Literally thousands of people have already written reviews about AVATAR – some qualified, some not so qualified – so why would I feel the urge to post my first ever movie review about it? Maybe because it has been the first movie for more than a decade that made me wish to see (or rather: EXPERIENCE) it right again the moment the credits started rolling and the lights went on. Definitely because the overwhelming majority of critical reviews to me seem to be exactly what they accuse AVATAR to be: schematic, one-dimensional, simplified, predictable and with lots of well known content.
I agree with those characterizing the story to be simple, predictable and quite an eclectic blend of well known stories, BUT that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not working or even being a bad one. On the contrary, it’s simplicity helps the general audience to not get lost along the way and focus on the really new and unique aspects, namely the exposure to a completely unfamiliar environmental and cultural setting. The level of detail Cameron has put into creating this earth-like planet (moon, technically) together with all the flora and fauna hasn’t been seen since Tolkien’s Middlearth. What makes it even more compelling is that almost every aspect really has a solid and believable scientific foundation. Although fitted with a simple structure, the story never tends to be dumb like in so many other blockbusters, especially those dealing with science-fiction. On the contrary, Cameron manages to pick up quite a lot of current social, political and environmental issues (e.g. ignorance against foreign cultures/civilizations, privatization of warfare, corporate profits before morale and the well being of others) and still makes it entertaining instead of boring.
With AVATAR Cameron has proved again that he can not only deliver in terms of action but especially when it comes to telling a simple story in such a way that it’s almost impossible to not feel emotionally touched and involved. I’ve seen this movie several times by now and each time I could feel the same emotional grip all over the audiences, quite a lot leaving the theater with tears in their eyes. Unlike Bay or Emmerich, Cameron has mastered to reach out to a broad audience far beyond the young and predominantly male focus group for action movies and get it to bond with the characters instead of just watching an effects-laden movie.
In terms of visual effects AVATAR absolutely is the game changer Cameron had promised it to be. While there have been other movies using 3D lately not one of them succeeded like this one in not using 3D as a mere gimmick but instead as an essential part of the cinematic experience. After a few minutes of adjusting you get completely submerged into the movie and it makes you feel like you are really taking part in an event unfolding around you instead of just watching a pre-recorded performance.
Although the use of 3D helped considerably in making this movie a submersing experience it’s only second place in terms of technical achievement when you consider the leap forward in creating believable human(oid) CGI characters this movie represents. After being left with more or less creepy feelings watching “The Polar Express” and “Beowulf” where the CGI characters had more resemblance to zombies than to living human beings, I was quite skeptical about Cameron’s ability to live up to his promises and was blown away when I finally did watch the movie. Especially the close ups in many emotionally touching scenes, where even the tiniest recognizable artificiality of the CGI characters would have ruined everything (e.g. on dying Eytucan after the destruction of the Hometree, Neytiri hiding behind a tree and watching the soldiers closing in on her or Neytiri breaking up in tears after she barely managed to save Jake from suffocation) did deliver on such a great level that I am still in awe. I have watched the close up of Naytiri hiding behind a tree and watching the soldiers closing in on her from the official Trailer in Full HD over and over again and still I can’t see any hint on her being a CGI character.
A third an not to be underestimated technical innovation that helped a lot in delivering a convincing CGI environment is the virtual camera that was used to capture the performances as if shot with a real camera in the currently so famous hand-held style which added another layer of realism, especially to the action sequences (e.g. Jake getting chased by the Thanator or flying next to Neytiri when she takes her Ikran for a ride around the Hometree).
Regarding James Horner’s score I do have mixed feelings. It ranges from well done to excellent for most parts of the movie and considerably adds to the emotional impact in many scenes (e.g. the arrival in space at that mystical moon Pandora, the devastation of the Na’vi after the destruction of the Hometree or the fighting montage in slow motion when Tsu’tey and other characters get struck down). However, there are a few instances, especially the mass scenes at the tree of souls, where the music completely fails and even took me out of the whole movie experience back into the real world for a moment because it did annoy me that much. When the Na’vi are gathered around the tree of souls praying it sounds more like a spiritual hippie happening than desperate and displaced indigenous people praying for help. Likewise the music used for both “transfer” scenes when the Na’vi are trying to transfer the human souls of Grace and Jake into their avatar bodies didn’t help at all and made the scenes rather feel kitschy.