Avatar’s hype did not impress me. The initial trailers I saw were lackluster, and that’s me being nice. The special effects looked hokey, and the plot, from what I had heard of it, was Dances with Wolves in space.
I was not interested and had pretty much written Avatar off my list.
But my wife and I went to see it anyway because despite all that, we had heard rave reviews. (Roger Ebert said that it was like seeing Star Wars in 1977.) Rave reviews which we both wholeheartedly agree with now.
To begin with, the plot in Avatar is serviceable but compelling. The story is, indeed, Dances with Wolves in space, but I prefer Sam Worthington to Kevin Costner and space aliens to Native Americans. There are very few deep or hidden meanings in the narrative and even less symbolism, but the corporation/military vs. nature/noble savages conflict is engrossing. I’m no tree hugger in any sense of the word, but I was moved to hate the military industrial complex by the end of the film.
The acting is spot on, too. From the too-gruff army guys to the stereotypically native Na’vi elders, I believed everyone in their role.
Zoe Saldana really stole the show, though, and was completely recognizable even with her CGI makeover. When she hissed ferally at threats, there was no campiness; it was the character. I really liked her in Star Trek, too, and I hope this means she will get future top billing in hit movies. It took a few minutes for my wife and I to realize who she was, but once we did, we could see her mannerisms through the CGI costuming.
Equal to her was Sam Worthington, the sole reason that Terminator: Salvation was remotely watchable. He’s not a mindless action chump like Arnold was for Cameron so many years ago; he’s going places as an action star, though I think he was bit more believable as a roughneck with a heart of gold when he had the scruffy beard. He lost something when he shaved. It was odd.
All that aside, there is the special effects, which is the real reason to go see Avatar. I am not one to generally be sold entirely on presentation, but when the presentation is this polished, I have to sing its praises. My wife said she didn’t think another Lord of the Rings-quality jump in special effects was possible until she saw this movie. WETA has done it again, and I look forward to seeing what impersonators are spawned by this style.
Like I said, I went in hesitant. I thought the mixture of CGI and live-action was going to be hokey. I hated the previews, and when I mentioned to my mother that I had gone to see the film, she remarked how badly I had ranted about its undeserved hype for special effects.
But immediately, I saw that it was seamless. I never questioned it because it was so perfectly integrated. The actors might as well have been wearing costumes and make-up for how perfectly the CGI worked in the environments of the film. Their eyes and ears perked up, and even the faces were anthropomorphic enough (but more on that later) to garner emotional attachment but alien enough to remain exotic and new. Sometimes I even had a hard time determining what was CGI and what was live-action. The movie was simply stunning and made for 3D. If you watch this movie without 3D glasses (and I’m not entirely sold on the 3D gimmick yet), you’re doing yourself and this film a disservice.
I honestly wonder what it will look like at home without an HDTV. I can’t imagine how it will translate.
What LOTR did for CGI a decade ago, Avatar just did again. It was also the first 3D movie I’ve seen (outside of maybe UP) that didn’t make me want to take my glasses off occasionally to give my eyes a rest; my head never hurt, nor did the bridge of my nose incessantly tingle (my own personal way of testing the quality of a 3D movie). Their ~300-400 million dollar budget was money well spent.
Probably the best thing about the movie was that the action scenes weren’t mindless. Sure, some were flaunting that they could do it, but for the most part, they advanced the narrative and characterization. Sure, sometimes the film flaunted that it was pretty with a flight scene or a chase with some explosions, but the outcome of that scene always hinged on storytelling.
The flight sequences were astounding, and make me hope that one day a Dragonriders of Pern film will be done right. The movie has all the trappings one would need for an effective Pern film, so this is my call to action. You hear me, McCaffrey?
So my call on Avatar is that it’s worth every penny. My wife and I are even thinking of rescheduling our birthday outing we have planned for ourselves to be able to see the IMAX version before it leaves theaters. While the plot has been done before, it may have never been done as well. Sure, it could be considered Dances with Wolves in space or Ferngully 3D, but it was fun. And that’s what big budget Hollywood eye candy movies are supposed to be about.
And at 2 hours 30 minutes long, I never once felt the time pass. It was over before I really expected it to be. There were lulls in the action, sure, but it never dragged. At least for me.
My only problem with the movie is a problem that I have with most science fiction: anthropocentricism. The aliens are all anthropomorphic and close enough to humans to have their DNA spliced to even create the Avatars. In the wide expanses of the universe, I cannot help but find it difficult to willingly suspend my disbelief enough to get past that egotism that we are close to some genetic standard for life. At least James Cameron did take a small step in trying to right this: the atmosphere was at least toxic for humans on Pandora; it wasn’t just Earth with new minerals.
Until this weekend, I was certain that Star Trek was the best movie I saw this year. It revitalized one of my favorite franchises and was bombastic, compelling, and just plain pretty. But Avatar one-upped it in every single category except the revitalization of a favorite franchise. I don’t want to label either movie as “better,” but picking a single movie this year as my favorite just got exponentially harder.