Thursday, December 17, 2009

Welcome to the Future of Cinema

Grade: A

Few movies have had the insane build-up of expectations that Avatar has. The first film from James Cameron in the TWELVE YEARS since Titanic, which you may remember still holds the record for highest grossing movie OF ALL TIME. A movie that Cameron says he wrote the script for over twenty years ago, and has been in development for nearly as long. A movie with a budget so high people estimate in increments of $100 million. And most insane of all, a movie that promises to revolutionize film, ushering in an era where 3-D and computer effects can make the unreal real.

A movie with that high of a build-up has almost no choice but to disappoint, and yet Avatar may just be the most visually stunning movie I've ever seen. The moment when you first set eyes on the jungle of Pandora, the alien moon that Cameron created out of imagination, technology, and time...think of Charlie entering the chocolate room as Gene Wilder sings "Pure Imagination." Or Dorothy first seeing the colors of Oz. In Avatar, 3-D and computer simulation have finally gone that extra step to make you feel like you're there.

Stepping back a moment, I should probably let you know what this thing is about. Set in a future (2154) in which Earth has run out of oil, humans take the 6 year flight out to Pandora, an alien moon with a precious resource they call Unobtainium. The planet is populated by the Na'vi, a species of ten foot tall blue humanoids with feline facial features, who are very much in tune with their environment and not so much with the aliens trying to uproot their sacred tree. To help with that, the humans created the Avatar program: human/Na'vi hybrids each controlled by the individual human providing his DNA. Yeah, there's a lot of exposition early on to get all this out, but somethings there's no way around it.

Into this mix comes Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine whose scientist brother was supposed to pilot an Avatar until he wound up dead. Now Jake has come to take over his brother's job. His first time out, he meets a Na'vi named Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), who takes him back to the tribe and starts training him to join. His mission is to earn their trust and convince them to move so the humans can get the Uobtainium....or barring that, to give critical intel to help with the military strike. But you don't need me to tell you once he falls for Neytiri, his loyalties shift.

As complicated as all that may be to write out, there's not really anything in the plot we haven't seen before. It's kind of a mix of Dune, Jurassic Park, Fern Gully, The Matrix, and (from what I've been told) Dances with Wolves. The characters aren't all that new either, but the actors sure work hard to make up for that. Instead of a parade of celebrities, Cameron's assembled an eclectic mix that all play their parts well and don't distract. Saldana especially stands out, bringing a particular fierceness to all of her scenes, as does Sigourney Weaver as the head scientist. Cameron sure does like having the women do the most ass-kicking.

What really makes Avatar special though is that unlike any other sci-fi movie before it, Avatar creates an alien world and brings you inside of it. There's really no overstating how incredible Cameron's attention to detail is here. Everything about the planet - from the leaves that rustle below your feet to the flies buzzing in the air - is intended to make the environment as authentic as possible. Despite the fact that all things animal, vegetable, and mineral don't exist in the real world, it doesn't take long to feel real.

Here's where the 3-D plays in as well. You may have seen some other recent 3-D movies that have a few things jump out at you for fun, or make you feel like you're on a roller coast for a second, or provide some nice texture to the scenery. But Avatar is the first movie to use 3-D in a way to make you feel like you're inside the scene. At times I almost wanted to brush the flies out of the way, since they seemed right in front of me. And EVERYTHING seems more immediate, including the explosions and gunfire often aimed right at the audience.

It all takes some getting used to. At first it's almost too much for the eye to take in, and I looked at everything but the person who was talking. But that's just because there is so much there to see. In one scene, Neytiri chastises Jake as being a baby for the way he must touch everything he sees. But can you blame him? When every step lights up the ground and plants shoot up into themselves with a single touch, you'll want to go around and explore as well.

Beyond the beauty of the environment, Cameron's creatures are some of the best put to screen since Jurassic Park. Best of all are a type of pterodactyl-like creatures that the Na'vi ride after each selecting one to bond with in a ritual. All of the flying scenes have such a sense of joy to them that it's clear Cameron knows first and foremost how to entertain. That's even more clear in the phenomenal action sequences, pitting flying creatures and arrows against large machines and ships. The final battle is the exact kind of big, epic battle that a movie of this magnitude deserves.

If you want to, it's easy to poke holes in Avatar. You can call it cheesy, which it is, but it's the kind of cheesy you find in the big Hollywood event movies of yesteryear that Transformers 2 could never hope to be. You can call the dialogue clunky, and it is, or point out the disconnect in having a back-to-nature moral in the most technologically advanced movie of all time. But to me at least it just seems silly to nitpick in the face of such enormous achievement, and even more than that, enormous entertainment. With so much joy in the filmmaking, I preferred to just give in and smile.

In the end, it comes down to this: Avatar will be remembered as a landmark in cinematic innovation. It's a movie that demands to be seen in theaters, and will provide a wholly unique viewing experience. It will be the most talked about movie of the season and the one everyone will eventually accept they have to go see. So instead of laughing at the blue people or mocking the trailer, just suspend disbelief long enough to enter another world. It's worth it.

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