Avatar

The trajectory of Avatar for me was an initial reaction of “what?” then “oh, okay,” then “yes, that looks quite good”, then “I must see this, right now”, then “I have my tickets. I must not think of this film until such time as I see it, lest I overhype myself and die.”

Then Avatar came out today and … yes. This is what movie making is about. I could point to an entirely different film, different genre, different crafting, different styling, and say “this is what movie making is about” – and that is what movie making is about.

Avatar is a specific brand of amazing and perfect movie making. All of the cliches apply here: a labour of love, a man at the peak of his performance, best movie Cameron has made since Titanic … but they’re all true. Especially that last one.

ABSOLUTELY NO SPOILERS INSIDE!

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a Marine who is shipped off to the distant planet of Pandora because they need his DNA: identical to that of his late scientist twin. On Pandora, he embarks on the avatar program, so that he may infiltrate the indigenous Na’vi society and get them to give up their land for strip mining of the precious mineral unobtanium (seriously, it’s called unobtanium).

However, a stranger in a strange land is so often seduced by his surroundings… and humans can take the lives of the Na’vi, but they can never take their freedom.

Some may worry that, in signing up for a science fiction film they’ve ended up with spiritual fantasy about tall blue people.  Indeed, a fetish was born with the Na’vi, that shall live on across the internet for an age. SF and fantasy are blatantly two sides of the same coin – they both get theme songs done by Leona Lewis, for example – and this shows that bows and arrows and flying dinosaurs and dinohorses can peacefully co-exist with dragonfly helicopters and exo-battle-suits … or not, as the case may be. It’s a naturally ancient enmity brought to the fore in ways never yet seen on the screen.

The Na’vi themselves don’t just feel like something arbitrarily made up: they are interesting, as an alien race should be; they’re blatantly allegorical, without being preachy; they’re blue and feline yet recognizable and sympathetic beings. The audience is allowed to invest themselves in their lore, to understand why they have a problem with the humans’ incursion, and it’s easy to feel a part of the film rather than apart from it. Jake’s relations with the clan feel natural and gratifying, and the development of Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Augustine in particular is perfect: from gruff scientist to active participant, she’s someone that one can care about – and not simply for the fact that she’s Sigorurney Weaver.

It’s not exactly amazing how well Cameron knows his way around a story, but he does so much of it so admirably: there’s no wastage here, no meaningless montage. Everything is natural, and the realisation that you’ve been introduced to Chekhov’s giant lizard dragon brings with it a feeling of exhilaration and anticipation. Elements that serve the story once go on to serve it again later in a different yet logical way, and it’s amazing how well everything is put together. Even if the final shot is obvious, it’s obvious because that’s the way movies work.

Avatar is the sort of movie that the audience applauds at the end. The last one of those I remember seeing (without the director in attendance) was Star Trek. I guess that maybe that’s nerdlingers voting with their palms, but seriously: just because nerdlingers (and I am one) love something does not denigrate it by default. I think it would be hard to see Avatar and not appreciate it, despite its very obvious allegory, despite its sometimes busy camera. It’s a hundred and sixty minute movie that features no points where you want to turn away, let alone are able to.

James Cameron spent a lot of time working on Avatar, tinkering with technology, putting everything together, commissioning a new language that apparently makes logical linguistic sense, and the product is as shiny as can be without seeming unnatural or overdone with lens flare (sorry, JJ Abrams, but … yeah). From the beginning, in 3D at least, the film is a visual marvel. Even in the comparatively boring militaristic environments, it impresses itself upon you without ever feeling gimmicky, like some of the 3D efforts of the year. Cameron himself compensates for the lazy excess and indulgence of the horror genre and the kids CG offerings by making something that seems like a natural extension of the film. I’m sure that it would work without the 3D, especially seeing as the effect is never a distraction, but the virtue of its quality is that it doesn’t have to.

Occasionally, towards the beginning, the action is a bit too busy to follow. The eye trains itself to understand the image that is being presented, and the image is very good indeed. By the time we’re introduced to the Home Tree the movie seems completely natural and completely amazing.  Richard Taylor and WETA have outdone themselves this time and an interesting story is perfectly complemented by amazing special effects, even if the idea of giving every creature slimy skin, six legs and four eyes is slightly dubious.

I think that my only complaint about Avatar is that I wasn’t a big fan of the font used for the subtitles and the title itself. I am a petty, petty man – but I am bigger than that. You would believe a heartless marine could learn that the universe holds something bigger than himself, something worth fighting for. It’s an old story made fancy, explosive, and CG, and it’s worth every second of the ride.

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5 Responses to Avatar

  1. Wavatar Cas says:

    Saw it again today, it was just as good as the first time :D

  2. Wavatar Joff says:

    Saw Avatar last night in 2D. I’d like to see it again in 3D. Avatar delivers in spades. It’s a technological tour-de-force with something for everyone. The landscapes, creatures, machinery, technology, are all stunning to look at and seamlessly integrated with the ‘real’ characters. If you marveled at the military/industrial machinery in movies like Cameron’s Aliens then you’ll love the hardware on display here: helicopter gunships, earth-moving trucks, robotics, etc. – the benchmark has been raised a few notches. There’s some great sci-fi concepts (albeit some borrowed or developed from other movies), and powerful but occasionally overplayed ecological/environmental and human rights messages. (I think Avatar will do as much for environmental awareness as An Inconvenient Truth, especially influencing children where the other film influenced adults).

    Where the film falls short is in its rather prosaic and formulaic plot, but if you’re prepared to immerse yourself in this beautifully conceived other-world then you won’t notice too much. The bad guys are cartoonish but I enjoyed them – the GI Joe guy is a fun yet intimidating creation, and Ribisi’s corporate bad guy is straight out of Aliens and he gets some fun banter with Ripley….ahem….Sigourney Weaver’s character. Sam Worthington is a revelation. One could envision Tom Cruise playing this role but there would’ve been too much star-power distracting. Worthington is a fresh face and embodies the vulnerability and steely determination of a young Mel Gibson, and thoroughly pulls it off. It’s a masterstroke that he’s disabled, which adds a thoughtful sci-fi/fantasy concept to the story.

    There are sequences to die for. Sure, sometime you feel like you’re in a video game but…oh my…what a spectacle, what a technological extravaganza.

    I’ll be watching this movie many times more because there’s undiscovered detail yet to admire, as with other Cameron classics like Aliens, The Abyss, and even Titanic. 9/10

    Baader-Meinhof is a jumbled mess of a movie. If you liked Munich , which I did, then this is along the same lines and done in a similar style. Problem is this film is handled with much less skill than that of the master story teller, Spielberg. My main gripe is that it’s bogged down by subtitles – there’s simply too much being said, trying to cover too much ground in too little time (albeit a tedious 2 hour+). The performances are also dull and underdeveloped, such as Ulrike Meinhof who spends her time sulking around, her reasons for joining the group are rather perfunctorily handled. The court-room scenes are ridiculous. Characters pop in and out as they please without explanation. There’s little explanation of the group’s motives other than “rebellion”. 4/10

  3. Wavatar Mark says:

    I’ve seen the movie twice now. Once in 3D and once in IMAX 3D (both were good, but for reference, my eyes were tired after the IMAX showing).

    Now, the visuals are indeed spectacular. The Na’vi are wonderfully realized, living, breathing creatures. Cameron has catapulted himself across the uncanny valley and emerged unscathed on the other side of the valley. I was never distracted and for the most part, I didn’t wonder about the fact that I was watching people generated in a computer somewhere. One thing I like about them is that each person is distinctive, something you don’t see a lot when it comes to computer generated characters. You can tell which Na’vi is Sigourney Weaver, etc… Likewise, the environments are a marvel to look at. The concept of a moon around a gas giant provides for some really interesting “night” scenes that are still luminescent. And so on.

    But once you get past the visuals, this movie isn’t especially good. The characters are actually pretty poorly drawn – the only reason they seem three dimensional is that we’ve seen the story so many times before that we can fill in the gaps ourselves. Some of the dialogue is absolutely pitiful. Even beyond the obvious “You’re not in Kansas anymore” and “This… this is OUR LAND!,” much of the simple exposition is sloppy. Check the way Norm says (paraphrasing from memory) “You’ll need to talk to the camera to keep your sanity… during the next 6 years.” I dunno, maybe it’s just the way he says it, but I could almost hear the discussion that must have been had at some point, ending with someone tacking on the “during the next 6 years” part of the line. That’s a huge nitpick, of course, but that’s just a sign that the movie sometimes failed to immerse me in a good story (though I was won over by the visuals most of the time).

    And the Na’vi. They seem to be mostly homogeneous and bland. To be sure, I liked the Zoe Saldana character and the, uh, other three individuals we saw, but it seems odd that the entire planet would have the same belief system. Of course, this could be explained by the sorta living brain that the planet apparently represents, but the entirety of that concept lives in a throwaway line in the middle of the movie. Sigourney says it, then the Burke character ignores it and that’s pretty much that. Incidentally, Sigourney played that whole thing wrong. She should have said something like “This entire planet is a gigantic biological computer. That’s got to be worth billions to the biological weapons division!” There’s a lot to explore in that concept, but it was mostly wasted.

    The other thing that’s silly – the Na’vi are dead people. Sure they won this round, but the humans have apparently figured out interplanetary travel. Surely they can also figure out how to bombard the planet from orbit. Hell, the planet isn’t colonizable due to the hostile environment – why not just nuke it? Or if you don’t want nukes, use kinetic weapons. Hell, why didn’t they do that in the first place? This is James Cameron we’re talking about here. He practically invented the “nuke it from orbit” concept, which is one of the reasons people love Aliens. When the characters get into a fight with the Aliens, Sigourney responds with a rational plan. In Avatar, they’re incredibly dumb.

    I should stop babbling, get off my butt, and write a blog post. Still, I was very disappointed in the story. Visually spectacular though. I just don’t know how long that will hold up…

  4. Wavatar Raymond says:

    “Sure they won this round, but the humans have apparently figured out interplanetary travel. Surely they can also figure out how to bombard the planet from orbit. Hell, the planet isn’t colonizable due to the hostile environment – why not just nuke it? Or if you don’t want nukes, use kinetic weapons. Hell, why didn’t they do that in the first place?”

    Because in the world of the movie, I would imagine the rest of Earth wouldn’t agree with the idea. Remember the human antagonists in the movie represent some kind of resources corporation out to extract profit from Pandora. The military forces represented independent mercenaries working for profit. Them having orbital weapons would be like Blackwater using nukes.

  5. Wavatar Mark says:

    Fair points, to be sure, but the movie doesn’t really establish that (from what I’ve heard, there’s apparently an old scriptment that Cameron wrote a while ago that does address a lot of these concerns). And honestly, if they could justify what they were trying to do at the end of the movie (i.e. destroy the center of Na’vi culture and religion, as well as a lot of the Na’vi themselves), I don’t see how they couldn’t justify using kinetic weapons from orbit. The only real difference between the conventional attack shown in the movie and the orbital attack is that the orbital attack has no human casualties. Also, the Na’vi attacked the base and forced the humans to leave the planet. Even if the rest of Earth wasn’t initially comfortable with the idea of using orbital weapons, I think they’d change their mind when they saw what happened to their own people. How many humans died? Why would Earth take that lying down? I just don’t see it happening, especially in the universe Cameron set up. Most of the humans in this movie are portrayed as cartoonishly evil, so my guess is that the humans will be back and they won’t be happy.

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