Sunday, April 4, 2010


Movie Review: Avatar

Director: James Cameron

Reviewed: December 2009.

jamesintexas rating--****

(4 Stars = Highest Rating)

George Lucas, are you listening?

I've seen the film twice, in both 3D and regular, and experiencing Avatar on the big screen in all of its grandeur was the experience I kept waiting for with the Star Wars prequels. I saw Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace over eight times in the theater, and the second and third films both underwhelmed and disappointed me, the second in particular. They are not movies I want to watch again and again. It was crushing to see George Lucas take my childhood stories as well as worlds of wonder/beauty (Hoth, Cloud City, Tatooine, Endor) and crush the spirit out of them.

Where those Star Wars prequels were disappointing, cloying, and, ultimately, failures in terms of integrating mind-blowing effects and telling a politically relevant or just plain interesting story, Avatar exceeded all of my expectations, brilliantly set up a compelling frame to the story (much like Cameron did in Titanic), integrates the amazing special effects in a close to seamless way, as well as making a powerful political statement.

Who would have thought that James Cameron would have made a $250,000,000 film that addresses the militarism of our times, our response to 'the other' aka the enemy, winning "the hearts and minds," as well as what is ruined in the quest for the MacGuffin of "unobtanium" (insert gold, oil, metals, etc...)? Cameron and his Academy Award winning cinematographer confidently spirit their camera through swooping tracking shots in the jungle-Endor-like planet of Pandora, focusing lovingly on beautiful, amazing, glow-in-the-dark creatures, terrifying animals, and the Na'vi tribe who live in harmony with nature, not in opposition to it. To summarize, Jake Scully (Sam Worthington), an injured marine participates in the avatar program on Pandora to infiltrate and earn the trust of the Na'vi tribe who are sitting on unobtanium--a much-needed element. Jake falls under the tutelage of Neyteri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the chief, and he quickly learns the ways of the Na'vi, moving back and forth between the two worlds, falling in love, and becoming a revolutionary.

Are their criticisms? Of course. Yes, the Stephen Lang character is far too much of a caricature blowhard warmonger; however, is he that much of a stretch from an American (circa 2003) Manichean outlook on the world? I too wonder how much different the film would be if the conflict wasn't set up with such an easy target (Lang, Ribisi, gung-ho Blackwater troops)? I do believe that Lang's character, much like modern politicians and defense secretaries, makes the overtures of peace and negotiation (UN inspectors, sanctions), while planning with certainty the subsequent invasion (making the plans for war farther in advance than the country knew). The money put into the avatar-program was similar to state department programs, working to win the "hearts and minds," while simultaneously preparing for war.

There were moments in this film that made me want to cheer. It appealed to me on a very child-like level (not intended as a pejorative), as well as an adult level. As a child, I cheered when the battle scenes combined everything I loved in The Return of the Jedi's final X-and-Y-wing attack sequences on the Death Star with the brutally violent effects of Starship Troopers best alien attack scenes. As an adult, I cheered when Sigourney Weaver showed up as eco-warrior in a Stanford t-shirt, fighting for understanding the Na'vi, not obliterating them. I cheered for the complexity of the Matrix-like pods the characters used to link-in to their avatars. I cheered when Cameron allowed his camera to linger on incredible, unique creatures and landscapes, not just whizzing past them, like Lucas on his way to telling his story. Cameron is not afraid to spend time to play in this world. The play is what defines this film as much as the action. I believe Cameron's time spent in underwater photography (crafting documentaries of undersea creatures as well as the Titanic) have informed his eye and story-telling.

I liked the way Cameron referenced his previous works--hearing elements of the Aliens pounding score, the vague references to "The Company" which I believe sent Ellen Ripley back to bring back an alien for bio-weapons research, the ship crashing epically like the boat in Titanic, and having a protagonist hang off of a missile ala True Lies--in tiny, revealing ways, as well I liked Cameron's belief that we the audience can draw our own conclusions about what to make of the plot, (i.e. What is the statement being made about America and its incursions into other parts of the world? How do we deal with a world destroyed or overpopulated to the point where a Na'vi-style philosophy by itself would be insufficient?) though a few of the "We fight terror with terror!" lines were more explicitly drawn than I needed them to be.

The score is moving; the Na'vi creatures are wonderful-looking. The riding scenes are some of my favorites, as well as scenes where characters balance precariously on logs, hopping through this incredible, eye-popping world. The visuals of this film are so colorful in surprising ways, and I love how Cameron hides things in the background and shows the intricacy of this world through a delicate, floating jellyfish style dandelion seed pod that floats through certain scenes. It reminds me of what could have happened in the Star Wars prequels but did not.

In conclusion, Cameron's eye for visual effects and for crafting a story that uses those effects in a compelling way worked in a way I haven't seen in a film in a long, long time, maybe since Titanic and Return of the Jedi. If I was a ten-year old kid, this movie would have completely blown my mind. As a 31-year old kid, this movie filled me with wonder and amazement. With its flaws, it still makes the top of my best of the year list.

Well-done, Jim Cameron. You truly are the King of the World. Take as much time as you need to for your next film. It was worth the wait.


  1. Hey Mr. S it is Jorge, I agree with you on the point that Lucas did let fans down with the newer movies of star wars but that’s besides the point.
    I also give this movie a four star rating not only for the fact that it had great special effect and introduced humans to a world that no one but Cameron himself could come up with but the fact that i was almost in tears after the ... of tree, just show how well of a job Cameron did.
    the way that he focus not only on the character but on the nature was amazing, he showed us that we need to pay more attention to what is around us and not just on some sort of screen.
    Overall this movie was amazing, i saw it 3 times all in 3-d and even though it was the same movie it was just as interesting.
    The movie also reminded me of history class of how the U.S used force to get what it wanted from the Native Americans.
    One more thing you forgot to mention that many people including James Cameron himself said that this movie was also to bring attention to what we as a human race are doing to earth.
    (by the way im the first comment on the whole website, and the first follower)

  2. Good review but i still say this movies about giant smurfs jumping around.