REVIEW: Avatar [2009]

“I see you”

I have one major problem with Avatar and that is what it means for the future of my home entertainment system. How can I ever replicate the visceral spectacle I experienced with a five-story screen, digital sound blaring, and 3D technology that is so beyond any I’ve seen before that nothing short of ‘blown away’ can describe it? I’m not sure I ever could and that is what may make this film as successful or more than its creator’s last, Titanic. People aren’t going to want to just go home and simply recall the brilliant, all-encompassing world of Pandora; they will want to immerse themselves again. I would totally go a second time, undaunted by the prospect of sitting through a two and a half hour film, because this movie drew me in, made me forget I was watching something that was around 85% computer generated, caused the 3D glasses on my nose to disappear, and showed me the wonder that awaits if space travel ever becomes feasible for the general population as a vacation excursion. If you have an IMAX theatre showing it anywhere near you, go out and run—do not walk or meander willy-nilly—run over, sit back, relax, and experience the future of cinema as we know it. The movie theatre will never be the same again.

There is a story underneath the technological wonder and it is not as flimsy as some may lead you to think. Sure, it is a tried and true tale of imperialistic might pit against an indigenous people willing to stand tall and defend their heritage, their beliefs, and their land. Allusions to the Iraqi War are prevalent, ‘unattainium’ is the oil located below the native Na’vi’s home and the humans have arrived, ready to use the stick and destroy everything in its wake to get it once diplomatic relations—imposing their language, their education, and their ideals—have failed. Is it something that detracts from the film as a whole? I don’t think so. James Cameron first envisioned this world fifteen years ago, shortly after the end of the first Gulf War, and has revved up his progress in the past four, now that the technology could sustain his lofty ambitions, the same time in which we saw the largest dissent for the new War on Terror. But this story is timeless; you can go back to any imperialistic endeavor—stealing the Native Americans’ land, Europe’s takeover of the New World and Africa, Napoleon, Alexander the Great—and see how common the theme is. However, being made in America’s Hollywood, a world inhabited by liberal creatures with money, the idea of USA-bashing isn’t hard to accept.

None of that matters, though, because once you as an audience catch that first glimpse of Pandora, any preconceptions or ideologies leave your mind, emptying your head to just let the world wash over you. All the political commentary can come later and be debated for days; my mind will always go back to the amazing technical achievement that was laid before me. A guy like Stephen Lang has taken the caricature of a gung-ho army/marine man looking for a fight and created the ultimate, unsympathetic villain, an antagonist to give us a reason to discover this new world. He is the epitome of someone that hopes diplomacy will fail, because he wants to see destruction. With carte blanche and a penchant for blood, especially at the hands of an enemy he doesn’t, nor does he want to, understand, the Na’vi nation stands little chance. But he needs someone on the inside, a human to infiltrate and map out the infrastructure of the village he is about to invade and obliterate … he needs Jake Sully, a marine. Sully only has the job because his biologic make-up is identical to recently deceased scientist brother Tom, a coincidence that leads speculation to whether that death was militarily planned in order to put a ‘grunt’ Jarhead on the field. What these numbers men don’t understand, though, with all their statistics and big picture viewpoints, is how magical Pandora is and that by getting someone inside, they may just be creating the biggest opponent to their endgame.

This is where Cameron’s innovation shines bright. Sam Worthington’s Sully, a paraplegic who is given an organic avatar body, a genetically made Na’vi, to live and breathe in, is tasked with the job of security detail as the scientists trained to deal with the natives work. Jake is not the simpleton all assume, however, and soon the all-encompassing deity Eywa chooses him as a special creature to be studied and trained. We as an audience reap the benefits in being able to watch him become one of The People, learning the language, the biology, the religion, and the lay of the land. Pandora is a gorgeously painted landscape with jungle creatures and flying mountains, all connected through this spiritual uplink—think a mix of “Battlestar Galactica’s” Cylons and Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’s Gaia. Every single beast is a completely autonomous being, part of a very regimented food chain. The Na’vi may be the most advanced, but they are not the most powerful. The wild is full of monsters, but they haven’t yet learned to ravage their environment, they still live in harmony and according to the rules set forth by their mystic leaders and past heritage. One doesn’t just ride a horse-like animal or fly with a pterodactyl-like being, one must connect with them, port in and connect the fibers of their soul to become a single unit. All work together, creating a magical utopia that the stubborn and selfish human invaders aren’t willing to spend the time to understand.

Cameron gives us a three act structure of exposition, (dealing with the two sides and what is at stake), infiltration, (allowing us to experience the native culture and side with their plight), and execution, (the war between worlds that will either end with the destruction of a people or the return of an invader to their own dying land, a final fight reminiscent to Return of the Jedi). And through it all, boredom never sets in. With three-dimensionality of the likes I have never seen, the visuals won’t let you even take a breath. Just a month ago I saw A Christmas Carol on the same screen and the comparison isn’t even close. Avatar doesn’t utilize new glasses; it is the conversion and filming process that has been advanced exponentially by Cameron and his team. I can honestly say that the entire IMAX screen was in full depth of focus for the duration with very minimal motion blurring. When you had out of focus background imagery to compete with foreground clarity, there is a little depth plane flatness, but for the most part is it seamless. You don’t even notice the lack of or abundance of images sticking out into your face because the world is so infinitely deep. Foliage goes back into the distance, flies buzz about around the characters and into your view, and even the subtitles exist on a separate layer. You no longer have to turn your head to see different parts of the screen separately; it is all there in pristine clarity.

Also, this is the future in computer animation and creating a completely lifelike organism. Whether this technology can sustain ‘life’ in a virtual human is unknown, but these humanoid creatures are a giant step forward in alleviating any ‘dead-eye’ problems we have seen in the past. The expressiveness of the Na’vi is uncanny, taking the attributes of the actors that play them and creating around that substructure. More akin to the performer in make-up than completely replaced by pixels, the characterizations are fully realized life-forms with liquid clarity in their eyes, facial creases for full range of emotion, and the most organic movements ever created. Couple this technology with the performances of Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington, both rising fast in the film world, and you cannot go wrong. Worthington is slowly showing his worth and why so many big tent pole projects have turned to him—an unproven talent—to lead them to box-office glory. Even Sigourney Weaver’s avatar has retained her facial ticks, giving her youth in Na’vi blue while reuniting with her Aliens director. It was also good to see a guy like Joel Moore break out of the comedy genre, lending his nerdy humor to the drama unfolding onscreen.

Avatar really does live up to the hype, even surpassing it in some respects. The three-dimensionality is wholly unique and ready to change the landscape of cinema forever. Looking through reflective surfaces, giving human actors realistic depth, and integrating computer graphics seamlessly around them has never been better. The acting is great, even in the fictional Na’vi people, adding a layer of realism to what would five years ago seem utterly cartoonish. The story may be simple and unoriginal in its core structure, but that shouldn’t matter at all here. This isn’t a plot driven indie film character study; this is a big time blockbuster fantasy film with heart, something I think people also forget when talking about Titanic. Both films have a simple love story at its center, and both contain a conflict to help drive along its tale while showing us incomparable visuals. I’ll admit that without the 3D experience, even the gorgeous animation would have made me only give the film an 8 or a 9 out of 10. But that is selling what this achievement is short. As a vehicle for a brand new world of technology and as an all-encompassing cinematic endeavor, you cannot discount the beauty and power the IMAX 3D gives it. Avatar is the first of its kind and a trendsetter if there ever was one. James Cameron is back and ready to tackle the job of improving his medium, to make it better and better with every new work. I, for one, couldn’t have asked for more and can’t wait to see what he does next.

Avatar 10/10 | ★ ★ ★ ★

[1] Jake (Sam Worthington) meets his avatar, a genetically engineered hybrid of human DNA mixed with DNA from the natives of Pandora. Photo credit: Mark Fellman / WETA
[2] Neytiri (Zoë Saldana, right) teaches Jake (Sam Worthington) the skills he’ll need to survive on Pandora. Photo credit: WETA
[3] Jake (Sam Worthington, left) and Quaritch (Stephen Lang) get a virtual look a massive, gnarled and ancient willow tree that is the Na’vi epicenter and an extension of their lifeblood. Photo credit: WETA


2 Thoughts to “REVIEW: Avatar [2009]”

  1. […] Avatar, review: Sometimes the extreme spectacle of new technology can live up to expectations. Cameron’s Avatar […]

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