Avatar – Movie Review and Analysis

I saw Avatar yesterday. It is one of the most hyped and promoted movies of the year, yet many of the ads neglect to let you know that the movie is in 3-D. Here are some thoughts and opinions on the movie.

To 3D or Not To 3D

Athumb_avatar.jpgvatar certainly stands as a breakthrough in 3D technology and movie making, as the movie was shot and designed as a 3D movie from the ground up. The 3D takes a meh movie and turns it into something spectacular. There are moments in the movie where I thought, “If I were seeing this on the regular screen, I would be bored out of my mind, but because it’s 3D, I don’t mind so much.” Think of how the 12 minute podracing scene in the Phantom Menace bogged down the whole middle section of the movie. Well if George Lucas had made it in 3D, it wouldn’t have done so.

For the most part, James Cameron doesn’t engage in the cheap trick of having 3D objects being hurled at you in an attempt to get you to duck. Very few of the 3D effects pop out of the screen. Often the most effective use of 3D in the movie is simple ambiance. For example, as the scientists move through the forest the bees buzz around them and out of the screen, making it more immersive. It also highlights one of the current weakness of the 3D technology—fast moving objects lose focus and clarity. Certainly, the coolest 3D visuals are the virtual and holographic displays in the helicopters and in the science labs. The 3D image of the brain scan is simply amazing.

It will be interesting to see how the technology and movie making develop. For example, I felt distracted from the movie in several instances because the background of some shots is blurred, while the foreground is in sharp focus. Yes, this is similar to how the eye operates, but in real life, you could choose to focus on the background if you wanted to. In the movie, the choice has been made for you.

As many have pointed out, the 3D isn’t perfect, but it is a breakthrough, and in the same way that the first Star Wars trilogy’s effects are painful to watch now, at the time, there was nothing like them. I highly recommend watching it in 3D.

Of course then you have the question of which kind of 3D, RealD or Imax 3D? The best description of the different technologies I have been able to find is this article. Basically, the Imax screen is bigger and closer to you, so even without 3D, it seems more like you are in the movie. You have to turn your head to see different parts of the screen, because the screen is too big for your field of vision. Meanwhile, RealD is shown on a traditional (smaller) movie screen, so the 3D effects seem more “in the screen” than popping out at you.

We saw it on RealD. I don’t think I’m willing to spend the additional $12 to see it again on Imax 3D to see which one I would prefer. I’ll wait for a better movie to do that.

Update: I saw it again on a Liemax screen at Muvico. It was a bit underwhelming. This time, I wasn’t able to sit in the center of the theater, and that definitely made a difference when the effects were “out of the screen”. I really couldn’t tell any difference between the two technologies except that the Imax glasses are much less comfortable to wear for two and a half hours. On the other hand, another friend saw it both on RealD and at a real Imax theater, and he said there was no comparison, the real Imax blew away the RealD version.

Is this Dances With Wolves?

Avatar’s story is clearly derivative. It’s your basic, person goes to another culture and eventually identifies more with it and turns on his former “friends”. You’ve seen it done as boring as can be in Dances With Wolves. You’ve seen it done with visual flair in The Last Samurai. And now you’ve seen it in 3D in Avatar. As always, the best aspects of these movies are in the joy of discovery and gradual acceptance of the outsider into society. Avatar excels in the discovery department mostly because of the 3D visuals. The story aspect and gradual acceptance takes a back seat.

The movie is quite preachy on many levels, and this is its major flaw. No one wants to go to an escape movie to be preached at—especially an escape movie of this scale. The themes of terrorism, U.S. army occupation, ignorant Americans, and environmental destruction are all present even though some of them seem very strained. The cartoonish, over the top, Rambo-style head of security says, “We’ll fight terrorism with terrorism,” even though the guys in blue hadn’t done anything aggressive, let alone terrorism.

I also don’t understand why movie makers have to so confuse science and religion, nature and the supernatural. George Lucas completely ruined the force by making it the result of midachlorians. We were fine accepting that in the Star Wars world, the Force existed as a supernatural phenomenon, but once it is revealed that the Force is nothing more than the action of mitochodria midachlorians, the whole thing just becomes hokey. In Avatar, the aliens and animals have some kind of exposed neural interface that they can use to communicate. Some of the plants also have it, and when one of the aliens dies, they bury the body with a seed, and the consciousness of the person is preserved in the resulting tree, making the forest a giant planetary neural network of ancestors—a very cool idea. Then James Cameron has to ruin it by making it nothing more than tribal animism. For me, this is the weakest aspect of the movie.

Despite the preachiness, much of it is simply James Cameron being James Cameron. The Terminator shows his distrust of growing technology—ironic for someone who pushes it so. Watch Aliens, and you’ll see the same basic ideas and themes:

  • Tough talking Hispanic soldier? Check
  • Evil corporation exploiting aliens? Check
  • Weaselly corporate suit who doesn’t understand what he’s up against? Check
  • Cool military hardware? Check
  • Epic battles ending up in a one on one mech duel? Check
  • Sigourney Weaver? Check

Other thoughts and observations

Apparently you can show naked breasts on the big screen and still get a PG-13 rating as long as they belong to blue aliens. (Must be the 2010 equivalent National Geographic documentaries.)

Who would have thought that Zoe Saldana would be sexier as an eight foot, blue, tiger striped alien than as a Federation officer?

zoe-saldana-comparison2_hgt300.jpg        zoe-saldana-comparison_med.jpg

Is it just me or do the Na’vi look remarkably like Vincent (played by the ineffable Ron Perlman) from Beauty and the Beast which happened to also star Linda Hamilton who starred in both Terminator movies and married James Cameron?


So should I see it?

If you like movies, by all means yes. (In fact, you should see it in both Imax and RealD and then let me know which is better and why.) It’s a very entertaining movie with spectacular visual effects. So watch it, ignore the silly and preachy aspect, and be excited for the coming 3D developments in movie making…now if Peter Jackson would just go back and remake the Lord of the Rings in 3D…