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Josh reviews Avatar!

December 21st, 2009
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An indeterminate number of years in the future, mankind has ravaged the Earth and is forced to turn to alternative sources of energy.  By far the best is the ore nicknamed “unobtanium” (talk about a macguffin) that has been discovered on the alien world called Pandora.  Unfortunately, Pandora is home to a bunch of pesky natives, the Na’vi, who don’t take kindly to the shiploads of humans arriving on their planet with their giant bulldozers.  So the company supervising the mining sub-contracts the Marines to protect their workers and, if necessary, destroy any belligerent Na’vi.

But some scientists, lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), would prefer to find a diplomatic solution to the escalating violence with the Na’vi.  As such, they have constructed artificial Na’vi avatars — fully lifelike and functional Na’vi bodies that can be controlled by a human mind.  The idea is that these Avatars will be able to assimilate into the Na’vi culture better than a human ever could — learning about them, and hopefully eventually being able to reach an understanding with them.  Tom Sully was one of the highly-trained humans who had been preparing to control an Avatar, but when he is killed, the company must turn to his twin brother, Jake.  (Since the Avatars are apparently created specifically to match the genetics of their individual human controller, only Jake can substitute for his brother.)  Jake, a Marine who has lost the use of his legs, is excited by the chance to be useful again, and even more overwhelmed by the sensations of controlling a Na’vi body, through which he can at last walk (not to mention run, jump, etc.).  Things get even better for Jake when the mutilated Colonel Quaritch, who supervises the Marines on Pandora, approaches Jake with an offer: if Jake will feed him all the tactical information he gains about the Na’vi during his Avatar’s time amongst them (which the Colonel can use to wipe the Na’vi out once and for all), the Colonel will see that the military pays for the expensive medical procedures necessary to restore Jake’s legs.

Of course, once Jake’s Avatar actually gets accepted into Na’vi society, things become a lot more complicated, morally, for Jake, and he finds himself caught between two societies that are rapidly heading for a collision.

Avatar brings with it an enormous amount of hype and expectation — almost more than any movie could possibly live up to.  It’s the first narrative feature film from Director James Cameron since the extraordinary success of Titanic back in 1997.  Mr. Cameron has directed some of the most influential sci-fi films ever made (and also some of the very best): Aliens, Terminator, T2, The Abyss, and also the terrific True Lies, and as we all know, Titanic shattered worldwide box-office records and became something of a cultural phenomenon.  For the past decade Mr. Cameron has been working on developing new technologies and entirely new approaches to film-making (involving extensive motion capture of his actors, the creation of 3-D environments, etc.).  Avatar is being seen by some as a movie that will change movie-making forever.

No surprise, Avatar doesn’t quite live up to that billing.  But if you take away the expectation and the build-up engendered by the decade-long wait, you are still left with a very solid, entertaining action-adventure film with a bit more on its mind than just sci-fi shoot-’em-ups.

The story is a familiar one — white man goes native, and begins to see his own culture differently and question his previously-held values — and that hinders Avatar from feeling like a completely revolutionary movie-going experience.  I’d wager that thirty minutes into the film, most movie-goers will have a pretty decent idea as to how the story is going to play out.  That’s not to say the story is BAD — quite the contrary.  Cameron has always done a good job at taking familiar narrative beats and character types and bringing fresh life to them, and he does a decent job of that here.  No character feels like a cypher who you forget when the film is over — even the supporting characters with limited screen-time feel like people (or Na’vi) who you understand and believe.  And while the broad strokes of the story are familiar, the sci-fi wrappings of the story are fresh, and the framework allows Mr. Cameron to make a number of comments about environmentalism and the dangers of losing sight of one’s values in a war on terror.  Granted, none of these morals feel revelatory or particularly complex, but I’m happy to see that Mr. Cameron had more on his mind than just shiny special effects.

Speaking of shiny special effects, though, I saw Avatar in Imax 3-D, which is without question the best way to view Mr. Cameron’s creation.  To state that the visual effects are absolutely extraordinary would be to short-change them.  The scale of the film is jaw-droppingly vast, whether we’re seeing the interiors of the space-ship that brought Jake and his fellow complement of Marines to Pandora or marveling at the gorgeous vistas of Pandora’s lush jungles and bizarre, floating mountains.  Every environment to which we’re introduced has been realized in enormous detail and brought to life by the CGI effects in a way far beyond what could ever have been accomplished by more traditional methods of camera tricks, matte paintings, or model work, and also far beyond even the best CGI effects of the past twenty years.  The space-ship effects are cool, but it is the world of Pandora that is the real achievement.  I’ve seen alien jungles in sci-fi films before, and they always look like either a) a set, or b) an actual jungle on Earth with just a few weird prop plants thrown in.  But Mr. Cameron and his team have created a fully-realized WORLD on Pandora, filled with an enormous variety of fauna and wildlife that I couldn’t begin to describe here.  We spend a huge amount of the film’s running-time amongst the jungles of Pandora, and at no point was I anything less than mesmerized by the alien world that I was seeing being brought to life before my eyes.

(This is the type of fully-realized, never-been-seen before alien environment that I remember expecting from the Star Wars prequels, which also came after a decades-long wait and accompanied by their directors’ proclaiming that he had waited to make the film until he had perfected the technology necessary to bring his visions of alien worlds to life.  But whereas the Star Wars prequels ultimately disappointed even on that level — giving us environments that looked beautiful but far too clean and, well, computer-generated — Pandora’s environments feel far more ALIVE to me.)

I was also stunned to consider, after having seen the film, just how much screen-time passes without any human characters whatsoever, with only CGI-created Na’vi characters (over ten foot tall blue creatures) on screen (interacting, by the way, in a completely CGI environment).  The film hinges on our accepting these “special effects” as living, breathing, REAL creatures, and in that the movie succeeds without question.  Yes, they are obviously CGI “effects” (how could these aliens be anything but?), but I never found myself distracted from the story by contemplating the visuals (either because I was impressed by how life-like the CGI was, or because I was bothered by a fake-looking effect).  The Na’vi just ARE, and I think you quickly stop thinking about how they were created, which of course is the goal of any good visual effect — to NOT be noticed.

In the same way that I give Andy Serkis enormous credit for bringing Gollum and later King Kong to life in Peter Jackson’s films, Sam Worthington as Jake and Zoe Saldana as Neytiri (the Na’vi who Jake first meets) must be given great praise for their performances.  I’ll have to wait for the eventual DVD/Blu-ray special features to learn more about the technical processes that combined their performances with CGI designs and animation to bring their characters to the screen as we see them.  But it seems clear to me that their believability as performers was just as important to this process as the technical achievements of the animators and CG technicians.  When we watch Jake’s Avatar and Neytiri interact on screen, these blue alien creatures are alive without question.

The supporting actors are also a fine bunch.  I was thrilled by how much screen-time Sigourney Weaver had as Dr. Augustine.  Somehow I had gotten the idea that her role was more of a cameo, but she is a central character to the film.  It was an absolute delight to see Sigourney back on screen in such a meaty role.  Once again her collaboration with James Cameron has borne potent fruit.  (And I must admit to have gotten a fan-boy thrill when I saw her wake up in another cryo-tube at the start of the film!)  Stephen Lang brings great menace to the role of Colonel Quaritch — he’s a great bad-guy, menacing without too-terribly-much moustache-twirling.  Giovanni Ribisi does nice work as the rather heartless Parker Selfridge, the head of the corporate mining efforts on Pandora.  (By the way, did anyone else catch the quick reference to the corporation as “the company”?  Was that an Alien/Aliens reference??  I choose to think so!)  I was also pleased to see Michelle Rodriguez in a nice role as a tough woman who wasn’t a, well, a bitch.

Then there are the 3-D effects, which I think were as much a focus of Mr. Cameron’s technical efforts over these past number of years as were the creation of believable CGI creatures and environments.  Seeing Avatar in Imax 3-D was a delight.  While I wouldn’t necessarily say that the 3-D effects make you feel as if you’re actually IN the movie, they do enhance the already extraordinarily immersive environments.  And when the action comes — ho boy.  There’s a lot of build-up to the ultimate third-act throw-down, and it is quite a spectacle.  The combination of the 3-D with the CGI (not to mention the terrific sound-effects and score) creates a visceral, edge-of-your seat effect that was a ton of fun.

Avatar is not a perfect film.  It doesn’t represent an entirely new paradigm of movie-making, and I don’t think it’s going to make my top-ten list of 2009 movies.  But it is a throughly entertaining adventure story with a surprising amount of heart.  I feel like I took a trip to an entirely alien world for a little over two-and-a-half hours, and I’m eager to go back!

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