It’s hard to remember just when the last time there was a movie riding this high on a tidal wave of hype. And it’s not your typical, “this movie is supposed to be rather excellent” expectations, these demands are far greater. This movie is supposed to be a new Star Wars. This movie is supposed to blow our minds. This movie is supposed to change cinema forever.
And does it?
Yes. After Avatar, the landscape of cinema will likely change for the better, because of the new bar the film has raised for visual effects and its mainstreaming of 3D in feature films. That being said, whether it’s this generation’s Star Wars is another issue altogether, as it takes more than digital effects to make a film that literally becomes a legend. It takes a story and a rich mythology, and though I can definitively say that while the effects are the best in the history of film, I can’t say the same about the movie’s plot and the background Cameron has created for the Avatar universe. Whether those two pieces stand the test of time is something we can’t judge in the three days after its release, and we’ll see how much staying power the franchise has in the coming years, and more importantly, decades.
But there is no denying the film is absolutely incredible in many ways, and visually, Avatar is simply like nothing you have ever seen. There is nothing in any sci-fi film, or any film for that matter, that compares to the amount of detail, both artistic and digital, that James Cameron has put into this movie. Each creature, each plant, each floating mountain is a masterwork of CGI and the landscape of Pandora becomes a place that you do not want to leave after the lights go on.
No matter what clips you’ve seen on YouTube, you absolutely need to be sitting down in a 3D IMAX theater to know what I’m talking about.
The brilliant backdrop is only part of the visual experience, however; the most important thing Cameron has done with this film is to finally leap across the Uncanny Valley of humanoid CGI animation. After watching A Christmas Carol last week, and being thoroughly creeped out by every character onscreen, I sighed and feared that Avatar wouldn’t be able to bridge this insurmountable chasm that exists between CGI and real, live believability.
Well, I think he’s done it, or at the very least, brought us to the absolute brink.
For me, the facial capture CGI technology is the most remarkable part of the film by far, as it simply isn’t animators telling a computer generated creature to smile, it’s Cameron telling the actor to smile, and the technology translates not to just the smile, but the entire emotion of happiness into a nearly perfect 1:1 representation onscreen, despite the character wielding the expression being ten feet tall with a blue lion face. Each actor’s performance blasts through their avatar, to the point where your brain eventually gives up and views them as more or less real beings by the end. There are many powerful performances in the film, but I think Zoe Saldana’s extremely expressive Neytiri steals the show, as her energy makes the best use of the facial capture tech.
Could we see a nom for Best Supporting
Cameron’s CGI has reached the point where the only reason what you’re seeing is still “unbelievable” is not because it’s lacking some sort of texture or rendering technique; it’s all nearly 100% photorealism at this point. The only reason you can’t accept it is because your brain just knows that this world, this forest, these aliens CAN’T be real, like the same way you would probably think you were imagining things if a dragon showed up on your front lawn one day. This is why Avatar never quite feels like reality, but instead it’s like a dream, an exceptionally lucid dream that you don’t want to wake up from.
All my raving about the CGI visuals however is separate from my thoughts on the 3D tech. After seeing Avatar twice now, and witnessing how thoroughly engrossed the audiences were by the 3D world, I fully believe this technology will completely take over at least the blockbuster genre within a few years time. However, unlike Cameron’s CGI, which is borderline perfect at this point, I believe 3D still needs work.
Avatar is unquestionably the best 3D movie I’ve ever seen, but when you’re comparing it to The Polar Express or My Bloody Valentine, that’s hardly saying something. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact issues that still plague 3D, but when the action picks up, it still feels a bit shaky and blurry, and even if in calmer scenes, if you shift your head even a little bit, it can have you seeing double.
It’s almost like you’re there, but not quite.
Another issue I found that I’m sure there isn’t a technical fix for as of yet is that when you view things in real life, you are able to focus your vision on whatever you feel like. For example, right now I can choose to look at this computer monitor, or I can focus my gaze a little upwards and stare out the window, or if I really want to, I can hold my finger in front of my face and focus on that. But with 3D movies, the film itself chooses what your eye should be focusing on, and if you decided to not focus on what the camera wants you to, objects in the foreground or background will seem blurry, and your eye will often have to jump around for a few moments to figure out just what exactly the camera wants you to look at. Camera focus is obviously something that happens in every non-3D movie now, but it becomes more of an issue with layered 3D images like in this film where your brain is telling you that you SHOULD be able to choose what’s in focus. As I said, this seems nearly impossible to fix, but it is a significant barrier in making 3D seem truly “real.”
Here I’ve already spent six hundred words on the visuals of the film, and though that’s clearly the most “important” part of this project, we can’t forget that this is an actual movie, with an actual story that must be cohesive enough to warrant us sitting through nearly three hours of multicolored dragon birds and explosions.
If the film has a weak point, it’s the lack of originality concerning the main plotline of the film. A man is recruited to fight a native people, he ends up in their camp, becomes one of them, falls in love with a local, and betrays his original allies to preserve his newfound family’s land and culture. It’s a story we’ve seen in Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and hell, even a little bit of Ferngully is thrown in for good measure, so in that aspect Avatar is decidedly not very original.
Sam Worthington is a tad vanilla perhaps, but he’s more than capable of his leading man role.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition however, because around this overused story, is a mountain of creativity, as the Na’vi culture and the planet Pandora have been created by Cameron from scratch into a race of people we feel like we’re a part of by the end of the film. The creativity of the movie comes in the form of the technology, the artistry and the mythology that Cameron has painstakingly crafted, not so much from the story, which has clearly been done before.
The stranger in a strange land plotline is used frequently for a reason, as it’s very compelling (Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai and even Ferngully are all great films), and that is certainly the case this time around, but the problem lies in the way the traditional pieces are used. For example, the way Jake is integrated into the Na’vi doesn’t involving him saving a tribe member or proving himself in battle. Instead it’s merely a suggestion from the Na’vi god, something that if you blink, you’ll miss, and you’ll wonder why exactly they’re letting him in their base and teaching him everything about themselves within a few hours, knowing their previous hatred for the “Sky People.” And the fact that they’re alarmed when bulldozers start wrecking their forest and staring cursing Jake doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, as in the very first scene we see a dump truck with a tire full of arrows, so clearly they’ve been expecting this. Did they really think the humans sent Jake into their camp to make friends? Are they really that naïve after so many hostile run-ins already? It seems out of place for the proud, strong, intelligent people they’re supposed to be.
I just needed to squeeze in here that everyone in the supporting cast is phenomenal, from Ribisi to Weaver to the fearsome Stephen Lang especially.
The film also lacks answers to questions about the avatar bodies themselves. It’s unclear if the Na’vi understand how the human-to-Na’vi avatar connection works, and if so, why they’re not more freaked out by it. I would have thought a big reveal of the film would have been Neytiri finding out that Jake is really a human, rather than some sort of look-a-like alien race the humans have brought in to negotiate. Also, this seems rather important, but what happens when an avatar body dies? Does the human host die as well like it’s The Matrix? You would think this would come up in the film as a pretty serious issue, but it never actually does.
Lastly, the love story is both a highlight and a hindrance in the film. It’s amazing to see how a romance can be convincing between two giant blue aliens, thanks to the emotional face-capturing tech I discussed previously, but the love story itself is oddly paced and doesn’t feel quite right most of the time. Neytiri thinks Jake is a dangerous idiot initially, but almost immediately when she starts training him, the connection is made, and seems almost too instant. More noticeably, the film more or less forgets that she’s actually betrothed to the next clan leader, something that really seems like it should have been a bigger obstacle to overcome for a woman so fiercely protective of her culture’s longstanding traditions.
Also, how come Na’vi mating doesn’t involve braid-bonding? I thought that would have been obvious.
It’s strange, the emotional moments in the film for me didn’t come during particularly tragic or uplifting scenes such as a notable death or a victorious battle. When I started to feel things swell up inside me, it was almost always because of the sheer beauty of what I was seeing onscreen. I was absolutely astonished by the banshee flying scenes, and the massive scope of the mother nature vs. the machines finale battle, the likes of which have nothing to rival them onscreen to date. In the end, it’s a film that moved me because of its visuals more than anything else, and honestly I think that might be the first time that’s ever happened.
Avatar has shown us the future of what we can start to expect from blockbusters, and eventually probably all movies. The combination of 3D and photorealistic CGI will start to take us places we’ve never been and never thought we could go, and Pandora is a very promising first stop on that journey. My only caution to filmmakers would be to not lose the story because of the fabulous new effects you have to play with. Cameron comes dangerously close to this at times, but salvages the story into a moving one, despite its fundamental unoriginality. But remember, they called Star Wars unoriginal when it was first released…
Avatar is without a doubt destined to be a classic. Where it stacks up in the annals of film history is uncertain as of yet, but it’s without a doubt a massive leap forward for the industry, and hopefully we’ll start to see many more great films following the trail it’s blazed.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Long story short? You really just have to see it for yourself.