Avatar: Not Bad, Mr. Cameron, Not Bad… (Originally published December 21, 2009)

I’m a sci-fi geek, plain and simple.  I’ve seen the Star Wars trilogy too many times to count, my heart gets fluttery over anything J.J. Abrams touches, I’ll still watch The Matrix every time it’s on TV, etc.

Highly recommended.

Sure, I’d heard all the hype surrounding James Cameron’s mega-expensive Avatar, which opened last Friday, but I wasn’t all that impressed with the previews.  It didn’t look very interesting, and all the “super awesome 3D!!!” obviously didn’t come across when viewed on a TV.

I still wanted to see it, but just barely.  My friend Tom, on the other hand, was pretty excited.  We got home from our respective stays in academia this weekend and decided to have a little man date and go see this spectacle.

Consider my mind changed.  I really, really enjoyed Avatar.  It’s a straightforward retelling of a million hero’s journey myths but it’s done so well that you forget that it’s been done before.

First thing’s first, the visuals.  Wow, I did not expect that at all.  Whenever I saw the commercials, this movie didn’t seem like an improvement over anything Pixar does with their movies, but when I saw it on the big screen, the CGI was intense.  What really had me interested were the distinctive and lifelike expressions on all the alien faces.

That’s right, the kabooms and giant floating mountains were cool, but it was facial expressions that impressed me the most.  What’s wrong with me?  I don’t know, but whatever.  It works.  Beyond visual character work, something that really got me was the scene in which Sam Worthington’s Avatar character is running through the jungle at night and everything he steps on lights up like the “Billie Jean” music video.  It’s really cool and it made me go home and listen to Thriller.

That said, I’m still not convinced that 3D is the next big thing in film making, probably because of the time TGIF decided to make Steve Urkel’s suspenders jump into my living room when I was a kid.  It’s nice to have, but it’s still unnecessary if you ask me.

The story does exactly what it needs to do.  It creates a new world that may one day rival Star Wars and Star Trek in fan appreciation.  Here it is in a nutshell: Earth’s not doing so hot in the resources department, so they go into space to a moon called Pandora where they mine for big rocks.  They run into giant blue natives who are peaceful and don’t want their environment ruined, but the Earthlings don’t care.  An Earth soldier sympathizes, joins their cause, and big shit blows up.  Oh, and there’s a love story, too.

See?  Simple, but it works.  Sure, it could be fleshed out a little more, but Avatar is first and foremost an adventure movie.  That is in no way a bad thing (case in point: Star Wars Episode II trying to go all political and being boring as can be).  You can say what you want about movies needing to be more mentally engaging, but that’s not the case with this film.  It has sympathetic characters, reflects the social and cultural events in our time with an environmental message, and it doesn’t go for the cheap laughs every few minutes like certain other blockbusters (I’m looking at you, Transformers).

The performances don’t hurt, either.  Sam Worthington, as the paralyzed protagonist, is a good hero and adds some subtle touches (going back to the CGI motion capture expressions) when he gets implanted into his giant, walking avatar.  Sigourney (“There is no Dana, only Zuul”) Weaver also does good work as the grumpy scientist in charge of the Avatar program. Giovanni Ribisi and Stephen Lang both do solid work as a two-headed corporate/military villain.  And Zoe Saldana, who never actually appears in anything but special effects, amazingly conveys a lot of emotion anyway.

No, it’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, and it will never replace Star Wars in my heart, but Avatar was pretty damn good and I can easily see it becoming as beloved to my young family members as Lucas’s epics were to me and everyone older than me.  I read today that James Cameron is planning at least two more Avatar movies.  You can punch another couple tickets for me.


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