Avatar (2009) Review

The mystical planet of Pandora holds a very special type of iron ore so valuable that a permanent human settlement has been made just to extract the precious substance. As the mining operations delve deeper into the native lands of the local population, Jake Sully — a paralyzed space marine — is given a second chance in a cloned Na’vi body, so he can infiltrate the locals and help them relocate from an especially rich ore deposit.

The Look

Avatar is absolutely, gorgeously visually arresting. Watching Pandoras underbrush and floating mountains is like watching a Myst age come to life. The graphics by Weta are so well done that you completely forget (or consciously block out because you want to believe) that you’re looking at something that doesn’t actually exist.

James Cameron has clearly taken his inspiration from the backlit waterfall-and-scenery masterpieces found at your local pizzeria, not to mention classic rock cover-artwork. Which is great, because I totally love those things:

Yes_01 Yes_02 Yes_03 Yes_04 Yes_05 Yes_06 Yes_07 Yes_08 Yes_09 Yes_10 Yes_11 Yes_12 Yes_13 Yes_14 Yes_15 Yes_16 Yes_17 Yes_18 Yes_19 Yes_20 Yes_21 Yes_22 Yes_23 Yes_24 Yes_25 Yes_26 Yes_27 Yes_28

Images courtesy of io9 and the band Yes’ cover artist.

The 3D

Avatar has been hailed and promoted as a cinematic game-changer; a paradigm shift in how we watch movies. Based on my single experience with 3D, it’s not. At this point, it’s important to note that the cinema where we saw Avatar seemed to have some old-fashioned tech-trouble; the curtains didn’t retract to cinemascope size until 5 minutes into the movie and the pre-movie-adverts were unfocused. That said, the 3D in the Pixar movie trailers prior to the movie were absolutely superb. Which leads me to believe the 3D in Avatar had its share of issues which I’ll try to deal with here.

First of all, it’s all very dark. You’re essentially wearing sun-glasses; which means for you to get a fully lit experience, the theatre needs to increase the brightness.

Secondly, there’s an issue of focus — not the camera-specific focus, but directorial focus. Take the jungle-scenes, for instance. Cameron clearly wants us to be looking at the main protagonists, so he keeps them in focus while any foreground leaves are focus-blurred. We’ve seen this in countless movies, but when suddenly those leaves are also projected into z-space, your brain tells you those leaves are right there, so if you — voluntarily or involuntarily — want to focus on said leaf, you’ll either be annoyed that you can’t unblur them by concentrating really hard; or you’ll get a headache. Because you see, that focus is not real, it’s burnt-in. Which presents something of a problem, because the film is the film and it can’t satisfy any angle or focus you — the viewer — wants satisfied.

Another oddity is the subtitles. By definition, these should be in front. So they’re given 3D depth. Which completely messes with your mind at the odd times when something in the movie, a character for instance, is placed closer to you in z-space than the subtitles, yet the subtitles are still “in front” at their lower z-depth. Some may not notice it, but my sensitive can’t-play-3d-games motion sick brain vomits at this logical conflict.

I’m sure these are tech issues. I’m sure that in a properly set-up, well-lit cinema the 3D is great. I’m sure that once projectors can churn up the framerate, camera panning won’t turn your brain into goo. I do, however, think that directors who decide to 3D their movies need to make difficult choices as to when and when not to use the z-space, meaning only when it adds to the film and not simply all the time. For now, I prefer gloriously flat.

The Overall Serving

Avatar is not a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination. Like all other epics out there, it’s a bit too long. It’s predictable and filled to the brink with stereotypical villains and clichés (I wonder why the planet is named “Pandora”, could it be because it unleashes hell when opened, like the box?). Cameron even copies himself on more than one occasion, mixing the story from Titanic with elements from Aliens. Add to that a lot of silly things, such as subtitles set the Papyrus font when natives speak to each-other, a design decision so excruciatingly dumb that the mind boggles.

But these are all trivial issues compared to all the other levels on which Avatar works. The story gets under your skin. Within long, the smurf-like natives stop looking goofy, their odd names, behavior and peculiar language starts to seem real and before you know it, you’re enveloped in a classic love-story despite it being set in a supremely alien world. Avatar brings sci-fi to the masses, and for that reason more than anything, I completely love it.

Watchability:

Craftmanship:

Overall:

13 thoughts on “Avatar (2009) Review”

  1. Avatar (2009) Review (totally spoiler free, I promise): http://noscope.com/?p=5696 — illustrated by Yes

  2. RT @noscope: Avatar (2009) Review (totally spoiler free, I promise): http://noscope.com/?p=5696 — illustrated by Yes

  3. Via Google Reader, @heilemann points out that Roger Dean is responsible for the superb Yes cover art used here: http://noscope.com/?p=5696

  4. Ben says:

    I saw Avatar on Friday and thought it was the best thing I had seen in ages. I saw it in the Odeon, Leicester Square, (where they do premieres and stuff) so the screen is a rather good one and I had no problem with the picture being too dark or out of focus. They also showed some cool 3d trailers before the film (Shrek 3D and the new Alice in Wonderland).

    I loved every minute of it and didn’t think it was too long at all. I didn’t even notice the problems with the story (until I thought about it after leaving the cinema). Fantastic stuff – I’m hoping for more of the same 🙂

    1. Joen says:

      Ben: I saw it in the Odeon, Leicester Square, (where they do premieres and stuff) so the screen is a rather good one and I had no problem with the picture being too dark or out of focus.

      I’m actually glad you mention this because I was really hoping it was a tech issue and this lends some credit to that thought. This also means I’ll be giving cinematic 3D another shot.

      Ben: I loved every minute of it and didn’t think it was too long at all.

      That seems to also be my girlfriends assessment.

      Well this is kind of a recurring thing for me. I really think movies are too long these days. Avatar is certainly not one of the worst of its kind, but I’m thinking a few snips here and there wouldn’t hurt. That said, I can’t think of where to place that kind of cuts.

      I did love the movie.

      Ben: Fantastic stuff – I’m hoping for more of the same 🙂

      That’s certianly the plan according to what I’ve read, and if it does well we’ll see up to two more movies. I’ve even read speculations that the second one will also take place on the inside of the planet, which I’d love to see — think bioluminescent fungi and stuff.

  5. Ashely Adams says:

    I’ve come to trust James Cameron to deliver quality stuff. And he doesn’t seem to disappoint with Avatar. Frankly, I’m yet to see the movie. But all my friends who have seen it are raving about it. Can all of them be wrong?

  6. Saw Avatar. Very well told story, pulls you in.

    I had the same trouble with the 3D. It wasn’t too dark, but even with the camera movements and focus all guiding your eye to the, uhm, focuspoint the director wants you to focus on, my eyes got quite sore and my brain annoyed at all the z-index inconsistencies. Took me out of the movie, especially when they were running through the woods.

    This was the last ‘test’ of 3D for me for a while, flat movies for me too please.

    I think it’s ironic that the moment they get blended real action & animation right, never crossing into the uncanny valley (except Sigourney Weaver’s Cali Uni t-shirt wearing avatar a little bit), they go and mess with the next new thing.

  7. Gareth says:

    Take away the visuals and you are left with some of the worst dialogue, characterisation and plot development in the history of cinema. 5 minutes in and you have already worked out the entire storyline (which you have already seen in countless other films). If at any point in the film you are unsure what is going to happen, James Cameron screams the plot at you with some banal story telling device like the video diary.

    I also found the message nauseatingly patronising : White man gets himself accepted into closed society of “primitive” natives and becomes their leader. More awesome at fighting and raping oversized dragons than any other tribe member. The irony of having a story say “leave those people be” and than have the so called hero stamp all over their culture, is somehow lost on Cameron.

    But, yes it did look pretty.

    1. Joen says:

      Gareth: Take away the visuals and you are left with some of the worst dialogue, characterisation and plot development in the history of cinema. 5 minutes in and you have already worked out the entire storyline (which you have already seen in countless other films). If at any point in the film you are unsure what is going to happen, James Cameron screams the plot at you with some banal story telling device like the video diary.

      Agreed.

      Gareth: I also found the message nauseatingly patronising : White man gets himself accepted into closed society of “primitive” natives and becomes their leader. More awesome at fighting and raping oversized dragons than any other tribe member. The irony of having a story say “leave those people be” and than have the so called hero stamp all over their culture, is somehow lost on Cameron.

      Also agreed.

      However, I don’t necessarily think those two things detract from the enjoyability of the movie. Sure, it’s a stereotypical, white-mans-racial-fantasy over-the-top cliché, but can you mention any recent Hollywood blockbuster which isn’t?

  8. Gareth says:

    Probably not, but Cameron has been thinking about this movie since the 70s, so you would have thought the story would have been pretty tight by now.

    For example one thing that really annoyed me is he made a big deal about how a dragon (who cares what they are actually called) can only have one mate for life and then Sully just ditches it and gets a bigger one, which only he can tame.. by jumping on it. If you did not see that coming you had your 3D glasses on backwards.

    Also its 2154 and we are still wearing ties, loading bullets into guns, and sending humans into battle. We can also remotely control fully functioning Avatars, but our radar does not work in certain places.

    1. Joen says:

      Gareth: For example one thing that really annoyed me is he made a big deal about how a dragon (who cares what they are actually called) can only have one mate for life and then Sully just ditches it and gets a bigger one, which only he can tame.. by jumping on it. If you did not see that coming you had your 3D glasses on backwards.

      Yeah that thing caught my attention as well.

      Gareth: Also its 2154 and we are still wearing ties, loading bullets into guns, and sending humans into battle. We can also remotely control fully functioning Avatars, but our radar does not work in certain places.

      Hehe, nice one. My suspension-of-disbelief filter blocked these ones out for me.

    2. Joen says:

      Joen: we are still wearing ties, loading bullets into guns, and sending humans into battle

      Thinking about this, I can actually accept all but the radar not working (I mean, find help from a satellite in orbit instead of using echo-location).

      Bullets — if a gun works, it works, and frankly I think it’ll take more than 150 years to make hand-carried lasers that are powerful enough.

      Ties — why not? It looked cool 90 years ago, it looks cool today, why shouldn’t it look cool in 150 years time?

      Sending humans into battle — your argument no doubt refers to robots, which is a point. But the whole point of the cloned avatars is that Sully gets his chance because it’s SO expensive, and his twin brother died. So they’re sending humans into battle because avatars and robots are expensive.

  9. Gareth says:

    bullets – I’m pretty sure we can come up with something more effective than a M-60 hanging out of a helicopter. The Avatars just seemed completely at odds with all the other technology. Also we are told the Navi have carbon fibre bones and are really hard to kill.. yet later all its takes is one bullet.

    Ties – fair point, although I really think its unlikely.

    Sending humans into battle – indeed robots, remote controlled vehicles (already in use), surely would be a lot cheaper than the cost of transporting all those humans for the 5 years it takes to get to Pandora. Also we are told that Avaters are SO expensive, but when Sully first becomes one, there are loads of the buggers – which begs another question, where the hell are they in the rest of the film.

    Anyway none of this things are really important, I was obviously clearly bored during the movie and had time to think about these things.

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