Tuesday, December 22, 2009

[Movie Review] Avatar

Big, blue and out of this world

Ok, I made that tag-line up, but it fits and if James Cameron wants to use it for the DVD release, I’m sure we can work something out. I had planned to put Avatar on my upcoming list of “Future movies I’m excited about,” when I realized “holy crap, it’s already out!” I didn’t think it started until Christmas. So I had no choice but to go see it.

First, the venue – I decided to see it at the Regal Cinemas at Carousel Center. A blockbuster like this seemed to demand the top-notch experience and, honestly, since I’ve started going there and have gotten used to the reclining seats, cupholders and stadium configuration, it’s just hard to go anywhere else. Now, I believe it’s possible to see this film in three formats – in regular 2D (like a standard movie), in 3D, and it IMAX 3D. I’ve never seen a movie in IMAX 3D, but if you can afford it, this might be the one to see there. I mention affordability, though, because it’s a real issue. I went to a matinee, as I always do, because the crowds are smaller and because it’s (usually) cheaper. In this case, however, the premium for the 3D showing brought the usual $7.50 matinee price up to a whopping $11! Whoa! Looking at the ticket prices online, it appears that the adult ticket for an evening showing at that theatre is $13 instead of the usual $9.50, so it’s basically a $3.50 surcharge on every ticket for the 3D experience. The 3D is amazing and I’d say it’s worth the added cost, but if I’d taken my whole family, the extra $17.50 (on top of the base price of $37.50 for five tickets) would have been a major-league shock so it’s best to be aware and prepared for it. IMAX tickets are usually much pricier still, and I’d imagine there’s a surcharge there as well. Check your local listings, I suppose.

With regards to taking the kids, I’d say that Avatar is right on track as a PG-13 movie. There’s a brief, very mild love scene that cuts away before being more than just suggestive, and, oh yeah, all the female aliens run around topless. But they’re blue and don’t jiggle much, so it’s actually not all that noticeable and is never played for effect. It’s just there. There’s a fair amount of violence, but none of it is graphic at all – certainly not gratuitous. In fact, the only thing that really bumps it from a PG to a solid PG-13 is the main character (quite understandably) yelling “shit!” a lot, especially when he’s going through his “learn to be a man of the tribe” exercises.

Avatar is, bottom line, a movie about big, blue computer-generated characters who you totally forget are computer-generated, because they’re done so masterfully. It is definitely not a new or original story. In fact, it’s almost certain you’ve run into this story several times before. I’ve seen Avatar called “Dances with Wolves in Space.” I never managed to stay awake through all of Dances with Wolves, but I’m familiar with the basic story and this is awfully similar.

There are also no surprises in the Avatar story. Every character is a stereotype. The hero is heroic. The native girl is tough yet tender. The businessman is greedy and stupid – emphasized by the fact that he has a $20M rock decorating his desk and at one point he needs help working a map. The military leader is unrepentantly evil and vicious. In fact, it’s somewhat ironic that in a movie emphasizing its 3D capability, so many of the characters are two-dimensional.

It doesn’t matter. The story may be old, but it’s a good story and it’s been masterfully retold, with some of the most amazing cinematic effects ever. Avatar is a movie about James Cameron’s new toys – a 3D camera and a CGI technique that allowed him to suit up his actors, film them, and then transpose their movements and facial expressions onto the CGI characters. In effect, the movie really was about Avatars.

In the film, an avatar is a special creature grown in a lab from the DNA of a human mixed with that of an alien called a Na’vi. The Na'vi are 10-foot tall blue humanoids with tails. The human “driver” is then plugged into a special bed and, while he sleeps, he mentally takes complete control of the avatar – it walks, talks, eats, drinks, and everything else just as if the driver actually were the avatar creature. Their purpose is to allow the humans who are essentially invading the lush but hostile world of Pandora to interact with, and hopefully gain the trust of, the Na’Vi. The humans, you see, have plundered all of Earth’s natural resources and have come to Pandora because it contains an element that will help the barren Earth to keep supporting life. This backstory about Earth is almost an aside – you have to listen pretty closely to even be aware of it and it’s not central to the story.

The central story involves ex-Marine Jake Scully, the newest member of the Avatar project. He’s part of the combined military/scientific mission on Pandora trying to secure the human’s ability to mine while somehow making peace with the natives. Natives who, by the way, are highly nature-oriented and treat the land and all living creatures (native ones, anyway) with great reverence and respect. Predictably, there can be no peace between the humans and the Na’vi, but we watch Jake go through his trials anyway because they’re fascinating.

Because we’ve seen this story before, the word “predictably” comes into play again and again. There wasn’t a single true surprise anywhere in the story line, and every major plot point is telegraphed from a mile away. From the hero’s trials of manhood to the love story, from the hero’s emulating the tribe’s legendary ancestors to the climactic battle and even the hero’s ultimate fate, every significant story element is obvious and unsurprising. Still, we watch movies all the time that don’t contain plot twists on the order of M. Night Shamalyn, so it’s not required that the film tell a wholly new story – just that it tell the story in an interesting way. And Avatar does that.

Cameron did some things in the film very, very well. The human’s technology is entirely believable for 150 years in the future – advanced, but very practical and with a “real” feeling to it as if it were just a prototype technology you were seeing at a Comdex-style event. There was no pointless neon or devices that looked pretty just so the set designer could earn his paycheck – in fact the only really space-age looking devices were the computer displays (which reminded me of the very cool one from Minority Report, but on a more believable scale) and the interplanetary spaceship. These, along with the military gunships and robotic exoskeletons, looked and functioned exactly like you’d expect them to – gritty, real, and, ultimately, very believable. Just as importantly, he generally avoided the urge that most 3D directors succumb to – that of creating situations where various “stuff” comes flying out of the screen at you because this “3D camera’s expensive and we’d better use it or we’re not getting our money’s worth.” Or perhaps it’s, “they paid to see 3D dammit – be sure there’s lots of it.” Cameron’s 3D technology wasn’t a trick or a gimmick –for perhaps the first time it was simply a way to more fully immerse the viewer in the film.

The other thing Cameron did very well was in creating the world of Pandora. Everything about it looked and felt real and yet alien. The key was in the computer animation – it’s simply top-notch, which allowed him to seamlessly transition from a hard set with physical actors, tables, props, lights, etc. to an outside world of glowing plants and bugs that whiz into the air on lighted disk-like wings. He also manages to create a spirituality for the people of Pandora that is directly linked to all living creatures and, again, make it seamless and very believable.

Lastly, and every bit as importantly as the cinematic effects that went into the film, Cameron makes good use of his stock characters. Sure, they’re stereotypes and they’re not very well fleshed out as people, but they’re very well-acted whether they’re humans or Na’Vi. Both Sam Worthington and Zoё Saldana had big roles in summer blockbusters – Worthington in Terminator: Salvation and Saldana as Uhura in the Star Trek reboot – but I suspect that both of them will find Avatar as their true rocket to the stars. Sigourney Weaver also gives a great performance, though her character’s hardly the action-hero of Aliens. Rounding out the fine performances were rogue pilot Michelle Rodriguez (who totally redeemed herself after playing the character who finally made me quit watching Lost. Granted, that character was supposed to be annoying so she actually did a fine job, but I held it against her anyway) and Stephen Lang as the ultimately risible Colonel Miles Quaritch, who would have twirled his moustache if he’d had one. These actors’ performances took the believable and made it seem truly real.

Avatar is one of those movies that made me really glad to have seen it in the theatre in its true 3D glory. I’m not sure how far out the technology is for the 3D Cameron used to be available on DVD or blue-ray, but I suspect it won’t have the same impact on the small-screen. It’s not the perfect movie, and for lack of a storyline that was as revolutionary as the cinematics Avatar falls short of its true potential, but only by a little bit. I’m rating Avatar an A-.

1 comment:

  1. Before reading your review I had watched the trailer and thought this would be a good picture to see. After reading your review I "knew" this would be the picture for me; I don't know about Dad. :-)