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Film review by: Witney Seibold

I’m late in the game on this one, so I’m not sure anything I can say about James Cameron’s much-advertised, much talked-about, and much-reviewed “Avatar” can be even slightly original. Recommending it to you may be irrelevant, as you have likely already seen it; it is, after all, as of this writing, on its way to being the most financially successful film of all time. If you have seen it, nothing of what I say here can do much to effect your opinion. I will recommend this film, but, be warned, purists, it is a qualified recommendation.

I will make the following observations:

–                          The effects are just as good as you’ve heard. Despite the fact that the ten-foot tall race of blue-skinned Na’Vi weren’t so interesting as a people, they at least came across as real-looking. Despite how outlandish the images were, they actually managed to feel real. “Avatar” does indeed set a new standard for technical excellence in digital filmmaking.

–                          Cameron clearly went to great lengths to make sure that every detail of the planet Pandora seemed real. Pandora, for all its flying dragons and floating islands and other ridiculous fantasy novel imagery, does feel well thought-out, and is utterly gorgeous. Pandora is home to more colors than I think I’ve seen in a film.

–                          In terms of actual sociology, this film is thin and lacking. The good guys are all benevolent scientists (despite Sigourney Weaver’s snippiness), or noble savages that are clearly standing in for the noble Indians of tear-jerky westerns. Many have said that “Avatar’s” story resembles that of “Dances with Wolves,” but the story can actually be equated to any white-man-goes-native story. I was more reminded of Edward Zwick’s limp “The Last Samurai” more than “Dances With Wolves.”

–                          Meanwhile, the film’s bad guys are all growling marines (represented by Stephen Lang) or greedy, insensitive moneymen (represented by Giovanni Ribisi). While it’s refreshing to see that Cameron, who previously lionized military violence in his “Aliens,” has finally had a change of heart, the characters are all oversimplified and reductive, right own to their all-too-perfect facial scars.

–                          The lead actor (Sam Worthington) is appropriately bland. We may begin to believe in his cause, and his love for the Na’Vi people, but Jake Sully only occasionally (usually when joking) comes across as a real human being (or Na’Vi being, as the case may be).

–                          The setup is kind of innovative, if not entirely original. I like the idea of shunting your consciousness into a host body. True, we’ve seen that in sci-fi before (like 2009’s “Surrogates”), but it feel doable and real in this case. In the same way The Enterprise feels like a real ship. Cameron was careful to show that Pandora’s atmosphere was toxic to humans, although I’m not sure if just holding your breath could really hold you for that long.

–                          The film’s climactic battle sequence, while, at its heart, is just mindless action, is truly exciting and exhilarating in a way action films rarely are. Everything is clear, he characters’ geography is easily laid out, and the rules are never broken. It had me in its grasp all the way up until the guy in the robot suit pulled out a giant robot knife. Why does a robot suit need a robot knife? Indeed, why do we need giant human-shaped robots at all? I guess ‘cause they look cool, and Cameron used one during that ridiculous (but much-loved) fight scene in “Aliens.”

–                          My biggest beef comes with the Na’Vi themselves. At one point, the Weaver character points out that the Na’Vi should not be wiped out (to get the vein of valuable ore they sit upon) because they have a strong psychic connection to the planet. This is not, she points out, a spiritual connection, or an ideological belief in doing good to your Earth mother, but an actual quantifiable scientific fact. The Na’vi, you see, have tentacles on their heads that they can plug into animals, trees, the planet, you name it. Surely, when a fight is involved, it would be more powerful if it was a fight to protect your ideals, and not just your planet. Cameron went to great lengths to make sure the people had clothing and customs, but didn’t go as far as to give them a thoughtful philosophy, or conflicts amongst each other. I guess “Star Trek” already took sci-fi there.

–                          By that same token, the peace-loving and planetarily enlightened Na’Vi seem a little too eager to commit violence when they are incited. Perhaps they are more impressionable than is let on.

–                          I’m tired of movies that contain the phrase “Tree of (blank)” or “(blank) of Life.” “Avatar” has both.

–                          Joel David Moore is funny and talented needs to work more.

So for its immersive experience and its beauty and its technical wonder, “Avatar” is heads above the rest. It utilizes special effects in ways no other film has. As a narrative and as a treatise, it’s kind of thin. I know there’s been a lot of backlash to this film, and an army of contrarians has arisen. I assure you, I am not being contrarian, nor merely repeating opinions voiced by others. I am recommending a technically marvelous film to you. A film I wished had been smarter, but there you are. Sometime your action films only need to be exciting.

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Published in: on January 14, 2010 at 1:29 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. I wouldn’t call your posts succinct, Mr. Siebold. They are, however, engaging as advertised.

    A robot suit needs a robot knife for the same reason a mad Colonel needs no mask in a poison atmosphere: MAS MACHO (comprende?)

    I also posted a review of Avatar, but I’m going to slip over to your Rules of the Game to cleanse my palate for better taste.


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