Review: “Avatar – The IMAX 3D Experience”

December 18, 2009 at 8:41 pm 6 comments

I’ll admit it, I was a bit down on this movie since the first screens started popping up on the Internet.  James Cameron is an amazing filmmaker and all (Terminator 2: Judgment Day is one of the best films of all time, in my opinion), but there wasn’t anything I was seeing that made me go “Yes, I will support this film unconditionally.”  Even when I went to a screening of 15 minutes of IMAX 3D footage, I was still unimpressed.  Don’t get me wrong, the visuals looked amazing; the story, however, still wasn’t captivating me.  But, when tickets went on sale for midnight on opening day, I was all in.  Regardless of the story, I love movie spectacle, and at the very least, this promised to be quite the spectacle.

Avatar takes place on a distant planet called Pandora (technically a moon, since it’s orbiting a much larger body).  Pandora is home to a rare mineral called Unobtanium (pun possibly intentional), as well as the world’s native species called the Na’vi.  Earth wants the Unobtanium, and has hired military contractors to go in and extract the mineral from the planet, thinking nothing of the Na’vi.  As you can imagine, it creates conflict between the natives and the humans.

Attempting to find a peaceful resolution, Grace (Sigourney Weaver), a scientist studying the Na’vi, has developed a unique way of communicating with them via avatars: genetically engineered bodies that look just like the Na’vi, but the ‘mind’ is inhabited by a human through some crazy scientific process that involves sleep.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is a former Marine, now a paraplegic.  His brother was one of the chosen few accepted into this avatar program.  His brother is now dead, and since the two of them were identical twins, Sully is picked to replace his brother and use his avatar to gain the trust of the local Na’vi.  The military, lead by Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) want a local Na’vi tribe to relocate away from their massive ‘hometree’ in order for a greedy company, headed by Miles Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) to begin excavation.

Long story short, Sully and a few others begin siding with the Na’vi and an uprising begins that pits all the tribes of the Na’vi against the smaller, yet far more technologically advanced group of military contractors.

This movie will probably go down in history as the most expensive flick ever made (so far).  Some reports have it at $200 million, funded primarily through the distributor, 20th Century Fox.  Others have it at around $500 million (that’s half a billion dollars folks), funded partly by Fox, and the rest through Cameron and other investors.  The reason for the hefty price tag: a new, state of the art 3D camera system, dubbed the ‘Pace-Cameron Fusion’ camera system.  It’s so cutting edge, that rumor has it Spielberg, Lucas, and Jackson were all giddy like schoolkids when they were allowed time with the cameras.

Well, regardless of what it really cost, every frame of this film is gorgeous.  The 3D technology here is leaps and bounds ahead of other live-action 3D (like My Bloody Valentine 3D).  For one, it didn’t hurt my eyes every time I tried to refocus on something else.  Also, the depth of field is amazing.  The way they use 3D here really allows the camera to feel like its inside the space it’s filming, regardless of whether that space is a CG grassy plain, or a real studio set dressed to look like science lab.  There’s not a moment when you don’t see where all that money went.

Area 5 Media co-founder Matt Chandronait tweeted that it’s the first time the uncanny valley has been crossed in film. While I believe the CG is still not that good just yet, it’s still damn pretty.  When a real hand touches CG skin, it looks like it’s touching something, and not just empty air.  Things look like they have weight and presence in the environment, and the blending of real and fantasy is almost seamless at times.  Just watching the hair on the Na’vi was impressive.

The cast is also very good here.  For a film that’s mostly CG inhabited by real people, the actors do a great job ‘living in their environments’.  I give kudos to the great Stephen Lang, who was also in this summer’s Public Enemies (and had a great turn in the Civil War epics Gettysburg and Gods and Generals).  Lang is fantastic as the xenophobic Quaritch.

So now, let’s get to what I found slightly lacking in this film.

The story is basically a rehash of FernGully: The Last Rainforest.  Evil corporation comes in, wanting to destroy nature for resources and profit.  Band of technologically disadvantaged natives must fight back in order to protect their home.  Nothing new here.  What is impressive is the world that James Cameron has built.  Roger Ebert compared this film to Star Wars, in that a complete world was created from scratch; the people, the customs, the plants all have some kind of meaning.  In fact, the Na’vi speak of an energy force that a lot like Lucas’ concept of The Force.

Unfortunately, the overall story arc left me wanting more.  The entire movie was like an anti-war film wrapped up in a green message.  A lot of the references made, such as ‘fighting terror with terror’ would’ve been relevant in 2005, but instead made the audience chuckle and shake their heads when we heard it.  And as much as I enjoyed Stephen Lang, none of the villains here had any real depth.  Here’s the bad guy, and he’s bad.  Here are the good guys, and they’re misunderstood, so they must be good.  Only Worthington’s Sully goes through any change throughout the entire 2 1/2hr+ run time.

In comparison, when you look at Terminator 2, all the main characters (the Terminator, John, and Sarah Connor) go through some kind of change.  John finds a father figure in the robotic assassin, in robot actually learns to understand and even have human emotions, and Sarah learns to finally trust and to live like a human again.  In Avatar, Quaritch is a bad guy through  and through, Selfridge us a selfish dick (pun probably intended there, too), and Grace is a compassionate humanitarian who probably wishes she were one of the aliens.  Even supporting characters like Michelle Rodriguez’s pilot Trudy don’t really go through a change (at least not one that’s fleshed out).

And although I liked the visuals of the film, I still don’t believe the 3D added anything to this story.  Sure, it looked awesome, but was there anything in the plot that warranted developing an entirely new filmmaking technique for?  I don’t think so.  The story was entertaining at best.

James Cameron’s Avatar is one of those few films that has the word E-P-I-C written all over it.  Not since 2005’s Revenge of the Sith has there been such cinematic spectacle as this.  Underneath it all, Cameron still knows how to tell a pretty fun story.  While the plot may be cliché, there’s no denying that it’s still damn fun to watch, and you don’t ever really get bored.  Avatar would probably have no problem making its way onto Best Films of the Year Lists.  Also, the film’s Golden Globe nod is also well-deserved (could an Oscar nom be far behind?).  It’s a solid, well-made science fiction epic, the likes of which haven’t been seen since 1977.

8.5/10


The IMAX 3D EXPERIENCE

I feel I must address my experience dealing specifically with IMAX and the whole 3D presentation in the theatre.  For the first 20 minutes or so, my girlfriend and I did not see anything in 3D.  Why?  I had the wrong 3D glasses. We’ve been using the same pair of glasses for 3D flicks for about a year now, and the only reason is because all the 3D theatres use the same 3D projection tech.

Not IMAX.

I’m assuming it’s because the way the screen is curved, and the fact that the print is 70mm (twice as big as traditional 35mm), it requires special glasses.  I had to get up, go outside, and ask for the proper ones.  Once everything was OK, I was finally able to marvel at the visual brilliance of the film.

If you’re going to see this movie, you need to see this in IMAX.  Some movies it won’t matter (Monsters vs Aliens, Star Trek), but for Avatar, IMAX 3D is the way James Cameron intended the movie to be shown.  Now, I’m not saying you won’t enjoy it in a regular 2D theatre (like I mentioned previously, the story doesn’t warrant itself a 3D presentation), but rarely does a film come along that demands this kind of attention, that almost requires you to shell out the big bucks for a $15+ movie ticket.  It’s like having a home theatre system: there are some movies that just need the best presentation possible in order to be fully immersed in it.

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6 Comments Add your own

  • 1. nelsonyong  |  December 23, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Great article– I agree wholeheartedyly about having to watch this in IMAX. It’s the way it was meant to be shown, plus 6 months or 2 years from now, you’re never going to have that chance to watch this movie in all its splendor again.

    Check out my brief review at http://www.hypocriticalacclaim.com/ .

    Reply
  • 2. nelsonyong  |  December 23, 2009 at 12:03 pm

    Great article– I agree wholeheartedly about having to watch this in IMAX. It’s the way it was meant to be shown, plus 6 months or 2 years from now, you’re never going to have that chance to watch this movie in all its splendor again.

    Check out my brief review at http://www.hypocriticalacclaim.com/ .

    Reply
  • 3. Andy S.  |  January 4, 2010 at 4:06 pm

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on Avatar. Your criticism of the story as being weak because, according to you, only one character goes through a change is simplistic, inaccurate and not well thought out. Counting the number of characters who “change” during the course of a movie is hardly a reliable indicator of good writing or good filmmaking, there are in fact several characters who change throughout the movie. Grace’s relationship to Jake changes, Neytiri (who you completely ingore in your article) changes her point of view twice in her relationship with Jake, and the entire Na’vi tribe changes in their relationship with Jake. An honest assessment would have considered this. And then compare it to the majority of mainstream Hollywood movies and tell us which others show as much imagination.

    Reply
    • 4. littleman00  |  January 4, 2010 at 8:28 pm

      Andy S.,

      Thanks for commenting on my blog. You’re right, I did leave out Neytiri. She’s the only Na’vi that’s fleshed out, and the only other character, aside from Sully, that I actually gave a damn about. Neytiri goes through a whole range of emotions throughout the film, and all pertain directly to the story or the main character.

      But, as for Grace, I couldn’t care less about what happened to her. She seemed like a self-absorbed bitch who was so wrapped up in her own work that she doesn’t care about her co-workers (she didn’t seem to care about Sully’s brother being dead, only that it’s hindering her experiment). Also, her storyline has some plot holes. For example, halfway through the movie, she picks up her entire lab and some of her staff and flies them far away from the human compound, in an effort to keep Selfridge and Quaritch’s eyes away from her work (and Sully).

      Makes sense, except that it leaves the question of who’s really in charge of the scientific mission. Is it Grace, or the military, since Trudi, a military pilot, still flies with them? If it’s the military, why do they allow Grace to just pack up and leave? Also, why didn’t Trudi get reprimanded for refusing to fire upon the Na’vi?

      And to clarify regarding the villains in the movie. You don’t have to like a villain to consider them worth watching, you just have to find some kind of understanding in what they’re doing. Any acting or screenwriting teacher will tell you that there’s no such thing as a ‘hero’ or ‘villain’, only two sets of people who want opposite things. Quaritch is a bad guy, and he does bad things, and I did not understand, nor care, why he does what he does. I did not understand what he wanted or why. Yes, he hates the Na’vi, but why? Maybe he saw them slaughter some contractors, and now Quaritch feels his actions are more defensive in nature? Cameron doesn’t give us any chance to understand Quaritch.

      Same goes for Selfridge.

      And regarding the ‘imagination’ in this movie: I’m not saying there isn’t any, the whole damn movie is proof that Cameron is a very imaginative filmmaker who is able to get his ideas across onto the screen. But this movie, essentially, is about an outsider being accepted into a society he does not understand, and one that doesn’t understand him. Go watch ‘Dances with Wolves’; sure, it’s from 1990 and may seem dated to some younger viewers (especially considering its length), but there is absolutely nothing in ‘Avatar’ that wasn’t done in Kevin Costner’s flick (which did it better). Hell, there wasn’t anything, story-wise, that was done in ‘Avatar’ that wasn’t done in Edward Zwick’s ‘The Last Samurai’.

      I’m not saying those movies are, as a whole, better or worse than ‘Avatar’, I’m just pointing out that, as far as the screenplay goes, Cameron has written better work. And remember, I did like the movie, I just appreciate it more for its visuals than its story.

      Reply
      • 5. Andy S.  |  January 5, 2010 at 3:15 pm

        OK, I get it. You like the movie, but you don’t think so much of the screenplay. But by saying that there’s nothing in Avatar that wasn’t done (story-wise) in Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai you are again being disingenuous. The main conceit of Avatar is that one brain is alternately controlling two different bodies, and of course there’s nothing of this premise in Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, or any other movie you’d like to compare it to. Obviously, there are only a handful of themes and stories which are told throughout history, and just being able to point out story elements that are similar in other movies does not conclude that a screenplay is weak. Avatar does have weaknesses in the story, but the theme of the outsider being accepted into a different society is not a problem of the story.

  • 6. Bill S  |  January 27, 2010 at 11:59 am

    I wholeheartedly agree with littleman00. The attitudes and reactions of many of the characters, especially Grace and Quaritch seemed like charicatures. This continued throughout the movie and it made it difficult to identify with any character. Instead I settled for the “3-D” experience. Even the “green message” was compromised because it felt like I was being “preached to.”
    I still recommended the movie to friends for the visuals – and perhaps they would not get caught up with the “I don’t get where the attitudes are coming from” aspects of the movie.

    Reply

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