Avatar: *** (out of 4)

Aah, big-budget action/sci-fi movies! Is there anything better? One way or the other, you get to enjoy an over-the-top action-fest with lots of eye candy and miscellaneous silliness; and sometimes, you even end up with something worth seeing and thinking about later. Sure, they're also generally reviewer-proof, but isn't that part of the fun? And the most fun comes when you get to see the movie on opening night, with as big and motivated of a crowd as you can find. There's just something about getting home at 3am after a sci-fi blockbuster...

Of course, that's not quite how I saw Avatar. The good son and brother that I am, I decided to hold off and see the movie with my father and brother after Christmas. I tried to avoid the reviews, I insisted that we find an IMAX 3D theatre to see it in, and I planned ahead enough to order tickets the night before. But in the back of my mind, I thought about how I'd missed out on the proper "experience" of the movie, and how I'd converted it to just (just?) a family bonding moment. I was a little bit disappointed, but in a "I have done my duty" kind of way. Family comes first, especially good family.

Shockingly, in this case the experience was just as good a week after the movie's release.

Two things made the difference. First of all, the movie was packed. Ordering those tickets ahead turned out to have been vital; and getting to the theatre a half hour ahead of time was just barely enough time to get our popcorn before the movie began, and even then we had to sit in the second row (a horrible idea in an IMAX theatre). And second, the movie really was big and shiny enough to make up for the week's delay. The movie took a decade to make; what's an extra seven days at that point?

The special effects were, of course, the star of the show. Were they as good as all that? Well, yes. Yes they were. The 3D was top-notch, adding to the scenes in every case and never seeming gimmicky. The motion-capture characters finally looked good, after years of adequate-at-best experiences with movies like Beowulf or The Polar Express. The models were detailed, interesting to look at, and thematic. And the effects as a whole seemed both flashy and necessary, a combination that I haven't seen often in the last few years.

(But... revolutionary? I don't know about that. There wasn't anything particularly new there; there was just years and years of refinement, the sense that the technology could be used by the filmmaker for the good of the movie. The question is not whether the effects have changed the world; it's whether they show a world where such effects can be used to advance a story, instead of replacing the story. I suppose that could be a revolution.)

The story was better than I had been led to believe. Yes, the story was shallow; presumably the detail were available in the visuals or the back-story, but somehow even that didn't feel like the point. Yes, the main character's story arc resembled Dances With Wolves - but I rather enjoyed that movie, to be honest, and my personal opinion is that the overall structure more resembled Dune than anything else (and what more worthy story is there to copy, I ask you?). And yes, the other humans were beyond shallow, having a first-degree motivation at best (and sometimes not even that). Still, this wasn't garbage, which is what I had come in expecting. So I was content.

The acting was, oddly, pretty good. Some parts of it were over-the-top, but mostly those came from the humans; the parts played by the CGI Na'vi were, for the most part, pretty darned good. The decision to have the eponymous Avatars look like their actors really did work for me, even it was a bit odd to see a Na'vi Jane Goodall (Sigourney Weaver).

And the science and technology portrayed in the movie - well, yay! I got a little bit of computer interface design, which always perks me up; I got a lot of organic interface technology, which was fascinating and oddly plausible-sounding; I got mecha; I got a fairly interesting ecosystem, including a Protoss-esque alien race; and I got a few interesting anthropological ideas tossed in that took advantage of the above. As an added bonus, I even got a Stanford sweatshirt.

And so, I came out satisfied. I'll be a bit disappointed if this wins any Oscars outside of technical categories, but that's okay.

That's not to say that I came out content. I wish that the dangers of the planet Pandora had been shown to us, rather than just told. I wish that an explanation had been offered for what made "unobtanium" so important besides sheer economic value. I wish that there had been some nuance as to the corporation's motivations, rather than just "profit GOOD!". I wish that the final battle had offered some useful tactics and/or strategies, rather than just consisting of "let's put all of our forces in a general area and have them fight it out". I wish that the time frame had seemed less... arbitrary. And, most of all, I wish that somebody had looked at the movie as a whole, and realized that all of these points could have been provided with less than five minutes of additional footage, total. The mistake was made to cut the movie too much, and that irked me pretty seriously.

So, all of that said (with as few spoilers as I could offer): it's flawed, but it's worth seeing, fun, and a whole lot better than it could have been. I do recommend seeing it, and I recommend seeing it in 3D on the best screen you can see it on. I don't recommend going in expecting the next Star Wars or Titanic; you're not going to get either, and you probably don't care.