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Cameron pulls it off again—Avatar is exhilarating

Believe it or not, another massive gamble by the daredevil director pays off


 

I was fully expecting to dislike Avatar. Having donned the 3-D glasses on “Avatar Day” in August, and watched the 15-minute preview on an IMAX screen, I was left unimpressed. I thought it looked too juvenile, too “cartoony.” The Fern Gully comparison made in the YouTube Downfall satire seemed all too true. But now that I’ve seen the whole thing, I’ve changed my tune. Sure, the dialogue is wooden and the story is generic and derivative, but in spite of that, Avatar doesn’t suck; it rocks. Despite the odd amusing catch phrase (often containing the word “bitch”), you don’t go to a James Cameron movie for the dialogue. It’s all about spectacle—the action and the art direction. And no matter what the Most Expensive Movie Ever Made eventually cost — estimates range from US$240-$300 million — you don’t come out of  it wondering where Cameron spent the money. It’s all up on the screen. With his first fictional feature since Titanic blew all box-office records out of the water 12 years ago, the Canadian director has made good on the promise to create a game-changing movie. It’s also a game-like movie, one that borrows its avatar concept from video gaming and turns it into big-screen flesh. And as a skeptic who had always thought that inbreeding between movies and video games is a despicable trend that’s going to kill cinema, I was shocked to find myself exhilarated by Avatar.

While Cameron has made his name as an action director, here he reveals himself as a consummate visual artist. In designing the flora, fauna and blue aboriginals of this moon called Pandora, he has created a whole world from scratch. Well, not entirely from scratch—there are monsters that look like the demented offspring of a rhino and a hammerhead shark, and a lot of Pandora’s bio-luminescent jungle is clearly inspired from the director’s underwater explorations. Jellyfish are so cool.  But what’s astonishing about this world is its beauty. When you combine that with the environmental message of saving the (alien) planet from Earth’s strip-mining colonial marauders, hard-core action buffs might wonder if James Cameron has gone soft. Clearly, the guy still loves the high-tech military hardware; he just can’t help himself. But Avatar shows us a filmmaker merrily at war with himself—a testosterone-loaded, gun-loving tree-hugger.

How good is the 3-D? It’s good enough that after a while you don’t notice it too much, which is the way it should be. My problem with a lot of 3-D, especially in Robert Zemeckis’  motion-capture movies (Beowulf, A Christmas Carol) is that eye-grabbing effects keep breaking the fourth wall, and throw you out of the movie. A technology that is supposed to make something more real actually makes it more fake. That’s not the case with Avatar. Instead of constantly prodding and poking you, Cameron lets you sink into his 3-D world and enjoy the scenery. It feels more concave than convex.  Also, he’s conquered the zombie-like glaze that plagues the motion-capture characters in the Zemeckis pictures. The blue-skinned Na’vi are akin to animated creatures, yet they do have the substance and soul of the human actors who are driving the computer-generated bodies. The eyes are alive. And here’s what’s so ingenious about this movie: not only are the characters driving avatars (Franken-aboriginals made with human and alien DNA), the actors themselves are driving digital avatars through the motion-capture technique. This gives the movie a trippy, dimensional quality that goes beyond the strictly visual depth of the 3-D imagery.

I haven’t even begun to discuss the story, which is perhaps the least original aspect of the movie—a Dances With Aliens scenario of a colonial guy going native in a foreign jungle that’s as old as Conrad, Kipling, and Edgar Rice Burroughs. The story takes place on Pandora, a distant moon that is rich in a valuable mineral called “unobtainium.” The Earthling colonists, whose own planet has been ravaged beyond recognition, are desperate to mine the mineral, which happens to sit right underneath the sacred tree of life in the alien’s rain forest. The colonists are divided into hawks and doves, between the hard-ass military invaders who want to nuke the aboriginals and the devoted scientists who want to understand them. The military is commanded by Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), a rugged  brute; the scientists are led by Grace (Sigourney Weaver), a chain-smoking cynic who does research among the natives in her own avatar guise.

Australia’s Sam Worthington stars as Jake, a paraplegic Marine vet who accepts a dangerous mission in order to earn himself the medical treatment that will allow him to walk again. An alien avatar has been created for his twin brother, who was killed in action. Jake agrees to take his brother’s place—to latch his brain to an avatar body, infiltrate the alien world and make friends with Pandora’s native people. This involves climbing into a coffin-like mechanism which links his consciousness to the synthetic, remote-controlled, blue 10-foot body. In the jungle, Jake gets into some serious trouble, and is saved by a ferocious Na’vi maiden called Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the chief’s daughter. Predictably, Jake goes native and falls in love as he learns how to rope and ride the pterodactyl-like birds that prey above the jungle canopy. (He even learns their language, a whole Klingon-like tongue that was created for the film.) And when all hell breaks loose, we know he’s going to side with the blue folk.

For all the clichés, there are some novel ideas in the film, and I’m not just talking about the technology that brings it to life. There’s a nifty equation drawn between the branching neural structure of the brain and the root structure of Pandora’s bio-luminescent jungle, which embodies a kind of mega-consciousness that the aboriginals revere as an environmental godhead.

In the end, Avatar becomes a sci-fi cowboys and Indians action movie, with earthlings and aliens filling the old roles. And it’s great fun. Let it be said, no one directs action like James Cameron. And although the world he creates is indeed cartoon-like, it does have a tangible substance that’s quite unlike anything I’ve seen on screen. Anyone who cares about movies is going to want to see this. The magic in Avatar comes and goes, but there are moments when the whole 3-D experience pops into extraordinary focus, and you feel you are inside the movie. What’s interesting is that this dimensional ‘now’ flourishes in scenes of serene stillness. The 3-D medium is most effective when it turns the screen into a kind of aquarium, a world you descend into, rather than a barrage of effects that jump out at you. And that’s the best news yet—that the future of 3-D may favour meditation over mayhem.


 

Cameron pulls it off again—Avatar is exhilarating

    • i went and saw this movie today, and it was bar none one of the best movies i have ever seen……and i am a 32 year old professional..not some sci-fi computer geek. the storyline coinciding with special effects that are truley a first in movies made this an incredible movie…..enjoy…i think it is going to be huge

  1. story looks somewhat obvious

    • stupid

      • I thought the same….but i left the room with some frustration… is the tipical plotline very well told! With tha ecologist message that is a need nowadays!

  2. It's worth noting, since someone will probably question it, that unobtainium is an actual technical term frequently used offhand by engineers/scientists to describe a material which either doesn't exist (yet) or is prohibitively expensive/rare.

    It's how the designers working on the SR-71 described Titanium at the time.

    • Hi Dave
      interesting comment
      I live in Mildenhall UK. and we used to have SR71's stationed here; used to see them fly in and out all the time -totally awsome planes
      going to see Avatar tomorrow with my 12 year old daughter
      Regards,
      Steve.

  3. I sat entranced through my first viewing of Avatar. The 3d effects are so understated and natural that I found myself realising that that 2d movies are just not going to be a complete experience in the future. This is Sci-fi and the storyline has been visited before, but has never been set in such a beautiful environment. Pandora is a stunningly lovely place and the Na'vi are completely believable. Of course our hero falls in love with his Na'vi maiden. Who would not? THIS heroine is heroic. The military actions are incomparable; The various hostile creatures of Pandora are smoothly created… this is centuries beyond the simple aliens of Star Wars. I can't wait to see it again.

  4. Two nights ago, I watched "Advise and Consent" starring Walter Pidgeon and an all-star cast. Although two-dimensional and filmed in B&W, the textures of plot, dialogue, direction, and superb acting in this film classic were stunning. Simply stunning.

    Early, early this morning I saw "Avatar" in 3-D. The animation is wonderful, but after 2hrs and with 45 minutes still left in the film CGI can carry only so much entertainment. The plot is straight from Star Wars and is the film's biggest problem. George Lucas should sue.

    Forest moon of Pandora: Forest moon of Endor
    Evil (USA) empire invades paradise: Evil Galactic Empire invades paradise
    Jake a rebellious son defeats the empire: Luke a rebellious son defeats the empire
    A plucky aboriginal people (the Navi) fight the invaders: A plucky aboriginal people (the Ewok) fight the invaders
    Jake's evil father-figure leads the empire's attack: Lord Vader, Luke's father, leads the empire's attack
    A plucky blue warrior princess embodies the virtues of rebellion: Princess Leia, the plucky pink warrior princess…you get the picture.

    • I fully agree that there are many aspects of this film that are dirivitive, but comparing it to Star Wars? Jeeze! Look, years ago Bill Moyers did a documentary on Joseph Campbell, the writer of "Hero with a thousand faces", the interview was held at skywalker raanch, and in it they spoke of the archtypes that appear and reappear throughout human history. That there are certain stories, certain types of character's and situations that speak to people on a fundemental level.

      • I know the documentary you mention. The documentary, and Campbell's book, deal with the archetype of heroism in Western culture. Indeed, that archetype describes a young person who leaves home on a great quest, encounters danger and loss, grows with sacrifice, and realizes in the end that the quest's real achievement is to understand his/her place in the world and relationship to others. That archetype is present in Star Wars and in Avatar. However, nothing about archetype requires a forest moon, evil empire, plucky aborigines, evil father, or warrior princess in the plot. That was Star Wars, and it's tiresome to see it again in a film that supposedly will change the way we view film forever.

  5. Agreed! Totally! Very nice review.

  6. a fundemental level. That "tunes" in on our psyche if you will. Lucas was a student of Campbell, and proudly stated that his ideas were based on emulating these archtypes and concepts. As well as on previous movies that he admired, like the Hidden fortress. This has been done and will be done many times. Cameron is obviously making a story that does once again take on the whole "imperialism (scientific exploitation) bad", "native sovereignty( animism/spirtuality) good" chestnut. Thats just

  7. Thats just the kind of filmmaker he is. Anyone who has ever watched any of his previous films would know that. What he has done however is to take that often done modern story and wrapped it around an "original" setting, not based on any book, not a sequal or yet another "re-imagining". He has also used a much derided tech-medium (3D) and used it in a way not seen before, with artistry, heart, and real imagination. he has taken all of this and created something truly transporting. Is it shakespear, of course not. But to call it a Star Wars Clone, or Dances with Smurfs, or ferngully in space or any of the other things I've heard people call it is ridiculous. You know what, i take that back. There is a way in which this reminds me of Star Wars. Not since I saw that movie as a child have i felt so delighted afterwards. Not since sitting in a theater as a child had I felt as if I'd actually visited an alien world for a few hours and forgotten I was watching a movie. Dances with wolves never did that. The Star Wars prequals certainly did not.
    Avatar impressed.

  8. Cant't wait to see it tomorrow… Hope it is as good as everyone says it is…

  9. Not going to see it.

  10. Interesting. Here's Armond White's review: "Avatar is the corniest movie ever made about the white man's need to lose his identity and assuage racial, political, sexual and historical guilt!"

    Armand, unlike Macleans' lily white staff, is black, and this gets to the heart of my complaint that Maclean's is too white and the quality consequently suffers. The writers here are just too goddamned PC chilled. Yes, I'm sure the movie is great fun, if you are a masochist and your idea of fun is being scolded for two hours. I'll read a (non-fiction) book instead.

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