Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar Review (IMAX 3D Version)

I sense it would be impossible to issue just one review for the film "Avatar" that would be equally accurate and insightful about everyone's experience.  Having only seen it in 3D on an IMAX screen, I was perfectly willing to ignore the slower patches, the mediocre lead performance from Sam Worthington, and the generally predictable, formulaic plotline.  The film works so extremely well as spectacle that it feels churlish to even consider how poorly it fares at some other basic aspects of cinematic storytelling.  I'm certain that, projected as a more conventional film, or viewed as it will appear on DVD and television, a lot of its lesser qualities would be brought into greater relief, and it would most likely, overall, prove a far less satisfying experience.

Not that the movie wouldn't still be visually impressive without 3D.  Director James Cameron, a bonafide special effects pioneer who already helped to usher in the era of digital effects with "The Abyss" and "Terminator 2," has done a genuinely amazing job at creating an original, believable alien environment from whole cloth, and filling it with expressive, tactile creatures.  The planet of Pandora feels rich, diverse and detailed, a testament to the imagination of Cameron himself as well as the massive team I'm sure it took to animate everything and bring it to lush, vivid life.  The motion-capture, giving us a humanoid race of blue creatures known as the Na'vi, ranks among the best ever done, on a par, I'd say, with Peter Jackson's work on Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" films.  These days, most big-budget studio films have prominent, colorful, outsized special effects sequences, but it's rare to see animated characters who appear to have a genuine physical presence in a scene, who carry themselves and move realistically.

With 3D, however, you have the added bonus of making this environment remarkably immersive.  One trick Cameron comes back to constantly is to have floating objects, such as insects, ash or debris, swirling around the characters, and thus, the audience, subconsciously binding you to the world of Pandora. It's extremely effective, and has an almost uncanny, goosebump sort of quality to it.  Almost more-real-than-real, cause you rarely even experience the actual physical world in this fashion.)  There's a shot where the protagonist, Jake, falls down a waterfall, and underwater, and you genuinely do get a visceral sensation for the tangible weight of the water.

Having said all that, I was a bit bugged by a few things visually.  There are a LOT of sequences that look too much like a blacklight poster, with the environment sort of designed to have a hallucinatory, trippy effect, rather than to resemble an actual environment.  I had no trouble investing in Pandora as a real place during daytime sequences, but sometimes at night, when everything is translucent and neon pink, it comes off a bit cartoonish.  Also, I'm always bugged by science-fiction movies in which whole planets have identical features and terrain (a la the "Star Wars" films.)  This is the desert planet, this is the jungle planet, this is the water planet, etc., when we all know first-hand of at least 1 real planet that has a tremendous amount of physical diversity.  I wanted a few cut-away scenes where we see some other parts of Pandora.  Even when we visit some other Na'vi tribes, the whole place seems like an endless forest.  With all the world-building Cameron was doing, you'd think he'd jump at the chance to design a few more Pandora settings, but we really just get two - the forest and the floating mountains.

Anyway, fairly minor quibbles. 

It's also impossible to discuss the film's aesthetic without talking about the phenomenal action sequences, particularly the final battle that takes up about 30-40 minutes of screen time.  It's SUCH a delight to see an action scene directed by someone who knows what the fuck he's doing.  The cinematography is extremely fluid, and I love how you get a real sense of the Na'vi's incredible speed and the confidence with which they move about their environment.  Michael Bay can't pull off a scene that's 1/8th as intense or exciting as the Na'vi assault on the helicopters, and Cameron's raised the stakes and added an entire extra dimension!  (Again, I'd love to see the movie in 2D, and may try to do so theatrically, but I'm sure this scene is still excellent in any format.)

So, yes, it's a very good film, almost assuredly the best action-fantasy film since the "Lord of the Rings" series.  But you do have to take into account, I think, that the film is pretty much identical, both narratively and thematically, to a whole host of other films, most of them mediocre.  From "The Last Samurai" to "Dances with Wolves" to Disney's "Pocahontas," everyone's seen a few versions of this story before.  A disillusioned white man comes into a foreign society, at first as an adversary or a spy, and slowly comes to realize that his new community's way of life is more pure, simple, essential or innocent than his own.  Eventually, possibly due to becoming romantically involved with a woman from this new culture, the man turns on his former partners and joins the struggle from the opposing side.

In this case, our hero is Earthling Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), who through an accident of fate has been drafted into a diplomatic mission on the planet of Pandora.  A human corporation wants to mine the territory underneath the home of the planet's native population, the Na'vi, a race of blue 9-foot-tall creatures who share an emotional and spiritual bond with their land.  The humans are basically torn between two options: negotiating with the Na'vi, and convincing them to leave their home behind, or exterminating them militarily.  Sully controls a Na'vi Avatar, genetically based on his own DNA, in the hopes that he will be able to blend in with the natives, learn about them and convince them to allow humans to drill beneath the ancient, sacred tree where they all live.  Naturally, he soon falls in love with the Na'vi princess assigned to teach him their ways (played through motion-capture by Zoe Saldana) and finds himself torn between doing his job and saving his new friends and family.

Cameron has a few fun little twists on it that he throws in there - the Na'vi's unique way of connecting themselves physically to the other lifeforms around them, the use of the Avatars themselves (though he could have done a better job of setting up important info like "what happens to you when you're suddenly unplugged from your avatar, or if your avatar is killed while you're connected" early in the film).  But it's not enough to make a lot of this material feel less familiar.  It's such a far-out premise and such a different-looking film from almost anything else I've seen, it's a bit disappointing when the plot kicks in and everything's SO generic and predictable.

Performance-wise, Sigourney Weaver is solid as the mastermind behind the avatar program, CCH Pounder and Wes Studi are totally 100% recognizable behind the motion capture technology as the Na'vi leaders, which is pretty impressive when you think about it, and the bad guy (an actor I don't recognize) did as good a job as can be done with SUCH a cliched character.  (I kept thinking of Rod Steiger in "Mars Attacks," who's playing a parody of this exact character.  "Annihilate! Kill! Kill! Kill!")  I still don't really get why everyone is all about Sam Worthington, though.  This is the second film I've seen him in, and I doubt I'd recognize him on the street.  He's bland, doesn't look as "tough" or "badass" as the characters he plays and seems incapable of expressing a genuine emotion, or at the very least unwilling to. 

This is the sort of stuff I'm thinking will bug me more on subsequent viewings, and without getting as distracted by the epic IMAX 3D imagery.  There's no doubt that, on the level of pure spectacle, Avatar gets an A.  It is worth spending the money and taking the trouble to catch in 3D (or especially IMAX 3D, where the incredible amount of detail built into the film's backgrounds can be fully appreciated).  But it's a film I can't see revisiting too often, once the thrill of the technological innovations wears off.

Posted via email from Lon Harris

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