Bottom Line: Jaw-dropping visuals enhance a really enjoyable film.
**Note: If you want to remain totally spoiler-free before you watch the film, please note this review contains none of what I would call significant spoilers. I also intend to keep the comments to this post spoiler-free, so if you don’t want your comment to be removed, please follow my lead. **
Oops. Wrong Avatar.
What? It’s the other Avatar movie that everyone’s been talking about? Well, let me see here…
Ah, much better!
If I would allow myself to be a little less descriptive with the “Bottom Line” above, it would say, “As good as it needs to be.” But that’s a bit cynical, based on the complaints of an unoriginal story (some of them mine) being bandied about today. The real bottom-line, however, it that Avatar is a game-changer: it changes the way we will view much of our content from here forward, and it also changes the way film reviews need to be written.
The 3D is SO MIND-BOGGLINGLY GOOD compared with anything that I have seen before, especially in a feature film, that it will sell many people on 3D technology that heretofore were highly skeptical. We will have 3D televisions in many home theaters this decade, mostly because of the influence of Avatar. The fact that it has already reached a billion dollars will support more 3D feature films to be made, as well as promote the success of upcoming Blu-Ray 3D technology and 3D televisions and TV content. The Discovery Channel and ESPN have already announced they will have 3D content within 2 years; the overwhelming appeal of Avatar will guarantee that the viewing population will be clamoring for 3D content everywhere, as soon as it’s ready. The revolution will be televised, and it will have three dimensions.
But this review isn’t about the 3D viewing experience, which brings me to my second point: Avatar changes the world of film reviews, too. Some films will be created especially with the 3D experience in mind, which affects how they will ‘play’ in 2D. As a result, you’ll probably start seeing some reviewers double up and have a 2D review and a 3D review. The best I can do right now is to split up my review to expose the difference when viewing in 2D versus 3D, but future reviews may have just a separate section for that. In my opinion, 3D technology will eventually become akin to Technicolor: that is, we’ll start seeing almost more and more films in 3D, and the closing of the technology gap in the home will mean that everyone watches 3D content in 3D, and never in 2D. This will make film reviewers’ jobs easier, but in the meantime, we’ll have to pull double duty. Since I want to make especially clear what the technological and experiential differences are between 3D and 2D viewing, I will have a second post reviewing just the 3D aspects of Avatar. Here’s a sneak peek: You’re crazy to see Avatar in anything other than IMAX 3D.
Especially with Avatar winning the Golden Globe this week for Best Drama (thus making it a near-lock for an Oscar nomination), many people who still haven’t seen the film (and many who have seen it) are asking: Is Avatar really worth the award attention?
I hope to use the ratings below to answer that question with a “yes”:
Production value: 5/5 stars. Give me a break. James Cameron has spent some of the largest film budgets in history, and Avatar’s budget (nearing half a billion dollars according to the New York Times) is largely spent on the 3D and CGI technologies underpinning the story. It shows. I may waffle about the return of Cameron’s investment on actors and screenwriters, but no one can ever say I didn’t like the pretty pictures. Everything from the futuristic computer screens to the feeling of life imbued by the fanciful creatures and vegetation on the planet Pandora (where Avatar is set) looks better than CGI: it looks real. A scene with CGI generally looks better when it is all CGI (that is, no real-life actors or objects spliced into the scene), but in this case, it’s all seamless.
If you want me to nit-pick, here it goes: The humans should remain human, and the aliens should remain alien. The humans who have blue Na’vi avatars (no spoiler here, this is how the film gets its title) were imbued with subtle characteristics in their avatar forms that make them appear more human. This may have made some sense to the science fiction junkies who want there to be a difference, but in my opinion, the real Na’vi looked more real than the avatars, especially that of Sigourney Weaver. Maybe it was the side-by-side comparison, but her avatar stood out like a sore thumb to me, and was more in the uncanny valley than Neytiri, the Na’vi huntress we see the most in the film. Also, some establishing shots at the start of the film (all typical James Cameron) were completely forced and took me out of the experience, but that’s the director’s fault more than the budget.
Later, when the action takes place exclusively in the CGI world Cameron and his art directors have created for us, I was completely engrossed. If I had seen this film instead of Star Wars at the crucially formative point in my life when I became a fanboy, Avatar would have been that geek-out moment for me. As it is, the film has been impressive enough for me to see twice in IMAX 3D. When my wife (whom I took to my second viewing) asked about seeing it again, I didn’t blink at a third viewing; I only wanted to make sure we see it again with someone else who hasn’t yet seen this gorgeous film.
Story: 4/5 stars. Really. No, the screenwriters aren’t going to win the big awards for this film, just like in Titanic or Terminator 2 or any other huge blockbuster CGI action film. But that’s not what drew me here. Granted, a case could be made that science fiction films will continue to not be taken seriously because of a focus on the visuals as opposed to dialogue and plot. But this film isn’t as much sci-fi as it is fantasy. The Wizard of Oz didn’t win any awards for screenplay, either (also didn’t win Best Special Effects, unbelievably). But in The Wizard of Oz and Avatar, the stories were both easy enough to follow along, and suspenseful enough that the viewer really wasn’t sure what would happen next. The characters weren’t believable in the strictest sense, but the viewer could identify with the main characters, hate the villain, cheer for the protagonists, and so on. This is where I say that while Avatar isn’t the best-written story out there this year, it is “as good as it needs to be.”
Enjoyability: 5/5 stars: If you can only see Avatar in 2D, I feel sorry for you. However, the people I know who have only seen it in 2D absolutely loved it. There is plenty of eye-candy to satisfy any blockbuster-lover’s hunger for visuals (if you liked the Transformers films, you’ll love Avatar), and the story of the protagonist Jake Sully and the Na’vi is compelling enough to keep the non-cynic fully engaged to the point where you will feel the main characters’ fear, apprehension, exhilaration, and sorrow as they do. That said, I was captivated. I saw Avatar for the first time in the middle of the Christmas Eve blizzard, on a 6-hour break from working over 18 hours in 24–I was fairly sleep-deprived. As such, the film was likened to a waking dream, where I felt as though putting on the 3D glasses transported me to Pandora. When the end credits rolled, I effectively woke from the dream, walked out into the blizzard, and worked an overnight shift. The entire experience for me, then, let me emphasize with Jake Sully’s realization in transferring in and out of the avatar body: “Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world, and in here is the dream.” Any film that can make me blissfully forget my surroundings and personal troubles for two and a half hours is doing its job admirably.
This film is marketable to a large viewing audience, so the average seven or eight-year-old should be fine watching it, I think. That said, if you don’t like cartoon and/or warlike violence, this isn’t the film for you. Apparently people curse some in the future, but not nearly as much as in a standard action film, and smoking cigarettes is still a habit for a few. Also, the blue people are dressed like, well, like natives in a big hot rain forest. Things to consider if you’re sensitive to such things.
Dones’ Rating: Avatar is a ground-breaking film which must be seen in 3D to be truly appreciated. Even for those who can’t see it in 3D, it’s still worth seeing. Be sure to look for my upcoming review of the IMAX 3D experience.