Avatar (2009): ***½
Directed by James Cameron
Avatar is a beautiful, stunning film. It is an engrossing epic,
a virtuoso action flick, a technical marvel. It is full of wonder and
thrills and heartaches and triumphs. It is an incredible movie. If only
someone other than James Cameron had written the dialogue.
Never really someone who has excelled at convincing, realistic dialogue,
Cameron's skills as a writer haven't improved at all in the last 25 years.
His military jargon is just as awkward as it was back in Aliens.
Avatar is also unfortunately saddled with being a "message"
film, and is about as un-subtle about it as humanly possible. Someone
even says uses the phrase "shock and awe" at one point for goodness
It really is a shame, because almost everything else about the film is
really and truly four-star quality. Cameron once again shows everyone
else out there how to film action scenes; (almost) never at any point
in these huge, sprawling action set-pieces is it confusing where the different
players are in relation to each other or what they're doing or what consequences
their actions have. Cameron has an uncanny eye for exactly where to position
his "camera" (in quotes because 99% of the movie was created
inside a computer and therefore there wasn't a real camera involved) to
give the audience exactly the information they need while still being
able to convey the tones and emotions that he wants to get across. His
visual storytelling is crystal clear. It's wonderful not to have to worry
about being confused in such a huge, visual story.
The main thing that Avatar has going for it is time. It's a
long movie, and that is a good thing in every respect. It means that it
never has to rush. Characters are developed at their own pace. The plot
points are earned rather than forced on the characters. Character arcs
seem natural. There's time to breathe; time to just follow these characters
around and watch them interact. Most books and/or classes on scriptwriting
probably would have looked at this script and recommended that 1/3 or
more of it be cut out as being not explicitly necessary to the story.
But it is necessary for us to care about the characters, and
all the extra room serves only to increase the richness of the world that
Cameron carefully builds.
Avatar is not exactly the most original movie out there. It
has been called Dances With Wolves meets Ferngully,
and dozens upon dozens of articles have been written showing just how
similar it is to any number of other stories that have already been filmed/written.
But originality has never been Cameron's strong suit. Heck, he even had
to add extra on-screen credits to later releases of The Terminator
that say the movie was inspired by a couple of episodes of The Outer
Limits that were written by Harlan Ellison. Cameron's stories are
never really anything new, but what he does do is take familiar elements
and do them extremely well. It may not be original storytelling, but it
is quality storytelling. And in a way, it is comforting; at some level
you already know how to feel about these stories, so you're freed up to
just enjoy them without having to try to figure them out.
That's not to say that Cameron isn't clever. Though none of the ideas
in Avatar are really new, he does manage to tweak them in ways
that I found very pleasing. The world-wide, self-aware planet/lifeform
shtick that has been done many times before (see Asimov's Nemesis,
or any version of Solaris to name just a couple), but was presented
in Avatar in a very clever way. The characters also aren't stupid,
and come up with some very clever solutions for some of the problems they
Yes, the visuals of the movie are legitimately stunning. The design of
the world Pandora really is awe-inspiring. I also greatly enjoyed the
design of the technology in the movie – the computer interfaces,
the ships, and especially the motion-controlled mechs. The motion capture
for the Na'vi works really well most of the time. But is it really that
much more impressive than Gollum was almost ten years ago? It seems like
the only thing that lets it be better is a huge budget being thrown at
it so that all the nooks and crannies of the rendering can be given attention.
But a major leap forward in tech? Not really. The next step up the technical
staircase, yes, but not much more than that, and certainly not a quantum
leap. I saw the movie in IMAX 3D, and it did look good, and refrained
from being gimmicky. There weren't any "ooh, look at this spear going
DIRECTLY AT YOUR FACE BECAUSE OF THE 3D" moments. Especially effective
were the tracer bullets flying through 3D space.
You know, I'm fine with very-human-looking, bipedal aliens. As with most
of Science Fiction, the aliens aren't supposed to be alien; they're supposed
to be metaphors for us, so as a shortcut it's okay to make them visually
familiar. Lazy, yes, but it's such a tradition nowadays that I don't bat
an eyelash at it. I did, however, find it distracting for some reason
that the Na'vi had well-trimmed fingernails. It made me pause and wonder
where/how they trimmed them so neatly. There were a handful of little
things like that throughout the movie that made me pause and think, "Would
it really be like that?" Right at the start of the movie, the opening
narration mentions someone getting killed so the criminal could get the
"paper in his wallet." I couldn't help but think, "Physical
money is already well on its way of being phased out. Would it really
still be around by the time this story takes place? Would it still be
made out of paper?" Just little things, but they knocked me out of
the story for a bit.
Nevertheless, Avatar is a great movie. I can see (much more
easily than I could with Titanic) how it could become a cultural milestone
of a movie. But like George Lucas and his prequels, James Cameron should
have given the screenplay to someone else to re-write the dialogue. Warren
Ellis or Joss Whedon, maybe? You know, someone who can write legitimately
realistic and clever dialogue, not awkward clichés and stilted,