Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Avatar: The Next Step in Filmmaking?

Probably later than most readers of this blog, I finally got around to seeing James Cameron's Avatar (you can find the preview post here) today at my hometown IMAX theater. The much anticipated, much publicized (I'm not sure how many fans of The Tonight Show are out there, but Ben Stiller actually went on and promoted the movie even though he was not a part of it in any way -- never seen anyone do that before) movie did not disappoint. I'm not ready to give it best picture or anything, but the special effects are pretty incredible, and the story itself is a pretty good one.

Simply put, Avatar is the most technologically advanced movie that you've ever seen. Aside from the fact that it's in entirely in 3-D (although, to be honest, there really weren't that many scenes in the movie where things were "coming out of the screen" like you'd expect) on special stereoscopic cameras that were specially designed for Cameron's vision, the computer generated characters were created via a brand new type of motion capture technology. I won't get bogged down in the details of how it works, but it essentially allowed Cameron to watch the digital creation of his film in real-time, as his actors were actually acting (as opposed to other motion capture technologies where the digital world are created after the actor's motions are captured). The end result is a fantastic computer-generated world (Pandora) that is full of awesomely imaginative vegetation, creatures, and the Na'vi (the natives of the land).

The story itself is also very well done. Markedly similar to the classic tales of Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai (and, as one of my friends said after he saw it -- it's "basically FernGully on steroids"), the movie tells the story of Jack Skully (Sam Worthington), a crippled former marine chosen to help a mining company explore Pandora by entering the world remotely through the control of a genetically created Na'vi. Skully also secretly agrees to provide intel to Colonel Quaritich (Stephen Lang), the head of the company's security detail (basically an army), on how to defeat the Na'vi. But after spending time with the Na'vi and learning their ways, Skully finds that he feels he belongs more with them than the human race, siding with the natives he originally set out to destroy (just like Kevin Costner and Tom Cruise's characters did in their respective movies). I won't go in to further detail, but trust me that the plot is both simple enough for young children to enjoy and complex enough that any seasoned movie-goer will not be disappointed. This is, after all, a James Cameron production, and this blogger has always thought that he is a master of drawing in audiences of all ages and backgrounds.

I was honestly a little bit underwhelmed with the acting performances of most of the cast, but they weren't bad enough to really put a dent in the armor that the rest of the movie's positives have created. Giovanni Ribisi's Parker Selfridge (the "suit" from the mining company in charge of the project) is really just not believable in his role (despite the fact that I actually think Ribisi is a pretty good actor in general). Worthington, Sigourney Weaver (who plays head researcher and fellow lover of the Na'vi , Dr. Grace Augustine), and Michelle Rodriguez (who plays fighter pilot Trudy Chacon -- and whose work I've honestly never really appreciated) were all average at best. And Stephen Lang's Quaritich is a little bit cliched and doesn't really contribute much to the film. I actually thought the best work of the film came from Zoe Saldana (who we never actually see, but whose voice work was very well done) as the Na'vi princess and Skully love interest, Neytiri. She is very believable as a tribal princess who is both proud and passionate in her love of all living creatures.

But don't let me lead you to believe these are reasons not to go see this movie. Aside from Ribisi, I really wouldn't complain about any actor in the film. I'm only emphasizing the fact that no performance really jumped out at me as anything close to Oscar worthy. The movie is still an absolute spectacle that is definitely worth the two and a half hours (as well as the increased ticket costs for IMAX or 3-D) that you'll need to devote to it.

Bottom line: As expected, Cameron strikes again. Let's hope the movie is successful enough to warrant the two sequels that he has planned. (B+)

I won't insult you with a trailer -- if you had any contact with the world in the last month, you've seen it.

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