Avatar ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

I would say that I don't understand why this movie gets so much hate, but that would be a lie. I get it. I get that most people these days don't enjoy movies *as movies*. They may think they do, but they really just enjoy the fact that movies entertain them. There's a difference.

What people don't like about Avatar is that it was made to be a good movie, and not made to be a dumb source of entertainment for the misguided youth of today. Yes, it has a classic structure. Yes, it has common themes. Yes, it's a *story*. And that's what most people these days don't care for.

There are other reasons people will blindly dislike this, like how it's the #1 grossing movie of all time. People see this as a stat that actually means something when it doesn't, but they get defensive because their favorite movie didn't make as much and isn't as popular. Why does this movie have to be #1? Drop the jealousy, because it really means nothing. Nothing. Not a thing. Grow up. Move on. There's also the James Cameron hate that started with Titanic (#2 grossing movie of all time). Started the same time he became the single most financially successful film-maker in history. He still makes great movies, but people can't see past their own prejudices.

Avatar is classic cinema; one of the most "cinematic" movies ever made. It plays with the same formula that created films such as Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and The Matrix - and that formula is pitch-perfect screen story structure. People will rag on and whine and bitch and moan about how it "rips off" other stories, like Pocahontas, Dances with Wolves, Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest, The Last Samurai, and whatever other film has a guy from one group infiltrate and ultimately befriend another group only to find himself caught in the middle of a conflict between the two groups (a story conceit older than Pocahontas herself). Here's a question those groping decriers climb over one another to avoid: how can all those other films work: but not this one? Is there a magic limit that was reached where stories like this cease to function? Please quantify that for me. I don't expect an answer any time soon. Those jokers crying rip-off are probably all too busy writing gushing 5-star reviews for Tarantino's newest watery rehash (write your own hypocrisy jokes at home).

Sure, the most basic foundation for the story has been used in the past (as with every other basic story foundation, don't forget) (you forgot already, didn't you?), but who ever claimed this was some radical new approach to storytelling? Nobody. It was never meant to be - it was only ever meant to be a well-told story which uses that basic story foundation to act as a platform for implementing the latest visual technologies. Any promises of ground-breaking structure or plot threading are figments of your own imagination, and basing your judgment of the actual movie on your fantastical delusions is borderline psychotic behavior.

Judging the movie in and of itself, one would clearly see how expertly crafted, paced, and plotted this story is. The build-up is quick and the exposition is handled extremely well for a film which needs to get a large amount of information to the audience. The massive info dump - a common trapping in the sci-fi genre - is handled very well with a video log that often doubles as a voice-over. It's an extremely smart way to work so much need-to-know info into the story without bogging it down with extra scenes designed for that sole express purpose and little else. Here, Cameron integrates a fair majority of the exposition into the video log, which also helps show us the growth and path the main hero of the story takes. We learn as he learns, we see him grow, develop relationships with different characters from both sides of the fight, and even with the environment itself. The V.O. sections play over action, wasting no time and doubling the purpose and function of every such scene. That is how you write science fiction info dumps, ladies and gentlemen. A bad example would have two characters just walk around a street and talk for 20 minutes (re: Inception).

Getting into the story is key with sci-fi/action films, particularly those of exceeding length. Avatar jumps into the action quicker than I expected. At first, we are treated to glimpses of the protagonist getting to the location, being prepped on his mission, etc. Nothing special in these scenes, I'll admit - but that's a good thing. Blowing your load too quick would undermine the experience of seeing and entering the world of Pandora, which is what's special about this story. It's such a unique and vibrant and dangerous and interesting and living world, and showing something equally or almost as cool earlier would dilute the effect. That's why the opening scenes are fairly ordinary by comparison. They talk about Pandora, give us a quick peek at the base of operations, and dive right in quickly.

Once our hero is lost in the world, his journey can truly begin, and that's when the story truly begins. Jake learns about the native people, learns to understand and develop a respect for them, all during finely-tuned scenes which all exhibit the prospect of failure - the mark of a quality screen story. Everything Jake does is difficult. Everything can be failed. Most things can take his life. Danger is almost always present.

Meanwhile, the scenes with human Jake also work very well to develop character and relationships. His relationship with Norm was so subtle, I didn't even realize what was going on until my third viewing, which was the one before this. Jake gets in with the Na'vi, which is what Norm wanted. You can tell by his actions and reactions. He takes on a mocking tone about how Jake knows nothing about what he's doing (character + exposition; good writing). Eventually, he grows to understand that Jake is not incompetent, but actually a vital asset to their science research team. Norm soon drops the jealousy (many should please follow suit) and a camaraderie is formed. Jake even allows Norm to play around with his wheelchair - something that would take a good amount of mutual friendship and respect. It's such a minor part of the overall movie, but it nevertheless helps build what was a throwaway tertiary character into someone who actually feels, to the keen viewer, like they are a part of what's going on. A lesser story would just have that character hang around in a few scenes, crack wise for no reason, and accomplish nothing of consequence (re: Inception).

The first half of the story focuses primarily on the hero learning about the world and getting to a point where he is now a part of those people and their culture. He has developed as the story has, and ultimately reached a point where he cannot go back to the way things were before - the midpoint of all good movies. The second half of the movie kicks into high gear and is nearly one huge action scene made up of many smaller action scenes. It's different in every way from the first half, yet still feels organic. The overall story is still progressing and developing. Things go from bad to very bad to even worse, and it doesn't stop until the movie is over.

The bombing of Hometree, the biggest action scene in the movie up to that point, is also the biggest character scene up to that point, and perhaps the biggest of the whole story. This is a skill that sets James Cameron apart from lesser action film-makers - his ability to infuse action with character to create exciting scenes that are more than just stuff exploding. The intensity of the external action mirrors the internal drama doing on within the characters at the same time, which makes for one of the best set-pieces I have seen in quite a long time. A lesser film's best set-pieces would have a bunch of nobodies shooting guns at a bunch of undeveloped "characters" (also nobodies, but these nobodies are played by big name actors!) and end up as nothing more than bullets flying and maybe some stuff exploding (re: Inception).

The final air battle and ensuing ground conflict is quite simply the biggest, most fantastic sci-fi action sequence not found in the Star Wars trilogy. It perfectly ups the ante from the Hometree sequence and capitalizes on every single thing that has been happening in the story. Quite literally, it all comes down to this. And what a spectacular finish it is.

One of the reasons this third act climax was able to be set-up so well is because of the absolute precision with which each sub-plot was handled. This is a movie about one thing, with each auxiliary idea also focused on that one thing, only from a different point of view. This is that classic structure I mentioned before, and it makes for an extremely focused story.

One thing I have come to realize is that no matter how perfect the structure is, some people today just don't give a shit. They are not interested in storytelling. Period. Full stop. They don't care about movies *as movies*. They just want to be entertained by movies. They want something new, something different - even if that new and different thing is so obviously inferior in its storytelling approach. People will gravitate toward those other films because they are not "classic", because they offer something most other films don't. I understand that. I get it. But the classic structure does not, in no way whatsoever, detract from the quality of the storytelling. It's the same thing used in Star Wars, Jurassic Park, The Matrix, and almost every other god damn movie out there, so to single this one out on that reason is just simply hilarious.

This is a great movie. Everything about it is of the highest order. Okay, maybe not the acting, but the same can be said for Star Wars, Jurassic Park, and The Matrix. Doesn't mean this doesn't have some great acting, however. Zoe Saldana gives an outstanding performance, both in her voice and in her actions. It's award-worthy in every sense of the phrase. Also of note is the terrific camerawork and perfect editing. It's understated and not flashy, but if you watch carefully, you'll see the talent of a true great film-maker on display. And I don't even have to mention how this is one of the most visually-striking films out there from any era. It's a high-definition masterpiece.

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