Avatar: Looks great, less filling!
Thursday night/Friday morning, I saw Avatar the way it was meant to be seen: in 3D IMAX at the AMC Loews Lincoln Square in New York. It was a 3:45 a.m. show, which I attended only because the midnight show was sold out.
Avatar is easily the most visually impressive film of the decade. James Cameron has reached a new height of what computer graphics can accomplish in the cinema, and he should be lauded for it. Of course, considering his record-breaking budget, rumored at over $500 million, one would hope that it looks good.
The aliens in Avatar take a flying leap straight out of the uncanny valley and land safely on their feet on the other side. While past computer animations of humanlike creatures looked plastic at best and creepily puppetlike at worst, the alien Na'vi look and move realistically, to an incredible extent. They appear completely natural, and at no point during the movie did I think that I was watching a computer generated character.
The world of Pandora is lush, colorful, and only slightly less convincing than the Na'vi. The landscapes are gorgeous, ranging from dense, fluorescent jungles to breathtaking chains of floating islands. Unfortunately, the fauna of Pandora aren't quite as impressive. Many of the animals in Avatar look too shiny and glossy to be anything but a computer generated effect. While the great flying beasts the Na'vi ride look as good as the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, the smaller animals, like the tree-bound alien lemurs, look like they came out of a Dreamworks editing bay.
The 3D part of "IMAX 3D" is a mixed bag. When it's really on, it looks incredible. When it's not quite there, it gives you a headache. The effect was certainly better than any other 3D film I've seen, but it didn't really enhance the movie enough to justify wearing the glasses. Sometimes the 3D action would pop out with remarkable effect, but other times it would feel floaty and blurry. On the bright side, it doesn't ever feel truly gimmicky, like certain holiday-themed movies that have come out over the past few years.
In an action-filled, special effects extravaganza like Avatar, the story tends to play second fiddle to the visuals. Unfortunately, that's the case here, with an overly shmaltzy plot lifted from three or four animated movies. It's predictable, cloying, and has a few massive plot holes you're better off not thinking about. It's never truly bad, but it does feel extremely cookie-cutter, and is littered with blatantly manipulative moments and narrative signposts that will have you predicting events an hour before they happen.
In the end, Avatar is a fairly satisfying, narratively bland fantasy adventure combined with an absolutely breathtaking tech demo. The story won't exactly blow you away, but the inevitable Blu-ray Disc release will almost certainly become a "Check out how awesome my home theater setup is!" weapon of impressiveness.
— Will Greenwald