Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review: Avatar

To call James Cameron's Avatar immersive would be an understatement. If you haven't heard of it, I'd like to ask how you have access to my blog underneath your rock. It tells the story a paralyzed marine Jake Sully in the year 2154, who replaces his deceased brother on an avatar project. The avatar program allows Jake to become animated into the planet Pandora as one of the native Na'vi people, regaining use of his legs in the process. While on Pandora, Jake is tapped to gain military and scientific intelligence about the planet, most notably, the location of a rare element Unobtanium. As Jake learns more about the Na'vi people and the planet they call home, he becomes increasingly torn about his role.

15 years in development and 4 years in a making, Avatar has been hailed as the film that will bring motion capture technology, CGI wizardry and 3D technology to dizzying new heights. From a technical standpoint, Cameron delivers on all fronts. Never have I seen such imaginative landscapes, seamless CGI/live-action integration and flawless motion capture. In the 12 years since Titanic, Cameron has become enamored with underwater landscapes and released 2 documentaries exploring the depths of the ocean floor. This fascination is apparent in every frame of Avatar, but especially pronounced in the night scenes that feature a carnival of bioluminescence. The world of Pandora is so vividly realized and transformative, that we the audience are just as disappointed as Jake when he is unplugged from his avatar and returned to the real world and just as aghast at the destruction that follows. The 3D technology is stirring but never jarring, changing focus and depth just like the human eye, placing the viewer in the center of the action, but never resorting to "WHOA" gimmickry.

The plot here is nothing new, corporate greed vs ecological conscience, but because the world on display here is so jaw-droppingly fresh and new, the story feels that way also. Through these rose-colored 3D glasses, otherwise campy dialogue sounds endearing, blatant foreshadowing is overlooked, and an otherwise awkward love story between 10 foot tall blue aliens is staggeringly convincing. Who knows whether it will be as captivating upon repeat viewings, but such is the euphoric trance that Cameron conjures here.

I believe that what keeps this film from transcending from the ultimate popcorn experience to legitimate masterpiece is Cameron's tendency to tell rather than show. He doesn't trust his audience's intelligence to piece together what is happening around them, opting to add narration and back-and-forth's between characters to explain things that we understood already or could have easily picked up on with more delicate direction. It's both thrilling and maddening that someone responsible for the revolutionary art direction on display here still relies on tried and true (and boring) methods of storytelling.

While the above paragraph may seem contradictory, let me be clear in saying that Avatar is an incredible theater experience and does things with the film medium that have never been done. It has to been seen to be believed. While the creativity here is enough to distract from other flaws on first viewing, I don't believe repeat viewings will be so kind. If he ever allows a capable screenwriter to get ahold of his script, WATCH OUT WORLD.

Authors note: I have not seen T2:Judgement Day, True Lies, Aliens or The Terminator, but on all of these Cameron shares screenwriting credits.

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