johnlink ranks AVATAR (2009)

I have a lot to say about Avatar. Some people are knocking it as being shallow or lacking character. I think these doomsday prophecies are a bit overblown. Does it wear its themes on its sleeves? Sure. Is there some heavy-handed scripting which, if directed by someone other than the writer may have been flagged? Sure. But at least this is a film which has people talking, and which can make a case for being the best movie of the year. I’m not going to blow all I’ve got in this article, because we are recording an Iocaine Project show today on it. But I did want to get some thoughts down here.

This film is the story of a Marine who uses an artificially created alien body to integrate himself in that race of people so an evil corporation can have a way of mining the land below them.

I watched AVATAR (2009) in theaters, and in 3D, on 12.26.09. It was my first viewing of the film.



AVATAR is complicated to rank here. I focus on the filmic technique and thematic elements here, and they are not easy to score. The technical achievement considered alone on this film would certainly garner it a perfect or near perfect score. The integration of digital creation with actual footage is both impressive and frightening. I know this movie cost hundreds of millions, but when the technology cheapens filmmakers without the care of James Cameron will be churning out lifeless quasi-animated films which don’t take the time to create a soul in their characters.

The themes are right there for all to see. The indigenous people are a sort of Native American tribe and the humans are colonists who want to pull the land out from under them for the purpose of an undefined element which will make them lots of money. God is the oneness of life, and while she is balanced and unbiased, she judges the rape of her land and fights back. Army is bad, science is good. A man whose legs were taken from him by military force will still grasp to the Marine in him until shown the decency of nature (though this last theme is more understated in the film then those above). Love trumps racial divide when allowed to breed on its own. And finally, of course, corporations are singularly evil and have no care about anything but themselves.

Some of these themes are realized better than others, and some have more validity than others. I think this movie did an extraordinary job of creating sympathy for an alien race and painting humans as the bad guys, even though sometimes they did this at the expense of developing the villains. I think the nature themes are important, and the lessons are important. If this had all been integrated a little more subtly, I would have given this a perfect score. But there were times that the filmmaking bordered on preachy, so I am docking it slightly for that. But only slightly, because this film is a marvel. SCORE: 8


The pacing of this movie was nice. The story drove the action, rather than vice-versa. When the aliens tamed the flying beasts, it did not feel like it was being done solely to show us the technical magic the CGI artists could muster, but rather because it was organic to the story. Much of this film was highly predictable, a fault of the writing to be sure, but it also created several ‘Yup, there it is’ moments. Some of these moments still worked because the characters were so strongly committed to them (Jakesully addressing his new people being one of them). But all in all, I found STAR TREK to be a more fun film. I appreciate that AVATAR isn’t just fluff. It tries to be (and is) more than mindless summer entertainment. But on a pure enjoyment level, I’ve seen better this year. I do think this is a film which rewards multiple viewings, and I do suspect this score could rise the next time I see it. I watched THE WRESTLER a second time this year and felt pretty much the same way I felt after the first viewing, so I did not write a second article. I suspect AVATAR would garner a second article. SCORE: 7


This is the first motion capture film which I can honestly say loses nothing going from human-CGI. The eyes aren’t listless, and the mouth is amazingly real. Those are usually the two things which even the best CGI has trouble with. I know Cameron created a new head mounted camera to help with some of this, and the achievement is incredible.

I think the heroes were excellent. Sam Worthington put himself on my radar with this film. Zoe Saldana is magical as Neytiri, and the team of scientists are fun to follow. My issue here is with the villains. They are all one dimensional caricatures. I didn’t believe for a second when Giovanni Ribisi let his nemesis back into his avatar body at the end. It felt cheaply earned, because Ribisi’s character would never have done that. I know a lot of that is on the writing, but the performances don’t elevate it. Ditto for Stephan Lang as the Colonel. He channels Lee Ermey and tries to get away with that. No, this score reflects the quality of the heroes despite the presence of the villains. SCORE: 7


This film’s one weakness is its writing. All the other criticisms I have find their genesis in Cameron’s script. Like Lucas, Cameron sometimes could stand to allow someone else a crack at it before he puts it to film. There are some scenes of dialogue (the opening exposition between Ribisi and Sigourney Weaver being one of them) which are canned paint-by-numbers scenes straight out of a Syd Field book on beginning scriptwriting. Hitchock’s Mcguffin is the thing which all the characters are after, but which the audience does not particularly need to know about as long as the characters all strive for it. In this film that is the element under the Na’vi tribe’s land. I never bought the idea that this element would not be somewhere else and be able to be had for less than the cost the company paid to have the people slaughtered. The heavy-handedness on a couple scenes (like when Jake talks about how there is no green back on Earth) ruins any subtlety the film had going for it. Heck, the planet (or moon, actually) is called PANDORA for Christ sake.

But I digress. To be fair, some of the dialogue is solid enough, and the heroes are fairly well developed. Jake is a fully fleshed character who truly changes from beginning to end. I wish there was more like him. None of the other characters are quite so dynamic. With the exception of Tsu’tey, who we think they are at the beginning is who they end up being in the end, and not much of what has happened has changed them. SCORE: 5


A rare two pointer. The 3D in this film is transcending. When people are talking about how 3D is the future of film, they are talking about experiences like this. The technology of the projectors is not 100% there (more on that in the podcast to be sure), but the enjoyment of this film is absolutely heightened by watching it in 3D.

The CGI of both the people and the land is exquisite. The realism of the work creates no disconnect from the world of the humans and the world of the Na’vi. Inspired, professional, exceptional work. SCORE: 2



8+7+7+5+2= 29


~ by johnlink00 on December 27, 2009.

One Response to “johnlink ranks AVATAR (2009)”

  1. I would have given it an 8 in the movie category. I understand what you mean about the entertainment factor, but for me it was more entertaining than many others I’ve seen this year. I loved all the scenes when Jakesully learns about the Na’vi’s ways. All the magic in the forest was some of the most enjoyable stuff. Maybe the fact that I’m a bleeding-heart tree-hugger has something to do with it. Still, I felt like a kid again watching his ‘education’.

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