Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar Review

The Terminator, Aliens, Titanic; James Cameron has created some of the most memorable films of the last century. But does his latest, heavily hyped, and long developed film, Avatar, live up to all of the press it's been given in the past year? You'll have to read on to find out!

While you've probably already heard about the special effects of Avatar (and I will get to that eventually), there is actually a story here, and it works quite well despite being all too familiar. But bear with me here, because it's a new science fiction franchise (can you believe that?!) there's some explaining needed. The centers around Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), the twin brother of a recently fallen Marine, who has replaced his brother in an experimental "Avatar" project on the planet Pandora. Pandora is a planet not unlike our own, except the plants are more exotic and lush with color, the animals are complex in design, and the whole world is connected via this nature, which is looked after by the native Na'vi (the blue ones). But the Na'vi are no longer alone; a private company has set camp on Pandora, in a search to find Unobtainium (I kid you not), a precious mineral, and are mining the planet, using mercenaries to kill anything that stand in their way.

As part of the "Avatar Program," select humans have their DNA meshed with that of the Na'vi, allowing them to remotely control a Na'vi body so that they can infiltrate the tribes, and be accepted among them to get inside intelligence to further aid the mining project. For Jake Sully, who has been a paraplegic for most of his life, he sees the Avatar Program as a second chance to walk again, but once he becomes accepted amongst the Na'vi, he learns that walking may not be all that he has been looking for. And really, that's all I can say without spoiling much of this nearly three hour epic.

But what did I feel about the story? It works, really, I mean the thing I've always found with James Cameron's films is that they're science fiction that anyone can get. Like the two Cameron-directed Terminator films, it may be hard (or even boring) to explain in sentence form, but if you watch it, and pay attention, it's understandable and just works for the film. Story-wise, Avatar will not blow your mind, to be coy, it's kind of like Dances With Wolves, in space; it's kind of an unfair judgment considering the nature of the film, but I couldn't help but feel like I've seen the story before; i.e. a lot of it becomes predictable.

Acting-wise, once again, it works, I never felt like anyone did a bad job, but again I wasn't blown away. But, like the Terminator films, Cameron knows how to cast people for the roles he's created; who would've guessed Arnold could be fitting for any role until The Terminator? I think Sam Worthington was the right person to play Jake Sully, he hasn't really been in anything mainstream until last summer's Terminator Salvation (which I've yet to see), but I think casting a reasonably unknown as an informal, out of place character works really well, and his change in character from handicapped human to brave and agile Na'vi is something special. Like wise, the film's main villain, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), also works well for the role; I can't say there wasn't a moment when he appeared on screen that I didn't want to punch him in the face, so I think the job was done right. And lastly on the human side is Sigourney Weaver, who plays a badass scientist that doesn't take crap from anyone; my only complaint with her character was that her Na'vi avatar looked a little too much like a blue Sigourney Weaver, and not as much like the standard Na'vi like everyone else did.

As for the Na'vi, that's where the film gets interesting, since unlike those in the Avatar Program never have human on-screen counterparts to compare them to. The main tribal Na'vi, Neytiri (Zoë Saldana), looks (to an extent, like you'd really have to study the face) and acts like Ms. Saldana, but in the context of the film it's as if she is a whole other person. Granted that most of this is in part to the motion capture, as I don't recognize any of the other main Na'vi by the actors portraying them, but I really think she showed that she can pull off a role other than Uhura, which is good for an emerging actress.

But really, the motion capture is what makes this film. Unlike Robert Zemeckis' dreadful looking motion capture films (they're honestly why I hated the idea of using such technology), the mo-cap of Avatar feels believable. Not in the sense that I think blue-cat people roam the streets (that's for another article), but in the sense that they didn't act like 3D messes that used to be humans. Their body movement looks natural, their faces emote as if the actor was being filmed right there sans-CGI, and amongst the CG environment, they look like they fit right in. Even with humans around the Na'vi people never felt out of place. For me at least, the only time I felt CGI just didn't feel like it belonged was when the mech-suits used by the mercenaries were on screen. It was actually kind of peculiar, I think, to see how organic and motion captured CGI characters and environments worked so well, but the unnatural parts just seemed so out of place (perhaps a nod to the film's plot? I doubt it, but that would be a good excuse).

Everything else... Music wise, I wasn't blown away by the score. The film constantly felt epic thanks to the sound design and the music, but at the time of writing this I can't say anything was memorable in this department. As said before, visually this film is stunning, and depending on where you see it you may have options. The newspaper advertised "2D, RealD 3D, Digital 3D, and Imax 3D;" I honestly have no idea what the difference between RealD 3D and Digital 3D is, but my glasses say RealD on them so I'll assume that's the way I saw it. Considering this is the second film I've seen in 3D (first being Coraline) I can't say it really aids the film that much. I mean, in clear parts I took my glasses off just to compare, and I'll at least say the 3D makes the experience more engaging, but it's hard to say whether or not Avatar (or any film at that) needs it.

All in all, Avatar is, as you've probably heard elsewhere, a technical masterpiece. I really had my doubts about this film prior to seeing it, but it truly is a technical achievement in how CGI and motion capture can be used to tell a story that probably couldn't have been shown otherwise; and it certainly changed my opinion on motion capture in cinema. Sure, the story itself and the acting aren't anything phenomenal, but they certainly aren't bad. Like Cameron's other films, Avatar takes a lot of mixed elements and just makes them work really well to tell the story he wants to tell. They may not be the best ever, but they are far from bad. Now the question is, where does James Cameron go from here?

Overall Score: 8/10

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