A blog about movies and filmmaking.

Welcome to Pandora

In action, sci-fi on December 19, 2009 at 7:43 pm

James Cameron’s new movie, AVATAR is, as advertised; a voyage to a new world. There are things that are familiar, and things that seem ridiculous but still fit with the logic that this planet (and the movie) presents to us. For one, most creatures that would be four-legged on Earth, tend to have six legs. Secondly, the native, humanoid creatures that live on the planet are called the Na’vi; and they’re 10-12 feet tall, blue and have a very feline-like look. The third major thing to note on Pandora, is that everything literally connects to everything else. All of the creatures have tendrils somewhere near their heads – including the Na-vi, whose are at the end of a long pony-tail – that will wrap around and connect to another such tendril. This helps to form bonds for life between creatures, whether it’s the Na’vi choosing a mate for life; or when they need something to ride along the jungle floor, or fly through the air. They also use these tendrils to connect with the planet itself, or their worshiped deity called Eywa.

The details, and visuals of this movie are breath-taking. There’s been talk about how every detail from the twirling lizards to the bugs that fly through the frame are all created constructs of James Cameron’s and his team’s imagination. The landscapes from their over-sized trees and shrinking flowers, to the floating mountains, are amazing; and actually made me look at the surrounding area that I live in on my drive home in wonder.

And that’s the true magic of AVATAR. It captures imagination. It certainly has captivated Cameron, in that he’s spent nearly a decade in trying to bring this whole thing to life; waiting for technology to catch up with what he wanted to do, and when it still wasn’t satisfactory enough, he went out and helped develop some new toys to play with. And I have to say, even with the hype, the backlashes and even now that the movie’s been released – the negative reviews; this movie floored me. No, it’s not a completely original storyline, and I don’t think that it tries to be; or even needed to. (Argue amongst yourselves whether Cameron is even capable of creating an original story.) Yeah, it’s the common, “man is introduced to new culture; falls in love with it, and then when threatened he chooses the simpler and more (pure) people, rather than civilization and greed.”

Say that that storyline is as played out as you like, but isn’t it still true? Hell, I’ve driven through the badlands of South Dakota, the forests of Oregon and the mountains of upstate New York; and I’ll tell you, each time I do, it makes me wish I could say goodbye forever to this technology-based life and live off the land and be much simpler. Naturally, it’s not realistic; and in the movies we always get the credits before our main character realizes that maybe he (because it is almost always a man) maybe also misses his old life. People complain about the violence in movies, about the fact that we still fall for the old, “bad guy dies and good guy gets the girl” trope that has been a part of story-telling, since there have been stories to tell. But, humanity hasn’t moved beyond that. When we no longer have real wars that are fought over ridiculous – and fraudulent – reasons, but instead have a civilization that isn’t run on greed and screwing over the “other guy”, that’s when you’re bound to see a decline in people being entertained by violent, or mean spirited, material. But, I sadly don’t see that day coming anytime soon.

And this movie is just as split-minded. It’s about a species of beings that live off their planet; they respect life, and all the creatures on it, but in the end it still comes down to violence and sacrifice to save their homes and lives. Somewhere, someone mentioned how it’s interesting that all the best anti-war movies, seem to also have the biggest explosions (and it’s true, look at APOCALYPSE NOW as just one example). But, I’ll tell you one thing; when the military of this movie shoot all of their rockets and attempt to obliterate a worshiped part of the Na’vi’s home, it effected me; to an extent that not many movies in the past have. CHILDREN OF MEN is one movie that had this impact on me, and not to sound trite – or to rely too similarly to what other critics have mentioned – it reminded me of 9/11, and the horrors that came with that day.

The clichés that do come; I think have to be there, because if this movie were to be a completely foreign experience – meaning if the planet was completely unique, and the characters not based heavily on well-defined archetypes, no one would be able to access it. The look of the movie – where I still have to question whether Cameron’s pulling some wool over our eyes and they actually did film some of the actors in Na’vi makeup – is enough of a break-through that as Nikola Tesla in THE PRESTIGE says, “Society tolerates only one change at a time.” The biggest leap forward that this movie makes, is in it’s digital craftsmanship. Does this movie change cinema forever? No, it doesn’t even really change science fiction. I said earlier this Summer that AVATAR’s main competition this year was going to be the South African sci-fi movie, DISTRICT 9; and I have to say, while the scope of the movie certainly puts AVATAR ahead, it is in the characters of DISTRICT 9, that makes it a near tie.

The cast in AVATAR are all pretty great. From the smaller roles of Michelle Rodriguez, Giovanni Ribisi and even the unrecognizable (other than through voice) Wes Studi and CCH Pounder; all the way to the headlining stars of Sam Worthington and Zoe Saldana, do a great job at creating characters that we care about – either positively or negatively. The standout, to me, is an actor who has a couple of pretty interesting roles this year, in both PUBLIC ENEMIES and THE MEN WHO STARE AT GOATS, and that’s Stephen Lang. He plays the “shoot first, ask questions later” Col. Quaritch, who is the perfect Cameron villain in that he seems he’s initially there to help and wants to do the right thing, then by the end is pretty much off his rocker and just out for blood. Which he gets in a brutal fight, towards the end of the movie. (I wonder if Cameron even attempted to cast his former go-to guy, Michael Biehn, in the role.) The other role of note is Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Augustine. She’s probably the most complex, and thoroughly thought-through character in the piece – being a doctor that is on the planet to discover the secrets of the Na’vi; finds out how “connected” everything is and has also developed a rapport with the natives to where even at the worse relations between man and alien, they still take her with them. And I have to say, she looks stunning in her Na’vi form.

Overall, this is a beautiful movie with some impactful and tragic moments. A giant battle at the end that while all digital has the look and feel of there being at least some practical effects. The Na’vi are beautifully rendered and only in a few moments do they not look completely believable. James Cameron has made one of the best blockbusters of the year, and something that puts to shame every movie based off an established property (I’m looking at the WOLVERINES’s, GI JOE’s and TRANSFORMERS’), showing that you can have a massive budget, some great casting, and still make a thoroughly enjoyable movie that has some intelligence behind it, isn’t just about watching big explosions, and looks spectacular to boot.

The only other thing to mention is the IMAX/3-D that the movie has boasted as being necessary, for the full experience. I have to agree that I do think that it needs to be seen in this format. The glasses – as much of a hindrance as they are – are a necessary evil, and the large screen and great usage of depth of field and small touches of the interactivity of 3-D, means that there’s probably something lost between this format and just a 2-D version. But, I have to say, I’m anxious to see it that way, as I think it will be just as effective, bombastic and heart-felt, even if a spear doesn’t poke out towards you.

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