December 22, 2009

Avatar Review

First, the technical. I caught the movie, "The Fall" awhile back and I've considered it the most amazing cinematography in a movie I've every seen. I couldn't really tell what was real and what wasn't and ended up letting the movie just flow by. "Avatar" outdoes "The Fall" and it's hardly a contest. We've all seen 3D movies, the technology comes and goes (anyone remember the beginning credits to the old show "Happy Days" where all the people in the audience jump back at the same time, all wearing those 3D glasses?). The 3D in "Avatar," though, is the best I've every seen. It goes beyond camera tricks of poking things at the screen to make the audience jump (OK, maybe there were a couple of those times), the 3D puts you in the same room with the actors. Just looking at them sitting down, doing little or nothing, you feel as though you could walk around them... as if they are a solid presence before you. We saw the movie at an IMAX theater, so I don't know if that makes a difference in the quality of the 3D, but it was masterful.

This is all to say nothing about the Navi, the indigenous people of the planet Pandora. James Cameron brought together a team which has transferred living emotion and texture to animation. This has been a long time coming. Even as far back as "Wizards" in 1977 Ralph Bakshi was filming people and animating their forms... but the Navi wear their humanity on their sleeves in a way no animation ever has. I knew something of the movie going in, so I knew the Navi were large (ten feet tall or more), but size is relative, isn't it... what difference does it make if someone is ten feet tall if everyone is ten feet tall, yes? But in the scenes where the Navi are interacting with humans the dimensions are striking. In a very basic way, it reminded me of a scene from an old favorite book, "A Wrinkle in Time" -- if you've read it, do you remember when the kids escape from the dark planet with their father and Meg is nursed back to health by "Aunt Beast" -- the difference between the young girl, Meg, and the giant Aunt Beast comforting her has always stuck with me... think of a Wookie cuddling a broken, frozen child. But that's neither here, nor there. Cameron has brought ten-foot-tall blue aliens to life in this movie.

Second, the story. Special effects can get in the way, just watch the seven-part viral take-down of "The Phantom Menace" to see evidence of how bad a movie can be if all it has are multimillion dollar special effects going for it. I've already read some reviews of "Avatar" that call it "Dances with Wolves in Space" or take it to task for slamming the military (shame on you, Big Hollywood, for making everything about politics -- there are no American Troops in this movie, the military folk are all hired guns in the story), or complain that Avatar is an anthem for the Green movement. Come on... I've seen Hollywood on a rant ("Rendition" 'Ferngully") and just didn't get that vibe here at all. Yes, there was a corporation (not unlike the one in the movie Alien) mining Pandora and that corporation had few morals and followed no laws -- I imagine that might happen if Man ever actually does manage to spread into space). I feel perfectly able to imagine a villainous, greedy corporation involved in space mining and that corporation doesn't make me hate insurance providers, or Ford Motor Company, or IBM, or (dare I say it) Halliburton. We don't live in a stick-figure world and we don't have to think like stick-figures.

And speaking of stick-figures... the performances in Avatar were anything but flat -- as many seem to be in preachy, speachy, teachy movies. Stephen Lang's "Colonel Quaritch" is a villain to remember and Zoe Saldona's "Neytiri" might just deserve a special category of award for the purity of her emotional performance, captured in this new style of technology. Cameron, as always, seems to pull the best out of everyone on the screen. I've read a few reviews that say there was no story, no plot. I can only assume those reviewers choose, for purposes of their own, to ignore the story.

"History is written by the victors," the old saying goes. A suicide bomber who takes out an entire city of men, women and children, might be a hero if he's a human fighting off aliens, like Henry in John Christopher's Tripod Trilogy, or he might be a villain for killing far fewer if he's on the wrong side of history. If "Avatar" was only bashing America for past and perceived sins, James Cameron would have a loser on his hands. Instead, he's writing his own history. For what it's worth, about half the audience stayed in their seats, reading the credits and talking over the highlights of what they'd just seen, instead of standing up and heading for the doors at first light. I've always considered that a sign of a good movie. It's too violent for pre-teens (IMHO). Go see it without them, I don't think you'll be sorry.

Note: some have said they were nauseated by the technology... I didn't experience that, but the movie does have a dizzying effect at times when you pull yourself out of the action.

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