film review: Avatar 3D (2009)


Avatar poster
There is only one film worth seeing in the cinema this week. Avatar. Well, if we are to believe the hype anyway.

Personally, I had been rather apprehensive about this whole Avatar business. I can’t remember the last time a film promised so much (well… maybe Snakes on a Plane but that was really a different kind of promise). It’s been 12 years since James Cameron made a feature film… 12 years is a long time. Of course that film was the highest grossing movie of all time ($1.8 billion worldwide, just so you don’t have to look it up)… but then again, not everyone looks back kindly on Titanic. I actually liked and still like Titanic, but the idea of Titanic in space with a load of blue monkeys? Uh… I just wasn’t so sure about that. And of course Cameron also directed Terminator, Aliens and True Lies. All great films but I just don’t know how this all fits together.. what kind of films does James Cameron do? What kind of film was Avatar going to be? And there’s so much riding on Avatar – Cameron’s reputation of course, but the way it’s being sold, the future of 3D cinema as well. This film is supposed to push 3D out of kids films and horror and into the mainstream. It was too much, too puzzling, I just couldn’t get behind this film wholehartedly.

I’m almost hesitant to tell you what I thought of it. I think you’d be better off if you go see it yourself first. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen it… or read on if you’ve seen it, or if you prefer to hearing other people’s opinions before you see a film… it’s up to you, just don’t say I didn’t warn you, but I do think it’s one that you might want to keep your ears and eyes closed about it beforehand.

If you are still reading on then I think Avatar is going to be a bit of a divisive one, particularly because I think there’s a chance it’ll draw in more than a few people who don’t watch movies a lot… I hope it does anyway. Which is not to say that I think people who don’t watch movies a lot will particularly love it or hate it. Some will and some won’t. I just mean that there’ll be more people talking about it than your average genre film. For example, I doubt My Bloody Valentine was particularly divisive. Not many people who don’t like horror would go to see such an obvious horror/slasher film so it’s not like there’d be many arguments about it. Avatar on the other hand is being sold very wide, wider than I think the genre/s fit. I’m not sure exactly what genre it is but it’s definitely being sold outside it.

Mind you, the genre is irrelevent in a way… I think everyone should see this film. Not everyone will like it but I definitely think everyone should see it. There will be people out there who just aren’t going to buy into the big blue aliens. There’ll be other people who just don’t like sci-fi. There’ll be sci-fi fans who aren’t happy because it’s not sci-fi enough… that doesn’t matter. The fact is, it looks amazing… let me say it again, AMAZING. I could go on with a few more superlative adjectives but it’s not worth it, you’ll just think I sound nuts. Amazing I tells ya. You just have to go see it. It is worth it…. Even if your brain hates it your eyes will enjoy the feast. I liked the 3D in it too. It was used very effectively, there were a few “coming out of the screen at you” moments but a lot of it was giving depth to scenes, just making things look more realistic. It was different from the other 3D I’ve seen. Then again, it’s a very different film from the other 3D films out there.

Will it revolutionise cinema though? I don’t know. First of all, I don’t how much this kind of thing costs and let’s face it, big budget film making is all about the money. But also I don’t know how well it would work with other films. I can see it with the big summer blockbusters, certainly Transformers and Star Trek would benefit from it but I still don’t think that it’s worth it in every case. I guess it really depends on the maths…

In general though, it’s not a great film, it’s a good film but not a great one. Or at least I wouldn’t put it up there with the rest of Cameron’s work. I think in another review, I mentioned that I don’t particularly watch individual films in the context of a director’s overall work. And that’s true. But in this case it’s easier to reference his because… well… I’m just finding it difficult to find a genre to review it in. It’s not really a sci-fi film. Sure, it’s in space and there’s aliens all over the place, but it’s really just a normal drama set against the backdrop of an alien planet. But, you couldn’t compared it to something like… I dunno, Almost Famous or something. I was very much reminded of The Lord of the Rings trilogy watching it. It truly is an epic film. Cameron has created a whole world for us, so I can’t say it wasn’t great because it was a bit of a corny love story. It’s like saying The Lord of the Rings films are just three films about a very long walk. That’s just bollocks.

Ok anyway, this film has really got me waffling. Let’s get down to it. Avatar is a good film but it’s a bit mainstream for my taste. It’s not really entirely a straight up love story like Titanic but it’s more than half way there. The pacing is reasonable but it’s slightly long (about 2 hours 40 mins) and I found the music more than a little annoying (it’s comments like that that are the reason you should watch a film before reading the reviews – now when you watch it you might be listening out for the music and this isn’t a film where you should be worrying about the music… but anyway…). That said, it’s not like the music spoiled it for me, it was just annoying. Characterwise, it’s ok. I wouldn’t say they are well developed but it’s not that kind of film so it doesn’t matter. Acting is fine, a bit shaky in places and the best actors probably aren’t on screen for long enough – I’m pointing at Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi here – but there’s nothing painful or shocking about it. The plot is predictable… but again, that’s just the type of film it is. Some films are predictable, it’s not a bad thing, it’s just a thing. It’s not awful though, it’s engaging enough and generally sustains itself across the 160 minutes or so.

All these complaints aside though it’s still a good film. In fact it’s almost a great film. I found myself immersed in this alien world and if a film can do that then it can’t be bad. It is thanks in no small part to the visual effects but also it’s pretty much a full realised world. The Na’vi are a distinct culture and they are a believable culture in my eyes given the world they inhabit.

Anyway I do urge you to go and see it if you haven’t already. It does look AMAZING and yes, it is worth it just for that. And do spend the money on seeing it in 3D. This kind of work deserves to be seen the way it was designed to be seen. Just don’t expect too much from the story. In that respect it’s competent but it’s not worthy of those superlative adjectives I didn’t use to describe the visual effects.




  1. comment-avatar
    Eoin Sue and CillianDecember 17, 2009 - 10:10 am

    Great review!! Loved the film and I will definitely be going to see it again !!

  2. comment-avatar
    BorysDecember 18, 2009 - 4:31 pm

    I'm surprised that you have used the term "corny love story". Sure, there was a romance element in "Avatar", but it was not emphasized at all. "Lethal Weapon 2" or "The Lord of the Rings" was much more of a love story than "Avatar". Besides, there is some romancing in almost any action drama, and, relatively speaking, "Avatar" is far down the ranking. Maybe actually it was you that had been prejudiced before you went to the theatre? 🙂

  3. comment-avatar
    nicola-tDecember 18, 2009 - 7:27 pm

    Ah now, in fairness Borys (others look away if you don't want spoilers)

    What I was saying when I used the phrase "a bit of a corny love story" was that you couldn't simply say that's all the film was because Cameron had created this huge world and culture for it.

    I will argue however that that is mainly what the plot is… I mean let's look at it really. What happened? A marine went to a planet to do a job, fell in love with a girl and decided to side with her people rather than his own. That's what happened. That was the driver to the story, the rest is dressing. That relationship is central to film, that's what gives it a beginning, middle and end. He meets her, he falls in love with her, he saves her. That's what happened.

    Otherwise we just had a half hearted attempt at diplomacy followed by a military operation with soliders killing natives.

    Sure, the film didn't devote all it's time to developing that core relationship, but then again it didn't spend a whole lot of time developing any relationships…

    When you look at LOTR, the driver in that film was the quest to destroy the ring, the romance elements were weaved in where they fit. That was not the case in Avatar. Not the way I see it anyway. I mean, if that Jake / Neytiri relationship isn't the core of the story then what is?

  4. comment-avatar
    BorysDecember 18, 2009 - 10:48 pm

    Well, OK, Nicola, I've overlooked "a bit of" in "a bit of a corny love story", sorry for that. But still, I disagree with you. True, the love for Neytiri eventually became the main driver for Jake, but not for the story as such. The death of Martin Riggs' wife made him go wacky, but you wouldn't say that the "Lethal Weapon" series is all about Riggs trying to tackle the tragedy, would you? 🙂 It's just an excuse for the writer, it is mentioned in the dialogues now and then, but it doesn't make LW a romantic drama.

    Cameron in "Avatar" had plenty of possibilities to add weight to the Jake-Neytiri relation, but as I see it, he's really cut it down as much as he could. "True Lies", now that was a love story… with a twist. 🙂

    To me, the core of the "Avatar" story was Jake-Pandora relation in general. Neytiri was only a part of it. We do not get any tearful love declarations, farewells, suicide rescue missions to save the beloved one, etc. In the final battle they fight for each other, true, but they do it as "brother in arms", not as lovers. Cameron doesn't even bother to show us their getting together after the "break-up"; there is absolutely no time spent on showing how they rebuild their relation. In a typical love story the plot would unravel differently.

  5. comment-avatar
    nicola-tDecember 19, 2009 - 10:04 pm

    – again folks, don't read on if you don't want spoilers –

    Ah Borys, if you really don't think it's a love story at the core of the plot then I think we're going to have to agree to disagree 😉

    I'll defend myself a little more though – I never said it was just a love story. Quoting myself from a bit further down the review:

    "It's not really entirely a straight up love story like Titanic but it's more than half way there"

    So to be clear there Borys – I did not say it was just a corny love story, nor did I say it was a typical love story (as you've referenced at the end of your last comment) – so i don't know why you're reading it like I did!

    And to be clear again on the "corny love story" phrase that you quoted. The full thought was…

    "Cameron has created a whole world for us, so I can't say it wasn't great because it was a bit of a corny love story. It's like saying The Lord of the Rings films are just three films about a very long walk. That's just bollocks."

    So… specifically what I said was that you couldn't say that it was just a bit of a corny love story and if you did that would just be bollocks, nonsense if you will. That's because it's also an action film and a sci-fi film and a drama and a socio-political commentary and showcase for visual effect and technology and even cinema in general… but at the core…

    …I do still think it's a love story and you might find these videos interesting 😉

    James Cameron / Sam Worthington interview – particular from around 55 seconds in.

    Zoe Saldana interview

    I have to admit, I don't know what you are saying about Lethal Weapon. I haven't seen it or any of the sequels so any parallels there are lost for me…

    And btw, corny isn't a bad thing anyway, Love Actually is filled with incredibly corny love stories but I still love it and I'm watching right now! 🙂

  6. comment-avatar
    BorysDecember 20, 2009 - 7:42 pm

    Nicola, I could admit there is a love story at the core… but analogously there is a love story at the core of "Twelve Monkeys" (to employ an example different from "Lethal Weapon"). 🙂 What I mean is that we should discern between:

    1) love story being an element of the overall plot (very often the core element), and

    2) love story understood as a genre.

    In the first sense "Avatar" is a love story, no doubt about that, but 95% of all the movies also are… It all depends on how to you define "core", of course. However, I disagree that "Avatar" is a love story in the second sense. There is simply too little love in the story. 🙂

    I don't want to argue about your use of words, maybe I've misinterpreted them and maybe we are simply discussing definitions right now; but then again you've written "more than a half way there" when comparing "Avatar" with "Titanic", and that's enough for my disagreement bell to go ringing. 🙂

    BTW, I enjoy love stories too, but I am much more traditional when it comes to "pure love stories". "Casablanca", "Gone with the Wind" — anytime, anywhere, but "Love Actually" and "The English Patient", well, suffice it to say that I disliked them. Strongly. 🙂

  7. comment-avatar
    nicola-tDecember 21, 2009 - 1:51 am


    I never claimed Avatar fell into your second definition – love story understood as a genre – I talked specifically about having a problem defining what genre Avatar fell in and concluded that it was irrelevent. Which I do think it is – it's very wide film and I don't think it would be in any way fair to slot it in a genre.

    I don't know that that many films have a love story at the core (in your first definition, certainly only two out of the four I saw last week did) but either way as far as I'm concerned, if the writer/director and the female lead say it's a love story then it's defintely a love story; discussion of how much of a love story is semantics!

    Anyway I guess you didn't like Titanic? Personally I don't know why I hear so much about people not liking it… it took $1.8 billion, there must other people out there besides me who liked it…

    In other news apparently Avatar has taken an estimated $232 million worldwide on its opening weekend – well on its way to covering the production cost anyway 🙂

  8. comment-avatar
    BorysDecember 21, 2009 - 12:55 pm

    OK, so I guess we've reached some consensus here. 🙂 I still think that the love story part "bothers" me less than you, though; "bothering" understood as being uncertain when it comes to choosing an appropriate genre. I believe that "Avatar" is a very pure instance of sci-fi movie, no additional tags needed. It's as simple as that. 🙂

    And I actually loved "Titanic"! 🙂 In fact, it remains to me a mystery why most (all?) of the girls I know in RL think that "Titanic" sucked, but that "The English Patient" was great. 🙂 It seems that for guys it is the other way around (as long as a guy enjoyed at least one of these movies…).

  9. comment-avatar
    JoshDecember 27, 2009 - 11:08 am

    Thank you Nicola for another excellent review, I tend to agree on most points of you review which seemed to provide a variety of viewpoints amongst a plethora of opinions provided online. I felt it was a great visual spectacle and achieved what it set out to do. Cameron had redefined mainstream blockbusters but it may not become a classic.

  10. comment-avatar
    Nicola-tJanuary 5, 2010 - 12:28 pm

    Thanks Josh!

    Borys – sorry for the delay on the response, as you can see, I was busy setting up a new website! Can’t say I think Avatar was a sci-fi film at all but again, we’ll agree to disagree! 😉

    Haven’t seen The English Patient myself… maybe I will get around to it some day but I can’t say I’m that interested in it…

  11. comment-avatar
    Micky bJanuary 7, 2010 - 10:35 pm

    I loved it although it was basically Pocahontas crossed with dances with wolves 🙂 oh and in 3D lol

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