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A non-review of Avatar

It's not very often that I see a movie that moves me enough to write something about it. Sure, a couple years back, I put together a list of some of my favorite comedies, but those were capsule summaries written about movies that were, in general, quite a few years old.

Yesterday, however, I saw Avatar, and was, for the first time since the 1977 release of Star Wars (I refuse to call it 'Episode IV'), absolutely amazed by a film. As such, I felt moved to write a little bit about Avatar.

This is not a review, and it (hopefully) doesn't contain any spoilers. Instead, I've focused on my reactions to Avatar, some comparisons to that original Star Wars movie, and what I think it means for movie making going forward.

First off, after sleeping on it, I definitely stand by the three-word (five, counting the parenthetical) review that I tweeted yesterday:

Go see it (in 3D)

Go see it because it's entertaining. Go see it because it represents the state-of-the-art in movie visual effects. Go see it if you're a fan of cinema in general, and want to see where filmmaking may be headed in the future. But really, just go see it—Avatar is well worth the cost of admission, regardless of the reasons.

Does that mean it's a perfect movie? No, in fact far from it—the story, in particular, is too predictable and has been seen many times before. Then again, Star Wars wasn't necessarily a completely original story, either. Another recent favorite of mine, Star Trek, was itself very similar to Star Wars (this funny video demonstrates just how similar). In short, I don't necessarily mind a predictable story if it's presented well and the rest of the movie works with the story.

In Avatar's case, that's exactly how it played out: while I was fairly certain I knew what would happen next much of the time, watching exactly how that played out, and which characters and entities were involved in the outcome, definitely held my attention.

Beyond the story, though, the thing about Avatar that completely stunned me, and left me wanting (no, needing) to go see it again was its overall visual impact.

I'm not talking about the special effects here (although they were amazing), but about the reality that Avatar created in my mind.

As with the original Star Wars, Avatar does an amazing job of taking you to a world that can't possibly exist, making it seem very real, and then populating that completely fictitious environment with characters and, um, things that are perfectly integrated within that environment.

In Star Wars, that fictitious world consisted of outer space, numerous planets, odd-looking but still humanoid beings, and a few humans that became the core of the story. In Avatar, that world is primarily a single planet, populated with odd-looking but still humanoid beings, covered in incredibly lush and detailed vegetation, and sporting an entire zoo's worth of fictitious creatures...and oh yes, a few humans as well. But in both movies, all of those parts come together, and come together very well, to transport the viewer into that fictitious world.

I clearly remember my reactions watching the original Star Wars—after a few minutes of thoughts such as "oh wow, how did they do that?," I was simply transported.

The visuals no longer stood out as something to be observed. Instead, they simply became part of the experience.

Avatar was exactly like that. After being simply stunned by the quality of the fabricated reality that James Cameron has created, it suddenly didn't matter any more. Instead, all the parts meshed together perfectly to transport me into that world. The detailed creatures, incredible landscapes, and jaw-dropping special effects all worked in harmony with the story—despite its flaws—to make me completely forget about everything for two hours and thirty minutes.

I saw Avatar in 3D, and would highly recommend you do the same, if you can. Oddly, I'm generally not a fan of 3D movies at all—I sat through Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs in 3D with my daughter, and really felt myself hating the use of 3D for almost the entire film. With Avatar, though, 3D is used (with only one or two gratuitous exceptions) to enhance the virtual reality.

The scenery and the creatures come across as more "real" when viewed in 3D, and some of the panoramic 3D landscape shots were simply jaw-dropping.

As with the special effects, I basically forgot I was watching a 3D movie soon after the movie started.

In Avatar, 3D is just one more tool to enhance the virtual reality of the film, and it works very well in that role.

Is Avatar the reinvention of filmmaking? To be honest, I'm not sure. I do believe that, just like Star Wars, Avatar will have a profound impact on filmmaking in the future. The quality of the special effects, the believability of the avatars, the integration of 3D without relying on cheesy "here it comes!" shots, and the beauty of the fabricated landscape are all things that I expect other filmmakers will attempt to duplicate in future films. And as a movie fan, that's not a bad thing at all—assuming they can pull it off.

Even if that doesn't happen, however, Avatar has earned a spot in my personal "movie hall of fame" for its ability to transport me to an artificial world, make me care about non-existent entities, and to generally escape reality for a certain amount of time. It's been a long time since I've wanted to see a movie more than once in a theater...but I'm headed out to see Avatar again next weekend—this time, on the huge IMAX screen (in 3D, of course).

Unless you'll be incredibly bothered by the non-original story, I strongly recommend you see Avatar in a theater. Although not cheap, it was definitely entertainment money well spent, and the experience cannot (yet?) be easily replicated at home.

5 thoughts on “A non-review of Avatar”

  1. I agree with this entirely, what's funny to me about your review is someone just told me that someone told them to see it because it was the equivalent of a modern Star Wars in the visual effects area.

  2. I also agree, also entirely. I wouldn't have compared it to Star Wars, but I can definitely see the comparison. I've been wanting to see this since the trailer first appeared, and I wasn't disappointed. I think this movie would still be spectacular in regular projection, but the 3D does generally add to the movie. One word of caution though, for those who wear corrective lenses, it can be difficult to be comfortable with both pairs. Fortunately my distance vision is more than adequate and I left the prescription glasses off for the movie.

    As Nike says ... Just do it!

  3. i agree completely, Rob. The comparison to the first time I saw Star Wars at the Graumann's Chinese Theater, twice, standing in line for 2 hours, and the awe from the start with the ship coming seemingly over my head. Now, Avatar, and for 2.5 hours I must have said "wow" 50 times.. completely into the 'reality' of the story, and when it ended, I wanted to go back to Pandora and fly with them. Yes, parts of the story were predictable, but oh well, just good storytelling and a satisfying ending. It's what I like about the movies. My favorite movie of 2009, and my husband said, it's the best movie I've ever seen!

  4. I didn't have a problem that the plot was predictable, I had a problem that the third act was overly violent and just plain dumb. I won't go into details here because you have avoided spoilers.

    The final scenes were not enjoyable beyond the flashy graphics. Overall I think if you have any interest in the genre at all or are just fascinated by technology then it is worth a look but I hope that future uses of the technology also includes old-fashioned screen writing as well.

  5. Rob, I agree too. Though it has been weeks since I last saw Avatar (yes, last - I had to go twice - so far), the sense of immersion has remained with me. Movies normally fade in memory into flat cartoons. Not this one. Cameron has crossed the uncanny valley and taken many of us with him to the other side.

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