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Avatar | movie review


Movie review: A paraplegic Marine dispatched to the moon Pandora on a unique mission becomes torn between following his orders and protecting the world he feels is his home. (IMDb)

It's strange that superhero movies get criticised for being released, hoovering up all the money they can and then being forgotten about almost immediately (which is clearly rubbish anyway considering how popular some of the characters and movies are well after their release) when that is actually a perfect description of the impact Avatar had on the world.

It came out, made a truly colossal amount of money, had an extended cut released which has added hundreds of millions to the movie's total, and yet is barely remembered beyond jokes about the movie being 'Dances with Smurfs' or a big budget Fern Gully. Sure, people might remember the blue cat people, but ask a random person to name any of the characters or any memorable scenes and you'll be lucky to get anyone able to give an answer.

The thing is, Avatar is a really good movie, so it's always been a mystery to me why it wasn't remembered as well as anything from Marvel, Star Wars or even the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies. It was only watching it again for this review that made me think that it might be because there are no iconic, but 'simple' visuals that younger audiences can focus on.

The three series I mentioned, plus plenty more since, have always had something simple you could latch on to, while everything here is a little too complicated for anyone other than genuine/budding artists to replicate. I'm reminded of how in the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine documentary how the space station originally had a more complex appearance, but the designers were told to simplify the shape to that a kid could try and draw it and it would be recognisable, and that's an approach this movie really could have used.

Don't get me wrong, I fully expect the upcoming sequels to make huge stacks of cash again, but I wouldn't be surprised if the second movie then fades from pop culture memory just as fast as the original unless there's a change in approach to designing the look of this fictional world. I have a huge amount of respect for the amount of effort put into the the world-building of Pandora, but fully realising a world isn't enough to make something stick in the memories of audiences.

Another issue that Avatar has is that it is a pretty generic story that relies on James Cameron's immense talents as a director to lift it up beyond mediocrity, which he easily accomplishes and then some. There's yet another amoral corporation that the protagonists end up working against as they try and stay alive - hello Aliens and the Terminator movies! - while also coming to love this alien world and the people in it.

The story and characters really are nothing to write home about at all, and there aren't even any truly standout performances from the cast either, with Stephen Lang coming closest with a great antagonist performance, but there's not enough on the page for anyone to make anything truly memorable - which works both for and against the movie.

Due to no-one feeling like they stand out, everyone feels like a natural fit to the world Cameron created, which I like in my movies rather than larger than life, could-only-exist-in-a-movie types. We get to spend enough time with everyone that we become familiar with them and grow to care about them from that perspective, but - again - you'll probably forget them just hours after watching the movie.

As for the more technical side of things, the VFX work is truly outstanding and more than holds up today in the era of crunching VFX studios into churning out work as fast as they can and resulting in a lot of sub-standard stuff ending up on-screen (hello, MCU phase 4!). Honestly, watch the 13-year old Avatar and prepare to be shocked how much better it looks than most current blockbusters.

If there's one criticism of the looks, it's the design of a lot of the creatures, which plays into what I said above about Avatar not sticking people's memories. There were a few occasions when I wondered why they made some of the creatures as complex-looking as they did - there might be a reason in the back-story made for this world, but they only serve to make the animals a bit of a visual mess compared to the beautiful, if still alien, flowers and other vegetation we get to see.

In all honesty though, I'm not too bothered about how memorable a movie is as long as I enjoy it while watching and Avatar more than meets bar - if anything, my main issues with the movie are entirely unrelated to how it looks and more due to how the plot plays out, which isn't something I ever thought I'd say about a James Cameron movie.

His other films all tend to maintain a certain level of energy and drive - yes, including Titanic - that keep things feeling like they're moving forward with purpose, but there were a couple of occasions where events slowed so much that I started losing interest. Note: this was watching the longer cut - the experience may be different if you watch the 12-minute shorter original version of the movie.

There's also occasions where this very sci-fi movie veers close to, if not outright into, fantasy story-telling and it can be jarring when there's so much technology and explosions going off to then have spirits and sentient forces of nature being equally accepted. The four planned sequels might make this fit better retroactively, but it doesn't change the fact that the genre-blurring can feel a little weird at times.

I would still definitely recommend watching Avatar because it's still a James Cameron movie, which is a pretty big signifier that what you're going to watch will be pretty bloody good. It's very much a 'fast food movie' though - you might enjoy it while working your way through it, but you might want something a bit more substantial when you're finished.

Avatar is a really good movie that is only let down by some very un-James-Cameron-like choices - the story gets a bit too 'saggy' at times, leading to more than one section that veers towards boring; and, considering the effort gone into making the world of Pandora a believable place, it does tip a little too far away from science-fiction at times and towards fantasy instead, a genre-shift that does rob the movie of some its weight.

[8/10 - Very Good]



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