Avatar (spoiler-free review)

What do Peter Jackson, George Lucas, Paul Verhoeven, and the Wachowski brothers have in common? They will all be banging their heads against walls, wishing they had made “Avatar”, or at least lamenting that it steals their thunder.

I have seen Imax films before, and I’ve seen the latest generation of 3-D films (most recently, the Disney remake of A Christmas Carol, which I didn’t hate, but certainly didn’t love). But I have never before today actually seen an Imax 3-D film.

Today I saw James Cameron’s “Avatar”, in Imax 3-D.

This was a film that was enormously hyped prior to its release (as well it should be, given its purported half-billion-dollar production cost). Cameron invented entirely new technologies just to make his film, knowing that the story wouldn’t work without them. It’s not an already-established franchise from successful books or video games, and aside from Sigourney Weaver it doesn’t have an A-List cast. What a gamble…

A successful scifi/action film requires three elements, at the very least; effects, story, and acting. Let me take these elements in order.

The 3-D effect is remarkable. I saw Disney’s “A Christmas Carol” just a few weeks ago, and I’ve got to say the 3-D in “Avatar” is superior. Perhaps it’s the way that Cameron uses it; there are no boogies-jumping-at-the-screen. It is most impressive when it’s the most understated; when you’re looking down a corridor, and it’s like you’re looking through a window. There were a couple of instances where the old foe of 3-D came through– in most of the shots where there was a very strong contrast between a dark foreground and a brightly-lit background, there was a bit of fuzziness in the 3-D. But other than that it was impeccable.

Although can we PLEASE lose the Matrix-esque “moving-down-a-tunnel-of-light-to-simulate-connecting-to-a-virtual-world” effect? It was lame when it was green. Making it white is no improvement.

The digital effects are just effing stunning. Cameron said that when he saw what Peter Jackson did with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, he thought it would be possible to realize his vision. But… damn… the natives (who are all CGI) absolutely blow away the trolls of LoTR, and sad to say the clone troopers and Geonosians of SW:Episode III are left in the dust.

The plot is somewhat ham-fisted in its condemnation of colonialism and capitalism, but that is really secondary to the story of the embedded spy who “goes native” and has to choose between his own people and the people he has come to know and love. Add in a love story with a great twist, and the political and personal sub-plots between the various factions (military, civilian, and scientific) behind the Earth colony on Pandora, and it’s a very complex film, although Cameron is able to keep his primary plot moving like a juggernaut, and the sub-plots help it along in its inevitable track, but not (usually) in a predictable fashion.

The acting is just wonderful. The live action sequences (and the line between those and the CGI sequences continues to blur) are excellently served by the cast, and the effects wizards really seem to have learned a knack for translating the performances of the actors into their digital doppelgangers (dare I say avatars?).

I am deliberately not going into details because I don’t want to include any spoilers. But the effects are almost perfectly executed, the story is well thought-out and carries the action excellently without seeming contrived, and the acting is first-rate.

I cannot say that “Avatar” is the best science-fiction movie ever made (I still keep Stanley Kubric’s “2001: A Space Odyssey” in that slot), I think it may well be the best sci-fi/action film I’ve ever seen, if one cares to split such hairs. Certainly it beats T2, the Matrix films, and even Star Wars (if the Ewoks were big and blue, this would be Lucas’s ideal “a primitive culture defeats a technologically superior one through ingenuity and determination” scenario).

One important caveat: I don’t think this is the birth of a franchise. Cameron told his story, and there’s little more to be said (although any hack could always plop a mediocre film in the same setting). I truly hope this film makes its millions, and is then left to lie fallow in the field of Hollywood’s few truly original films.

Overall, I would give this film five stars. It’s outstanding on both the technological and storytelling levels. It’s honestly something that you should see.

Written by 

Wargamer and RPG'er since the 1970's, author of Adventures Dark and Deep, Castle of the Mad Archmage, and other things, and proprietor of the Greyhawk Grognard blog.

7 thoughts on “Avatar (spoiler-free review)

  1. "The plot is somewhat ham-fisted in its condemnation of colonialism and capitalism,"

    I was afraid of this. Though I want to see it, if I have to put up with a story that wants to tell me how bad I am for being an American I'll puke.

    Please say this isn't so.

  2. Remember, it's Cameron.
    He'll be showing us the darker side of ALL humanity.

    I figured this when I read a comment of his about drawing inspiration of old pulp sci-fi. Bring in jungle tribe aliens, and it begs a story of exploitation. And seeing how that one little spark of goodness within humanity (our Hero) can overcome the problems we make for ourselves.

    I cannot wait to see it also because I am a sucker for a good old sci-fi story. And if the cgi effects are used to truly enhance the story and not overwhelm it, so much the better.


  3. I agree that this was a great movie. While I didn't find any surprises in the story, it was well told. I gave it 5 of 5 flying monkeys in my review.

  4. Great review, Joseph. And a fair one, I think. I do envy you being able to see it in Imax 3d. I got 3d, but regular screen. Those 3d effects were vary suttle, as you say, which pleased me as well. It was easy to become immersed in the realism and "forget" it was in 3d, it seemed so natural most of the time.

    One thing you didn't touch on was the tech level in the film. Set in ~2150, it was not too fancifully advanced. Weapons seemed just slightly advanced (maybe even not enough) and the mechs were VERY cool.

    @Julian: No worries. Nationality never comes up. It really was a humanity colonizing an alien world struggle.

  5. I wouldn't say its against capitalism, its more of a saying that few people really are capitalist. Often many will say they are, but if they can take what they want easier than buying what they want they will.

  6. Thanks for the info, Joe: I was going to pass on this, but it sounds better than I expected it to be.

    The previews reminded me quite a bit of the Blue Planet RPG's colonial theme, but with a more-immediate timeline vs. one stretching out over a few generations.


  7. If you liked Dances With Wolves, you'll enjoy Avatar. This was my first modern 3D movie and I was blown away. Found myself wanting to swat at the little flying insects in the jungle scenes several times

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