LA TIMES REVIEW: ‘Avatar’ restores a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience’

Dec. 17, 2009 | 2:09 a.m.


In Hollywood, personal feuds can turn ugly and sometime public. Take the history between James Cameron, the filmmaker, and Kenneth Turan, the film critic. It isn’t pretty. Cameron made “Titanic” and Turan did not like it — to say the least. More than that, as the film sailed into box-office history, Turan wrote about the film repeatedly and with much vigor, which infuriated Cameron, who felt that the senior critic for The Times was unfairly piling on by re-reviewing the movie. Turan continued his caustic attacks (he called Cameron’s mega-hit “a witless counterfeit of Hollywood’s Golden Age” that threatened the future of literate cinema) and Cameron shot back publicly, including an emphatic March 1998 essay in which he said Turan is “simmering in his own bile, year after year, he has become further and further removed from the simple joyful experience of movie-watching, which, ironically, probably attracted him to the job in the first place.” Why am I telling you all this? Because today in our countdown we have the Los Angeles Times review of “Avatar,” written by Turan.

Avatar faces

Think of “Avatar” as “The Jazz Singer” of 3-D filmmaking. Think of it as the most expensive and accomplished Saturday matinee movie ever made. Think of it as the ultimate James Cameron production.
Whatever way you choose to look at it, “Avatar’s” shock and awe demand to be seen. You’ve never experienced anything like it, and neither has anyone else.

Say what you like about writer-director Cameron — and take it from me, people have — he has always been a visionary in terms of film technology, as his pioneering computer generated effects in “The Abyss” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” testify. He is not a director you want to underestimate, and with “Avatar’s” story of futurist adventures on a moon called Pandora he restores a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience that has been missing for far too long.

An extraordinary act of visual imagination, “Avatar” is not the first of the new generation of 3-D films, just as “Jazz Singer” was not the first time people had spoken on screen. But like the Al Jolson vehicle, it’s the one that’s going to energize audiences about the full potential of this medium.

That’s because to see “Avatar” is to feel like you understand filmmaking in three dimensions for the first time. In Cameron’s hands, 3-D is not the forced gimmick it’s often been, but a way to create an alternate reality and insert us so completely and seamlessly into it that we feel like we’ve actually been there, not watched it on a screen. If taking pleasure in spectacle and adventure is one of the reasons you go to the movies, this is something you won’t want to miss.

A total immersion accomplishment like that did not come easily or for that matter, cheaply: 2,000 people worked on the project for three years and estimates of “Avatar’s” budget put it in the neighborhood of $300 million. Cameron began thinking about the film 15 years ago, and had to wait until either his company or someone else’s invented the numerous technologies and cameras, often too complicated to describe easily, that turned his vision into a reality.

It’s not only in 3-D that “Avatar” makes great strides, it’s also in refining a technology called motion capture, which involves filming actors wearing sensors and then running the result through CGI computers. It’s been used with varying degrees of success in everything from Golum’s role in “The Lord of the Rings” to “Polar Express.”

James Cameron and cast Avatar

Cameron’s version, which he’s renamed “performance capture,” has been used to take the inhabitants of Pandora, 10-foot tall creatures with yellow cat’s eyes, long tails and blue translucent skin called the Na’vi, and make them appear as completely real as the film’s human characters. Perhaps the most surprising thing about Cameron’s visual accomplishments is that they are so powerful we’re barely troubled by the same weakness for flat dialogue and obvious characterization that put such a dent in “Titanic.”

Those qualities are here, all right, no mistake about that, but perhaps because of the power of the visuals, the strangeness of the science fiction world and the fact that many of the characters are Na’vi and not human it doesn’t feel like they matter as much. The film’s romantic protagonists paradoxically end up feeling more like creatures whose fates we care about than Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet on the boat.

“Avatar” starts not on Pandora but right here on Earth, the year 2154 to be exact, and it throws a lot of plot at you very fast. The planet is under ecological siege, which is why people are flying six light-years to Pandora to get their hands on a substance called (no kidding) Unobtanium that can make all the difference. The problem is that the nature-worshiping Na’vi live on Pandora, and they are not inclined to get out of the way.

In an attempt to make nice with the Na’vi, scientist Dr. Grace Augustine (Cameron veteran Sigourney Weaver) has spearheaded a program that creates avatars, genetically engineered hybrids between human and Na’vi DNA, basically human minds in Na’vi bodies. These beings can breath Pandora’s toxic air and potentially open up interspecies lines of communication.

Paralyzed combat veteran Jake Sully (Australian actor Sam Worthington) gets to be one of the minds inside a Na’vi body because he has the same DNA as his murdered twin brother. While the twin was a scientist, Jake is a gung-ho Marine and as such attracts the attention of Colonel Miles Quaritch, head of security for the human enclave (the always potent Stephen Lang), who tells him Pandora is so bad “if there is a hell, you might want to go there for R&R.”

But once hothead Jake goes over the security barrier and enters Pandora proper, he and we can’t help but be wowed by the intensity and specificity with which this world has been imagined by Cameron and production designers Rick Carter and Robert Stromberg. With 500 different kinds of plants and creatures including the rhino-like Hammerhead Titanothere and the delicate, jellyfish-type spore creatures called Atokirina, not to mention all variety of fierce flying beings, this is a place that is both indescribable and a little bit familiar.

For it turns out that Pandora has been shrewdly designed to be like Earth but different. We have trees but not ones that are a thousand feet tall, we have mountains but not ones that hover in the air and are called “the legendary floating mountains of Pandora.” And the markings of a rain forest frog have ended up on the back of a huge winged creature.

Once Jake’s avatar gets into Pandora, he naturally meets up with Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the most attractive woman on the planet who just happens to be the daughter of clan chief Eytukan (Wes Studi) and shaman Moat (CCH Pounder). “You have a strong heart, no fear, but stupid, ignorant, like a child,” she says, summing Jake up nicely, and the race is on.

Jake ends up learning the Na’vi language (specifically created for the film by USC linguist Paul Frommer) and in general going native in ways he doesn’t anticipate but everyone in the audience will. “Avatar” is definitely not into breaking new narrative ground, but its ability to balance a familiar story with groundbreaking visuals is potent enough that even at an overly long 2 hours and 40 minutes this is a film people will be seeing more than once.

Perhaps most unexpected of all, “Avatar” is surprisingly enlivened by all the seeming contradictions it brazenly puts together. At one and the same time this film is a boys’ adventure tale with a major romantic element, an anti-imperialism movie that gets considerable mileage out of depicting invading armies, a neo-pagan, anti-technology film that touts the healing powers of nature but is up to its neck in the latest gizmos and gadgets.

It’s a bundle of contradictions but James Cameron, clearly, wouldn’t have it any other way.
— Kenneth Turan



Sigourney Weaver as queen of sci-fi: “Outer space has been good to me”

Avatar” designer on Jim Cameron, banshees and those nagging ‘Delgo’ comparisons

Michelle Rodriguez says “Avatar” was like making “Star Wars”

Jon Landau on wild budget reports: “They’re all false” 

“Avatar” star Zoe Saldana says the movie will match the hype: “This is big”

Jim Cameron, cinema prophet? “Moving a mountain is nothing” 

Sam Worthington looks for “Avatar’s” humanity: “I don’t want to be a cartoon”

Giovanni Ribisi pretty much loves Jim Cameron

James Cameron on “Avatar”: Like “Matrix,” it opens doorways

VIDEO: “Avatar” interviews with Sigourney Weaver and Jon Landau

Photos: Fox


23 Responses to LA TIMES REVIEW: ‘Avatar’ restores a sense of wonder to the moviegoing experience’

  1. Mohammad Jamal says:

    I guess this says 'alot' about this movie coming from a critic who had it in against Cameron's filmmaking. Been dead into this for over two years since the words 'james cameron planning a return to movies' and 'avatar?' came up on the internet.

  2. Movie Master says:

    Avatar is a panned piece of garbage with already outdated technology, and an historical box office disaster. Wearing 3D glasses for 3 hours gave the audience a massive splitting headache. They should have seen this coming. The technology to make this movie is substandard and overhyped as being cutting edge. Real cutting edge tech is on the internet 24/7. That's where you find the real avatars, not in clunker movie theaters. This movie bombed for every apparent reason as it should have and was expected to. It was a failure in every way.

  3. Ziggy says:

    @Movie Master:
    thx for posting, now move along.

  4. Wow, Movie Master's review is a little harsh. I'm actually looking forward to movie. I like James Cameron and I can't wait to see how he fuses the life of computer characters with real humans. It's a very intriguing concept.

  5. derbling says:

    This review is clearly not reviewing the actual theatrical version of the movie!
    Contrary to the statement of the movie starting off with scenes from earth, there isn't even one scene of future earth in the entire movie!
    Other than that, Avatar DOES start on Pandora, exactly what the author denied in his so called review.

  6. Mark says:

    @MovieMaster: Troll elsewhere. How can Avatar be a "bomb" when it is yet to open? I saw it last night in a packed house and there was applause at the end – it was spectacular.
    Your post = epic fail. Back to your McG and Twilight films. Run along.

  7. Angry@Tards says:

    Movie Master sounds like he is spouting some sort of misdirected anger.
    Master your anger then post on boards little one.

  8. YonatanB says:

    Well I just got out of a pre-screening tonight and the first scene where they are "dealing with" the body of Jakes brother and where they convince jake to go to pandara certainly seem to be set on earth


    the avatar movie it self Haman made miracle to the universe ever seen
    the screenplay, the story, the fiction using the technology for a ultimate out put .This is a gift from James cameraon mind to the world of audience people will wach this and keep the move along with them forever after sometime

  10. Scott says:

    To Moviemaster…you are obviously a jaded fool as you posted your review of the movie before it even opened. You really should actually SEE a film before saying how terrible it is. Just a thought.

  11. Scott says:

    "this movie bombed" "historical box office disaster"
    It hasn't even opened yet. What kind of drugs are you on?
    I have read from serious movie critics that this movie is the 1st 3d movie ever made that "draws the viewer into the movie" Even if it where a bad movie (Which is unlikely) It will make 1 billion in ticket sales and another 3 billion from toys and other merchandise. What a bafoon you are "Movie Master" go back to WOW your guild is calling.

  12. Rick Dial says:

    AVATAR is the Best Movie of 2009, the Decade and the New Millenium!
    The 3-D special effects are outstandingly magnificent!!
    James Cameron ROCKS and RULES!!!

  13. matt says:

    Haha at Movie Master, what a troll, you don't even make sense.
    @Rick Dial, I don't disagree, I'd say Avatar was the best movie of 2009 and possibly the decade, but do you realize that this decade and this millennium is the same?

  14. Burt says:

    The movie was magnificent. The 3D was used effectively to tell the story and not as some sort of technology showcase. The integration between cg and live action was seamless. The story may have been 'simple' and reflective of other stories as some 'critics' have stated but that does not diminish this movie in any way. It was a good story, well told. Joseph Campbell might have pointed out that the journey this story embarks on sounds familiar because it contains elements of the greater story we tell about ourselves.
    Say what you will this was ground breaking. It is a movie that reminds me of why I go to the movies. It will do what only a handful of movies have done for me and that is make me go out and see it again as soon as I can.
    I'm betting when the word gets out this movie will get another jolt and surpass the box office predictions.
    Well done. Well done. Well done.

  15. akryan says:

    MovieMaker you were so right. What a flop! It only made $70+ million domestically (with about half the theatres on the East Coast closed BTW) and over $200+ million worldwide in it's first weekend. The football field length lines of people I saw going to see it, for every showing, must have been a fluke. With x-mas being the biggest day of the year for movies I'm sure Avatar will be a total failure. What terrible timing for a release date. How does it feel to be so wrong on so many different levels about everything you've said?

  16. Stephen O'Neal says:

    I loved this movie. Turan has written a good review, noting the most important aspect of the movie is it's ablility to envelop you into it's world. I dont exactly agree with his accusation of contradiction in the movie though, because they are used as Contrast, because there is to be a conflict and the differences must be obvious. I am planning to see this movie again, as Turan said. I believe the unique experience will not make it into the home, so I'm enjoying it while it's in theaters!
    Go See It!

  17. JaySound says:

    I’ve been looking forward to this movie for as long ago as I heard Jim Cameron was making it.
    I really wanted to like it.
    Every penny spent on this film is visible on the screen. The 3-D visuals blended seamlessly with the CGI setting a new standard in the theatrical experience.
    That being said, “Avatar” was a big disappointment. The script was a direct remake of any number of Hollywood action adventures going back to earlyy standard cowboys and Indians movies, whether it was the big oil company trying to take over the land or the gold miners or the cattle drivers etc. Other more recent direct plot lifts include, “The Matrix”, “Dancing With Wolves” and “District 9”. These films did it better. Nothing original in “Avatar” except for pretty pictures.
    “Avatar” is 100% predictable because you’ve seen it all before and you just don’t care. Jim Cameron used to be a great filmmaker. He always remembered that the writing, i.e. the story and the humanity of the characters, came first. His stories were original, never seen before. Look at the first two Terminator films. Completely original. Look at what could have been a typical “B” Sci-Fi/Horror sequel in “Aliens”. He made it original and as compelling or more so than the first one. Even “The Abyss” was an original concept. He started to lose it with Titanic and has never recovered. Cameron has forgotten that having characters that you really care about is what gives a film life. An example: Sigourney Weaver’s character, “Grace” is little more than a 2-dimensional version of Ripley from the “Alien” films, but not as strong and less likable. A completely “throw away” character. When they finally kill her off, you’re pretty much glad to be done with her whining. And what’s with the cigarette business? Is this supposed to make her look macho? Cool? Huhhhh?
    It appears that most of the critics and the initial public reaction are believing the massive advertising campaign and hype surrounding this film. The LA Times’ “Hero Complex” column, masquerading as journalism, has been a one-sided advertisement for “Avatar” almost daily for the past few weeks. Even (notoriously Cameron unfriendly) Kenneth Turan’s review is not negative although he tries mighty hard not to really like it.
    In a few years when film schools talk about milestones in film-making, “Avatar” will be up there as a major contendor as a break-thru film in CGI and visual FX, but certainly won’t be in the Top 10 films of all time.
    Visual FX can be used effectively to enhance a great script but can’t improve a mediocre one. Otherwise, the FX are just “eye-candy”, intensely sweet for a moment but ultimately just expensive empty calories.

  18. themothchase says:

    This movie absolutely restores our sense of wonder – not just because of the technology, though, but also because of the world represented! Such an interconnected way of living life is almost unimaginable in our individualistic culture, but an image for which we might long considering our complex desires for community. To me, this is the real wonder of the film.

  19. Andy says:

    The comment of the man that goes by the name Movie Master is not accurate.
    The film is quite possibly one of the most successful films of all time, having generated over 1 billion dollars in 3 weeks, where it took the Titanic 7 months to do the same.
    This movie truly is the best of the best.

  20. gc says:

    The movie's plot was old and stale, and the world presented wasn't anything particularly new. Perhaps younger viewers haven't seen Pandora, but it shares similarities with past sci-fi movies and old, old movie serials (especially the floating mountains.) That said the 3D might have saved the movie for me, but it didn't, as you had a different 3D experience depending on where you sat in the theater. From my seats, there was no 3D. I had to go to the aisles or the top of the theather to get full 3D. That's a shame, I doubt too many other people got out of their seats to check out different locations in the theater. If they had, they may have been disappointed in the 3D experience from their seats. Most notably, no one cheered, no one laughed. Some compare this to the first Star Wars film. Well folks watching that cheered, laughed, and clapped. And viewers watching Alien (the first) gasped and ooheed. Perhaps today's viewers are too accepting of weak plots and scripts and lulled by the special effects.

  21. A-non-e-mus says:

    Congratulations to Mr. Turan and all "haters". Your incompetence has enabled Avatar to score an 82% fresh rating at, A.O. Scott compared it to Star Wars (old school Star Wars, not the modern George Lucas self gratification series), and by next week, Avatar will become the highest grossing film in history at over 1.8 Billion dollars. Bravo.

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