‘Avatar': The Reviews Are In!

The critics universally praise James Cameron's visual spectacle, but what do they think of the rest?

The third Friday in August was dubbed “Avatar Day,” when director [movieperson id=”9282″]James Cameron[/movieperson] unleashed 16 minutes of 3-D-infused footage from his sci-fi opus in theaters across the globe for free. So what do you call December 18, the day that Cameron’s alien love story actually opens in theaters?

It’s D-Day for Cameron, that’s for certain, as he’ll finally get to see if the public will, in fact, fork over tens of millions of dollars to see the CGI film he’s been planning since the mid-’90s. The critics certainly seem to be in favor of it. When we checked in on the reviews last week, “Avatar” had received near-unanimous praise . On Friday, we again scoured the critical responses to find out what everyone’s saying.

The Visual Effects

You’d be hard-pressed to find someone unimpressed by the computer-generated coolness of the film. “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,” the Los Angeles Times‘ Kenneth Turan wrote. “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.”

The Story

What many critics can agree on is that where the films falls short is in its story. ” ‘Avatar’ is the latest high-tech entertainment to lecture us that technology is wrong,” Ty Burr said in the Boston Globe. “Human civilization, too. The movie’s cultural politics are childishly two-dimensional, at times insulting (especially if you know anyone in the armed forces). Squint at ‘Avatar’ the wrong way and it starts to look like a training film for jihad — not, I’m guessing, what Cameron had in mind. In terms of plot, then, this is ‘Dances With Wolves.’ Seriously: It’s the same movie, re-imagined as a speculative-anthropological freak-out.”

Our own Kurt Loder also pointed out this flaw, writing, “The Na’vi … with their bows and arrows and long braided hair, are stand-ins for every spiritually astute and ecologically conscientious indigenous population ever ground down under the heel of rampaging Western imperialism.”

The Acting

Complaints about clunky dialogue and corny plot points aside, critics gave props to stars [movieperson id=”243115″]Sam Worthington[/movieperson] and [movieperson id=”242567″]Zoe Saldana[/movieperson] for bringing life to their blue-coated characters. “Cameron has managed to get genuine performances from actors who do much of their work using motion-capture animation,” Ann Hornaday wrote in the Washington Post. “Worthington and especially Saldana do a terrific job of imbuing their characters with life and spirit; the movie’s finest moments belong to [movieperson id=”66097″]Sigourney Weaver[/movieperson], as the idealistic scientist who oversees Jake’s virtual travels, in a subtle nod to her work in Cameron’s ‘Aliens.’ ”

The Bottom Line

In Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman summed up both the complaints about the film and the reasons why so many will want to check it out. “Cameron has the effects-driven visual awe part down, but this time he gives the heart short shrift,” he says. “The result is less a movie for the ages than a quintessential movie of its time: dazzling and immersive, a ravishing techno-dream for the senses, but one that’s likely to leave audiences simultaneously amazed and unmoved. Then again, for a great many moviegoers these days, that may be enough.”

We’ll give Slate’s Dana Stevens the final words: “I’m not saying ‘Avatar’ is a timeless masterpiece, nor do I want to see James Cameron re-crowned King of the World at the next Oscars,” Stevens wrote. “The movie is too long, the score by James Horner is hopelessly bombastic, and the battle royale of the third act relies too heavily on ‘into the valley of death rode the six hundred’ cliché. But if you believe special-effects blockbusters have the right to exist at all, if you respect the genre that brought us ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ and yes, ‘Titanic,’ then ‘Avatar’ is something that needs to be seen. Lord knows it’s something to see.”

Check out everything we’ve got on “Avatar.”

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