Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar Review

Directed by James Cameron
Released in 2009

I will eschew hypotheticals and get straight to business: Avatar is an excellent film. It is a film of revolutionary special effects, beautiful art design and rousing action, all contained in a story that holds emotional weight even if it seems like a road we have all traveled before. With an enormous budget (reports stated it was half a billion while it really is less than $400 million with marketing, $240 without) and James Cameron at the helm, an inordinate amount of hype has been attached to this movie and, naturally, not everyone will be pleased. However, for those who are willing to take Avatar at face value for the well-made blockbuster that it is, they will find one of the best action films in recent memory and a great way to end this fecund decade of cinema.

The concept behind Avatar is very idealistic but, through some miracle, it was realized. After steering Titanic to countless box-office records that have yet to be broken and mountains of Academy Awards, James Cameron wanted to make the film of his dreams. It took him years to reach the point where technology could match his megalomaniac wishes but, by the last 2000s, computers "caught up" to Cameron's vision and brought forth the film that is here today. Filmed with new, specially-designed 3D cameras, actors interacted with green screens and a fraction of what is on the screen (at least on Pandora's surface). The human element of filming seems to have been reduced, but this is not the case, as emotion and soul are very much present. The Michael Bay approach is nowhere to be found, as James Cameron does his best to balance the glitzy, million dollar linings of his special effects with a human story. Thankfully, he succeeds.

There is a tried and true story at the heart of Avatar and, while it will not win any Oscars for Screenplay, it serves as an inspiring tale of conflict, romance and betrayal. Sam Worthington plays Jake Sully, a wheelchair-bound soldier who picks up on his deceased brother's mission as part of the Avatar program. This breakthrough of technology allows humans to embody an "avatar," in this case, a Na'vi mixed with human DNA. The Na'vi is the race of indigenous creatures to the planet Pandora, and they are blue and close to 10 feet tall. They all share a closer bond to nature than humans do, and that is where conflict arrives. The humans want an element called "unobtanium" (yep, a joke there) that lies clustered under the surface of Pandora's beautiful exterior. Jake loves this world who, as an Avatar, can walk and run unlike his human, crippled self.  He sees the world of Pandora as a place of opportunity that cannot be destroyed like the humans intend it to. To add to his conflicted feelings, Jake falls for a female Na'vi, Neytiri, voiced by the beautiful Zoe Saldana who made her first big-screen appearance in Star Trek earlier this year. The African (along with Native American, Mayan and every other race of people who were exploited for their land and labor) influence behind the tribes of Na'vi adds to their loving nature, as they cry when plants and animals are slayed. They also call upon their ancestors for spiritual guidance, shown by the trees that defy the laws of nature and hold ancient memories. Sure, some of the story has been done before but it is broke into a few parts with almost all of the action reserved for the end, allowing a period of focus on the fascinating natives. A touching, if predictable, ending wraps it all up effectively.

A point of interest in Avatar has been that it has box-office-breaching intentions while sticking with a cast devoid of any household names. For instance, Sigourney Weaver is the film's most known actress, though she lives up to her previous role in Aliens as a dominant female character. As the creator of the Avatar program, she is a certified genius but comes across as a hardass. Nonetheless,  she quickly warms up to Jake's gung-ho attitude and becomes his greatest human ally on his quest to save the planet. As Jake's enemy, Stephen Lang is brilliant as Colonel Quaritch, who will stop at nothing to carry through with his mission. His character is more of a homage to cheesy action stars of the 80s, shown by his constant one-liners, but is a very entertaining figure because his muscles match his determination. The dude doesn't settle for mere explosions to take him down and proves to be an (unintentionally) hilarious character. Michelle Rodriguez (Ana Lucia from Lost), Dileep Rao (Drag Me To Hell) and Giovanni Ribisi (Public Enemies) all make appearances as well, and the latter especially personifies the arrogant, capitalistic mindset the film is trying to expose. The protagonist himself, Jake, is acted very well by Worthington, a surprise considering his generic appearance. Behind the "jarhead" attitude that he initially displays, a caring being emerges, and his conflict over which side to support proves to be the film's focal point. All in all, the cast of Avatar lacks heavyhitters but has some real talent.

Of course, the real draw for Avatar is its visuals. In 3D, filmed with ultra-advanced cameras and with huge sections of interaction that are only CGI, a certain amount of hype was rested on the special effects and what its technological advances mean for the future of cinema. To put it plainly, this is the best-looking film I have ever seen. The sprawling vistas of Pandora are insanely detailed and simply beautiful. Much of the credit can be attributed to the superb art design which creates original creatures that have qualities of animals we all know, but turn them into mesmerizing, sometimes frightening beasts. For instance, Jake encounters a creature that has the head of a hammerhead shark on top of the body of a Triceratops. The last time I saw creatures so alive and original in their composure, yet vaguely familiar, was Jurassic Park. Many parallels can be drawn to that film as well: there are problems with the story, yes, but the action and visuals more than make up for it to be an immensely entertaining experience. Even the blue, Na'vi creatures emote to a level of human capacity. That was a point of skepticism for many as to whether or not these computer-animated characters can be properly lifelike. Thankfully, Cameron does not pull a Robert Zemeckis on this one and actually creates characters that are insanely detailed and carry a lifelike aura to them. The Avatars all resemble the humans behind them, enhanced to a degree, making them younger and stronger than their human form. Even the Na'vi themselves slightly resemble their human actors, as Neytiri bares similarities to Zoe Saldana. The Uncanny Valley has finally been crossed and all filmmakers should seek guidance from James Cameron on how to create emotive digital characters in closeup.

The 3D effects in this also work surprisingly well. Beowulf and Up dabbled in the 3D medium with moderate success but Avatar is the first film to really excel in this format to the point that watching it in two dimensions is an inferior experience. In 3D, colors still run into the problem of being slightly drained out but the depth of field and clarity of objects is astonishing. There are no gimmicks such as shooting into the screen or reaching a hand out to the audience:  the 3D experience only lends to the experience. This format is not perfect of course; I had a few problems with it initially. In IMAX 3D with the gargantuan screen, my eyes took some time to adjust properly and a chase sequence near the beginning seemed disjointed in what was being focused and what was not. This occurred in dialogue sequences as well: the camera was focused but my eyes could only focus on one focal point of the screen at a time and not others which made these scenes seem somewhat stilted. Others may not have this problem but reports say that some have it worse. Nonetheless, everyone should adjust after some time and then witness the remarkable work Cameron and his technological designers put towards this movie. The visual effects are a shock to the system and, like the best drug, a side-effect is only natural.

Saying this, Avatar runs into some flaws, but their nature and severity are so minimal that anyone focusing on them as a hindrance for enjoyment really is not viewing this film properly. The heavy-handed, impossible-to-miss message of conservation is somewhat overbearing but, really, any film with a green message is alright to me as long as it has something to complement it. The clichéd story is also unoriginal, taking cues from The Last Samurai and Dances With Wolves, even Pocahontas too, as a man who comes closer to nature and assimilates with a native group. This, for some reason, has been a point of contention for some and it seems to me that they forgot what James Cameron's work has beenTerminator 2 is one of the best action movies of all time and what is about? A robot from the future saving two humans from another robot. Not exactly mind-blowing material there. Arguably the best sci-fi action film of the 80s, Aliens did not showcase the heights of original storytelling either; the name is "Aliens" for godsakes.  The point is: James Cameron is the master of cliché, and he does it so well. His directing of action scenes is still the classic approach of "bigger is better" and there is nothing wrong with that. Look to Avatar for a unique visual feast and action extravaganza. The complexity of Synecdoche, New York (a great, underlooked film by the way) is not going to be found here.

There are a few blatant flaws with this film that are present regardless of personal subjectivity. For one, the script is lacking. James Cameron believes he is a Renaissance man of sorts. He most certainly is, as he created, directed, produced, and was one of the leading technical advisers behind this entire project. However, he also wrote the script, a problem that can be traced back to the Star Wars prequels that George Lucas took full control of. The script is far from terrible; it actually services the movie quite well but Cameron, as a screenwriter, has seemed to have lost his edge that made Aliens so quotable. There is no memorable Bill Paxton character in Avatar, and Cameron would have made the best decision if he focused on the story while giving the dialogue credits to an acclaimed screenwriter instead. Thankfully, the cast is so talented that they make the script actually work. Only a nitpicker like me will have real problems with the screenplay and I was amazed by everything else that the complaint is minimal.

In the end, Avatar is a fantastic way to end this incredibly influential decade of cinema. It is colossal entertainment on a grand scale and a film that truly must be seen to be believed. Its release on home DVD and Bluray will most likely contain a fraction of the impact it had in a big theater, a perfect way to inject life into the shaky box-office market. Truly though, its solid story along with brisk action combine to create an epic on the scale of any film to release this decade alone. The technology behind it is massive and also combines with some neat, recent tricks like a camcorder-like zoom (also seen in Star Trek and District 9 this year) that makes all of this glorious CGI actually seem lifelike. The impact of Avatar on cinema has yet to be seen:  will 3D be the new standard? Is making a movie this large and expensive smart or even feasible in this economic time? Those questions have yet to be answered but, right now, end the decade on a high note and see one man's crazy vision become realized through the spectacular Avatar.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

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