Monday, December 21, 2009


By nature of its themes, characters and construct, Avatar feels like the culmination of James Cameron's career as a director. The exacting attention to detail, the fascination with (and disdain for) the military and corporate tactics and schools of thought, the struggles of man against foreign environments, the strong, warrior-like tendencies of the female leads; it's all on prominent display here in what is, without a doubt, the most technically impressive movie I have ever seen.

In the past, movies based in "virtual reality" used hypothetical cyberspace as a playing field for the characters, pitting good guys against bad guys in an online digital realm. Avatar takes this concept to a fascinating next step by having the characters actually inhabiting the minds and bodies of living beings specially bred for the task. Exactly how this is done is never divulged (which is probably a good thing), though the "puppet masters" are put into a kind of suspended animation while they are "piloting" their avatars. Similarly, the avatars appear to just drop off to sleep whenever their human "pilots" are awakened, which can at times make for some awkward/difficult situations.

There is an awful lot of story happening as Avatar gets going, so I'll relate the basic points: in the middle of the 22nd century, mankind has reached an impasse in their relations with the Na'vi, the indigenous humanoid species that populates an Eden-like moon called Pandora. The humans are increasingly tired of dealing with the hostile locals always being in the way of their mining operations (I take it that the mineral being called "Unobtanium," and the moon "Pandora" are what Cameron considers subtle touches). Meanwhile, the 10-foot tall natives aren't exactly thrilled with the colonial interests of humanity running roughshod over their homeland. In an attempt to defuse the situation via diplomacy, Dr. Grace Augustine (an ageless Sigourney Weaver) has hit upon the idea of interacting with the creatures via the use of these living avatars in an attempt to engender trust and understanding between the species.

However, the RDA Corporation (which runs the entire operation) is growing increasingly exasperated with endless negotiations and scientific nonsense and is pushing for a quick military solution to the problem. What blocks their plans is the lack of good intelligence on the Na'vi, and that is where the improbably-named Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) comes into the picture. A paraplegic Marine recently faced with the pointless murder of his twin brother (who was a member of the avatar project team), Sully is offered a ticket to Pandora in the hopes that he can pilot his dead twin brother's avatar and act as a kind of sleeper agent for the military while going through the motions for Augustine and her team.

I'm not going to simply drool all over this movie: while the setup and the introduction to the avatars hold our attention thanks to the originality of the concept, once these impostors meet the real deal, the movie's plot begins to feel very familiar indeed. To be very blunt, it is here that Avatar becomes Dances With Wolves in space: originality is in short supply, the characters are basically cut-outs, everything is nicely black-and-white and environmental/political lessons abound. Even if you are sympathetic to all of Cameron's views, Avatar is a little too predictable to really get behind; there is little doubt of how things will work out in the end, or how little asides to the action will come back to "surprise" us later on.

Having said all of that, Avatar is the first film in years that has me seriously thinking about seeing it twice (or more) at the theater. If you have any interest in this film at all, I highly urge you to see it at the cinema, preferably in 3-D, and ideally in an IMAX-style presentation (though the nearest such venue is over 3 hours away from where I live, dang it all). It feels weird and fanboyish to tell you on one hand what a reheated platter of leftovers the plot is, yet then turn around to proclaim that I have never seen such an incredible spectacle as this ... but it's true.

Utilizing mutliple effects houses and a veritable army of animators, Cameron has basically taken on all of the CGI extravaganzas released over the last 15 years and bested them all. The blending of live and generated elements during the movie is completely seamless; even though you know you are looking at a place that does not exist, it's nearly impossible to tell exactly where "real" ends and "rendered" begins. Even when things aren't blowing up and characters aren't soulfully batting cliches back and forth at each other, it's hard not to feel a sense of real awe at the scale, richness and color of Pandora and its fauna, benign or otherwise.

While I can't imagine how any of this is going to translate when scaled down to a home presentation, Avatar is going to be one of those films that I will own simply to look at it. While I docked a star (and thought seriously about two) for playing it completely safe with the plot, it is the absolutely stunning achievement in visuals that is the main attraction for Avatar, a movie which definitely lives up its own hype (at least as far as "setting the bar for all future effects films" is concerned). If only they had diverted a couple million more to the script ...

Avatar rating- 4/5

1 comment:

free movie full said...

I loved this movie great post! The special effects are amazing!