Last Updated 15 Nov 2022

An Introduction to the Analysis of the Film Avatar by James Cameron

Category Avatar, Film Analysis
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The 2009 film "Avatar" by James Cameron has proved to be a blockbuster hit. This epic science fiction film was originally planned to come out in 1999 after Cameron's popular "Titanic", but the technology to produce such a digitally enhanced film was not available during the time. "Avatar" was the highest grossing movie of all time in the theater, and its home media sales topped Cameron's own "Titanic". Cameron created a new type of film with his release of "Avatar" by means of the incredible and innovative technology that was brought to the forefront with its release.

When this film was released in 2009, it was received generally pretty well. Critics believed the new effects used, especially the new 3D technology, were mind-blowing. The New York Times wrote an article that praised the film for its innovative techniques, but also discussed the millions of dollars it took to produce such a majestic feature. A quote from the article pinpoints some of the technical features that Cameron used to draw the audience in, saying, "Cameron uses 3-D to amplify the immersive experience of spectacle cinema.

Instead of bringing you into the movie with the customary tricks, with a widescreen or even Imax image filled with sweeping landscapes and big action, he uses 3-D seemingly to close the space between the audience and the screen. He brings the movie to you" (Dargis 4). This article also discusses how one feels the emotions and struggles, especially for Jake, as we are drawn into a fantasy world. Being able to walk and run again for Jake is portrayed to the audience so well that it makes us feel a part of his experience. An important point about this movie is the length, which is 2 hours and 46 minutes. The article from the New York Times says this is a quick 2 hours and 46 minutes because the story is fast paced, and keeps you involved and wanting more, giving it the "wow" effect. The overall critical reception from this article highly praises the film for its creativity and advanced film techniques.

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In his 2009 article from in LA Times, Kenneth Turan described James Cameron's film as "an extraordinary act of visual imagination” (Turan). This positive review also carries value because Kenneth Turan, who is a well-known film critic, has always been extremely hard on James Cameron's movies. Up to this point in time, many people did not like the use of 3D, but Turan applauds how Cameron uses this to take the audience into another world, almost effortlessly. He says that the use of 3D makes us feel like we are in the movie itself, instead of taking part as an observer from the outside. A big innovation in this movie is Cameron's new use of CGI.

The technology includes having sensors attached to the actors, capturing their movement, and then running these results through the CGI computers. Cameron is not the first to use this technique, but his version is called "performance capture.” This idea is used for his Na'vi people, extremely tall characters who have long tails and bright yellow eyes. These incredible creatures seem just as real as the human actors, and that is an incredible accomplishment on Cameron's part.

Turan also praises Cameron's telling the tale of man's story of love and discovering of himself. He describes "Avatar" as "an anti-imperialism movie that gets considerable mileage out of depicting invading armies, a neo-pagan, anti-technology film that touts the healing powers of nature but is up to its neck in the latest gizmos and gadgets" (Turan). From Turan's review, one can see that he received the film well, as the overall critical reception has been for "Avatar." However, although many people received “Avatar” fairly well, not everyone liked the movie. One review of the film, by Gary Westfahl, claimed that it was a rip-off of a novel called “Call me Joe,” by Poul Anderson.

Similarities include both having paraplegic males as lead characters, who take control inside artificially crafted aliens and prefer being active and able bodied aliens, to being handicapped humans. Although these are similarities between the two narratives, we should not conclude that Cameron stole his ideas from the novel. This review of “Avatar” is extremely negative, and barely gives credit to Cameron where credit is due. Gary Westfahl, the author of this review, also believes that the whole point of “Avatar” is to discourage new technology in the world, but to respect the natural things in our lives. He says that this is a contradiction for James Cameron himself, because he uses the most up-to-date technology in order to create this science fiction movie.

Gary Westfahl also points to the idea of reinventing oneself. James Cameron directed “Avatar” as his first feature film after taking a hiatus for twelve years. According to Westfahl, there was evidence that Cameron regarded this film as his own rebirth as a film director. He then goes on to quote the movie, a line from Jake Sully saying, “Every person is born twice. The second time is when you earn a place among the People" (Westfahl 2). He makes the link between Cameron's rebirth and Jake's rebirth in the film, which is not something that someone would necessarily pick up on if they did not know about Cameron's background. Westfahl's review of the movie was interesting and gave a different perspective on the film.

A final article I read also gave a negative review of the film. This article was a little different, because it said the Vatican newspaper and their radio station gave mild reviews, which criticized "Avatar" for its neopaganism beliefs that were extorted in the film. The Vatican newspaper said that the plot of the movie was boring and fails to touch the heart, but praised it for the visual effects. Pope Benedict XVI said in the review that although nature is important, that the people need to realize the danger of “turning nature into a new divinity” (Daggers). I believe this review has a different spin on it than the others, because it brings religion into it, and that gives a whole other perspective. The Vatican's biggest complaint against this movie as a whole was that "nature is no longer a creation to defend but a divinity to worship” (Daggers). It is obvious why the worshipping of nature does not correspond well with the Catholic theology.

For the shot-by-shot analysis I chose a clip that is over halfway through the movie. It starts with an extreme close up of Jake. The colors are desaturated with dark gray, which gives the scene a gloomy and dark feel. It illustrates to the audience that there has been destruction or defeat. Jake, who is in Avatar form, looks a pale gray and not the bright vibrant blue that Avatars typically feature. It then goes into a full body shot of him laying on the ground, and the shot starts to track slowly into his face. This tracking shot also is giving us a reaction shot of him, after he is realizing where he is and remembers what has happened to him. We also are shown the land of Pandora, which is normally exquisitely colored with full saturation, but here too we see dark and dull colors.

We then hear a voiceover of Jake talking as he is walking, an example of non-diegetic sound. Along with sound, we also hear eerie, almost sad sounding music, which is non-diegetic; this matches the desaturation of color we are seeing. Then we see a full body shot of Jake from behind, showing us the smoking, dark and destroyed lands of Pandora in the background. A medium close-up happens next as we see an Ikran, a winged creature that resembles a dragon and a bird, flying in to the frame. The Ikran is familiar to the audience because they appear earlier on in the film and they also typically have saturated colors, although this is not seen in this frame. We then get a point of view shot of the Ikran, as if we are seeing him through Jake's eyes.

We hear dialogue, or diegetic sound, as Jake talks to the Ikran as if he can understand him. Next, we see Jake get on the Ikran's back and it takes off the ground and flies almost as if into the camera. The camera now switches to a birds-eye shot of trees and the sky, with the colors being much more saturated now. We now see the birds-eye view of another Ikran, although the audience knows that this Ikran is the king of all the Ikrans. Slowly Jake and his Ikran come into the frame, so that we can tell Jake is flying above the other Ikran. We hear a voice-over of Jake talking about the large Ikran referring to it as “the most badass in the sky” so we understand that he is the biggest, and most powerful Ikran there is.

The perspective then switches to a low angle shot of Jake on top of his Ikran with the sky in the background. The low-angle shot shows to us that in this moment he is in control, because he is flying above the creature so he can detach from his and jump atop the bigger ones back. Next, it switches to an establishing type of shot so that we can see all of the trees in Pandora. Jake on his Ikran looks small in comparison to the rest of the setting. As Jake jumps off his Ikran, we then switch quickly to a point of view shot as Jake is falling through the sky to land on the larger creature's back.

We hear diegetic sound as he is falling through the sky and once he lands on the other Ikran the screen goes black as if he blacks out from the landing. We then see this used as a transition into the next scene. We fade into an establishing shot of all the Na'vi people at home tree, using a high angle shot. The camera then pans through the audience and gives different closes ups of the various Na'vi people as they chant a song. This is an example of diegetic sound because everyone hears.

A shadow is cast over the crowd and we see everyone turn around. Jake on his Ikran is shown flying towards the people. We then go back to the Na'vi and get a reaction shot of them seeing the oversized Ikran. They react with screams and yelling because they are scared of the enormous creature. We then switch back to Jake with a low-angle shot, showing him on his Ikran and it shows how he has power and is in control. Next, the perspective switches to a medium close-up to show Neyteri's reaction to Jake coming in riding on the biggest Ikran. Then we see a long shot of Jake walking towards Neyteri and all the Na'vi bowing down to him. As the shot gets closer, we see a medium close-up of Jake and Neyteri. Neyteri then uses dialogue to speak with Jake so we change to over-the-shoulder shots while they continue conversation.

Before taking this course, "Avatar" had been one of my favorite movies. I can't I say I really knew a whole lot about the formal features of film then, but I just loved the storyline, the visual effects, and everything about it. Now, knowing all of the different formal features and history of film, I can enjoy the movie even more and appreciate it on a different level. That meaning, I can understand the outstanding techniques that Cameron applies in the movie.

"Avatar" is a unique film because it is not necessarily animated, but some of the backgrounds and creatures are digitally created and that only adds to the film itself. It adds beauty and fascination to the world of Pandora. This film is extremely stunning because it creates the World of Pandora with a naturalistic look, but it is extremely pleasing to the eye. It must have some sense of imagination, but to viewers it also needs to be realistic. Learning more about this film because of this project also opened my eyes to the outstanding amount of creativity and use of new technology that made this masterpiece possible.

This film was originally created as a 3-D feature, which obviously uses different techniques than a film in 2-D. That is a feature that should be noted. I believe one of the best formal features of this film though is the mise-en-scene. The background of every scene is incredible with vibrant colors and creatures, making it aesthetically pleasing. Going along with color, each scene has extremely saturated colors, which adds to the brightness and peacefulness of Pandora. With all of the technology and the futuristic looking labs in the beginning scenes one can see that is set in the future.

This is important to note because throughout the movie we see different scenes in the main lab on Pandora and see incredible looking technology and gadgets that help show us it is futuristic. It is also important because it is mind-blowing to see the technology that they use on Pandora, and to see how they can make it visually pleasing to the audience. From doing research on the production of this film, I learned that many of the scenes were filmed on a green screen, but they had to add a variety of different lighting in each scene, basically, making every particular scene extremely complicated and it had to be filmed until it was perfect. The overlay of the green screen work with the CGI camera work also meant that it had to line up perfectly for each scene to work well.

In terms of lighting, there are many scenes that have an extraordinary use of this feature. For example, during all the scenes that take place at night, only the insects and plants illuminate the scene, which is emphasized by the use of saturated colors in the scene. You can tell the scenes that are at night because of the little illumination in the background as well. There are also a number of scenes that take place at night in the lab, with Jake documenting his daily events on his video log. You can tell when it is nighttime because it is dark, and also the video log tells the time.

One scene in particular that sticks out to me as having amazing effects and preciseness is towards the end of the movie when Neytiri saves Jake in his human form out of the portable lab station that was located deep in the forest. To see a ten-foot Avatar holding a small, miniscule in comparison, human body was done perfectly. You could simply feel the emotion and the vividness of the scene was incredible.

The sound in the film also plays an extremely important role. There is mostly diegetic sound throughout this movie, which is important to direct our attention to. In the scenes at night especially the diegetic sounds of the different insects and creatures emphasizes the thought and time put into the movie. You also can hear the rustle of the trees and plants at night, too, which just adds to the film as well. Throughout a number of the scenes where Jake is learning about the ways of the Na'vi people, there is background or non-diegetic sound. An example of this is when Jake first meets Neyteri, she is showing him the different plants and things on Pandora, and soft, lighthearted music is playing the background.

When any fight scene, or dramatic scene is happening, more intense music plays, with loud drums to emphasize the danger, or mysterious events of what is going on. Along the lines of sound, there are number of voice-overs that occur throughout the film. The beginning scenes include a number of these by Jake. We are hearing his thoughts in his head as other actions are occurring in the scene. This is used to give us an internal access to character's thoughts, feelings and emotions that are not portrayed through dialogue.

Another important formal feature is the narrative itself. For movies, this can be a make or break for our judgment. If the story is not well received or interesting, then most of the time people do not enjoy the film. However, it is important to note that different stories appeal to different types of people. That being said, the narrative of this movie is incredible in my eyes. There are multiple ways to read this story, but I do believe it stands in for another meaning. I think it shows what humans are capable of, the destruction of a civilization. It shows how humans are inherently greedy, and that if we aren't able to control that nature, it can destroy us.

Although there are other events that happen in the film as well, I think this is important. We learn also a lot about Jake. Since her is a paraplegic, we see his happiness and enthusiasm for his life inside his Avatar body. It is extremely special to him because he is able to function like an able bodied person again inside his Avatar. We also see of the love and bond that he and Neyteri create, and how that deep love lasts throughout the film. In the end, Jake stays in his Avatar body so that he may live his life with Neyteri. I think that the story itself is intense, but one can learn from how the Na'vi wan to live with peace all around. The many other underlying meanings from this movie are also very important as well. I am grateful for the opportunity to learn about film from this class and for the thoughtfulness of this assignment to make us really dive into a film that we like and learn more about it.

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