Movie Review: Avatar


I’ve seen some interviews with movie producers recently, mostly Pixar, saying that all the key producers are moving to 3D. I’ve taken these words with a pillar of salt, as just new ways to capture the eyeballs of price-sensitive consumers who are nervous about spending $10 a head to attend the cinema, when they could stay at home and watch a movie rental on TV… one that is getting larger, HD, and Blu-ray.

That is, until this movie. I can’t imagine what it would be like without 3D. I watched it in “Real D 3D,” and I have just one word for it:


It is like full immersion in a high-quality, beautifully rendered, high-definition video game. I’m not really a computer game player, my tastes lean more toward the Wii, but this might make a convert of me: there’s one for the iPhone. Indeed, Avatar has been called “the iPhone of movies.” The movie James Cameron has been working 15 years on, since Titanic, waiting for the appropriate technology to become available is now here.

There is a flying scene with dragon-like creatures in the second act that had my jaw dropped for a full five minutes.

But other than feeling like you’re inside a video game, a feeling I distinctly felt when watching the flying car sequences in Star Wars II, there was something else going on here. The line between live-action and animation was seamless. The use of new digital “stereoscopic” 3-D technology that adds depth significantly enhanced the experience. Rather than things protruding out of the screen over the audience, as we’ve seen in other 3D movies, this was a different sense altogether.

Here are some of my first impressions…


Avatar Music

James Horner did the music for this movie. He’s one of my favorite movie music composers, first popping up on my sensors back in 1982 for Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. It was powerful and effective, if unmemorable.


Avatar Art Direction

Avatar Floating Islands

There were several unmistakable resemblances to the artwork of Roger Dean, well known for his ’70s and ’80s album covers for such musicians as Yes (floating islands), Uriah Heap, and Asia. From colorful dragons to flying elephants, to curving stone landscape to statuesque trees the likeness was striking. Curiously, there is no credit given to Roger Dean.


Avatar Cast

  • Joel Moore:

This actor plays the role of Norm Spellman, our hero’s human buddy and scientist. He also has a recurring role as Dr. Colin Fisher on the TV series Bones. In a recent episode, his buddies at the Institute sneak out early with him to catch a premiere showing of the new movie Avatar.

  • Avatar NeytiriZoe Saldana:

You loved her as Lt. Uhura in the new Star Trek movie. She’s a very capable female lead in this blockbuster as Neytiri, the chief’s daughter, and was both fierce and appealing as a lithe heroine. I expect to see her in many more movies.

  • Sigourney Weaver:

The only actor in this movie with name-brand appeal, she reminds the viewer of Ripley from the Alien movies and even talks about lemurs. Is this a sly reference to her role as Dian Fossey in Gorillas in the Mists? Weaver plays the adult supervision role of Dr. Grace Augustine.


Avatar Cinematography: Setting the bar

Avatar Displays

This movie raises the bar to a new level in technical accomplishment. Like 2001: a space odyssey in the ’60s, Star Wars in the ’70s, Terminator 2 in the ’90s (a Cameron movie) and Lord of the Rings in the ’00s, this movie defines the new standard.

Avatar enjoys the technical expertise of the two leading special effects houses:

  • Weta Digital, who gave us Lord of the Rings, and to help finish the film ILM, Industrial Light and Magic. Douglas Trumbull and his assistant John Dykstra did 2001, Dykstra went on to lead ILM and do Star Wars.
  • In Avatar, ILM came in to do visual effects on the film’s aircraft, specifically its helicopters and the large-scale shuttle. They also worked on the film’s final battle scene, with scenes of all the vehicles taking off, as well as cockpit interior shots. Indeed, the heads-up displays and the wrap-around monitors in the command center turned up the geek lust factor higher than a new 27″ iMac.


Avatar: Derivative?

Throughout the movie, you get a feeling you’ve seen parts of this movie before. From the opening scene aboard a system sojourning ship like 2001‘s Discovery to the first scenes of the dog soldiers that is reminiscent of the troops in Aliens (also by Cameron), to the enduring sense that this is Last of the Mohicans or Dances With Wolves in space.

Our hero Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington from Terminator Salvation and in this movie his Australian accent only slips in when he gets excited) in this movie even has a native rival, a kind of “Wind In His Hair” character who is a great warrior. There is the same sense of the soldier who goes native to protect the innocent and wronged indigenous Native American Indians.


Avatar: What Didn’t Work

Where the movie failed was in the story. It could have taken the idea of:

A stranger from the skies comes down to become one of us and lays down his life to save us.

It would have even worked well as a theme with the Christmas-time release. Instead, it used a retread of a heavily used and as equally heavy-handed story of:

A neopagan Earth goddess (OK, Pandora goddess) who is the mother deity at the center of the world.

You’ve seen it before, in Disney’s historically inaccurate Pocahontas, even down to involving a giant tree. The villains were two-dimensional (a real problem in a 3D movie), stereotypical, and superficial. It reminded you of the corporate slime ball Carter Burke played by Paul Reiser in Aliens (another Cameron movie). Clocking in at almost 3 hours (163 minutes), and $300M – what was spent on all three of the Lord of the Rings movies – this movie was written, directed, and produced by James Cameron. I’m impressed by his directing and producing, but don’t feel he was up to the task of the depth and breadth of writing. Indeed, Cameron is no J.R.R. Tolkien.


Grade: A-

Avatar eyeYou’ll like it if: you enjoy sci-fi/fantasy, action or battle films, romance, and special effects to knock your eyes out.

You won’t like it if: you don’t care for violence, overt in-your-face “green” messaging, anti-war rhetoric, and neopagan overtones.


Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian

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About billpetro

Bill Petro writes articles on history, technology, pop culture, and travel. He has been a technology sales enablement executive with extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Automation, Data Center, Information Storage, Big Data/Analytics, Mobile, and Social technologies.

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