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Avatar

by Leonard Maltin
December 20, 2009 4:33 AM
12 Comments
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Avatar is at once a fascinating and a frustrating movie. I found much of it captivating, and while I resist the hype-driven phrase “immersive experience,” I did find myself drawn into its 3-D world, an extraordinarily rich cinematic environment created, in breathtaking detail, by artists and computers. I didn’t think I could care about odd-looking humanoid characters, but I did. I didn’t think I would relate to the interaction between humans and aliens, but I did. Writer-director James Cameron has delivered on his promise to take filmmaking to another level by fully realizing his imaginative visual concepts of character and design...and by turning the 3-D process inside out by pulling us through the looking glass instead of...

sticking things out at us across the proscenium.

As for the performance-capture technology that transforms actors into the elongated Na’vi creatures of Avatar, Cameron has left his competitors in the dust. The character design is striking and appealing to the eye; at a certain point you forget you’re watching imagined figures, just as you do in a good animated cartoon. The difference here is that the performances were rendered on-camera by live actors whose work was enhanced and extended by animators. By retaining a crucial part of their facial structure—chiefly their nose, mouth, and chin—they retain their most human facial qualities, and their eyes respond naturally (a chief complaint about some other performance-capture films). Both the process and the illusion are revealed early on when we see Sigourney Weaver as her Na’vi avatar and still recognize the actress.

I also like his casting choices for this futuristic saga. New to American audiences, Australian actor Sam Worthington (whom we saw earlier this year in Terminator: Salvation) has the intensity and charisma to play a disabled Marine who doesn’t have the scientific background—or the emotional discipline—for his new assignment on the planet Pandora, but steps into his late brother’s shoes just the same. Zoë Saldana (who was Uhura in this year’s Star Trek) is quite captivating as Neytiri, the fearless Na’vi woman who becomes Worthington’s savior and guide in a strange new world. And Cameron movie veteran Weaver hits just the right note as a chain-smoking, no-nonsense scientist who has devoted herself completely to studying the flora and fauna of Pandora and befriending its people.

Cameron gets so many things right—the technology, the design, the immersive environment, the staging of breathtaking action scenes—that it’s a shame the film falters because of weaknesses in his screenplay. It’s not a problem at first, but as the story reaches its second and third acts it becomes a real liability, with heavy-handed villainy and amateurish dialogue that might have come from a Saturday matinee serial. Overlength also works against the film: had the story been compressed from its two-and-a-half hour duration one might be more forgiving of its flaws. I was gripped by the first portion of the movie, then found my mind straying past the one-hour mark, only to be caught up once again before the lumbering finale—a spectacular action sequence that clumsily underscores the movie’s metaphoric roots (invoking the Iraq war, as well as environmentalism) and turns its principal bad guy, a Marine colonel played by Stephen Lang, into an unstoppable Terminator.

Does this render Avatar worthless? Absolutely not. Some of it is positively thrilling, and a lot of it is just plain fun. I don’t think it’s unfair to complain about its shortcomings after it’s been touted as the cinematic equivalent of the Second Coming...but I wouldn’t want to lose sight of the extraordinary things it does achieve. It’s a remarkable moviegoing experience.

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12 Comments

  • sameer chowdhury | December 24, 2010 10:55 AMReply

    Leave cynicism, impactful wholesomeness and integraql balance out, and though that might seem a houseful of needy ingredientsw for a critical review, DO IT nevetheless. Critical reviews are not always based on an outlook dependant on 'cranular' vivisection of the item at hand and sometimes on the viseral elements on it as well. I was an avid hater of the like-themed but truly classic Titanic but I realised what everyone got and I did'nt. Same with Avatar-it showed me everything I was doing to critique it was wrong-I hope the same happens for you, if you dislike it (which you probably do passionately). I hope you can share this great piece of moviemaking (not a classic by any stretch) but a genuine, contemporary filmamking event.

  • Chris | July 12, 2010 9:18 AMReply

    Nice, SF: "Praising it for that feat is as pointless and redundant as praising Angelina Jolie for looking hot naked."

    That comment, and Leonard's review, pretty much sum up my own thoughts about the film. Though this is a fairly dead thread, I'm here checking out reviews (again) after renting Avatar for the 2nd time... I guess I was seeking to explain my own 'motivations,' having been fairly underwhelmed the first go 'round.

    In some way, the overwhelmingly positive press caused me to question my initial assessment. Why was I feeling bored? Is the dialog actually hackneyed and stilted? And isn't the story obvious and heavy-handed? Maybe there's something wrong with my radar...

    Not much seems to have changed since release; it's as if Avatar's unprecedented box office excuses it's flaws (as I'm sure it does in the minds of many studio heads). But excess does not always equal success or guarantee creativity -- in fact it often precludes it.

    As you say, Moon was a phenomenal movie and, apart from it's other virtues (story, acting, etc), should be celebrated for the quality of it's utterly effective special effects -- most of which were created on the cheap, Harryhausen-like, using models and miniature sets.

  • juan chavez | May 10, 2010 7:17 AMReply

    The only great thing that I can say about the movie is the graphics visual concepts. But the story line was humdrum without any exception. I was enthralled to see the movie but after the story progresses I actually feel and hear my brain cells dying. It seemed like an overzealous expenditure. Im sorry but i had the highest expectations to see an unprecedented film but let me down within the first course of the film.

  • Luke | February 23, 2010 11:46 AMReply

    A very well thought-out and pretty darn accurate movie review. I would suggest you watch Avatar more than once, Leonard. Whatever spell Cameron puts us under really does make up for all of its shortcomings. That's what he does in almost every movie. He makes the visuals, pacing and sound effects, etc so captivating that its hard not to see every shot as cinematic gold.

  • Pierre Heisbourg | February 3, 2010 8:24 AMReply

    You are very kind to Avatar. I agree with all the negatives you mention (screenplay, repetitious, boredom after 1 hour, etc), plus...on the 3D/special effects side of things, which no one dares attack: why is it that the incredibly charged and busy screen, the screen, in my personal cas, seemed to SHRINK. The eyes are actually grasping for more room and action outside the physical boundaries of the screen. This is very enervating when compared with a simple good story that draws you INTO (immersion) the screen because of the good story and all the other qualities, rather than throwing your vision outside the screen. I would very much appreciate if you can relate to what I am expressing here, as I have the impression of being a loner on this, and you are the expert.
    Other than the fact that I really found the movie just plain boring, which is a different discussion.
    Thank you so much for your excellent reviews.

  • Grim Moberg | January 13, 2010 9:07 AMReply

    I have seen Avatar 4 times now. It hasn´t lost any of it´s punch at all. It´s a solid entertaiment and I really don´t mind the sometime unoriginal storyline and dialogue. Cameron has achived what movies are all about, to entertain. And after 4 viewings it´s safe to say it´s weakneses are forgotten to me. I love it, and I hope Jim will deliver a new film in a few years, instead of 12. Can´t wait to se whats next! But I hope it will be "Battle Angel".

  • Deb | January 9, 2010 8:12 AMReply

    I agree, Mr. Maltin. Avatar blew me away. I can honestly say I've never seen anything like it, but the 2nd half with all the militaristic war scenes, was unbelivable and way over the top. The only enjoyable thing about the 2nd half was when the Na'vi people united to fight back and go after the 'military machine' on those amazing dragons and fantastic horse like creatures. Still, they lost so much of their world and culture. The background of Pandora was initially like watching a race of people deep under the sea; then it became more and more like watching American Indians defending their land and their culture.

  • Jason | December 31, 2009 9:45 AMReply

    While I agree that Avatar is a bit over-hyped, I don't think I've yet read a review that's referred to it as the 'second-coming' of cinema. In fact most professional criticism ( going off Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes) of this film seems to be reluctant praise. Perhaps this comment is referring to the promotion of this film?

  • Vincent | December 31, 2009 5:51 AMReply

    Dear Leonard,

    I enjoyed "Avatar" a lot, esp. IMAX 3D experience. I agreed that the plot in the first half was a bit weak, but it's gradually fine after the second and last halfs, and I liked the relationship between Jake and Neytiri. Of course, 3D visual effect, cinematography, and the battle scenes were very spectacular. However, I think "T2" and "Titanic" are still better(though "Avatar" is one of the best).

    so, how many stars will you give to "Avatar"? (3 out of Four, or....)

    Thanks!

  • dave | December 28, 2009 10:27 AMReply

    Great review. True, it is 3D marvel with 1D character development. However, the saving grace is that the 3D enchanted environment depicted almost speaks as another dimension that answers to a contemporary human longing: that we have so despoiled our environment and created boxy and limiting urban environments, so that the depiction of humans living in a fully enriched and multi-dimensional immediate environment becomes the main factor that thrills and pulls at the heartstrings and longings of audiences. The film is amazing EVEN THOUGH the character development of most characters is one dimensional. One other note: I don't think the character development of the central couple (human avatar male and his Navi mate) is not so bad. For most other characters in Avatar, yes, the character development is way too bland and shallow.

  • Adam White | December 25, 2009 5:29 AMReply

    I love Leonard Maltin's reviews..he's helped me to know which movies to go see for twenty years.

  • SFReviews.net | December 24, 2009 1:02 AMReply

    One of the things that has put me off since Avatar opened has not been the hype so much as the form the hype has taken. The idea is, apparently, that we are supposed to flock to this film like obedient sheep, permit ourselves to be dazzled by its digital wizardry, and simply not notice or care about such boring old-fashioned things like its one-dimensional plot, characterization or dialogue. BIll Hunt at The Digital Bits, a DVD site I've loved for 10 years now, actually came right out and said this: "...story doesn't really matter."

    No. Wrong. Fail. People need to get this into their heads because it is Scripture. Story. ALWAYS. Matters. Good grief, anyone who's ever seen a Michael Bay film ought to know by now that all the digital razzle dazzle in the world isn't enough to make me care about the people on screen and what's happening in their lives. Take a look at Duncan Jones' Moon, a movie shot for about 2% of Avatar's budget, and one which achieved what I strongly suspect Avatar will have a hard time achieving: it MOVED me.

    I'll still go see Avatar eventually. But I simply refuse to praise it solely for its ooo-shiny eye candy. Come on, the movie cost $300 million! Of course it's going to look amazing. Praising it for that feat is as pointless and redundant as praising Angelina Jolie for looking hot naked. Duh, you were expecting something else?

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