I saw "Avatar" for the first time, in its "standard" or non-3D iteration, back around Christmas, with my daughter. We both enjoyed it, but I felt it fell far short of the insane level of hype that had preceded it. I very much wanted to write a review of it for this blog, but decided to wait until I had seen it in the 3D version, so I could see if that made any significant difference. That viewing happened today -- I went to the local Cinemark with my wife, who surprised me a little last week by expressing significant interest in seeing it.
I should state up-front that I am a big fan of most of James Cameron's movies. The first "Terminator" and his "Aliens" sequel to Ridley Scott's "Alien" easily make it to my "top ten genre movies" list. I think I have seen all of his movies, although unlike my daughter I have not seen "Titanic" two dozen times (just once, actually). I have always been impressed by his handling of action and spectacle, while at the same time keeping story paramount. His movies tend to have strong hearts.
So when I started hearing the first murmurings about "Avatar", I was intrigued. As the hype built over the last four or five years, it started to get to quite ridiculous proportions -- "Avatar" would be the movie that would change the world of moviemaking forever… it would "f--k our eyeballs"… it would be the ultimate "game-changer"… and so on.
That's a lot to live up to, and maybe, in some technical sense that I am ignorant of (not being in the business of making movies), "Avatar" has in fact changed the way movies will be made from here on out. Or at least SOME movies.
Let me get this next bit out of the way right now-- both times I saw "Avatar", I was not bored. Each two and a half hour showing went by fairly quickly. There was a lot to look at, a hugely impressive level of detail, and I'm sure I could go back a dozen more times and see stuff I didn't get the first two times. The people who put these things together are to be highly commended for just staggering levels of artistry and craft that I can barely begin to comprehend.
However… it would have been one thing if Cameron had completed work on "Avatar" fifteen or so years ago, when he got the idea and wrote a "scriptment". THEN this resulting film would have seemed TRULY mind-boggling. But in those intervening years, we have seen some amazing movie spectacles with outrageous special effects -- the "Jurassic Park" movies, the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, Peter Jackson's remake of "King Kong", the "Harry Potter" movies, the "Star Wars" prequels, the various superhero films ("X-Men", "Spider-Man", "Iron Man", Dark Knight", etc.), "Transformers" (for effects only, NOT for story!) -- and that list just scratches the surface. In my opinion, "Avatar" does not represent a revolution in visual effects, but (like most big budget effects-heavy movies these days) one more incremental step in the evolution of this kind of film. I can't think of anything in it which does not have direct antecedents in other SFX extravaganzas of recent years. Conceptually, I saw nothing in it which was very much different from many science fiction tropes found in a variety of science fiction novels, comics, TV shows, video games and movies of the last couple of decades.
Now for a few specific comments...
1.) I'll start with the whole 3D thing. My gut feeling about 3D -- in both movies and TV -- is that it is just another emergence of the idea as the "flavor of the week". There have been many attempts over the years to bring 3D to the masses as a way of making movies somehow more enjoyable to watch… and they have all flared and died. Maybe I'm wrong -- maybe the technology and techniques have matured to a point where 3D will finally nail down its niche in the world of entertainment. But having watched both 2D and 3D versions of "Avatar", I can honestly say that I would rather watch the 2D version. It's brighter (I didn't have the 3D glasses putting a grey filter between my eyes and the screen), and the 3D effects did absolutely NOTHING to enhance the story. And there were only a handful of moments -- and those related to some slightly silly stuff like flakes of ash or leaves seemingly falling right in front of me -- that made me react in a "Wow, cool!" kind of way. The rest of the time I felt I has watching a moving "Viewmaster" reel with inferior visuals. (Inferior to the original "Viewmaster" reels and their 3D effects, I mean.)
I'm sure anyone who has seen a bunch of movies in their life has occasionally had that experience where something will happen in a movie -- someone will say something, some event will occur, etc. -- and those words or that event or whatever will be so odd and incongruous that -- for a moment, and sometimes longer -- the movie screeches to a halt, and you as the viewer are taken right out of the world that the moviemaker is trying to create for you. It's a very disconcerting feeling.
I had one of those moments when one of the humans on Pandora points to the little floating chunk of metal (or metal ore) and calls it "Unobtanium". I had to stifle a chuckle, as -- for many years now -- that word has been a kind of joke term in the motorcycle world (actually, I'm sure it's similarly used in other venues as well) to indicate some really expensive part made out of a hard-to-get material. I never in my life expected to hear it seriously used to describe ANYTHING in a serious context, and to hear it in this movie in this way just cracked me up. I find it hard to believe that Cameron and Co. could not have come
up with another name for this material which would not carry this whiff of silliness. How about "Pandorium"? Or "Na'viculite"?
But that's not the worst of it. Here's this mineral, this "Unobtainium", that is somehow SO important that these humans from Earth are willing to go to great lengths -- travel interstellar distances, spend huge amounts of capital, and -- even worse -- kill the members of an intelligent species and ravage their sacred sites and their environment. But what is it about this "Unobtainium" that makes it worth all of this effort and destruction? Does it hold the cure for cancer? Is it needed to power warp drive engines? Can it heal the ravaged Earth's environment? We never know. We only get some throwaway line about the fact that "Unobtainium" is "really expensive"… and that's it. Incredibly lame!
And it's even more distressing because in one of my two favorite Cameron movies, "Aliens", there is a great bit which is somewhat analogous to this situation in "Avatar". In "Aliens", you have the slimy corporate weasel Burke (played wonderfully by Paul Reiser), who is willing to commit some pretty heinous acts, including setting up Ripley and Newt to suffer horrible deaths by being "seeded" with the Alien embryos, a process which inevitably leads to agonizing doom. But Burke has a compelling reason WHY He is willing to be this dastardly -- he wants to bring back some of the Aliens so that the Company for which he works can try to cut some deal with the military to turn the Aliens into some kind of weapons system. This bit of motivation works on several levels simultaneously -- greed, lust for power, even patriotism. And all this is gotten across with a few spare lines of dialogue.
But there is none of that here in "Avavtar", and it makes the corporate and military humans running the show seem like cookie-cutter, cardboard villains with no depth at all.
3.) Most of the time in this movie, the CGI is fantastic, and really sucks you in. But every so often, the Na'vi characters move in that sort of weirdly weightless way that some CGI characters do. As good as it is, it's definitely not perfect.
However, there is one thing that struck me in this movie as evidence of a possible fantastic future use for Cameron and Co.'s combination of technologies for motion capture and CGI characters, and that was inspired by the few scenes with Sigourney Weaver's Na'Vi avatar. It was very cool how that avatar captured much of the look of Weaver's face, especially as it seemed to reflect a younger Sigourney Weaver. As I watched the movie today, I started to think how cool a tool this could be in the future, where if a character played by an older actor needed to be seen in a flashback to that character's youth, that youthful version could be played by the older actor, but rendered with this amazing CGI as a much younger version, completely photorealistically. Instead of trying to find and cast some younger actor or actress who KIND of looks like the older actor or actress, you would end up with something far more convincing as a younger version of the character. And with the progress being made in modeling, animating and rendering realistic humans, I don't think the day is far off that this can happen.
There are a few more minor things about "Avatar" that impressed and/or bugged me, and maybe I'll add them to this review later as I think of them, but for now I'll stop here. If you were to ask me to rate "Avatar" on a scale of one to ten, I'd give it a solid five. Maybe six. -- PL