Dec 2009 18

avatarJames Cameron’s Avatar is finally here and not only does it deliver the visuals effects we were promised, which are quite possibly the best ever put on film, but the story is engaging and entertaining, if familiar, with a third act that must be seen to believe.

In Avatar, James Cameron has literally created an entire world in Pandora that feels like we barely even break the surface of what Cameron has in his imagination for this expansive and deep universe.  What is Pandora and why should we care about it?  Pandora is a planet that earthlings have discovered contains an element that is valuable in its resource abilities back on Earth.  The problem is Pandora is populated by a number of dangerous indigenous creatures and a humanoid race of people known to humans as the Na’vi.  The project has been on going for years as the humans try to co-exist and mine for minerals while the Na’vi resist the encroaching on their land.  Enter Jake Sully, a paralyzed marine who is recruited to replace his twin brother who was part of a program that trained humans to control a Na’vi avatar to help research the moon and work towards a peaceful resolution with the Na’vi to mine the minerals of Pandora.  Unfortunately when Jake arrives tensions are at an all time high and the two species are on the brink of war and Jake’s path unknowingly will intertwine with the fate of the Na’vi.

So enough plot, how is the film?  Pretty damn good actually and the world Cameron has created is one I wish to know more of and I hope we get it in either a directors cut or eventual sequels to this film.  Cameron has created tons of creatures, a language and religion for the Na’vi, and a world full of imagination and vision we haven’t seen in a sci-fi film in years.  There is so much cool information and material that we barely even get glimpse of and even other tribes of Na’vi we discover in the latter part of the film that we are not even exposed to.  Their religion is spiritual and fairly original, the workings of the planet are intriguing and thought provoking, and the creatures are inspired and imaginative.  Even the history of the Na’vi seems compelling and leaves you wishing we could have seen some of the events described in the film.  The world of Pandora is a true testament to the imagination of James Cameron and you can tell that he loves this world he created.

Technically speaking, this film is really a sight to be seen.  The 3-D work in the film blows everything ever done in the third dimension out of the water.  The interior scenes at the human base are full of screens and maps that are just so wonderfully realized and beautiful to look at it is almost a distraction at first.  Then there is Pandora which you would think is a real place if we didn’t know this was a work of fiction.  The creatures, the Na’vi, the landscapes, are almost completely photo realistic and you get lost in the fact that you are watching twelve foot creatures walking around.  And when the sunsets in Pandora it is one of the most beautiful locales put on to film.  Everything seemingly has incandescence, my favorite being the moss glowing and fading away as it is touched, and how things glow through prayer or physical interaction is awe inspiring.  The creation of this world is done so well I would gladly comeback again in a heartbeat.

As a story, Avatar, works for the most part as well.  The plot isn’t the most terribly original and things do tend to be a tad predictable, but the fresh layer of paint to this story by placing it in Pandora makes it worth while.  But don’t let me lead you into thinking that the film is a rip off or re-hash by any means, the film just feels familiar; which isn’t necessarily even a bad thing.  I just found myself hoping for Cameron to do something new or different, story wise, with his tale and he finally blows the doors open in the third act.  The fighting and the mythology of the Na’vi really came into play in the films third act and this is when the film is really at its best.  Not only is the action top notch and jaw dropping but I think people will really get caught up in the lore and mythos of the Na’vi that come into play.  With all this said, I feel like the film could have used an extra hour or so; yes even at two hours and forty minutes.  Too many characters are left to the barest of their emotions.  If we could have had a few extra scenes with a few characters we could have really got to know a lot more about them and had a bit more of an emotional connection with them and their actions.  Show me more of the confliction in Giovanni Ribisi’s Parker over ravaging the planet or peacefully coming to terms.  Show me more of Sigourney Weaver’s Grace teaching and back story with the Na’vi. Give us more of evidence as to why these grunts hate the Na’vi so much that they want to kill them.  Why does Michelle Rodriguez’s Trudy not have the heart to commit slaughter?  These are questions and characters I wish we got to know more of and I think more time spent with them, without cutting anything else in the process, could have elevated this film even further.  And you can see where Cameron is trimming things down, let’s hope he gets to do a director’s cut like he has in the past for Avatar on Blu-ray.  But when your biggest complaint for the film is that you wish there was more, that isn’t really a knock on the film, as these characters still work in their current state.

The actors mentioned above all do fine work with Ribisi being appropriately weasley, Rodriguez is actually likeable and not playing the hard ass (well most of the time), and Weaver is possibly the highlight of the film on the human side of things.  Weaver gets the most laughs and does a fantastic job of creating a counter power figure for science to appose the military side of the humans.  Sam Worthington continues to do good work this year and while he might get stuck with a few too many corny lines, he makes enough of the believable that he deserves some credit for that.  He also delivers a fine mo-cap performance when he is a Na’vi walking that fine line of human and giving himself over to the Na’vi culture.  Zoe Saldana is great as the Na’vi lead, Neytiri convincingly diving back and forth between her broken English and the native tongue.  She also is a physical and animal presence as she fight and battles with Worthington and is tender with ferocity lying just under the skin when she needs to.  Stephen Lang is fun, and almost over the top, as the human’s head security officer and bad guy of the film.  And while he isn’t the most memorable or original enemy to grace the screen, he is still a worthy adversary in the film.

In the end, Avatar is a resounding achievement in effects, atmosphere, and creating an original world in cinema.  Pandora and its inhabitants are an engaging world that is a blast to experience and one can’t help but to get lost in its magnificence.  The story, while familiar, has plenty of original back story and history due to the rich background of the Na’vi and a third act that contains one of the most impressive action sequences to be put on the silver screen.  James Cameron has shown us what 3-D and his imagination can look like when pushed to their limits and his vision of what cinema can deliver technically is might impressive.  This film must be seen in 3-D and you will not regret taking a trip to Pandora in Avatar as it is full of wonders and technology that must be seen to believed; and I can’t wait to go back.

Avatar is an A-

Here is another take by Blake:

How long as the hype machine been rolling on Avatar? Years if you are a film buff, and if you are your average viewer? Well, you’ve been hearing about Avatar for at least the last half of the year. So, now everyone is asking the question, Does Avatar live up to the hype? Possibly. When the trailer premiered earlier this year I heard such things like “Avatar looks like Fern Gully on steroids.” I was surprised to find that this assumption isn’t really far off.

Avatar spends its first half hour detailing the hows and whys of the story. It quickly introduces us to our protagonist, Jake Sully who is a paraplegic ex-Marine who cannot afford the surgery to fix his spine (even in the future there is no solution to health care it seems). Jake has a way out of his mess, his twin brother was one of the scientists on the Avatar project, and is being sent to the far off world of Pandora. Pandora is a mineral rich planet full of resources that can be used on Earth. The one problem? The native race Na’vi have proved difficult in dealing with, and hostilities continue to grow. The solution is to create “avatars” which are a biological mix between the human driver’s DNA and the Na’vi genome structure. Jake shares the DNA of his brother so is able to use his brother’s avatar.

Jake is shown to be quite adept at using the avatar, and on his first excursion makes contact with the Na’vi. His duties as a Marine conflict with his inclusion into the clan of the Na’vi he has met. The scientists who created the avatars wish to use them to educate the native race, while the company who funds them wants to use the avatars as a trojan horse into the culture of the Na’vi to get them to move off the mineral deposit their home is over.

The story is probably one you’ve seen many times before. Everything is laid out in neat sequences that anyone can follow, and from the beginning it is pretty easy to see which way the story is heading. Each time a character has a dialogue that seems slightly out of place or over the head of the viewers, there is a reason, that piece of information will most likely become crucial to the plot later in the film. Sometimes, this would constitute sloppy filmmaking, but this is more likely chalked up to the fact that the film is supposed to be accessible to all film goers. The story will take you through the oohs and aahs a normal film will take you, but somehow it feels more engrossing than it might normally.

This is all made possible by some of the most incredible visual effects to date. The CG and live action seem to blend together seamlessly. There were times I had to remind myself that everything I was seeing on screen was some form of CG. James Cameron seems to finally have overcome the glassy eyed, rubbery skinned people of CG animation. Just that accomplishment alone seems worth clapping for. It doesn’t stop there though. Every single frame of this film you could pour over in detail and spend hours noticing the smallest things. The way the muscles ripple on a flying dragon, the way the wind sweeps past it, everything looks amazingly brilliant. My reaction to the trailer was that Avatar looked cheesy, and the special effects were nothing new. I could have not been more wrong. These are possibly the best looking special effects ever created for the silver screen.

Sam Worthington along with Sigourney Weaver and Joel Moore all share their screen time with their CG avatar. The results are great, each avatar is created to look like the operator which gives us a better transition into the huge Na’vi characters. Each actor pulls their roles well and Worthington proves that he might make a bankable leading man. Sigourney Weaver is as good as she has been in years. You can tell she revels under the experienced eye of past collaborator James Cameron. She is as about as far from Ripley as you can get, but she pulls of the role like no one else could. The real breakout here is Zoe Saldana who is having a stellar year with starring roles in both this and Star Trek. She won’t get a lot of recognition from most viewers since she is only seen in her Na’vi form. Her role is the most distinguished and intriguing character in the film. A very strong role model for women.

The encompassing nature of the film was so good that I couldn’t help but be sad that I would never experience a place as beautiful as Pandora. Film has always appealed to me the same way as novels do, to disappear into another time or world for a bit is great. There is no greater compliment that I can give to director James Cameron when I say that this movie truly took me to another place, and I enjoyed every minute of it.

The advertising of the film might be doing it a disservice. It might not change your life, but you’ll have a lot of fun and be wowed by some truly spectacular visuals. I’m sure everyone has heard the cost of the production (rumored at over $500 million), but the new processes created to make this film are around for good now. Avatar could be the launching of some incredible new films. Don’t go in expecting a holy experience, but expect to have a good time.

Grade: A

Another take from Kevin

Avatar is director James Cameron’s technical masterpiece, that he has been working on developing since 2006. The final product is a completely immersive, breathtaking cinematic achievement that will make you feel like you are experiencing the film from the other side of the screen.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-marine who lost the use of his legs, and is forced to live life from the seat of his wheelchair. Jake has been requested by the government to fill a position on the planet Pandora, which was formerly held by his twin brother Tom. Unlike Tom, who was a research scientist, Jake is a warrior at heart. He more than makes up in spirit what he lacks physically. But his lack of experience in the scientific field is met with much dismay by the team of researchers that he has been called to work with, lead by Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver). The project that they are working on is to create and control ‘Avatars,’ a mix between humans and the native inhabitants of Pandora – the Na’vi. Each Avatar is controlled by a human driver, linked by their DNA. With the amount of money spent in research and development of each Avatar, the government needs Jake to take the place of his brother in the project.

The purpose of Jake’s team on Pandora is to control these Avatars to research the planet, and understand it’s inhabitants. Grace has lived on Pandora for some time now, and literally “wrote the book” on the Na’vi. They are accompanied by fellow researcher Norm Spellman (Joel Moore), who provides much of the levity in the film. But there are other forces at work on Pandora, with motives much different than the scientists. The government has discovered a resource called ‘unobtainium,’ which is worth $20 million dollars per kilogram back on Earth. The problem is that the highest concentration of unobtainium is located underneath the home of the Na’vi people. Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is in charge of mining this resource, which funds their entire existence on the planet. At the helm of the military force that has been tasked with obtaining the resource by any means necessary is Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang). Jake’s ties as a Marine put him in a difficult spot, as the Colonel wants to use him to find a weakness in the Na’vi people that he can exploit to drive them away from their home.

The visuals throughout the entirety of the film are nothing less than breathtaking. James Cameron has developed completely new equipment and methods of filming for this project, and has created a brilliant end product which brings computer animation and special effects to an entirely new level. For the first time in a film, the CG characters and environment actually feel like they are real. Throughout the movie, the computer generated planet of Pandora and its inhabitants feel so realistic, that you have to remind yourself of the difference. From beginning to end, you really feel like every detail was captured on film. From the tiniest blade of grass, to the realistic textures, skin and fur of some of the most magnificent creatures ever created on screen. And the Avatars, whom share DNA with their drivers, strikingly resemble the actors that play them.

Sam Worthington proves that he has what it takes to carry a film as its leading man. His on screen presence is very likable, and he carries himself extraordinarily well as a character that is faced with a physical adversity. Sigourney Weaver plays the hardened scientist Grace without missing a beat. Skeptical of Jake at first, she proves that her character is nothing less than dedicated to her life’s work. What is most impressive throughout the film is the voice acting of the Na’vi characters, whom we only see in computer generated form. Most all of the actors that we see in that fashion to a great job portraying their characters. Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) steals most of the audiences attention in a mesmerizing way.

The greatest accomplishment of Avatar is that James Cameron and his team have broken the barrier between film and 3D animation. There is a very fine line between the two in “Avatar,” and the result is something that is not to be missed in theaters. At first the 3D proves to be a small bit distracting – never because of the lack of quality, but rather due to the fact that it is hard to take your eyes off of every single detail. But shortly after the start, you become accustomed to the astonishing world that has been created, and the story and characters immediately captivate you. By the end of the film, you will have felt like you were actually on Pandora, engulfed in the wonder of the planet and the Na’vi.

Avatar is an A



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