Thursday, January 21, 2010

James Cameron's Avatar True to Its Name

They say imitation is the greatest form of flattery, and in this way, James Cameron's visual masterpiece, Avatar, flatters and flatters away. Taking the American soldier turns native and fights back story from previous films such as Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai, it represents a science fiction homage to a number of films and works, manifesting many of their principal elements and inserting his own sensitivities into a visual tour de force.

In Dances with Wolves we saw the natives versus the U.S. government's expansionist agenda and its war against the native americans. In The Last Samurai it was the Americans helping the Japanese corporate/government interests to suppress the traditional way of life of the "native" Samurai. In Avatar, it's corporate miners accompanied by mercenary, military protectors playing the role of outside invaders trying to profit on the planet's superconducting mineral, unobtanium, at the cost of the native wildlife and indigenous people, the Na'vi. That main idea is intertwined with many of Cameron's recurring themes, such as corporate greed (or military interests) over ecology, humanity, and/or common sense as seen in his own previous works (Aliens, The Abyss).

In Avatar, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a marine corporal paralyzed from the waist down, is thrust into the world of a moon circling a gas giant planet in the Alpha Centauri system called Pandora, to serve as a replacement for his dead, twin brother who was an Avatar "driver", someone who controls or "drives" a representation of themselves (hence the name of the film), this one a living creature of the native, humanoid species called the Na'vi. The film opens with him waking up from cryopreservation or "cryo-sleep" nearing arrival at the moon, but he soon gets thrust into the stereotypical battle between corporate / military interests and ecological / scientific advancement and protectionism through his interaction with the Na'vi. At first he serves the military, feeling uncomfortable amongst his brother's scientist colleagues and promised by the chief security officer, Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang), that his invaluable service would be rewarded with a restoration of his real, human legs – in the year 2154 we've finally achieved the medical restoration of the spine –, but soon he finds himself using his Navi Avatar's legs and living amongst their people, learning their ways, and falling in love with their culture and of course, with one of their own women, Neytiri, a sultry, blue version of Zoe Saldana . It all ends, logically, as one would expect: he becomes Navi and joins the moon's native wildlife in fighting against the corporate military.

Though the story is true to its Avatar name, a manifestation or representation of someone else, the presentation makes up for whatever predictability or lack of originality in the story. The predictability or familiarity doesn't detract from the experience of the film, and instead at times, adds to the enjoyment. It's a truly slick package whether experienced in its optimum 3D or the more traditional 2D.

Visual Tour de Force

The visual presentation is where Avatar surpasses all expectations and excels beyond any other film before it. James Cameron made a wise decision when he chose to wait an additional ten years for technology to catch up before making this film. Its level of realism is beyond anything else before it. His use of 3D technology (some of it which he himself helped develop for use in this film) is actually worth watching. It doesn't have any of the gimmicky use of more traditional 3D films (remember the constant sticking something at the camera from those wonderful gems of the past - think Jaws 3D, Friday the 13th 3-D), and therefore gives an amazing sense of depth and realism, adding to the overall immersive effect of the film.

Most of the film is computer generated, utilizing the actor's live performances to animate the Na'vi creatures through special capture technology (similar to that used in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, though more advanced) pioneered by Cameron on this film. I must admit that when first confronted with the computer generated creatures, one can suffer a bit of the uncanny valley effect, but that is quickly overcome as the film dives into the Navi's world and life fully. The world of Pandora is simply put: Spectacular. James Cameron has outdone himself. The moon feels alive and absolutely real. There's truly a seamless interaction between the real life elements and the animated surroundings.

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When presented with such a visual spectacle, it's easy to get lost in its beauty and miss some of the slightly disappointing details. I may be nitpicking, but the dog-like animals (Viperwolf) and dangerous, panther-like creatures (Thanator) seemed a bit too shiny-plasticky, and more akin to a lesser, more artificial looking animation and therefore out of place in such an elaborate, realistic world. One could easily argue that the plasticity of their skin is due to their alien nature, this being Pandora after all and not Earth, but in terms of the design and animation of the film, it was probably the only part of the impressive visuals that I found lacking.

Overall, this film was made for a theater viewing experience. When they say Real3D, Avatar is what they're talking about. This film is such a showcase for the technology, that you have the entire technology industry racing to bring it's 3D shine and luster to their products. It's definitely a new benchmark, a reference film that everyone will have difficulty catching up to.

Let the awards roll in

Avatar is an impressive achievement. Despite its occasional and easily overlooked flaws, it's something akin to the game changing nature of films like Star Wars, Terminator 2 (another equally impressive James Cameron film), Jurassic Park, The Matrix, and Lord of the Rings, just to name a few. It redefines film with its new and effective use of new technologies, of 3D, its overall visual presentation, integration of digital actors, etc. It's certainly worth the 10 to 15 dollars/euros/pounds to see it in its full theatrical splendor, something proven by its title of second highest-grossing film of all time worldwide and second highest-grossing film of all time domestically (in the U.S.).

Having already captured the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama and Best Director, it's already gathered a striking number of awards and nominations on its way to the Academy Awards, where it's expected to receive nominations for the top spots as well as some of the more technical and specific achievements. Avatar is an unstoppable machine that more than deserves the accolades given to it and to James Cameron, who continues to surprise and impress us with his creative and pioneering efforts, taking risks and making it worthwhile to suffer the lines, the cost, and the annoying guy behind us who won't shut up, to see it in a properly equipped cinema.

Be it in IMAX 3D, Real3D, or in good old 2D, Avatar certainly impresses and is the must see film of the season. If you haven't seen it, what are you waiting for? Go see it!

Related links

Avatar Official Movie Site: The official site for everything Avatar.

Avatar Official Flickr Site: Here you can find official promotional images.

Avatar Store on (USA)

Avatar Products on (UK - English Europe)

Avatar on Wikipedia

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UPDATES: Updated highest-grossing film titles to reflect new records.
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