Avatar [film review]

I saw Avatar on opening night. The fact that I managed to avoid all reviews and opinions about the film before seeing it made me simultaneously glad and depressed.  Glad, because I don’t like to poison the well before seeing a film, and depressed because it reminded me that I don’t actually have a pulse on the film (and special fx) industry any more…

Nevertheless, I walked out of the theater and couldn’t seem to stop making notes about it (which have now been polished into the blog post that follows).

SPOILER ALERT! Enter at your own risk…

I’m speechless…
Never before have I been so awestruck by a film.

Technically Speaking…

The movie blew me away! I don’t suppose I can realistically classify myself as anything more than a special effects enthusiast —maybe hobbyist on a good day– so I tend to mentally unpack visual effects shots in an attempt to imagine how it was created. While watching Avatar, my brain just locked up. I couldn’t even begin to guess how they created everything.

Yet, the technology never eclipsed the story. It wasn’t about doing something that had never been done before. It wasn’t a build-up to a special effects climax. It was merely what was necessary to tell the story in the best way.

James Cameron very wisely waited until the time was right to tell this story. He knew he needed to let his ideas simmer and percolate for a few years before he could make this film without compromise.  He definitely made the right choice.  It makes me wonder how many other stories have been told prematurely and suffered because of it…

Enter Pandora…

The story takes place in an alien world called Pandora. The concept artists did an outstanding job of creating a world that is completely extraordinary, yet totally believable and strangely familiar. This greatly aids the audience’s ability to connect with this foreign world and helps us leave our preconceived notions of reality back on earth.  Yet it is loaded with all the trappings of good fantasy –giants, floating mountains, planets, moons, spirits…  It all feels so magical, yet it’s not presented as magic; it’s simply the order of nature on Pandora.
     Imagine if you spent your whole life on Mars and then came to earth and saw birds, waterfalls, flowers, and even humans for the first time. Don’tcha think it would all seem magical?  That’s what Pandora is. It’s a magical reality.

The subtleties of the fantasy world really helped sell it as a believable place. The special effects really sing when you take your eyes off the obvious things and notice the attention to detail that is prevalent throughout the whole film. I think this is most clearly demonstrated in the night scenes, namely the rays of light emitting from footsteps.

It seemed like a lot of the wonder came from massive scale differences. One of the most simple yet awesome examples of this is the HUGE tree where the [avatars] live. It is such a commanding presence, yet it looks just like any tree you’ve seen before. Another scene involved enormous vines that were twisted like a DNA double helix. Again, it’s amazing, but not completely foreign.

In addition to the visual imagery, Pandora is rich with history and culture. Similar to Lord of the Rings an entire language, religion, and way of life was created for the film.

About halfway through the movie I found myself hoping it wouldn’t end any time soon. I wanted to keep discovering this new world.

The Story…

The film itself is partially told as a sort of self documentary, giving it a more personal feel than I expected from a Hollywood blockbuster. Even some of the camera work suggests the notion of a personal video diary –handheld zooming and panning shots, as well as some shots that resemble web cam footage. It subtly adds a personal touch to the film.

Unlike most sci-fi/action flicks in recent memory, Avatar’s story is king. It’s deep, and it slowly unfolds in front of you. It shows two parallel worlds in similar fashion as The Matrix, but takes it a step further by overlapping them. A key shift happens when Jake Sully says that “the real world” feels less like reality than his avatar world Na’vi. Not surprisingly, I began to feel the same way as I watched from my seat.

Eventually you find yourself on the side of the Na’vi and, if you’re anything like me, actually start hoping that they will demolish the humans. It’s amazing how the film leads you to cheer for the destruction of man. If that doesn’t demonstrate the influential power of film, nothing will.

Surely some people will say this is manipulation, or brainwashing, or politics; I’m saying it’s phenomenal storytelling! It leverages our territorial instincts to protect what we know and what we care about. By getting emotionally invested in the Na’vi culture our allegiance shifts from what we know (i.e. the human race) to what we have grown to love (i.e. the Na’vi). Personally, I think it’s brilliant!

Miscellaneous…

The horse-like creatures didn’t feel right. Their movement seemed very unnatural to me. That was the only thing that reminded me that what I was seeing was largely computer generated imagery.

Colonel Miles Quaritch (aka the bad guy) was perfectly played and scripted. You respect him, but really want him to be dead already. Very good tension built between him and Jake Sully.

Oh! Yeah, um, apparently Michael Jackson had a cameo in this movie. Trudy Chacon, the rebel pilot chick, looks way too much like MJ in some shots. I have to believe this was purely an accident, because it seemed so very out of place.

There were no stones unturned. Every element that was introduced served a purpose by the end.

It absolutely acknowledges the spiritual realm. I’m glad to see this thread woven into mainstream stories like this although I’m not suggesting that it paints an accurate picture of spirituality. It adds another layer to the story, making it that much more intricate and deliberate.

Jake’s handicap almost subconsciously helps you cheer for him. His avatar provides an escape from his human condition and gives the audience an ideal, underdog hero. It creates an emotional entry point without committing much screen time to develop.

The Director of Photography deserves a nod from the Academy here. There were so many sweeping camera moves that really aided the story without feeling like gimmicky 3D. Many of the action sequences involved long takes that actually showed what was happening. …unlike the cheaters behind Transformers. (Don’t get me started…) By clearly showing the audience what is happening they evoked many involuntary responses –“Holy wow!” “Are you kidding me?!” etc… Remember what you thought when you saw the World Trade Center slowly collapse on 9-11? Well, it’s kinda like that; it pulls a response out of you.

Conclusion…

I LOVED it!

Everything about it was so well done. My brain has been spinning with questions and ideas since I walked out of the theater. It has inspired me to learn and develop the craft of filmmaking and storytelling on a whole new level. That alone is worth the price of admission.

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