James Cameron’s Avatar features an unoriginal narrative lacking any subtlety, but the precision execution of the story progression and utilization of state-of-the-art movie-making techniques, create an instant classic not only for its skill, but for the broad acceptance of its audience of what’s essentially an animated movie for adults.
In the future, a corporation with a private military arm from Earth, colonize a distant, Earth-like moon, with the express purpose of plundering it for a highly sought-after resource, with little regard for the native inhabitants and destruction of the ecology. If this sounds familiar, it is, because parallels can be drawn from our own human history – the British invading Africa, The Spanish conquering Mexico/South America for gold, the Europeans settling in North America, or more recently, invasion of Middle Eastern countries for their gold; take your pick. There’s also a small group trying to convince the majority to respect the indigenous people, who will eventually be led by someone who previously supported the corporation’s goals, but learn the ways of the locals, earns their respect, and leads them against his own people. Sound even more familiar? In this regard, Avatar’s narrative is far from original, drawing comparisons to Tom Cruise’s The Last Samurai or even more uncannily, the recent, CG-animated Battle For Terra.
Sam Worthington plays Jake, a paraplegic former Marine who is asked to replace his dead twin brother, a scientist working for the RDA corporation that’s mining the moon Pandora, for a valuable mineral called Unobtainium. In the hopes of facilitating relations with the native Na’vi and more easily traverse the dangerous-to-humans ecology of Pandora, the scientists developed Avatars – Na’vi bodies modified with human DNA to allow control via a mental link. Because one of the Avatars is based on his twin brother’s DNA, and twins share the same genetic makeup, Jake is tasked with “piloting” his brother’s Avatar. The movie wisely sidesteps the science behind it, providing just enough information about the technology not to raise too many questions except from die-hard nerds, and believeably puts the mind of the human inside the body of another creature.
When Jake is inside his Avatar, he is freed of his paraplegic body and the more he infiltrates the native Na’vi, the less he relates to his own humanity, setting up a believable character progression. When the company grows frustrated with the science team’s progress, military force is approved and Jake’s ultimate decision with who to side with, is not unexpected, with good and bad characters easily defined. Character motivations are practically written on their sleeves, but the acting is solid, with emotions feeling genuine and visually expressive, even in the CG Na’vi whose actors, such as the lovely Zoe Saldana, are perfectly performance-captured in exquisite detail.
The Na’vi is just one of the highlights of the beautiful CG. Everything has a naturally lighted and heavily textured appearance, all animated realistically with fluid pace. Characters move like they should. Explosions, debris, and clouds of smoke mushroom like you would expect, and even the eyes of the characters look where they are supposed to instead of the always-looking-forward, blank stare you’ve seen in previous movies like Final Fantasy and The Polar Express. When Jake is in his Avatar and among the Na’vi, your disbelief is suspended and the cartoony look of the characters, that was so distracting in the promo materials leading up the movie’s release, becomes unimportant. However, disbelief returns whenever humans and Na’vi appear onscreen together. The imperfect merging of live action and any plant, animal or Na’vi is the only minor fault to the special effects.
There are fewer live action sequences than you might expect, which sidesteps many of the impressionary and film-making challenges previously outlined. So much is computer generated, that few will argue Avatar isn’t an animated movie. If it’s an animated movie, James Cameron has achieved another milestone: he’s created the first, truly, widely accepted, animated movie for adults. There have been many other animated movies targeted at adults and not just family, such as The Triplets of Belleville and the recent Beowulf, but none were ever taken seriously and embraced by the majority of western audiences. Unlike in Japan where animation (anime) is widely used for the production of both family and adult fare and accepted by adults, animations for adults never really caught on with western audiences. One could argue Avatar is an anime feature. That’s even more befitting when you consider Cameron was set to bring the famous Japanese anime, Battle Angel, to the big screen long before announcement of Avatar.
So much about Avatar is unexpected and misjudged, from the animation to the derivative story. For example, the groan-inducing naming of the mineral Unobtainium may sound childish, but within the context of the movie, the name is a sarcastic joke. The story is patently derivative, but the dialogue is never forced, and situations are believable, including a revelation about the planet near the end that will bring smiles to your face by its elegant logic. Like the acclaimed game Uncharted 2, Avatar is not original, but the art is in the perfect execution of all its parts, like a gifted pianist playing a complicated Mozart piece – the pianist didn’t write it and he wasn’t the first, but he played it the best.
Use Of Stereoscopic 3D
Filmed in true stereoscopic 3D using a parallax-adjusting camera system, the live action shots show spectacular depth, seamlessly blending with equally parallax-perfect CG sequences. There’s never a “cardboard cutout” feeling like other movies artificially processed with pseudo-stereoscopy that merely isolates the foreground from the background or films shot with two lenses strapped side-by-side and no adjustment for parallax – this is what makes Avatar truly innovative and James Cameron ups the ante by how well the CG tracks the live camera’s parallax. There’s no gimmicky “long object sticking out of the screen” moments. You can feel the sense of roundness on objects and characters’ faces. In IMAX, action sequences give you that eye-witness feeling. The depth of field is wider than standard movie-making, but still too narrow in many sequences. It’s a minor quibble, but today’s ADHD audience will find it straining on the eyes, especially during the beginning of the film when you try to soak in all the wonderful imagery by looking around the screen, your eyes naturally trying to switch depths with futility. It took me about 30 minutes to stop looking around and focus my attention to the center of the screen like we’re supposed to.
What will blow the minds of anyone who is familiar with stereographic production, is James Cameron’s incredible attention to the nuances of the technology and tailor the film-making process accordingly. The palette is bright to compensate for the slight dimming of the stereo glasses viewers wear, compensated further by making the planet’s flora and fauna glow which works especially well in dark scenes that normally negate any stereo effects. Main subjects are often set against detailed backgrounds such as plant life, leaves in trees, to further draw the subject out of the picture and layered between other objects such as plants and equipment, to heighten the feeling of depth. Everything is incredibly incorporated into the story and presentation.
Hotness Of Girl(s)
There’s no denying the resemblance of the female Na’vi to the tall, long, leanness of stereotypical images of native, tribal Africans. It’s also the current ideal of beauty in the media, reminiscent of fashion models who are tall, skinny, and vaguely boyish with fewer curves and smaller breasts. The design of the Na’vi is shrewdly pop culture in this manner with fashion-model bodies, slender faces, and big eyes. It’s easy to find them attractive, however alien, re-enforcing the comparisons between Avatar and anime. Being a military-themed motion picture, there are few females with Sigourney Weaver and Michelle Rodriguez playing the only major live action characters, both dressed-down in their expected manners. They’re not ugly and there’s a you-can-almost-see-her-naked sequence involving Ms. Weaver, but the half-naked, CG Na’vi provide the only titillation.
There’s CG because it’s required such as movies like The Lord Of The Rings. There’s CG for the sake of eye candy like so many disaster films. But, like many of his previous movies, James Cameron doesn’t just break new ground in special effects, he proves once again he is the undisputed master of making CG and next generation effects, natural and integral parts to the story.