Friday, December 18, 2009

Avatar (spoiler-free review)

What do Peter Jackson, George Lucas, Paul Verhoeven, and the Wachowski brothers have in common? They will all be banging their heads against walls, wishing they had made "Avatar", or at least lamenting that it steals their thunder.

I have seen Imax films before, and I've seen the latest generation of 3-D films (most recently, the Disney remake of A Christmas Carol, which I didn't hate, but certainly didn't love). But I have never before today actually seen an Imax 3-D film.

Today I saw James Cameron's "Avatar", in Imax 3-D.

This was a film that was enormously hyped prior to its release (as well it should be, given its purported half-billion-dollar production cost). Cameron invented entirely new technologies just to make his film, knowing that the story wouldn't work without them. It's not an already-established franchise from successful books or video games, and aside from Sigourney Weaver it doesn't have an A-List cast. What a gamble...

A successful scifi/action film requires three elements, at the very least; effects, story, and acting. Let me take these elements in order.

The 3-D effect is remarkable. I saw Disney's "A Christmas Carol" just a few weeks ago, and I've got to say the 3-D in "Avatar" is superior. Perhaps it's the way that Cameron uses it; there are no boogies-jumping-at-the-screen. It is most impressive when it's the most understated; when you're looking down a corridor, and it's like you're looking through a window. There were a couple of instances where the old foe of 3-D came through-- in most of the shots where there was a very strong contrast between a dark foreground and a brightly-lit background, there was a bit of fuzziness in the 3-D. But other than that it was impeccable.

Although can we PLEASE lose the Matrix-esque "moving-down-a-tunnel-of-light-to-simulate-connecting-to-a-virtual-world" effect? It was lame when it was green. Making it white is no improvement.

The digital effects are just effing stunning. Cameron said that when he saw what Peter Jackson did with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings, he thought it would be possible to realize his vision. But... damn... the natives (who are all CGI) absolutely blow away the trolls of LoTR, and sad to say the clone troopers and Geonosians of SW:Episode III are left in the dust.

The plot is somewhat ham-fisted in its condemnation of colonialism and capitalism, but that is really secondary to the story of the embedded spy who "goes native" and has to choose between his own people and the people he has come to know and love. Add in a love story with a great twist, and the political and personal sub-plots between the various factions (military, civilian, and scientific) behind the Earth colony on Pandora, and it's a very complex film, although Cameron is able to keep his primary plot moving like a juggernaut, and the sub-plots help it along in its inevitable track, but not (usually) in a predictable fashion.

The acting is just wonderful. The live action sequences (and the line between those and the CGI sequences continues to blur) are excellently served by the cast, and the effects wizards really seem to have learned a knack for translating the performances of the actors into their digital doppelgangers (dare I say avatars?).

I am deliberately not going into details because I don't want to include any spoilers. But the effects are almost perfectly executed, the story is well thought-out and carries the action excellently without seeming contrived, and the acting is first-rate.

I cannot say that "Avatar" is the best science-fiction movie ever made (I still keep Stanley Kubric's "2001: A Space Odyssey" in that slot), I think it may well be the best sci-fi/action film I've ever seen, if one cares to split such hairs. Certainly it beats T2, the Matrix films, and even Star Wars (if the Ewoks were big and blue, this would be Lucas's ideal "a primitive culture defeats a technologically superior one through ingenuity and determination" scenario).

One important caveat: I don't think this is the birth of a franchise. Cameron told his story, and there's little more to be said (although any hack could always plop a mediocre film in the same setting). I truly hope this film makes its millions, and is then left to lie fallow in the field of Hollywood's few truly original films.

Overall, I would give this film five stars. It's outstanding on both the technological and storytelling levels. It's honestly something that you should see.