Monday, January 25, 2010

My "Avatar" review

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.)

2.) "Unobtanium".

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


decobot said...

wow thats a really great review, i still haven't seen the film because of all the hype. to me that's such a turn off, but i had been wondering if you had seen it or not. Im just glad your not depressed after learning Pandora is not a real place like some other viewers have felt lol.

any word on the fugi relics?

Arvin Bautista said...

I agree with everything you've said, to varying degrees of priority.

I also feel like I might be one of thep oeple who would've enjoyed Avatar if I'd just seen it in 2D... unless you're seeing it in the middle of the theater with a SUPER-bright projector, the flickering and dimness of the screen just negated the immersion that 3D was supposed to provide.

I do, however, disagree that it is a fad. No major viewing technology since the addition of color has been able to sustain popularity for this long with people more than willing to pay an extra 50%.

The groundwork is now there in all theaters for 3D to be a mainstay, and we can only hope that the projection will only get better (again, there's enough demand out there that theater owners won't be so hesitant to spend money upgrading their equipment).

If enough people will have seen Avatar just in 3D as Transformers 2 in 2D paying extra for the opportunity, I think we're past the realm of novelty. This is not like red-blue 3D or smellovision. This is like surround sound but on a greater level.

And just like color doesn't necessarily enhance the story of a movie (many would argue that it even detracts), in a decade's time even the smallest indie movie will be able to afford and have no choice but to shoot in 3D... when that time comes, mainstream audiences will simply no longer accept a movie in 2D, just like they wouldn't essentially accept a movie now in black and white.

But yes, here's hoping they figure out how to brighten the projectors and eventually get rid of the stupid glasses.

Benji said...

Hey Pete,

To touch on your last point about CGI being used to show characters at different ages, have you seen the recent "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" with Brad Pitt? At a motion graphics conference last summer, I attended a panel in which the guys behind the special effects discussed their techniques in the movie. The movie portrays a much OLDER Brad Pitt, and to achieve the effect, instead of applying makeup to his face, they created an entirely CG version of his head using complex motion tracking to record a wide range of facial expressions. They then "aged" the 3D head and used it in the film. So, basically, any time you see the old Brad Pitt in the film, it was shot with a body double with a green hood on, which was then keyed out, and Brad Pitt's head was inserted 100% digitally. And it was seamless. I never in my wildest dreams would have imagined the head was completely CG because it looks so good. It's further evidence to your claim that this emerging technology can be put to some extraordinary use.

If you have some time, check out this short clip showing the process.

Nathan said...

I agree with you, Pete. There wasn't much to the movie that I thought was game changing or mind-blowing. And the 3D effects were effective at best (the hybernation ship interior), distractingly disfunctional at worst (pretty much whenever something was really "close" to the camera, like those floating spores), and downright non-existent in many scenes.

I too think this 3D stuff is just a "fad". There seems to be just too much going against it to truly catch on. You have to spend extra money and wear those annoying glasses, all for an effect that isn't really noticeable throughout the majority of the movie.

I'll respectfully disagree with Arvin that there hasn't been a viewing technology that has lingered this long. I think that the virtual reality fad of the 90's is loosely analogous to 3D as it is today. Back then, everyone was going crazy for the possibilities of virtual reality entertainment and the public ate it up, but the cost and functional restrictions (particularly, the VR goggles/headgear) made it little more than a fad. It lingered for a few years as companies like Nintendo tried to make it work, but it ultimately just crashed and burned. I'm sure there is still a small market for VR, but it's not like we all have VR helmets in our homes. And I think 3D will follow suit.

Jesse said...

I've got to agree with you about the Unobtainium bit, but in a recent interview over at /Film, James Cameron explained why unobtainium was so expensive:

It was essential to solve the energy crisis on Earth, without the unobtainium all humans on the planet would die.

And yet, he didn't think that was important enough to be mentioned in the movie. But suddenly with this knowledge, everything is different.

Jake Sully goes from a misguided soldier to the savior of the Na'vi people. But with the new information, he goes from a misguided soldier to the destroyer of the human species. This makes it even more profound when they send the humans back to earth, and then Jake inhibits his avatar completely.

I wrote a lot more about my dislike for the film at

The film is beautiful, but it completely lacks substance.

Arvin Bautista said...

To Nathan: virtual reality has NEVER been mainstream in the way that you can watch a 3D movie just as easily as you would a normal movie, with simply a 3-5 dollar surcharge, and with Avatar about to pull 2+ billion dollars in worldwide revenue I would venture to guess that that movie alone will have made more money than the entire virtual reality industry has combined.

That doesn't take into account the other dozens of movies since released in 3D, and it's been on the upswing since the technology became viable more than FIVE YEARS AGO!

Listen, color was extremely expensive and laborious when it was first introduced, and many people called it a fad (the colors weren't perfect, after all... it must have given many of them headaches as well), and tons of movies were released I'm sure just to take advantage of its popularity.

But the rate things are progressing right now, indie movies are already being shot in 3D, projectors are only getting better and cheaper, and I can only hope that in the next 5 years we figure out how to ditch the glasses.

Yes, of course, it's always about the story and many movies now are being released just to exploit the eye candy. But by the time the hype dies down the cost will be so cheap and the quality will be so seamless that we will just take it for granted that a movie is in 3D.

Nathan said...

Arvin: VR was pretty widespread at that time. The Nintendo Virtual Boy was priced competitively with other game systems, and you could walk into any number of arcades and don a VR helmet. And now that I'm thinking about it, let's not forget Time Traveller, the holographic arcade game that everyone thought would be the second coming.

I admit the analogy might not work because 3D cinema is a totally different animal. And you're right in that 3D has gotten a huge boost because of the success of Avatar. I just bring up VR and holographic games because they're examples of technologies that were initially very successful (except the Virtual Boy, of course) and that everyone thought would be game-changers, but at the end of the day, we're still playing video games on our 2D televisions.

Summer said...

I was wondering what you thought about it. I've come to enjoy reading your movie reviews because you're so eloquent, even when it's something distasteful to you. You don't simply say "it lacked a good storyline." You give us details about why you did or didn't like it.

My thoughts on the movie correlate with yours for the most part. I thought it was a beautiful movie but seriously lacking in depth.

I giggled when they introduced Unobtanium. That's a ridiculous name.

~ tOkKa said...

-->> Bravo review , Peter ..