‘Avatar’ movie review: James Cameron’s visual stunner looks great in all dimensions

Note: In Prague, you’ll only be able to catch Avatar in English in a 2D version, which screens at Palace Cinemas Slovanský dům and Village Cinemas Anděl; elsewhere, the 3D version and other copies of the film are only Czech-dubbed. 

(Further note: around 5-10% of the dialogue in the film is in the fictional Na’vi language, which is subtitled only in Czech in both the 3D and 2D versions of the film – inexplicably, though, a single reel of the 2D version I caught at Slovanský dům contained both English and Czech subtitles.)

I first watched the 3D Czech dub (screened for press) before catching the English-language 2D copy; the rating and below review pertains to the 2D version of the film, though I’ve also incorporated some notes on the 3D version at the end.

Avatar, director James Cameron’s first film in twelve years (his last was Titanic, the all-time box office champ) was touted in the months (years?) that preceded its release as a technical revolution in filmmaking. And that’s exactly what it is. 

Cameron has mastered motion-capture animation (the form that Ralph Bakshi dabbled in for years, and Richard Linklater had fun with in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly) and combined it with three-dimensional computer-generated graphics to create the most realistic-looking animation I’ve ever seen.

Cameron has created an entire living, breathing world that feels real because it holds a basis in our world, which was captured in motion and then transferred to a fantasy design that no amount of traditional special effects could have achieved. 

The alien people, the alien animals, the alien plant life – they all move and feel as they should, and because of this, we can accept their design as real. The gap of the uncanny valley (which dictates that the closer animation comes to reality, the more alien it feels) has finally been bridged.

But Avatar isn’t just a technical marvel. It’s also an enrapturing work of sci-fi fantasy on the level of the Star Wars or Lord of the Rings films. 

Cameron has always been a master storyteller (his best, I feel, might be Aliens) who has pushed the limits of what effects technology can achieve in film, and Avatar just might be his crowning achievement (though Titanic residue has led to some less-than-subtle sentimentality and a sappy song, sung by Leona Lewis, that plays over the end credits and brings back memories of Celine Dion.)

In the year 2154, mankind has ravaged the earth and turned to alien planets for resources. One of those resources in unobtainium (really?), which sells for twenty million dollars a kilo, and is found on the planet Pandora, which is inhabited by the Na’vi – giant blue beings whose fashion and philosophy are notably similar to Native Americans. 

Humans want the unobtainium and are going to get it; corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) employs both scientists led by Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who hope to identify with the Na’vi and reach a peaceful agreement, and a military force led by Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who are waiting to go in and take the resources by force.

Paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is caught between the two sides. His twin brother, recently killed, was a scientist who had an avatar (an organic Na’vi being) created for him to interact with the culture. Because the avatars are expensive to produce and only someone with a specific genetic structure can operate one, Jake is called in to fill his brother’s shoes and investigate the Na’vi culture, to negotiate a deal with them and/or report their weaknesses back to Col. Quaritch.

And of course, while a Na’vi himself, with the use of his legs and immersion in their culture, Jake begins to identify with them. The plot here has been compared to Dances with Wolves, which is apt; it’s also a thinly-veiled parable relating to contemporary events.

The best part of the film is a massive third act battle sequence, which succeeds not just for the breathless technical skill, but because we have invested so much in these characters and this world.

Avatar is the definition of an event film, something that must be seen and absorbed, containing an astonishing sense of awe and wonder not just in the story but in the presentation. Most modern blockbusters attempt to wow us with technical prowess, but few succeed; those that do (the last two I can recall would be The Matrix and Jurassic Park), do because the filmmakers know what they have is special, and they know how to present it to ensure that we know, too. 

It’s pure movie magic.

Notes: the 3D version of Avatar is largely impressive, for two reasons. One, we’re more willing to accept the motion-capture animation as natural, if only because everything else is so unnatural: when everything in the film has that digital glean, we tend to ignore the gap between live-action and digital animation. 

Two, the objects in focus have a wonderful sense of clarity that is missing from the 2D version: there’s certain a level of detail in the creature design and faces in the images that pop out of the screen in 3D that you don’t quite get in 2D. But there’s a trade-off here, which is that the (frequently beautiful) backgrounds are unnaturally hazy in 3D.

The 3D here isn’t really more advanced than in recent films like My Bloody Valentine, though it’s better employed, and never feels like a gimmick. Still objects frequently look wonderful, but there’s what I’ll call a ‘digital motion blur’ during scenes of action that can distract. The technology has yet to be perfected.

The 2D and 3D versions of Avatar are certainly two different experiences, and while I can heartily recommend the 2D version as one of the best films of the year (of the decade?) I think most audiences will be more impressed by catching an (English-language) 3D version of the film. 

Which you won’t find in Prague. Whatever you do, stay away from the Czech dub, which plays things loud and broad and turns even the live-action scenes into a cartoon. It’s poorly mixed, to boot, with dialogue drowning out the music and sound design.

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Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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