Monday, December 21, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

Avatar ****
Directed By:
James Cameron.
Written By: James Cameron.
Starring: Sam Worthington (Jake Sully), Zoe Saldana (Neytiri), Sigourney Weaver (Dr. Grace Augustine), Stephen Lang (Colonel Miles Quaritch), Michelle Rodriguez (Trudy Chacon), Giovanni Ribisi (Parker Selfridge), Joel Moore (Norm Spellman), CCH Pounder (Moat), Wes Studi (Eytukan), Laz Alonso (Tsu'tey), Dileep Rao (Dr. Max Patel).

James Cameron’s Avatar is the type of big, bold, beautiful mainstream filmmaking that we hardly ever see. It is a film that pushes visual effects and 3-D into a new generation, and is quite simply one of the most wondrous visual experiences you are likely to ever have at the movies. If you thought that Peter Jackson did a wonderful job at making Gollum feel real, or that George Lucas pushed the boundaries of what visual effects could do in Revenge of the Sith, then to put it quite simply, you ain’t seen nothing yet.

Cameron’s Avatar is hugely ambitious in terms of its visual approach. He has created an entirely new world, one of bold, original creatures and locations. The deep forest that surrounds the characters in every scene is the most detailed digital environment I have ever seen in a movie. The creatures that populate it are scary and fully integrated into their surroundings. The native population, known as the Na’vi, are the most expressive digital “people” in movie history. In short, Cameron has taken huge leaps in pushing the technology used to make movies to an entirely new level. The commercials are not exaggerating much when they say that “movies will never be the same”. Filmmakers who can afford to use special effects in this way will be fighting to see who can top Cameron.

Cameron’s movie takes place in the future, where humans have travelled to a planet known as Pandora, where they have conflicted with the Na’vi, the primitive culture that lives on the planet. Pandora is full of a rock that humans now use as their energy source back at earth, which has become desolate and cold in the intervening years. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) was a Marine who is now paralyzed from the waist down. He is sent to Pandora because his twin brother was supposed to go, but got killed. They have spent a lot of money and years building his twin an “avatar”, which allows him to control a body of the Na’vi that has been tailored to him, so he can fit in on Pandora. Since they have identical DNA, Jake is the only other person who can use the body. Waste not, want not.

So Jake goes to Pandora, and quickly gets into his Avatar body, and he loves it. He is finally able to run and jump again, and for the first time in years, he feels free. Although he is supposed to report to Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), he is quickly tapped by Colonel Miles Quarritch (Stephen Lang), the head of the military operation there, to give him intelligence reports. If the Na’vi will not move willingly, than Quarritch wants to destroy them and force them to move. At first, Jake thinks this is fine. But as he starts to spend more time with the Na’vi, particularly the beautiful Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), he starts to love and respect them too much. This sets up an inevitable conflict, which is basically the third act of the film, where Jake has to choose sides.

For most of Avatar, I was too amazed by the visuals to pay all that much attention to the story. Nearly every shot in the film is awe-inspiring in its own way. The look, sound and feel of the film is utterly brilliant.

I do wish that Cameron had put as much effort into the writing as he did into the visuals. There is nothing really wrong with the story – it is a futuristic version of Dances with Wolves, with a healthy dose of guilt for mistreatment of the Natives, as well as an Iraq war allegory should you choose to read that much into the plot. It’s fine, and most of the dialogue, while perfunctory, works fine as well. There are a few lines that are a little too on the nose, but that’s to be expected. The acting is for the most part good. Sam Worthington is never going to win an Oscar, but in this kind of manly man role, he’s good. Zoe Saldana is much better, ironically much more human, covered in CGI magic as his love interest. Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi are in fine form as two executives butting heads. The best performance is undoubtedly by Stephen Lang as the head of the military, barking out orders, and trying his best to channel R. Lee Ermey. He is a truly memorable villain.

No matter what you think of the story however, the visuals are the star of the show. Cameron has set a new standard in terms of digital effects, and he has proven that 3-D can be more than just a gimmick. He doesn’t hurl things at the audience like most 3-D movies; instead, he simply uses 3-D to create interesting, special environments. Avatar is a landmark movie.

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