Fox // 2009 // 178 Minutes // Unrated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // November 29th, 2010
"Oel ngati kameie."
Unless you've been living in a bunker hundreds of miles below sea-level for the past two years, you're well aware of Avatar and its reputation as the biggest movie to come down the pike since, well, ever. Yet, if you follow this site or any other number of internet movie speakeasies, you'll find that not everyone who paid to see the flick is drinking the Flavor Aid.
DVD Verdict's own contrarian Avatar leader is also its most prolific critic, Judge David Johnson. So renown is his Cinema Verdict Avatar throw down, it eventually made its way back to writer/director James Cameron himself, in an Entertainment Weekly interview quoting Avatar's reception:
Q: "(Avatar made) me want to hurl abusive insults at my cat and go outside and punch a tree."
Cameron: "(Laughing) I can't help that person. I don't make movies for that guy. And you know what? He probably wasn't on my Christmas list anyway. The movie does seem to sort people into those whose hearts are closed -- whose views of the world are f -- -ed up -- and those whose aren't. But then that's me speaking, and I made the movie."
I can't speak for accusations of heart-closery on Judge Johnson's part, nor can I speculate the degrees to which his or Mr. Cameron's world views are f -- ed up. What is clear is that there hasn't been a film in recent history to so strongly divide critics and filmgoers in terms of story, spectacle, and politics. With the newly minted Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition, there is no better opportunity to explore Avatar as a film that is simultaneously the best and worst film in Cameron's collected cannon.
It's the future. The people of Earth have damn near destroyed it with war, pollution and industrial sprawl, forcing the government to mine for resources on other planets. One of these, Pandora, happens to be the source of the holy Mecca of Earth resources -- Unobtanium. Having faced some serious diplomatic issues with the planet's native intelligent life, the Navi, the government creates the Avatar program, which allows humans to step into artificial made alien bodies.
Paraplegic Space Marine Jake Suly (Sam Worthington, Terminator Salvation) steps into the program on behalf of his dead brother, whose Avatar is predisposed to Jake's DNA. As Jake finds himself unexpectedly welcomed into the Navi fold, he must walk the line between serving his Marine boss, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, Gods and Generals), and protecting the Navi way of life from ultimate destruction. The latter objective becomes particularly important when he gets involved with tribe princess Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Star Trek (2009)). An intergalactic identity crisis ensues...
In terms of technological innovation, writing, and cultural impact, Avatar is most comparable with George Lucas' 1977 classic Star Wars. Much like that film, Cameron crafts a legitimately believable, wholly alien world to dizzyingly detailed heights. Unlike Lucas, Cameron was aided by over a decade of technological innovation designed specifically for the film. However, much like Star Wars, the universe of Avatar appears to be more preoccupied with effects and art design than complex characters and story. The film is populated by thinly written archetypes that, aside from the main characters, fail to make a large impression.
Sam Worthington garnered mixed reception as Sully, our meat headed Marine protagonist torn between serving humanity and his new life as a Navi. How you respond to Worthington's screen persona will make or break your enthusiasm for Sully. I, personally, find the actor appealing as an everyman hero. Yes, he's subdued, a little stiff, and his Aussie accent is constantly slipping. Worthington also has earnestness about him lacking in most action hero stars, emitting a believable vulnerability that goes far beyond his human body's lack of mobility. He makes up for it, of course, with blind action theatrics, and Worthington has enough physical presence to pull it off, even in a wheelchair (see bonus features).
Zoe Saldana impresses the most as Navi princess Neytiri. On paper, the character is a stereotype of a strong-willed warrior princess. She hates the outsider hero for his ignorance but is ultimately attracted to him because of his sense of honor, bravery, and the fact that his Avatar looks like Sam Worthington (you know what I'm talkin' about ladies!). Saldana is the most heavily featured Navi and her performance walks the fine line between humanoid tribesman and blue cat person pitch perfectly. CCH Pounder, Wes Studi, and the rest of the blue motion captured cast are passable as Navi tribesman, but it's Saldana's consistent dedication in inhabiting the role of the alien princess that sells the concept of the Navi. Also, I think I might have a bit of a crush on her. Moving on...
Speaking of heartthrobs, Southern actor Stephen Lang breathes life into the film's most memorable -- and debatably least successful -- character, the villainous Miles Quaritch. Where Saldana takes her character beyond a cartoon stereotype, Lang chews scenery like a man convinced he is a cartoon character. Lang does successfully sell his character's many layers of badassitude in the film's more physical moments -- my favorite being a scene where Quarritch goes out on an open helipad firing automatic weapons at a fleeing helicopter containing our heroes, only stopping to put a breathing mask on after running through two magazines. It's a neat moment that shows the lengths at which Quaritch will sacrifice himself for his cause. I just wish I knew why.
Instead, Quaritch feels like a rehash of Michael Biehn's murderous Marine
character from Cameron's other alien-friendly film, The Abyss.
Where The Abyss has Michael Biehn's heavy lose his grip on reality at the first sign of distress, Lang isn't given any sort of explanation for his almost casual attitude toward waging war against the Navi. It is hard to believe any Colonel would be swilling coffee self-assuredly from his attack copter while positioned squarely in the middle of a full scale battle, with enemy panther people suicide bombing him on all sides. Cameron somehow makes him even more ridiculous in his final battle with Sully, whereupon the villain wields an oversize hunting knife in the hands of his power loader. A robot suit equipped with a knife? Why not give the Queen Alien a pulse rifle at the end of Aliens? Actually, that sounds awesome. Criticism retracted.
The rest of the cast fills the role of cardboard cutouts of archetypes they've already played in other movies. Sigourney Weaver (Aliens) is an utter bore as scientist Grace Augustine, a ball-busting expert on all things Navi who serves as the story's dual bad-pun/exposition machine. Weaver is given such thankless, cliche dialogue that I can nary believe this is the same woman who, with Cameron, redefined the female action hero archetype as Ellen Ripley in Aliens.
The rest of the human cast is utterly wasted in dumbed down roles they perfected in previous movies. Joel David Moore (Spiral) hones the dorky sidekick role he's been playing for a decade as Norm Spellman. Giovanni Ribisi (Boiler Room) is (surprise, surprise) a corporate sleazeball as Parker. He's a version of Aliens Burke Carter, only without any subtlety, spouting lines like, "Look at all that cheddar!" with high camp cackles. Michelle Rodriguez performs as helicopter pilot Trudy Chacon. It's business as usual for the actress, as she inhabits the same tough-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold role that she has in her last twenty movies, sans bra. Trudy also serves as a walk-between the fascistic Marine dullards and bleeding heart scientists that pop in and out of the film as Cameron's story dictates. I'll leave it to your imagination to figure out who persecutes who, and who wins out in the end.
This brings us to the real reason why people are revisiting the world of Avatar: the visuals. Without the benefit of the film's layered, theatrical 3D technology, Avatar flexes its technical muscle on standard DVD like a champ, losing little stylistic pomp and dynamic imagery that so made up the iconic jungle world of Pandora. From the fiber-optically haired Navi, the dinosaur-like aliens they co-exist with, and the power loader driving marines that they eventually battle, Avatar ingeniously crafts the digital heir to Star Wars analog galaxy far, far away in a way that George Lucas' prequel trilogy could never muster. If there is one motivation for audiences to visit and revisit Avatar on home video, it is to visit Pandora in all its floral, florescent glory, with only a handful of very minor flaws (pixilation, softness) briefly rearing their head in the extended cuts.
The 5.1 audio mix is equally amazing; a perfect surround sound mix that balances ample action effects, dialogue, and James Horner's epic score in such a way that feels as fresh as it did in theaters. The inclusion of an optional, family friendly audio track which removes all of the film's foul language may seem like a Godsend for parents of young children, but with the intense violence Avatar entails, I don't see how removing a couple "shits" and "bitches" keeps little Jimmy pure and innocent.
Avatar: Extended Collector's Edition represents the last word in Avatar on DVD. Three versions are present, including the theatrical cut, the extended cut for theaters (8 minutes longer), and the collector's edition cut (16 minutes longer). I watched the collector's edition cut and believe it holds up slightly better than the theatrical version. It fleshes out the characters, including Nytiri's backstory as well as delving closer into Jake Sully and his handicap, specifically in an alternate prologue set on our dying Earth (really, it just looks like Ridley Scott's Blade Runner). This cut amps up the action and gives the characters more breathing room, but the differences aren't huge, and if you've already bought Avatar on DVD and could care less about the special features, that version will do you just as well.
For those who are in it for the extras, this set delivers your ultimate Navi fix. The supplements start on disc two with A Message From Pandora. This short documentary tracks Cameron's environmental interests from high school up till the release of Avatar, whereupon he worked to raise awareness about industrial deforestation in the Amazon rainforest; diplomatically meeting with tribal chiefs, politicians, and leaders. The documentary shows his attempts to address the repercussions of a dam being built and flooding the village areas outside of a major metropolitan South American city. He doesn't quite push the eco-terrorism angle that his film does, though when he says things like, "All of a sudden, it felt like I was in Avatar" he loses all credibility. Overall, it's a good-natured documentary oozing more than a little of Cameron's ego, but its tolerable enough.
The third disc brings us to the deleted material. Unlike most deleted scenes, the footage here actually adds more texture to the characters and narrative. In this footage, executive Parker shares an arc that makes him surprisingly more three dimensional and sympathetic. Not only that, the remaining Avatar enabled scientists have their moment in an uprising, Norm and Trudy spark a romance, and Jake is put through far more stringent anthropological ringers. These scenes were obviously cut for pacing and budget early on, you'll have to view them in all their Playstation One computer animated quality, but the content will keep you glued to your seat for the bulk of their runtime. Also included is "Direct Access to New/Additional Scenes," which isolates the added content from the Special Edition and Collector's Extended cuts.
Finally, a four part documentary, Capturing Avatar, chronicles the film's inception from James Cameron's 1995 scriptment up to designing the world of Pandora, the struggle to innovate motion capture technology, casting the film, training the actors, et al. To say that this documentary will tell you everything you've ever wanted to know about the making of the film is an understatement. I've never been a big fan of longwinded, multi-hour documentaries about the making of blockbuster films (the supplements of Lord of the Rings extended editions send shudders through my spine), but Capturing Avatar paces itself pitch perfectly, moving fast and packing in volumes of information far beyond the limits of its feature length running time.
The problem of thin characters, bad dialogue, and predictable story culminates in the films most common contrarian criticisms: Avatar is a stupidly written film. This fact sparked the blurb Judge David Johnson saw challenging Cameron in the aforementioned EW interview. While Cameron answered Johnson's satirical wit with equal amounts of humor and smugness, it is a shame he wasn't addressing any of Judge Johnson's more serious critical jibes, those that filet Avatar for being such an intellectually base science fiction film. After all, isn't science fiction the one genre that's supposed to aim highest on the intellectual rungs? Metropolis, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and even Cameron's Terminator films are generally regarded as very smart, very entertaining movies in their field. Why does Avatar fall short of this storytelling craft?
It is my belief Avatar has been reverse engineered to be, well, sorta dumb. It is a film whose screenplay has been meticulously constructed to pander to the lowest common denominator, a film allowing anyone who has seen over ten movies to chart a close mental trajectory of the film's narrative from the twenty minute mark on.
Part of this is because the plotline is cut and pasted from a variety of sources -- Dances With Wolves, Fern Gully, and the novels of Paul Anderson have all been cited as just a few of the sources by Cameron and his critics. Many critics called fowl on Cameron's lack of originality, but comb through his back catalog you'll find him swiping sources from all sorts of s.f. literature -- Robert A. Heinlein (the space Marines of Aliens), Harlan Ellison (who won a lawsuit against the man after Terminator was released), and William Gibson (Cameron's screenplay for Strange Days often smacks of the technology and world Gibson's "Sprawl Trilogy"). To fault Cameron for a lack of originality is to toss aside some of the man's most revered films. That he takes sources and redefines them into intellectual property that feel unique and innovative is perhaps the man's greatest storytelling talent, and in my opinion Avatar lives up to this legacy above all.
Also, might I also put out there: you don't make the two biggest box-office smashes of all times without the storytelling savvy to make them appeal to the broadest audience possible. This is precisely what Avatar sets out to do, and it pushes the dumbness quotient just far enough to take it out of Michael Bay (Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) or Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil) territory. Avatar is a film that's concerned with business before art, I don't care how many Academy Award nominations it had. When you make the most expensive film ever made, it's going to be business first. My only question to naysayers of the screenplay of Avatar is: what did you expect?
I can only theorize Cameron's script is supposed to conjure the bad pulp writing of his youth. Avatar isn't the only film of his to do this -- the screenplays of True Lies and Titanic also border on abysmal throwbacks -- but it feels as if most critics give them a pass because they harken back to spy action and melodrama event films, respectively. If you want the best of the best, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back and Raiders of the Lost Ark represent near-perfectly written pulp throwbacks. Avatar cannot touch the hem of their garments, but like True Lies and Titanic, it acquits itself with a narrative that's decent at best. It is a film that condescends only because its designed to appeal to, well, everyone; with universal themes of identity, preserving the planet, and understanding those different than us; all wrapped up in a semi-positive message. If looked at through the proper lenses (the kind that allows us to appreciate all those flawed movie gems that most dismiss) and expectations are kept in check, Avatar is three hours of awe-inspiring, escapist fun. Everyone (including Cameron himself) just needs to adjust the lingering after effects of the film's hype.
Might I add, "I see you" is no more asinine than any other Cameron catchphrase ("I'm king of the world!," "Hasta la vista," "I know now why you cry..." -- take your pick, kiddies).
Listen, Avatar has its fair share of problems. You know it, I know it, and I'm 95% certain James Cameron knows it. The film isn't The Godfather or even Return of Jedi, but a sprawling science fiction epic designed to draw the hugest audience possible and retain the gross domestic earnings of twenty third world countries in the process. The film does its job by delivering to its viewers a world so detailed, so miraculous, and so beautiful that the sheer spectacle rivals anything put on film before or since, accompanied by a story that's just decent enough to be palatable. It isn't a great film, but it is certainly a cool film...if you're willing to open your heart and set aside your f-ed up morals.
Not guilty. To the sex tree!
Review content copyright © 2010 Ike Oden; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 178 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Unrated
* Direct Access
* Theatrical Version
* Re-Release Version
* Family Friendly Audio
* Deleted Scenes
* Archive Material
* Official Site
* Cinema Verdict Review
* EW's Cameron Q&A