Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar


I suspect that a lot of non-fanboys out there have been trying to figure out what's the big deal about James Cameron's new movie Avatar. It's not based on any source material, so it's not like there's a pre-existing fan base. The story doesn't sound like anything terribly original. Natives at in harmony with nature defending their homeland from greedy industrialists has been done before. Then of course there's the abundance of CGI, which has been done before and usually fails to convince audiences that they're not watching a cartoon. So why all the hoopla?

I'll admit that when the movie started, it didn't feel like it was going to be anything truly wondrous for the first few scenes. Aside from an early shot of a crew aboard a spaceship in zero gravity that looked unexpectedly convincing, nothing really held the promise of being a movie like something that hadn't been seen before.

The premise gets laid out for the audience in a fairly bare bones manner. A paraplegic marine named Jake Sully has a twin brother that was supposed to be working on a mining project on the far off world of Pandora. When his brother dies, Sully is recruited to take his place. He is tasked with infiltrating and understanding the planets inhabitants, the Na'vi, using a remotely controlled body made to look like them, (an avatar.) Jake's situation complicates quickly as he becomes deeply immersed in the Na'vi culture using his avatar, while at the same time has orders to convince them to relocate or figure out how to wipe them out. As you might have guessed from the trailer, trouble ensues.

Once Jake takes control of his avatar, that's when the movie gets ahold of you. Jake, and through him the audience, is slowly immersed into the world of Pandora. It starts out as a place that is visually astonishing, and quickly turns into a place you want to actually visit with your own avatar body. This is especially true once the Na'vi take Jake up to the floating mountains and show him how to tame and ride these giant flying sky creatures. It's such an immersive experience that I think it's damn near impossible for any two minute trailer to convey how deep into the characters you'll find yourself.

As you more about the Na'vi culture, you'll begin to empathize with them. The story also puts a unique twist on the inevitable love story aspect of the movie, as Jake falls in love with one of the natives while inhabiting a body that isn't his.

Up until now I've mostly held off on mentioning the effects, and that's because this movie feels like the story was put first and the effects were only necessary to tell a story on the scale it required. The effects will wow you, but you can tell that James Cameron wasn't relying entirely on them in the hopes of winning the audience over. It's the story itself that proves to be the biggest draw in the end.

Obviously, I do have to mention the effects, since they've been getting so much buzz on their own. Some of my friends have expressed wariness over seeing this movie on account of how much of it is CGI. I understand where you're coming from. The Star Wars prequels and the last Indiana Jones movie were filed with scenes done unnecessarily in computer animation that failed to convince viewers that they had been filmed live.

In Avatar, the CGI may not have convinced me that everything I saw was real, but I really can't decide if it's because the CGI hadn't reached a level of true photo-realism, or if it's because the alien world of Pandora was so vibrant and colorfully depicted that my brain just acknowledged it was CGI because clearly nothing so wondrous exists on earth. I'm more inclined to go with the latter, just because at the movie's most emotional parts I found it impossible to picture the actors running around on a blue screen soundstage covered in body suits waiting for some animator to feed their expressions into a computer. In contrast, with the Star Wars prequels, it took effort to actually believe the actors were in the exotic locales their characters were supposed to be in.

In fact there were moments (probably most notable when watching the movie in 3-D) that I felt it wasn't that the effects were lacking, but rather there was a lack of more extraneous stimuli. In some of the scenes where the Na'vi walk through the jungle, everything is so perfectly rendered down to random insects or pollen floating about, that I felt what was missing was the feeling of sticky hot humidity as an audience member.

Even though they're completely CGI characters, the Na'vi feel as real as the actors playing them, so when we see the ten foot tall blue people laugh or grieve, it's not hard to empathize with them. They never come off feeling like the waxwork zombies that seem to populate Robert Zemeckis's recent animated movies like The Polar Express or Beowulf.

In fact, the only disappointment I had with the movie were some of the design choices. I still have difficulty believing that tribal tattoos will make a comeback in the future, and that Papyrus font is used for all the subtitles. For those of you who don't know what that is, it's a rather distinctive font often used to convey something "earthy" or "mystical" and has become so over-used that even it's creator thinks it's gone overboard.

But you know what? The film is so damn incredible that I'll forgive these little faux pas. If you're a parent, you pretty much owe it to your kids to take them to this. For me, it brought back memories of the first time I saw Jurassic Park, and how I was actually a bit disappointed that the movie had to end at some point and the adventure would be over.

Now I just hope we don't have to wait another ten years for the next James Cameron movie.