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Avatar (2009): ***½

Directed by James Cameron

Avatar is a beautiful, stunning film. It is an engrossing epic, a virtuoso action flick, a technical marvel. It is full of wonder and thrills and heartaches and triumphs. It is an incredible movie. If only someone other than James Cameron had written the dialogue.

Never really someone who has excelled at convincing, realistic dialogue, Cameron's skills as a writer haven't improved at all in the last 25 years. His military jargon is just as awkward as it was back in Aliens. Avatar is also unfortunately saddled with being a "message" film, and is about as un-subtle about it as humanly possible. Someone even says uses the phrase "shock and awe" at one point for goodness sake!

It really is a shame, because almost everything else about the film is really and truly four-star quality. Cameron once again shows everyone else out there how to film action scenes; (almost) never at any point in these huge, sprawling action set-pieces is it confusing where the different players are in relation to each other or what they're doing or what consequences their actions have. Cameron has an uncanny eye for exactly where to position his "camera" (in quotes because 99% of the movie was created inside a computer and therefore there wasn't a real camera involved) to give the audience exactly the information they need while still being able to convey the tones and emotions that he wants to get across. His visual storytelling is crystal clear. It's wonderful not to have to worry about being confused in such a huge, visual story.

The main thing that Avatar has going for it is time. It's a long movie, and that is a good thing in every respect. It means that it never has to rush. Characters are developed at their own pace. The plot points are earned rather than forced on the characters. Character arcs seem natural. There's time to breathe; time to just follow these characters around and watch them interact. Most books and/or classes on scriptwriting probably would have looked at this script and recommended that 1/3 or more of it be cut out as being not explicitly necessary to the story. But it is necessary for us to care about the characters, and all the extra room serves only to increase the richness of the world that Cameron carefully builds.

Avatar is not exactly the most original movie out there. It has been called Dances With Wolves meets Ferngully, and dozens upon dozens of articles have been written showing just how similar it is to any number of other stories that have already been filmed/written. But originality has never been Cameron's strong suit. Heck, he even had to add extra on-screen credits to later releases of The Terminator that say the movie was inspired by a couple of episodes of The Outer Limits that were written by Harlan Ellison. Cameron's stories are never really anything new, but what he does do is take familiar elements and do them extremely well. It may not be original storytelling, but it is quality storytelling. And in a way, it is comforting; at some level you already know how to feel about these stories, so you're freed up to just enjoy them without having to try to figure them out.

That's not to say that Cameron isn't clever. Though none of the ideas in Avatar are really new, he does manage to tweak them in ways that I found very pleasing. The world-wide, self-aware planet/lifeform shtick that has been done many times before (see Asimov's Nemesis, or any version of Solaris to name just a couple), but was presented in Avatar in a very clever way. The characters also aren't stupid, and come up with some very clever solutions for some of the problems they encounter.

Yes, the visuals of the movie are legitimately stunning. The design of the world Pandora really is awe-inspiring. I also greatly enjoyed the design of the technology in the movie – the computer interfaces, the ships, and especially the motion-controlled mechs. The motion capture for the Na'vi works really well most of the time. But is it really that much more impressive than Gollum was almost ten years ago? It seems like the only thing that lets it be better is a huge budget being thrown at it so that all the nooks and crannies of the rendering can be given attention. But a major leap forward in tech? Not really. The next step up the technical staircase, yes, but not much more than that, and certainly not a quantum leap. I saw the movie in IMAX 3D, and it did look good, and refrained from being gimmicky. There weren't any "ooh, look at this spear going DIRECTLY AT YOUR FACE BECAUSE OF THE 3D" moments. Especially effective were the tracer bullets flying through 3D space.

You know, I'm fine with very-human-looking, bipedal aliens. As with most of Science Fiction, the aliens aren't supposed to be alien; they're supposed to be metaphors for us, so as a shortcut it's okay to make them visually familiar. Lazy, yes, but it's such a tradition nowadays that I don't bat an eyelash at it. I did, however, find it distracting for some reason that the Na'vi had well-trimmed fingernails. It made me pause and wonder where/how they trimmed them so neatly. There were a handful of little things like that throughout the movie that made me pause and think, "Would it really be like that?" Right at the start of the movie, the opening narration mentions someone getting killed so the criminal could get the "paper in his wallet." I couldn't help but think, "Physical money is already well on its way of being phased out. Would it really still be around by the time this story takes place? Would it still be made out of paper?" Just little things, but they knocked me out of the story for a bit.

Nevertheless, Avatar is a great movie. I can see (much more easily than I could with Titanic) how it could become a cultural milestone of a movie. But like George Lucas and his prequels, James Cameron should have given the screenplay to someone else to re-write the dialogue. Warren Ellis or Joss Whedon, maybe? You know, someone who can write legitimately realistic and clever dialogue, not awkward clichés and stilted, ham-fisted "messages."

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