Why haven’t you seen Avatar yet?

James Cameron’s Golden Globe-winning movie has single-handedly brought back old-fashioned movie magic

by Brian D. Johnson

Why haven’t you seen Avatar yet?

It looks like the movie about blue aliens by that brash Canadian from Niagara Falls is poised to become the top-grossing picture of all time. After roaring past the $1-billion threshold in a record 17 days, James Cameron’s Avatar will likely shatter the $1.8-billion tidemark set by Cameron’s own Titanic 12 years ago, especially if it does well at the Oscars. Which begs the question: why? Everyone seems to agree that the story is corny, its message is naive, and its cliché of the noble savage is retrograde. Friends of mine who have no desire to see Avatar keep asking, why is it so huge? Is it just a massive feat of marketing?

No, it’s the magic, stupid.

Love it or hate it, Avatar boldly goes where no movie has gone before. Some of the film’s harshest critics have even confessed they would see it again—just for the 3-D experience of being so deeply inside a movie. Then there are those who swear they’ll never see it, as if on principle. They dismiss it as just another escalation in the Hollywood blitzkrieg of special effects, a victory of digital artillery over human emotion. I would argue the opposite. Sure, Avatar’s prototype of 3-D spectacle is the biggest game-changer since Star Wars launched the arms race of sci-fi blockbusters 33 years ago. But what’s revolutionary about Cameron’s film is not its firepower. The real feat is how it uses cutting-edge technology to bring back a kind of old-fashioned movie magic.

Despite the guns and spears that occasionally poke through the fourth wall, what has Avatar audiences spellbound is not the frontal assault of 3-D, but the enchantment of being drawn into a world that softly envelops the senses. It’s akin to the childhood wonder of discovering a classic Disney cartoon. I went back to see Avatar a second time, and was struck that the 3-D was most effective when the action slowed to a virtual standstill. There’s a scene in Pandora’s bioluminescent forest where jellyfish-like spores from the moon’s sacred tree float down to tickle the blue limbs of the story’s avatar hero. Which sounds ridiculous on the page. But it’s a Tinker Bell moment of transcendent beauty. You can sense the collective awe in the theatre—time has stopped and we’re in the movie.

It’s as if Cameron, a veteran deep-sea diver, has transformed the screen’s flat rectangle into an aquarium and asked us in for a swim, with 3-D glasses serving as scuba gear. The flying sequences are exhilarating—and oceanic, as Na’vi natives ride bareback on giant birds that swoop over cliffs like manta rays grazing coral reefs. But Avatar’s stereoscopic vision goes beyond optics. With performance-capture technology that erases the line between live action and animation, the actors teleport their performances into another dimension; they, like their characters, drive avatars.

The flattest thing about the movie is the script. Cameron’s saga of a Marine who goes native in an alien world, leading an aboriginal revolt against U.S. military invaders, is a humourless pastiche cobbled from virtually every hoary, heroic myth Western culture has to offer. Avatar wants to be Dances With Wolves, Apocalypse Now and 2001: A Space Odyssey all at once. But in a world of wall-to-wall irony, the film’s earnest sentiment comes as a tonic. The state-of-the-art anachronism feels weirdly fresh, as if the entire movie is an avatar—a high-tech Trojan Horse hiding a 19th-century colonial romance.

And that’s all part of its industrial alchemy. Cameron never liked nuance. Fuelled by Wagnerian ambition, his righteous anti-war epic wrestles our emotions to the ground with operatic force. We’re drawn into a jungle paradise only to see it destroyed in a Goya-like pageant of horrific beauty. It’s profoundly sad, and the depth of the 3-D drives home the tragedy with a visceral impact. The second time I saw the film, I found myself constantly on the verge of tears, as if the screen was exerting a tidal pull on the heart.

What’s most remarkable about Avatar is how Cameron created technology in order to demonize technology. In the process, he has reversed the engines of a blockbuster culture geared to loud, fast special effects. His movie proves that 3-D works best as an immersive medium: with the detail of that third dimension, the film’s violent action scenes tend to get too busy. Avatar plays like a movie by a man at war with himself—a gun-loving tree-hugger addicted to machines who, like the hero who goes native, wants to fight his way back to the garden. Now that he’s found it, action movies may never be the same.




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Why haven’t you seen Avatar yet?

  1. I think it is indeed that people sense this movie is going to be seen as a turning point. Also, the 3D is reported to have been very well-done, which is something that requires a big screen to fully appreciate.

  2. Say what you want about Avatar… this film is absolutely gorgeous.
    14 years in the making, and worth every penny. Everyone that I have spoken to were literally in awe after the movie.
    Critics (writers and all), had bashed Titanic before and even after it had been released. It's as if it's deja vu all over again with Avatar. Open your eyes people, stop listening to someone else's opinion and see this film for yourself. When the dust was settled… Titanic went on to be the highest grossing film of all time. And I strongly believe that James Cameron has done it yet again with Avatar.

  3. yes, despite all the colonial cliches, the film really does move one very deeply in the heart….i can easily understand why the reviewer spent most of the second viewing on the edge of tears….also easy enough to understand why some people get so depressed after seeing the movie….if only we could fix all our own problems here on this earth in such a simple way….just kill all the bad guys, and drive the invaders off the planet….and everything will be better…too bad that is such a simplistic and ultimately useless approach here….it might work in the movies, but this life here on earth is much too complicated for such simple solutions….but i did love the movie and would see it again…even though in our theatre (in a smallish city, Nelson, B.C.) the movie was shown in 2-D, rather than 3-D….no spectacles, except those you might have come in with….
    i was a little annoyed with his cliched noble savage portrayal of the Na'vi, especially when you could see so clearly where he might have borrowed his ideas….for example the standard greeting of the Na'vi: "i see you"…which as far as i know (which is likely not much), is a greeting between folks in the Zulu nations in South Africa…..to me these First Nations types (the Na'vi) looked like nothing so much as overgrown "catpeople" Zulu warrior types…sort of a cross between the Zulus and an imaginary Cat like human race…..

    but then i suppose he had to get his ideas somewhere….and as the reviewer said, despite all the cliches and simplistic plot, the movie still SPEAKS to one deeply in the heart….as i said, i would go again, (but unfortunately the movie has moved one….). i guess my only option at this time is to wait for the inevitable DVD release….but then i'll wish i had a huge widescreeen TV…which i can't afford at the moment….

    • I don't think the message was that if we were to kill we could make everything better. I think the message was that war, death, destruction, and violence does NOT solve problems. Didn't you see Neytiri's expression when she took in the fighting going around her? Or her grief when her father died? I think the movie showed the opposite… that violence should be avoided

      • I also think that the message is not corny and naive. Teaching that violence is bad is something that cannot be repeated enough. I'm not against soldiers that dedicate their lives to helping our country, but when it is over reasons like greed and money I am disgusted. Watching this movie made me question our values and examine the different points of view. I don't think this was just a movie about blue people living on this island but really dug into culture, morals and values. I really enjoyed watching this movie. I couldn't bring myself to watch it because I saw the amount of violence in the previews, but continually heard how magnificent it was from my piers. When I finally watched it, I was blown away. I encourage everyone to see it because I absolutely loved it! I recognize however that everyone is entitled to having their own opinions and respect that :)

  4. in answer to the question, "because I can think for myself."

  5. I’ve been burned with over-hyped tripe at the cinema too recently to give Avatar a fair shake. And everyone adds a caveat to their review noting that it must be seen on the big screen. I doubt it’ll warrant a rental, or even a download, let alone a DVD purchase.

  6. "Why haven't you seen Avatar yet?"

    Because an extremely high percentage of reviewers have noted that it is an anti-white anti-western civilization movie and I;m not a big fan of racism, no matter how many shiny bells and whistles. Seems reasonable.

  7. Yes, the movie is a spectacle. But here's the rub: who will care ten years from now?

    In their day, Star Wars (at least the first one) and the Matrix were hailed for their fantastic special effects. Now they are both humdrum if not outright dated. But they are still incredibly popular because the effects were just one of the things they brought to the table.

    So back to Avatar. It sure it pretty now. But pretend for a moment that all movies were just as pretty or more pretty. Would anyone care about it? I doubt it. It's future is only for trivia buffs ("Name the first movie in spectroscopic 3-D") and the environmental religious movement.

    Pass.

  8. I don't really know how to explain it. I'm a happy middle aged guy with a family who found myself bubbling with tears from the point when the lady Navi warrior scolds the Avatar for think that her killing of the hyena-like animals was to be celebrated. Maybe its cause on some level, living in amazing B.C. where my young kids have kayaked among humpbacks, orcas and sea lions that could've done us great harm with a flick of a tail, I realize we are doing to this Earth (seen a nice strip mine lately, or followed Cdn mining companies booted out of countries out of environmental concerns?) what the humans do to Pandora.

  9. We note with regret that the Golden Globes decided to give Avatar the award for Best Film.

    James Cameron said the following last night:

    "'Avatar' asks us to see that everything is connected, all human beings to each other, and us to the Earth. And if you have to go four and a half light years to another, made-up planet to appreciate this miracle of the world that we have right here, well, you know what, that's the wonder of cinema right there, that's the magic,"

    If only his words were backed up by his film. Cameron's Avatar provides us with a narrow vision of humanity, one without gays, lesbians, bi-sexuals or transgender people. It promotes the idea that intelligent and sentient beings on another world would be heterosexual. It promotes violence. It ignores the possibilities, the realities and the diversity of human society and sexuality.

    If James Cameron really believed that all humans and the Earth were "connected" we would not be having this debate or these protests.

    Diversity, Health Care and Tolerance are all basic human rights and cannot and should not be denied to us. We will not be silent, we will not sit down and we will not stop. On March 7, 2010, James Cameron will be hearing and seeing what humanity is really like.

    http://stopavatarmovie.blogspot.com

    • Do you believe that a film can't be truly a good film if there are only heterosexuals? And I would say that astonishingly enough that the amount of violence in this film actually served to encourage anti-violence. Like I wrote before, I think the message was that war, death, destruction, and violence does NOT solve problems. Didn't you see Neytiri's expression when she took in the fighting going around her? Or her grief when her father died?

  10. I liked it. The stereotypes are so obvious and unconvincing that the main problem was that they ruin the plot. Here are the good guys, here are the bad guys, watch the good guys win. There's no possible tension other than immediate physical danger. I wonder if effects like this will progress to feeling real instead of just amazingly polished. In the end I feel the same way as I did about The Notebook being by reputation the on-screen chemistry of our time… great movie, but if this is It, that's too bad.

    • I think that Avatar does lean more towards painting the N'avi people as "good guys" however it does give the reasons why the colonel is as brutal as he is (how he got the scars on his face) and it also shows him giving a speech and how everyone listened to him and truly believed in what they were doing… the humans thought they were protecting themselves against savages… the N'avi people however were shown in a positive light when Neytiri is teaching Jake the ways the N'avi survive.

  11. I'm probably going to be missing out on a very good movie but I decided to boycott this movie out of principle. To me the real Avatar movie will be the one coming out next June. I'm pretty sure James Cameron could have gotten away with calling his movie anything but Avatar, but he still refused to allow Nickelodeon to use the name for their movie about The Avatar, who is not only named the way in the movie, but is also uses the term avatar in a way that more closely resembles the actual definition of the word.

    The Last Airbender is a fantastic movie. Not a game changer like Avatar I'll admit, but a real hit for all ages. It's a shame shame Cameron had to be such a douche.

  12. Hi,
    I liked your review in general, but I do not agree that Cameron 'demonizes technology'. On the contrary, I think that he is making an apology for computer and virtual reality technology as opposed to 'old-time technology' (the one with robots and heavy machinery). After all, the Na'vi Avatar itself is a piece of technology, without which Jake Sully would have never come into contact with the Navi in the first place.
    Here's my take on it:
    http://www.esotericoffeehouse.com/pop-culture/sof

  13. dis here movie is a darn good wun, cuz its got reel message of hopelessness…… to kill the big tree of life for greed…so dere…. mister johnson

  14. Why haven't I seen Avatar yet?

    I tried too just this weekend. The only IMAX theatre in the city was basically sold out an hour ahead of time, first thing in the morning, thanks to internet tickets,. Apparently too, they now have assigned seating. By the time we were actually able to buy tickets, it was sold out. So Basically you need to make 2 trips to the theatre or bu your tickets online just for a movie. And since the schedule is only out 2 days ahead of time for the weekend, you have a very small window of time to get those tickets.

    Seems too me like theatres cannot handle the level of demand, and they wonder why people are less interested in going out to the movies.

  15. I think Johnson has this one exactly right: it's about moving the movie-going goalposts so that we go to the theater for the experience. This technology will bring people back to the theaters, so we will all benefit with more not fewer movies of a similar caliber. If nothing else, the jungle scenes are stunningly gorgeous and emotionally moving.

  16. Because I have a personal dislike for James Cameron.

  17. because I don't like computer generated allegorical fantasy with ugly creatures and too many senseless jolts!

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