Posted by: Jeff | December 30, 2009

Avatar Dump

Now that my “official” holiday vacation is over, and I’ve finally gotten around to seeing the “it” movie of this holiday season, I figured I’d jot down my initial reactions. I’d like to see the film at least once more while it’s in theaters, and I’m still marinating in my impressions, so this is all subject to revision. (Of course, spoilers to follow. So consider yourself warned.)

THE GOOD

Zoe Saldana as Neytiri – Hands down the best part of the movie. The character is the story’s emotional core, and her grief over the destruction of her home is genuinely piercing. First rate animation and some remarkable moments of expression. I’m not sure if this is a marriage of actor and CGI that belongs right beside Andy Serkis as Golumn, but it’s up there.

Sigourney Weaver as Dr. Grace Augustine – First off, it’s just great to see Weaver in another Cameron flick. Secondly, she gets to play a tough broad with zero patience for bullshit who’s blessed with the vast majority of the script’s one-liners. Which she delivers like the seasoned pro she is. Kudos.

The CGI and the 3D – I’m not sure if nine-foot blue aliens and floating mountains can ever be “photorealistic” in some deep experiential sense, but the imagery in Avatar is still damned impressive. There were exceedingly few moments where I came out of the movie-watching experience enough to say “Oh, I’m looking at computer animation right now.” I mean, take a look at that still up above. There’s practically nothing in that shot which isn’t CGI. Pretty cool, huh?

As several critics have noted, Cameron’s use of 3D is mature and subtle, focused on creating an immersive experience rather than the gimmicky trick of hurling objects out of the screen at the audience. (Think the spear aimed at the title hero’s genitals in Beowulf.) The small touches, such as an early shot in which moisture droplets float in zero gravity between Sam Worthington’s face and the audience, are the best parts.

Basically, I want to see this movie again for the imagery. The screen I saw it on was small and a bit dim. (I could go on a very long rant about the sub-par quality of movie presentation at your average suburban multiplex versus what you get at more “artsy” venues like the Arclight in Los Angeles or the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin.) If I had seen the movie on a big and properly lit screen the first time out, once would probably have been enough.

THE BAD

James Horner’s score – The biggest disappointment of the movie. It sounds like a cheap imitation of his work in Glory, combined with the bad synths from Titanic, and all fed through a derivative “tribal” aesthetic. No memorable theme to speak of. He totally phoned this one in.

Stephen Lang as Miles Quaritch – An underwritten, one-dimensional, walking cliche of a villain. The script makes zero attempt to explain why this man behaves the way he does. Lang does what he can with the role, but there’s little to nothing to work with.

THE “MEH”

Sam Worthington as Jake Sully – I’m still on the fence about this guy. He has an undeniable charisma, and his performance is perfectly serviceable to the film’s needs. But he never takes a moment to really jump out and grab you the way Saldana and Weaver do. There seems to be a nebulous hope floating around that Worthington will turn out to be the next Russell Crowe, but so far I’m not seeing it.

The script – It’s literally Dances With Wolves by way of Ferngully. I mean, literally. It has two genuinely sublime moments near the beginning. One, when Jake, a paraplegic, first enters his Avatar and is able to walk again. And two, when Neytiri berates Jake for creating a situation in which she is forced to kill some local predators. (There’s Saldana’s performance again as well.) But other than that it doesn’t do a thing that would surprise anyone familiar with this type of story. Very paint by numbers.

The camera work – This is nitpicky of me. Cameron’s never been one to show off his use of the camera, and God knows he places the audience within his CGI environments much more organically than Lucas did in the Star Wars prequels. Still, I felt like there were a lot of derivative, “sweeping” shots of the various computer-generated spectacles. To my mind, a more promiscuous and intrusive use of hand-held camerawork would have kicked this film up a notch. And it at least sounded like Cameron had the technology at his disposal to do that.

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