Holiday Tangent: My Movie Review of AVATAR in 3D


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Hi Blog.  Since it’s the holidays and I want to do a few things a bit more tangental, let me talk about the movie I saw today to get my mind off spending Xmas in Japan (which I have always hated doing, quite honestly, and this is about my 23rd time):


I saw AVATAR today, director James Cameron’s follow-up to his box office phenomenon TITANIC more than a decade ago.  I made sure to attend a showing in 3D, because I wanted Cameron to give me his hot dog with all the toppings (so what if I had to shell out 300 extra yen for the funny glasses we couldn’t keep, and all told including concessions I dropped about 3000 yen for the experience).  Here’s my review:

Plot summary (skip if you dislike Movie Spoilers):  AVATAR, as you’ve no doubt heard, is about a handicapped grunt who becomes a replacement footsoldier of sorts on a faraway planet that human beings, still all concerned about maximizing shareholder value while mining some Maguffin mineral resource there, are exploiting a good 150 years in the future.  The problem is some native humanoids living on the planet already aren’t happy with having their homeworld and lifestyles disrupted.  They really begin fighting for their rights when the humans become unreasonable, and decide to use their superior technology against the natives’ stone-age (but highly spiritual) weaponry.  Our protagonist, who spends his waking hours remotely inhabiting a human-cloned version of the natives (hence the “Avatar”), is sent out into the woods to infiltrate, where he increasingly becomes incorporated into the tribe, and realizes they represent the true warrior spirit he wishes he could recapture as a human.  He “goes native” himself, and for three hours we have the story arc going in predictable directions all the way to a happy ending.

Critique:  The biggest criticism I’ve seen of the movie is that it is “by the numbers”, with few surprises.  I agree.  But nobody’s going to see this flick for the story.  We’ve heard that there are some envelope-pushing special effects.  As in the 3D.

Well, how about that 3D?  Good and bad.  Good in that it is better than the old red and blue lenses we got back in childhood (and my favorite 3D movie before AVATAR was FRIDAY THE THIRTEENTH PART THREE IN 3D, with introduced me to polarized-glass 3D cardboard specs (which I still have) and lots of things leaping out at you — including popcorn, yo-yos, a spear from a harpoon gun, and an eyeball that pops at you when Jason crushes somebody’s head).  AVATAR, however, doesn’t stoop to cheap novelties — it offers some very clear scenarios that would look normal even without the funny glasses, and after awhile you forget that you’re wearing them (Cameron seems to learn midway to slow down the action a bit at times because it blurs in 3D).

Bad is that the 3D dims the color palette.  The computer-generated natives (all bright blue, tall, and more expressive than I’ve ever seen in any other computer-generated movie) and their world is darkened by the 3D glasses, and sometimes I found myself popping them up to take in some of the more phosphorescent scenes.  AVATAR is a gorgeous movie to look at (and I would expect nothing less from master storyteller James Cameron, who gave us TERMINATOR 2, ALIENS, THE ABYSS, and of course the best disaster-movie-cum-love-story ever TITANIC — all envelope pushers in terms of storytelling and special effects), but I am still waiting for 3D to catch up with the amount of information being put forth on the screen.  Again, the 3D technology right now blurs and muddies things at times, even gets in the way when the action becomes split-second reaction.

The best part of the movie for me was the environment of the planet Pandora.  Cameron (who also wrote the script) obviously put a lot of work into creating the alien civilization, making its quirky flora and fauna look genuinely alien.  There are of course essences of Vietnam and the American Indian (the soundtrack echoes that most clearly), and he resists the temptation to give us a Late Sixties or Early Seventies ending (alas, downers of a movie don’t put as many people in seats as modern-blockbuster Hollywood endings, as a rule).  As in ALIENS, Cameron is clearly in love with exoskeletons, and his weaponry and technology is utterly convincing.  As is his heartfelt need to make us emote with the natives, and we root for them to prevail over the destructive humans.  In terms of escapism and sending us to another world, Cameron does better than even George Lucas (who never really slows down enough for us to have a look around the worlds he so fastidiously creates — you have to get the spin-off comic books or animated clone wars, or worse yet shell out to see the STAR WARS movies again if you want to suck on the scenery).  Cameron delivers on his promise to make the moviegoing experience an actual drama and not just an amusement park ride.

But in terms of what lingers after AVATAR is all over, it’s not the environmental lesson, or the good versus business/military ethics, or even the 3D.  It’s the planet of Pandora, and how lovely it must be to see it in all it’s glory without the goddamn glasses on.  I hope someone who cares as much as James Cameron about movie craft comes along and makes the 3D technology something that gives us the focus and color as vibrantly as without.  Next time.  Thanks for the good college try, Mr Cameron.  You haven’t lost your touch.  Grade:  B-.

Arudou Debito in Sapporo

7 comments on “Holiday Tangent: My Movie Review of AVATAR in 3D

  • If you see just one film this holiday season (or even this year), make it James Cameron’s Avatar. It’s a powerful, inspiring film that demonstrates movie-making at its best, and it delivers a crucial message for our time: That all living beings are connected and that those who seek to exploit nature rather than respect it will only destroy themselves.
    With Avatar, Cameron has delivered a fast-paced fantasy adventure that weaves together a stream of powerful themes that are so important to our modern world that they extend far beyond the world of fictional film: Issues like corporations destroying nature for profit, the lack of respect for living creatures, and the failed policies of “military diplomacy” that the USA continues to pursue. The themes in Avatar reflect the greatest challenges of our modern world, and the message of Avatar is both deeply moving and highly relevant to the future of human civilization.

  • This is a must see! Sit in the back as far back as you can go, there is so much to see!

    I disagree with the B-. Certainly an A-. An excellent experience, and I will go again and probably buy the DVD.

  • I agree that it was a fantastic movie and one that I will no doubt see again in the theater for the full 3D effect. I would definitely give it a solid A. Most of the negative reviews I have read seem based on the previews for the press but what Cameron delivered in the final cut has caused many to rethink their earlier reviews.

  • I saw Avatar in 3D IMAX back in Canada over the holidays and it was phenomenal in every way. The IMAX experience makes it twice the film it is in regular 3D and afterwards, like many others, I felt a certain wistfulness for our own inability to get in touch with the natural world in the way the Nav’i do in the film. On a further note, due to Canada’s liberal immigration laws, the audience was composed of races from all over the world enjoying the film together and all left in similar states of amazement. Upon returning to Japan, I went to see the film again in regular 3D with my Japanese wife and it just wasn’t the same. The audience left the theater in a similar state of bored detachment which most Japanese share. And I felt sadness that we NJ will never be able to fully assimilate to this society either. The poignancy was palpable and brought tears to my eyes.

    — Or you could be just reading a little too much into it. I also saw Avatar with a Japanese friend and a Japanese audience and we were all pretty much agape.

  • This movie is a very conventient way to integrate an idea of non-traditional cultures into a very worn-out plot trajectory (see ‘Dances with Wolves’). The plot is just so linear and like a rumbling freight train coming. It can not leave its tracks. I could think of a thousand ways to make the plot more interesting.

    Were the special effects cutting edge and do they push movie-making forward? No, in fact they are very much like a combination of a lot of CGI-dominated films we have seen already, only better and more expensive. Wait til the final credits roll to see just how many animation and effects studios and groups were brought into this project. More people worked on this than the Cathedral of Notre Dame!

    I give it 3.5 stars out of 5 for its genre, which is getting done to death simply because they can. About the only limits now will be the fact that most projects simply can not get a 350 million dollar budget to get them to screen.

    I should think had ‘Speed Racer’ been done in 3D it would have been more visually arresting than this film. And the 3D gave me a really bad headache.


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