Friday, December 18, 2009


It's been twelve long years since James Cameron's last live-action feature narrative (Titanic) took the world by storm, and his newest film is finally upon us. Starting about four or five years ago, a steady growth of anticipation filled the online film community, especially after learning that Cameron and his team pioneered new technology to tell the story of Avatar the way it was intended.

Pushing 3D technology to its most advanced point yet, James Cameron has created a film that is unlike anything you've ever witnessed. If you plan on seeing this movie (which I'd ultimately recommend, even with its many flaws), it absolutely must be seen in a theater in 3D. The IMAX part is up to you, but 3D is absolutely essential to your viewing experience. The film is being offered in 2D across the country, and I can only imagine the drastically different (probably negative) reaction one would have upon a 2D viewing. So I implore you: shell out the extra cash, and you won't be disappointed - at least with the visuals.

Writer/Director: James Cameron
Starring: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver

As I sat in the midnight screening on opening day, I was completely overwhelmed at the sheer prowess of the visuals in this movie. Cameron almost literally opened a door to another world, and I happily stepped through without question, completely inundated with the staggering attention to detail and the audacity with which he realized his ideas on screen. There are rumors that this film is the most expensive movie of all time (I've heard whispers of everything from a $250 - $400 million dollar price tag), but it was some of the most well-spent money in cinema history. The overall effect of Avatar is astonishing, and when the film reaches it's halfway point and we're flying alongside Jake and Neyteri on the back of winged Banshees through mountains floating in the clouds, it's very easy to forget you're watching completely rendered 1's and 0's. Even in more reserved scenes set in the wildlife of Pandora's level ground, I would sometimes have to remind myself that this wasn't filmed live on location.

I should give a brief plot synopsis in case you're unfamiliar with the story. It's the typical Pocahontas/The Last Samurai/Dances With Wolves/Ferngully archetype: in the future, paraplegic marine Jake Sully heads to the planet Pandora for a research mission. The planet is home to an alien race called the Na'vi, a ten-foot-tall blue allegory for Native Americans. Jake joins their culture by inhabiting the body of his avatar (a creature synthetically created with human and Na'vi DNA) and essentially enters the Matrix, embodying this creature while his human body is plugged in back at their base camp. He meets Neyteri, the free-spirited Na'vi daughter of the chief, and simultaneously falls in love with her and undergoes training to become accepted into their society. Surprise, surprise - the big, bad U.S. military wants to use Jake's newfound status to relocate the Na'vi away from a large supply of Unobtanium, a rare and incredibly expensive element that the humans wish to mine from Pandora. And if you've ever seen a movie before, you can guess where all this is heading - Jake switches sides and leads the Na'vi into battle against his former employers to protect their people and their world, for which, coincidentally, Jake now has a profound respect.

Listen, I don't want to be the guy crapping on this movie when everyone else seems to love it, but there's a certain level of pressure associated with a huge "event" movie like this to draw a line in the sand and take sides: did you love it, or hate it? There seems to be no room for middle ground in this particular battle, but that's precisely where I found myself. I realize it doesn't make for the most interesting viewpoint available, but I have to be honest - aside from the incredibly engaging visuals and the rip-roaring final half hour, I didn't feel as emotionally connected to these characters as the supporters of this film evidently did. I'm not going to dismiss the story simply because it shares elements with other films, and I'm certainly not going to dismiss Cameron's directorial choices when it comes to executing this astounding vision, but at the same time, I'm not going to tell you that this was the best movie I've ever seen. In fact, it's not even the best movie I've seen this year. The one with the most tactile implications on the future of the industry? Sure. The biggest visual feast? Definitely. But I think when people eventually buy their DVD's and Blu-rays and are removed from that admittedly magical 3D theatrical experience, they'll be left with the bare essentials of a story and characters which, frankly, we've seen many, many times before.

What amazes me most about Avatar is such incredible detail is devoted to the minutiae of the landscape but the script is approached with not even a quarter of that same zeal. Some of the story beats feel unnaturally rushed, like when Neyteri gets "Jersey Shore"-pissed at Jake, then falls back in love with him about 15 minutes later. And Sigourney Weaver's scientist character, Dr. Grace Augustine, is almost as one-dimensional as Stephen Lang's hard-nosed Col. Quatrich, who revels at each chance to destroy another member of the Na'vi and seek vengeance on Jake for switching sides. There are some other things I could nitpick. This film doesn't know the meaning of the word "subtle," with the most obvious example coming in the form of the Na'vi's biological ability to literally connect with their world and the animals that inhabit it. (Worried we wouldn't get the point, James?) Some of the philosophical questions the film could have dealt with were left unasked (what happens when a human is connected to an avatar and the avatar dies?), and by the end I was wishing I had gotten a little more meat from the story instead of just immersive visuals.

Giovanni Ribisi's performance was a highlight for me; he was great as the weaselly corporate lackey pulling the strings on the human side. Sam Worthington was charming enough and showed a little more of the promise hinted at in Terminator Salvation, but never fully reached "iconic action hero" status. Zoe Saldana, however, was fantastic as Neyteri, and even though we never once saw the actress herself, her performance shone through the blue skin and bioluminescent dots so powerfully that she demanded our full attention whenever she was on screen. Still, the dichotomy between obsessive design complexity and broad film-making appeal struck me as unjustifiably uneven; this is especially the case considering so much time went into world creation (Cameron worked with a USC linguistics professor to create the Na'vi language from scratch) and it's obvious that the paper-thin characters were either an afterthought, or, more likely, character templates which were never fully fleshed out.

But even with all those faults, this movie still delivers a great balance of thunderous action, wide-eyed wonder, and fun-filled fantasy. The final half hour I mentioned before? Unbelievable. Cameron keeps his editors on a tight leash (so tight, in fact, that he co-edited the film himself), and his eye for action and pacing can't be praised enough. Michael Bay and Paul Greengrass should take note: this is how you edit an action scene. Cameron chooses wider shots and slightly lingering shots over intense close-ups and fast cutting because A) that's historically been his style and B) it provides him another chance to show us the world of Pandora, even while its inhabitants are engaged in battle above ground as well as on it. The first scene in which Jake uses his avatar immediately conjures that child-like wonder we all hoped to experience when seeing this movie, and Cameron repeatedly takes your breath away with his beautiful virtual cinematography throughout the movie.

Make no mistake - this is the work of a master, and while Avatar is drawing ridiculous comparisons to the original Star Wars, this film is certainly a turning point in the history of film that will be studied and discussed for years to come. At least, that is, until the sequel is released. Until next time...


Jared said...

I'm totally with you on this film, Benny. It was pretty as hell and it'll most likely be seen as a turning point in cinematic history but it won't be because of the story.

Ben Pearson said...

Thank you for commenting, good sir.

Alan Trehern said...

The first 2 hours of the movie were like a tourist video for Pandora. And as for the 3-D effects, I felt like alot of detail of the film was lost either because of my eyes, or maybe of the weird depth effect. I don't know. The audience may see a more detailed movie when it comes on Blu-Ray.

Further, yes, Cameron did shove the messages of the "resource crisis" down out throats. And the whole "man killing nature/natives" got old fast. However, as far as feeling for the characters, I did feel an emotional attachment to the tribe, and when the military attacked, I did feel quite angry.

But I don't know if it was the "U.S. Military" responsible for the destruction. For all we know, it could be some unified earth army, although the similarities were noted.

But the main problem I had with it was the same old corporation/military vs. the natural world scenario. But I guess since people keep fighting solutions to our resource problem, we need to drive these themes into their brains.

Ben Pearson said...

Yeah, I guess you're right. I assumed it was the U.S. military because they spoke English without accents (with the exception of the occasional Australian slip), but it very well could have been a unified global corporation with army resources at their disposal.

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