Avatar is visually astounding, but is it a good film?

Dr Zaius

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A lot has been written about Avatar already, much of it about director James Cameron rather than the film itself. Something about Cameron seems to provoke certain people, but he has his defenders too. He's certainly proved he's the master of big spectacle films. Cameron dares to think big, and in many ways Avatar is as big as Cameron's previous mega-film, Titanic. He reportedly spent massive sums to help finance the film and bring his vision to the big screen. But none of that answers the basic question: is Avatar any good? The answer is yes and no.

First, let's start with the good. Unless you've been living under a rock you've probably heard the boasts about how Avatar was supposed to raise the bar for cutting edge CGI and "reinvent" movies. Time will tell whether Cameron really pulled that off or not, but it's certainly fair to say Avatar is one of the best looking movies to date. The screenshots don't do justice to the film. Going in, I thought the movie would look similar to the new Star Wars movies or Transformers, but it looks much better than that. Cameron has created a lush, vibrant world on Pandora, complete with a living, breathing ecosystem and life forms of every shape and size. The level of detail here is quite amazing. The trees, the sky, the people and the indigenous life forms are all rendered in fantastic detail. The theater where I saw the film was showing it in 3D, which made things even more lifelike. Some have said it looks like a video game, but video games don't look this good. Well, not yet anyway.

At times Avatar manages to capture a little bit of the magic that made Lord of the Rings and Jurassic Park so thoroughly entertaining. The first hour of the film comes close to feeling almost interactive as the viewer is introduced to this fantastic world and its fabulous inhabitants. Much of what happens on Pandora doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but if you're willing to leave the reality checklist at the door and just enjoy the film for what it is, there's plenty to like here. And when the action scenes finally come, they don't disappoint.

But there are some things that keep Avatar from being the masterpiece that Cameron was obviously shooting for. For starters, the story isn't nearly as innovative as Cameron's vision of Pandora itself. The characters rarely say or do anything unexpected and the plot is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Perhaps the director was simply too proud to hire a few professional writers to help with the screenplay, I can't say. What I can say is that the story plods along a wholly predictable path. Even worse, the story is obviously intended to be a sort of allegory on the exploitation of native people's by Western civilization, but the narritive is so completely one-sided and ham-handed that the humans in the film might as well be orcs marching along under the banner of the Great Eye of Mordor. And with the exception of a couple of scientists, the humans in Avatar aren't just portrayed as merely greedy or insensitive, but homicidal maniacs bent on wholesale destruction and wanton cruelty. On the other hand, the Na'vi (the indigenous blue people of Pandora) are wise, caring, compassionate, and completely in tune with all living things, big and small. They probably smell good too.

By the time Avatar reaches the third act, you already know what's coming and how it's all going to turn out. And rather than throw in a few surprises and challenge the viewer, Cameron elects to relentlessly hammer the same tired theme until the credits roll. By the end of the film it almost begins to feel more like an extended rant or a sermon rather than a movie. Cameron is a skilled enough director that the story never gets truly dull. But it's never truly compelling either. While portions of Avatar are exhilarating, on the whole the film leaves the viewer with little to savor and is somewhat unfulfilling.

Yet there is one way to enjoy this film: root for Colonel Quaritch. That's right, root for the humans! All the claptrap about the Na'vi and eco responsibility is as dry and boring as an insurance seminar or one of Al Gore's global warming lectures. But Stephen Lang wholly embraces the character of Quaritch and delivers his lines with gusto. In fact, Quaritch is so ridiculously trigger happy and overblown that he's almost cool, in a Darth Vader sort of way.

Still, as enjoyable as Avatar is at times, it's disappointing that the director couldn't have spent just a little more time creating believable characters instead of cardboard caricatures. Perhaps then Avatar would have had a story worthy of its glorious visuals.

If you're going to see Avatar, see it on the big screen because this is one film that just won't cut it on your pathetic 30" TV. And root for your fellow humans. You'll be the only one in the theater who is. Love live Colonel Quaritch!
 
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