’s been well worth the wait. He’s always been right on the cutting edge of technology with his previous movies, but this one raises the bar considerably with it’s motion capture work and the idea of creating computer-rendered characters that you do actually give a damn about. But it’s just not that, he’s created an entire world here with many wonders and pitfalls, and it still doesn’t stop there, as even the man-made elements of the story are also at the peak of what you can do in today’s movies.

It’s a technical achievement to be sure, but of course, it’s story is what matters the most, and fortunately the technology is used well enough to make the story really convincing. I’ve seen a lot of comments in places that bag on the film for not being original enough, and it certainly does borrow from a lot of other sources, but really, for me that didn’t matter. If the story is well-told, then I could care less if it does borrow from other things… and this is pretty well-told (though I do have one little beef with it, but we’ll get to that soon).

It really is something that deserves to be seen on a big screen, and of course in some theatres this is being seen in 3D as well. I saw it in a 3D theatre, and if you have the chance to see it that way, that’s what I’d recommend- but… the 3D isn’t overwhelming and not the point of the film. It’s really well done here, but not for jolting effects but more for actualizing this world. it’s not necessary to see this in 3D to enjoy this experience, but it’s fun nonetheless.

Cameron’s cast is terrific for the most part, and this is where my one beef is, but that’s not necessarily due to the actor but more to Cameron’s story, but I digress… Sam Worthington really impressed me in Terminator: Salvation and he’s here as Jake Sully and even more impressive, serving a double duty with both his human performance as Sully and his motion capture performance in the avatar body, and he’s really good, demonstrating a natural growth of character as this unfolds Sigourney Weaver reunites with Cameron in this film and also serves the same double duty that Worthington does, and again pulls it off real nicely. The pure motion capture parts though- wow, Zoe Saldana (seen earlier this year in Star Trek) really impresses as Neytiri, the Na’vi who is given the task of teaching Jake the ways of the Na’vi. Other members of the Na’vi are performed by veterans like CCH Pounder and Wes Studi, and again they make you believe what they’re doing. The rest of the human cast is filled out by Joel David Moore (who also does some double duty here- not to the same extent as Worthington and Weaver though), Michelle Rodriguez, the always rock solid Stephen Lang and Giovanni Ribisi. Ribisi plays the corporate head of this expedition and he’s where my one real problem with the movie is (though in the big picture, it’s a moot problem). Basically, he’s just a little too cartooned here for what the rest of the movie does- this isn’t really Ribisi’s fault, it’s what he’s been given to do by Cameron, but still compared to everyone else being a little more three dimensional, this character is purely stuck in one dimension, and again considering the scope of this movie, I’d like to think that even a character that’s performing actions as vile as he does here, might still have a little more depth to him.

But still, this is very much worth seeing- it’s big spectacle filmmaking from a master of big spectacle filmmaking who also always manages to go for some heart in his films as well. Cameron hasn’t missed a beat in his long absence from dramatic films and Avatar is the proof. Do not miss this if you have the chance- for me, even with my one beef, it’s right up there with the best of the year…

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

20. December 2009 by Darren Goodhart
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