December 18, 2009

Tangled Up In Blue


Holy shit! That was awesome! That's right, AWESOME! So, all you skeptics out there? SHUT UP!! You have no idea what you are talking about. After 12 years away from feature filmmaking, the master of science fiction, James Cameron, has returned to the big screen with Avatar. Let's get this out of the way first thing, because everyone is going to ask this question. Is Avatar better then Cameron's last film, Titanic? Answer: Damn right it is! Mr. Cameron has, with the help of the most convincing digital effects ever utilized on screen, successfully created a world, so immersive and believable, that you forget you are watching a movie. It doesn't hurt that he gives us a good story as well.
It's the year 2154, and the Earth, go figure, has run out of resources. Fortunately enough, all the resources needed to cultivate humanity can be found on Pandora, an Earth sized moon orbiting a gas giant billions of miles away from our planet. No problem. Just send some miners over there and tear the place up, right? No. As it turns out, Pandora is an incredibly hostile environment, with a toxic atmosphere, wildlife with a taste for human flesh, and an indigenous population of humanoids, the Na'vi. So, what's a money grubbing corporation to do? They start the Avatar program, which allows a human to link his conscience into the body of of a human/Na'vi hybrid, which lets him explore the planet and interact with natives. Enter Jake Sully, a paralyzed marine who is given the chance to pilot an avatar when his brother dies. Initially, he is only interested in furthering the humans plans, with the promise that, if he succeeds in convincing the Na'vi to relocate their home, the military will pay for an expensive operation that will give him the use of his legs back. But, not surprisingly, he gradually begins to shift sides, as he learns the ways of the Na'vi becomes intoxicated with Pandora and the Na'vi's otherworldly connection to it. Oh, also, he falls in love with his Na'vi guide, Neytiri. Eventually, the military rolls out to oust the Na'vi from their home, and an epic battle ensues, one that will decide the fate of both civilizations. In terms of originality, Avatar isn't there. We've seen this type of story a thousand times in films, i.e. Dances With Wolves. But, in terms of quality of the storytelling, Avatar has it in spades. You completely buy Jake's transformation as he switches values from that of a human to that of a Na'vi. Mr. Cameron has had this script cooking in his head since he first started making movies. All the time paid off.
Sam Worthington, hot off Terminator: Salvation firmly cements his place as an A-list star with Avatar. As Jake, he conveys all the pain that comes with being a paraplegic, all the confusion felt by someone in a new world, and all the fury and passion that someone feels when everything they have come to love is on the brink of destruction. He is superb. Other human performances include a seriously evil Stephen Lang as the cruel and brutal Colonel Miles Quartich, Giovanni Ribisi, oozing slime as the corporate douchebag, Michelle Rodriguez as a military pilot who sides with Jake, and Joel David Moore as fellow avatar driver, Norm Spellman. Sirgourney Weaver, Cameron's go to girl, is here, playing the head of the avatar program, Grace Augustine. Weaver does a fine job, working with the man who made her a star. The performances by humans are all great, but that's only half of the cast. The rest are entirely CGI created Na'vi, played by actors, and digitized with motion capture. Zoe Saldana (Uhura from Star Trek) is Neytiri, and she is amazing. Maybe it's all in the ridiculously good CG, but Saldana imbibes Neytiri with a tenderness and fierceness most actors these days can only dream of bringing to their characters. I know it won't happen, but I'd totally be for her getting an Oscar nomination. Other Na'vi CGI creations include Laz Alonzo as the perpetually angry Tsu'Tey, and C. C. H. Pounder as the Na'vi queen, Mo'at. Performances across the board are impeccable, with Worthington and Saldana leading the way, completely dashing away the doubts that they aren't cut out for this business.
So, let's move on to the main topic of interest with Avatar, that being the special effects. James Cameron himself made the brash statement that Avatar will revolutionize and pioneer a new, improved style of special effects, and that it will change the way we see movies. Verdict: Done and done! Is it a stretch to say that Avatar is the most visually impressive movie ever conceived? It'd be a stretch to say that it isn't. What Cameron and his effects team have done is nothing short of genius. First off, the Na'vi and avatars are all CGI, created with mo-capped actors, but you wouldn't know that watching them. They all look completely real; their skin and flesh behaves like you would expect, their faces are incredibly expressive, and the uncanny valley that is usually seen around the eyes when motion capture is employed (i.e. A Christmas Carol) is completely done away with. And it doesn't stop with the actors. The wildlife of Pandora, the fauna, the fucking floating mountains, the human war machines. Everything looks so realistic that you can't tell it's all CG. Now, all of this would count for nothing if there wasn't some originality brought to the visuals, and, thankfully, Cameron has brought tons. The world of Pandora has been crafted down to the minutest detail. You haven't seen anything like this before. Everything is handled with such care and love for the world Cameron is envisioning. It's the best example of this type of art since Lord of the Rings. Hell, it's even better then Lord of the Rings! And what special effects extravaganza would be complete without an epic battle? Boy, does Cameron deliver on that. The last twenty or so minutes is taken up by a massive confrontation between the entire military force and thousands of Na'vi. Thousands of gunships engage thousands of dragon riding Na'vi in the air, while thousands of troops with guns and mech suits engage thousands of Na'vi on horses on the ground. It's exciting and intense and full of cheer worthy moments!
James Cameron is a smart man! Sure, he's been selling the fact that the CGI is revolutionary, and all that, which it is. Here's the thing though. He forgot to mention that there's an actual story here, with, you know, substance. It's the most cliched plot in the book, but Cameron handles it and his actors with the mark of a true master. He takes the time to help you get to know the characters, make you connect and feel for them, before he sets off the fireworks. It worked in Titanic, and it works here to an even greater extent. Cameron does resort to the classic third act formula by giving us the massive, final battle, but, it's not just out of the blue, like in some other movies; there is an actual reason for the characters to be engaging in combat. The final battle seems like the natural conclusion to the story that Cameron is telling, rather then an explosion orgy thrown in to appease the crowd. James Cameron hasn't made many films, but they have all been great. With Avatar, his record has gotten that much better.
I know it's a brash claim, but I'm gonna say it anyway. Avatar is the Star Wars of our generation. No movie in the last 30 years has successfully transported the audience to a new world the way Avatar does. From the phosphorescent beauty of the forest at night, to the way the Na'vi move and emote, to the thundering boom of the human's missiles, you are sucked into the world of Pandora. Everything is so believable, everything is handled with such deft hands, that you are left in a state of slack-jawed wonderment. James Cameron once proclaimed himself king of the world. Doesn't look like he's giving up his throne anytime soon! A

No comments:

Post a Comment