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Overall Rating

Worth A Look: 15%
Average: 16.25%
Pretty Bad: 12.5%
Total Crap: 18.13%

7 reviews, 118 user ratings

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by William Goss

"Winning Hearts and Minds with Ham Hands and Popped Eyes"
3 stars

“If you set your goals ridiculously high and it’s a failure, you will fail above everyone else’s success.” –James Cameron, “The New Yorker,” October 26, 2009

To say that James Cameron doesn’t create a whole new world with Avatar and then successfully transport his audience there is to be blind. Every dollar of the budget, however exorbitantly high it really is (we’ll never know for sure), is there on the screen, and the bar has been raised for both 3-D visuals and the incorporation of motion-capture technology in a convincing, thrilling context. Cameron paints with broad strokes as often he does bold ones, though; for every frame of modern-day spectacle, his screenplay is steeped in new-age sentiment, creaky dialogue and human characters more cartoonish than the ones he’s invented. His earlier films weren’t just about new worlds (or, in the case of Titanic, old ones), but about the new fears and strengths discovered by his protagonists. Ostensibly, so is this, albeit in ways far more heavy-handed than he’s ever demonstrated before. There’s no denying that Avatar is a tremendous theatrical experience, but it's made up of equal parts ambitious and brawny and clumsy and familiar, a success in terms of its helmer’s ridiculously high visual goals but a failure on par with everyone else’s in terms of story.

It’s 2154, and paraplegic war vet Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) has just lost his science-minded twin brother. The faceless corporation he worked for has also lost a sizeable investment, but since Jake’s genetics are identical and therefore critical to their operation, he’s lured with the promise of payola to the far-off world of Pandora in order to pick up where his brother never got to leave off.

Pandora’s a distant moon that looks like Earth, handily orbiting a planet bright enough to cast all of its exotic flora and fauna in a bright bluish hue at night and look normal enough during the day. The above-mentioned corporation (whose name I never caught, but was NOT Weyland-Yutani) is mining for unobtainium here (not Cameron’s phrase), with mercenaries led by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) protecting their interests while scientists led by Dr. Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) try to make peace with the native population. They interact with the Na’vi by inhabiting clones, the eponymous avatars, which resemble the nine-foot-tall blue-skinned natives and allow them to approach and interact without fear of the human-toxic environment.

Of course, Jake couldn’t be happier about walking again and couldn’t be more inept at interacting with locals like Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), but because the ethereal spirit of the planet tips her off, she takes him in to learn their ways and inevitably come around to their side of things, as Quaritch and Augustine each await his deep-cover reports in order to advance their fundamentally opposing agendas.

Those who were quick to compare Avatar to Dances with Wolves or Ferngully: The Last Rainforest or even Pocahontas before seeing it for themselves weren’t wrong, and while I doubt that Cameron has seen any of those movies, let alone ripped them off wholesale, the story of Jake getting in touch with the natives and their land before turning on his own aggressive army plays out every bit as expected. If Jake wants his legs back, he somehow will. If Jake wants to fly, he’ll manage it. If there’s a creature we’re told that few people can tame, Jake will ride it, and one of those will happen to be Neytiri, daughter of the chief and someone else’s fiancée from the get-go.

And if Jake were played by any actor with more charisma and a steadier accent than Sam Worthington, we wouldn’t mind his bull-headed moments and would root on his victories, however foreseeable. The Aussie displayed some dramatic chops in the little-seen Somersault, but between this and his turn in Terminator Salvation earlier this year, it’s difficult to see the leading man potential that Hollywood has so eagerly invested in (posters for next spring’s Clash of the Titans remake already boast his photogenic mug).

Admittedly, it’s not as if Cameron and McG gave him the best lines to work with; in the 22nd century, people still quote The Wizard of Oz and throw “bitch” after everything in an effort to sound gruff. Lang, beefed up on his strict scenery diet, growls about how “Pandora will shit you out”; Weaver, reunited with her Aliens director, talks about how things are interesting “biologically”; and a helpful soldier (Michelle Rodriguez) in the mold of that film's Vasquez predictably throws in the towel by saying “I didn’t sign up for this.” And Saldana brings as much emotion as she can to the effects which surround her but is stuck with a rote role that requires her to be suspicious of Jake, and then frustrated, then swooning, and so on. Although she’s every bit as assertive as Cameron’s earlier female leads, Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor, it’s not her story but Jake’s, and so she’s defined by clichés more than characterization.

On a larger scale, the story draws obvious parallels between the Vietnam War (natives fighting in a jungle that their enemy doesn’t know and with tactics their enemy wouldn’t expect) and our current conflict in Iraq (the corporate leech played by Giovanni Ribisi speaks of ingratitude towards the roads and schools they’ve built on Pandora, and is fed up with trying to win “their hearts and minds”; Quaritch speaks of “fighting terror with terror” after committing an act of “shock and awe” equivalent to a Na’vi 9/11). The soldiers, though employed as mercenaries and not as American troops, are soon after retaliated upon by Jake and friends, who drops his jarhead pride just in time to have no qualms about taking out his fellow Marines. He’s also taken to task for betraying his species, though we get no early indication what the stakes are for humanity itself back on Earth until the very end (it’s as if Cameron was in a rush to get to his precious Pandora, although he commendably establishes the concept behind the plot in under fifteen minutes; trailers have been struggling to encapsulate it and thus sell the film in under three).

However cross-eyed the politics, Cameron does remind us just how clear-eyed he can be with action sequences. With the enhanced depth perception that a 3-D presentation lends, the early chase scenes, mid-movie flights and climactic battles couldn’t be more viscerally thrilling, not to mention basically comprehensible at a time when choppy cuts and shaky camerawork dominate most other blockbusters. Even when things get downright ridiculous at the end (in the future, why make knives that big and not have them simply be retractable blades?), at least one can make out exactly what’s going on.

Cameron may have drawn me into his world, but not so much into his characters, the key quality which has helped the clear-headed thrills and sometimes bone-headed lines in Aliens, The Abyss, Terminator 2, Titanic and True Lies endure beyond the big screen. How will Avatar play at home, for those kids who aren’t yet around for something this uniquely immersive? Will it still thrill? Will it ever move?

When 2154 rolls around, you let me know.

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originally posted: 12/20/09 13:21:26
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User Comments

10/30/16 morris campbell not bad but way overrated IMO its no star wars 3 stars
3/21/16 Frenzy Copy of a copy 3 stars
5/07/15 FireWithFire Umpteenth, Anti-White propaganda made by filthy-rich,White Guilt Leftists 1 stars
1/18/13 austin love it 5 stars
12/11/12 Jamie Green screen movie 2 stars
9/19/12 austin love it 5 stars
7/23/12 cr i love james cameron and weaver, but this movie has good effects, but overated. 3 stars
2/09/12 stanley welles a terrible, unoriginal movie. do not watch! 1 stars
1/17/12 The Velcro Warlock Overly simplistic "green" "values" keep it from being superb anthropological fiction. 3 stars
11/16/11 the truth an anti-corporate movie produced & distributed by companies. cameron lost it after T2 1 stars
8/16/11 Machine Gun Tom A piece of shit for lefty greeny tree huggers to jerk over! 1 stars
5/15/11 stephen nettles AMAZING 5 stars
1/22/11 Shawn E Weird characters, but loved the animation. Fascinating 4 stars
1/17/11 chaotik tom THE most over-rated movie EVER 2 stars
12/10/10 PookyP Once I left the theatre it was forgotten 2 stars
12/09/10 car i like cameron and i love sigouney , but the overall movie was pretty good at best. 3 stars
10/30/10 Harry Definition of "retarded": people who hate this movie 5 stars
10/29/10 Rolly Hyatt Absolutely breathtaking. Takes bits and pieces from every movie ever made, but who cares? 5 stars
10/29/10 Jerry If you hate this movie, you are an idiot and I feel sorry for you. Skxawng! 5 stars
10/15/10 Jack NOT overrated AT ALL! The pure greatness FAR outweighs the unoriginaliy! 5 stars
9/06/10 millersxing both story and spectacle shine. new worlds put on display that elevate the archetypes. 5 stars
8/07/10 Bob Truly wonderful movie; exciting, heartwarming, and not at all overrated! 5 stars
7/25/10 Joe smaltz 3D lackluster if it wasn't 3D it would have been a "B" movie! 2 stars
7/19/10 The Stick that Slaps I was rooting for the Colonel all the way... 2 stars
7/08/10 Ionicera worth watching for great visuals and action sequences - not for a cliche-ridden script 4 stars
7/03/10 ad i guess the story does not matter..? 2 stars
6/27/10 R.W. Welch The ultimate visual spectacular; less gripping dramatically. B- 4 stars
6/14/10 LINDA DOWDY Loved the story line and the graphics! 5 stars
6/13/10 Chris F most dull and boring film i have ever watched complete crap 1 stars
6/08/10 Flathead King A rare combination of style and substance but characterization could have been better. 4 stars
5/31/10 alex boring script, mediocre acting, would be 1 star if 2d 2 stars
5/20/10 Bill Technical virtuosity can't replace skillful characterization. 2 stars
5/07/10 Steve Hock What? No advanced Predator Drones? Cameron? Drones? 5 stars
5/01/10 Brian Moreau Brilliant work of art,the 'political' undercurrent says so much about the monster the u.s. 5 stars
4/28/10 Charles Tatum I loved it!...when it was called "Dances With Wolves" 1 stars
4/27/10 long river way overated. very disappointed 2 stars
4/13/10 Jeff Wilder A+ for the special effects, D+ for characters, story and dialogue 3 stars
4/01/10 the dork knight Good acting despite cliche script. Too many braveheart speeches 4 stars
3/30/10 Andrew Gonzales I LOVE THIS MOVIE 5 stars
3/30/10 Andrew Gonzales MY FAVORITE MOVIE EVER!!!! 5 stars
3/19/10 Pienaar A few good action scenes/special effects, but overall very forgettable 2 stars
3/15/10 K. Sear If you know James Cameron, you know what to expect. A simple story with exciting action. 4 stars
3/09/10 Al It gave me diarrhea. But that understandable, considering what I was taking in 1 stars
3/06/10 Ron Newbold Didn't think I'd like it but...What a movie - GO!! 5 stars
3/02/10 Brian Wilshire See Avatar at least 3 times, then wait for John Carter of Mars in 2 years' time. Awesome! 5 stars
3/02/10 chuck smith an electronic coloring book with hackneyed performances on top of a sophomoric script. 2 stars
2/28/10 Milly total crap 1 stars
2/24/10 Rain Unbelievable 5 stars
2/21/10 eclavu boring 1 stars
2/12/10 Dr.Lao I've seen a lot of cheesy, cliched movies in my day, and now I've seen one more 1 stars
2/09/10 Ralph Woods Ground-breaking visuals, poor story-telling, worth seeing, leave your high-horse behind 4 stars
2/08/10 king kong you people are missing the point. Mindless sheep blinded by great fx but terrible story 1 stars
2/07/10 Smitty A run of the mill plot but an absolutely beautiful movie - a must see in 3D Imax 5 stars
2/06/10 Jessica Absolutely spectacular!! 5 stars
2/01/10 KingNeutron SW's still Hot-Dont listen to critics-see 3D IMAX version and DECIDE FOR YOURSELF -- I did 4 stars
1/27/10 Dina Held my interest but definitely way over-hyped 3 stars
1/27/10 Martin what a stupid empty movie. a little better tham sw01 phantom menace 1 stars
1/26/10 Bluespapa Ah, wondersful 3D adventure. How could this not win best picture? 5 stars
1/25/10 polar opposite god you people don't know anything about film this is just a special fx masturbation 1 stars
1/24/10 Champion This movie is a must-see. I didnt see it in 3d but it was still unreal none the less 5 stars
1/24/10 Josie Cotton is a goddess Almost three hours long, but moves at such a break-neck pace that you won't notice 4 stars
1/22/10 Mike K Where did they find all those big blue actors ? - That's how real they look. Great SF. 5 stars
1/22/10 Abhishek Chakraborty Story's pretty much ferngully ripoff...but still it looks too awesome to reject 5 stars
1/20/10 nic cage just a special effects driven film at the end of it, bad cliched story and terrible acting 1 stars
1/20/10 Stanley Thai Run, don't walk, to your nearest theater. This is a movie you should see before you die. 5 stars
1/18/10 jethro BO is letting his expectations get the better of him here. This is 2.5 or 3 stars, easily. 3 stars
1/17/10 odowd The movie effects are incredible. The story was not equal to the effects. 5 stars
1/13/10 Quirinius Snobb If you like shiny objects, you'll love avatar. Unless you also want plot, characters, etc 1 stars
1/12/10 powermore just blah 1 stars
1/11/10 Koitus Wow! Yeah, kind of a Sci-Fi "Dances With Wolves," but a must-see in a theater! 4 stars
1/11/10 DLA It suggests the military and corporate business are bad guys--left-wing communist garbage!! 1 stars
1/09/10 powerball very mediocre film 1 stars
1/06/10 Croweater888 James Cameron's big environmental statement on human greed - that cost 300+ million to make 1 stars
1/05/10 mr.mike Dances with Wolves Redux. 4 stars
1/05/10 Glen Gummess A fabulous visual feast, and a formulaic plot that works. 5 stars
1/04/10 mwildema unreal 5 stars
1/04/10 Ry Horrible story and plot. Blatant and typical incorrect representation of capitalism. 1 stars
1/03/10 Luke The most spectacular movie-going experience I've had since... well, Titanic. A MUST SEE! 5 stars
1/02/10 Linda Fabulous imagery,incredibly lush visuals. Will see again. 5 stars
12/31/09 damalc story? seen it before. effects? never seen that before. 4 stars
12/30/09 topman really wanted to like it, great sfx but poor cliche storyline 1 stars
12/29/09 Obi Wan Beautifully done. Amazing visuals, very good overall! 5 stars
12/29/09 Kaisersushi Cowboys vs. Indians deja vu. Doesn't Neyteri look like Joan Allen? 4 stars
12/29/09 FrankNFurter An orgasimacally breathtaking technical achievement. Easily the best film in years! 5 stars
12/28/09 Hmm Not bad, some great scenes but let down by limited script and characters 3 stars
12/28/09 Jeff S. Well...Mr. Sobcynski, there goes any credibility you hoped to ever have as a critic. 5 stars
12/27/09 Jon D It is the best special effects movie i have EVER seen. Must be see in 3d to get full effect 5 stars
12/27/09 randy todger helen bradley stick to cooking you lesbian bastard 5 stars
12/27/09 John An empty vessel. 2 stars
12/26/09 M Amazing 5 stars
12/24/09 Wendy and Lisa Stunning visuals (5 stars), laughable script (2-3 stars). See the IMAX 3D version. 4 stars
12/24/09 Hayden It was great story wise, visual wise, and action wise. Everyone SHOULD see this movie! 5 stars
12/24/09 Louise Not my thing. And it did not need to be in gimmicky 3D. 3 stars
12/23/09 Pile Movie magic at its purest. Go see and allow youself to dream. 5 stars
12/23/09 Paul Amazing technical breakthrough, could have spent more money on the script, worth seeing 4 stars
12/22/09 Neytiri awesome 5 stars
12/22/09 ag_krish 3D is not up to the expected level. The sequel (If any!!) of this may be good. 4 stars
12/22/09 pavel there is nothing to watch 1 stars
12/22/09 ES fan-fuking-tastic! 5 stars
12/21/09 Mishyana @ SupeG: As opposed to the myth of the noble modern man? 4 stars
12/21/09 Helen Bradley Too long, too boring, lousy plot, too much violence 1 stars
12/21/09 DHaneyArt Stunning and thoroughly entertaining 3D experience. Sobczynski mussa been sittin on carrot 5 stars
12/21/09 Chopper3 I read the script(ment) 12 years ago and couldn't have imagined how well it turned out 5 stars
12/20/09 Kelly Fraser Great film, but the 3D dragged me into the film like no other 5 stars
12/20/09 Quigley Visually mind-blowing; totally pulls you into its world; script could have been better 5 stars
12/20/09 SupeG Visually stunning but too politically correct. Embraces the myth of the nobel savage. 3 stars
12/20/09 Adrian Awesome! Never seen anything like it. I like how the 3-D is used for subtley for immersion. 5 stars
12/20/09 chief wiggum sobczynski is a cunt.amazing film critics are wankers 5 stars
12/20/09 action movie fan great imagery decent story a bit too long andit has all been seen before-still worth a look 3 stars
12/19/09 Jesper Magical 3D experience, but cliched to hell otherwise, still worth a look 4 stars
12/19/09 Gog Top notch eye candy, but everything else is a complete snooze. 3 stars
12/19/09 Todd One of the best science fiction movies I've ever seen. Best movie of the year. 5 stars
12/19/09 Bob Dog I bet Sobczynski had this review written 5 years ago... 5 stars
12/19/09 mick I agree T2 was a technical marvel in its time, same thing this time but shit story. 2 stars
12/19/09 Darkstar I don't know what movie the reviewer watched. I saw one of the most amazing movies ever! 5 stars
12/18/09 kaz AMAZING best animation EVER 5 stars
12/18/09 Flounder I'm torn. The film is utterly breathtaking to watch but is a narrative mess of banalities 3 stars
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