Thursday, January 21, 2010
Movie Review: Avatar
Finally got enough time off to go check out what is turning out to be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time, and may even be before to long, James Cameron' Avatar. Reportedly costing over 400 million dollars to make including the costs of developing the technology of the film making, including the 3D cameras and rendering technology as well as the marketing budget, it is one of the most expensive films ever made. Avatar also marks director James Cameron return to motion pictures for the first time since 1998 Titanic and he returns doing what he does better than most other directors today, filming an epic movie.
Avatar is about Jake Sulley (Terminator: Salvation's Sam Worthington), a former Marine who was crippled in the line of action who has agreed to take his deceased brothers place on the far off world of Pandora. His brother was to be part of their Avatar Initiative, a program that melds human DNA with that of the Pandora's indigenous people, the Na'vi's DNA to create a hybrid that humans can mentally inhabit and control. Upon arrival to the planet, Sulley learns that the Company, the business that is footing the cost of this operation, wants a mineral called unobtanium, which is worth billions back on Earth.
Sulley is introduced to the head of the Avatar program, Grace (Aliens Sigourney Weaver) and the head of security, Colonel Miles Quaritch (character actor Stephen Lang). Each has a separate mission for Sulley, infiltrating the Na'vi, Grace wants him to find a peaceful way to negotiate with the race as tensions between them and humanity is at an all time high, and Quaritch wants Sulley to get him information that he can use to destroy the Na'vi when war inevitably comes. Things change for Jake though when he is lost on the forests of Pandora after an attack and meets native Neytiri (Zoe Saldana, Uhura of Star Trek) and is welcomed into their society after much debate, though many signs point to Sulley's importance to the tribe. Sulley initially plays both sides against the middle, learning the culture and the rituals of a people so attuned to the planet as well as sending defense information to the Colonel. Eventually Sulley has to decide who's side he is on, as tensions flare between the cultures and the Company gets more impatient. Sulley has to figure out just where his loyalties lie, because in the end, either way, there is going to be a reckoning.
Let me be up front, Avatar is a very good film for a lot of reasons. First let's talk about the special effects. Avatar really pushes the envelope in terms of motion capture and visual effects work in creating a dynamic alien race. The Na'vi are very well done, expressive and fully imagined. I would have loved to see what kind of work they could have done rendering a more human body though. They DID do an excellent job in rendering each Na'vi avatar to carry many of the same facial features of the actors. Sigourney Weaver's Avatar really had her facial structure. My only complaint is that most of the other Na'vi did look a little cartoony. Not in a bad way so much, but as a race they all had such a similar body structure and style. I would have preferred some variety. Don't let this small caveat take anything away though, it's easily one of the best uses of 3D technology I have ever seen. The film isn't 3D for the sake of being 3D, they really try to immerse you into the world. The movie is filmed so that everything pops out of the screen, not so much in a way that distracts you and makes you say wow, it does it in a way that enhances what you are watching.
Cameron himself does a great job filming as well. Few directors in the business today can do action in the same vein that Cameron can. He makes the fight sequences, whether between the Na'vi and the humans, or the avatars and the indigenous animals of Pandora, wildly explosive and action packed. Even the sequences of flying through the mountains or forests on the backs of the Na'vi winged steeds are visually pretty incredible.
I also have to give Cameron some props for casting. Sam Worthington does a decent job playing the crippled Marine in his scenes, but his voice has a very nice quality in his avatar form. Just the right amount of hurt and anger to come across in his performance. Sigourney Weaver is great as Grace and its good to see her re-unite with Cameron. Stephen Lang as the Colonel may be the biggest surprise of the film. His portrayal of the Colonel is a tough as nails performance, really bringing an almost tactile quality to his callousness. Michelle Rodriguez also has a part as a tough chopper pilot, but with a soft heart. It's a role that she is perfect for, fierce and tough, but still willing to do what's right. Zoe Saldana also gives a real dimension to a role that is entirely computer generated from her motion capture performance. Soft and hard, loving and viral, she is easily the most fully fleshed out of the Na'vi and sets herself apart from the rest of teh natives.
If I was to make a complaint about the film it would be in the story. The movie is basically Dances With Wolves, a broken soldier takes a job at a far off outpost and falls in love with a prickly native while learning their ways and who ultimately has to battle his own culture to protect what he loves. Its the same movie. A Western set in space, of the primitive versus the advanced. The hooks of the story are pretty much set up throughout the film, you know exactly what is going to happen, how Sulley will react and each beat of the story certainly doesn't surprise. Even the ending. That doesn't change the fact that you can still enjoy the trip in how you get there. The world is very lush and lavish, and Cameron certainly can deliver on the visual journey in a way that you may never have seen before.
The bottom line for me is that I genuinely enjoyed Avatar. Visually it is a stunning piece of film making, the first real brush with creating CGI characters that can emote and be as realistic as humans since Gollem in the Lord of the Rings movies. I would be really excited to see what a few more years or special effects work and computer imagery upgrades could do in the potential Avatar sequel. I think this is a film worth seeing in the theatres, the first film to use 3D effects not as a crutch or marketing tool, but as a means to further the story. Up was a wonderful film that they made 3D, Avatar is a wonderful film IN 3D. Immersive I really think is the bet way to describe it. James Cameron has once again struck gold when everyone predicted failure, and while teh film certainly has some weak points structurally, there is plenty still going on here to make it a must see on your viewing lists. Avatar is a motion picture experience, not just a motion picture.
End of Line.