Avatar Critique & Review

This is my first post of what I expect to be many under this category.  Having performed as a musician, actor, voice actor and stand-up comedian for many years in addition to my time spent behind the scenes I find that I cannot help but watch, read or listen without analyzing the craft behind the art.  I am the kind of person whose enjoyment of a novel decreases with every typo and grammatical error.  Continuity errors drive me insane.  Yet I often will still be moved regardless of these flaws, in fact sometimes they are the best part.  I find this more true in music and static visual art like painting and photography, where an “un-manicured” appearance or sound often conveys more clearly the passion of the artist.  Media like books and film require a more refined or graceful approach to their storytelling to avoid becoming incomprehensible.  Because these media reach my heart through my mind, if my intellect is frustrated it interferes with the reception in my gut, if you will.

Because I am so critically oriented I have had to learn to separate what are often two very different reactions within myself when I encounter art.  The first reaction is the Critique, my reasoned analysis of the execution of the artist.  In a Critique I often focus on what appears to have been done poorly or well, what could have been done better and how effectively the artist has achieved their apparent intent.  Once I have explored these questions I am then able to set my intellect aside and examine how the piece made me feel.  This is what I think of as a Review because it is on the basis of these feelings that I will recommend the film to others or not.  I realize that my intellect informs my feelings more than vice versa but I would still prefer to be moved by art than to be simply impressed with it.  In the Review section I will focus on my responses to the characters and my sense of connection to them and to the story they tell.

I am beginning this category with the film Avatar because I just went to see it this afternoon with my wife on our first date since having the baby.  Much thanks to my mother-in-law for making that possible!  Now, all ado aside, here we go!


This is the third film that I have seen in a theater since discovering that I need glasses earlier this year.  The first two, Star Trek and District 9, were much better experiences thanks to the assisted vision – a fact that I checked several times throughout each movie by lowering my glasses to see if I noticed a difference.  The difficulty with Avatar is that the 3D glasses were incredibly uncomfortable on their own (my wife left with a bad headache) and only made more so by my regular lenses.  In addition, I assume due to the anti-glare coating on my lenses, if I tilted my head even slightly the edges of the images became blurred in the annoying way that 3D films always have (and apparently always will).  Going in I was really looking forward to seeing the 3D breakthrough that had received so much hype.  To be sure the image as more fully 3D than any I had previously seen but every time the image jagged I was jarred out of the world of the film and back into the world of watching a film.   In addition to these distractions there were very, very few scenes where I felt that the story was better told in 3D.  Perhaps that is unfair because I don’t have a 2D version for comparison but the fact remains that the 3D images did not help me feel like I had stepped through the fourth wall except during the shots filmed in a first person perspective.  I believe I would have preferred to see a seamless 2D film rather than an occasionally jarring 3D film no matter how richly rendered.

And Avatar was rendered richly indeed.  It is by far the most impressive piece of animation I have ever seen.  The detail level in the animation was simply stunning and clearly everyone who worked on the CGI for this film earned their paycheck and then some.  However, the clearly CGI work was so prevalent that I would go so far as to say that this is an animated feature rather than a live action film almost like a reverse Who Framed Roger Rabbit? The live action characters, when entering the Na’vi world become more animated in their appearance, much like the characters in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. I don’t mind the juxtaposition and it was very beautifully done, but it detracted from the impact of the story in a way that I will detail more in the Review portion.

I have always preferred the Star Wars style of special effects when it comes to creatures, droids and the like.  There is a look, a feel to an actor in a costume that no computer can truly mimic.  When the set and props and persons in a scene exist in physical reality they create an immediacy that animation has not yet been able to reproduce.  There is a sense that these events could somehow happen to me, were the circumstances in time a space just right.  When a scene looks animated, it negates that illusion because some part of me knows that I cannot inhabit that world.  As a result the characters and actions become other, more remote and less effective.  In stark contrast to the rest of the film, my single favorite shot is when Jake is holding Neytiri’s face near the end.  It is obvious that they used a real, physical model for the face and the results are astounding.  I really, really, really wish that the Na’vi had been live actors even at the cost of some of the visual gymnastics because I believe that the film would have had much more impact.  For example, had District 9 gone the full CGI route it would have fallen flat on its face.  It is the immediacy of the action, the physical truth of what Wikus endures that both pulls the audience into the story and creates the connection that allows for instruction.  More on that part in the Review.  Sadly, I believe this film will make so much money that the art of latex masks and model making may be lost in the swirling depths of indie horror as the games of one-upmanship begin.

The last portion of the film I would like to critique is the writing, specifically the dialog.  I think the shot selection and scene changes were very well written and as part of the visual presentation of the film this is no surprise to me.  When I left the movie, though, there is only one line that actually stands out: “You’re not the only one with a gun, bitch.”  Is this really what James Cameron wants his audience to leave with?  Is this the “famous line” that will get quoted ad nauseum?  This line is as cliché and predictable as the rest of the dialog.  I felt like I knew what each character was going to say at any given moment, at least in general terms.  It is as though all of the characters are avatars – archetypes being channeled, in and of themselves, unoriginal.  There is no nuance to the dialog and therefore no nuance to the characters.  Because the stereotypes are so strictly adhered to there is no surprise as the plot develops irrevocably to its very predictable conclusion.

That’s all for now, I’ll write the Review soon.


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