Thursday, March 25, 2010

Avatar Review

It's good to be commenting on current events from time to time to keep it relevant. I don't go to the theaters very often since my son was born, but the last film I did see on the big screen was Avatar. The 3-D factor had something to do with that - a very clever technique to get people out to theaters rather than wait for the DVD, and to charge a dollar more. The box office lady said it was to cover the cost of making a 3-D film... yeah, right. How about 3 hours of CGI running time?

I haven't seen a sci-fi film generate such a wide buzz in quite a while. Unlike the original Star Wars, which gained its popular appeal after its release and based on its content, Avatar was anticipated mainly for the weight of its director, James Cameron, who gained official celebrity status with his Oscar sweeping Titanic movie, and who did a great job of marketing the film. That made for a record breaking opening weekend, but only technical awards at this year's Oscars.

And in that regard, it certainly deserved them. The integration of the actor's performances with the CGI motion capture was an amazing achievement and will set a new stardard going forward. Have we finally crossed the threshold where the performance of an actor or actress behind a CGI character can garner an Oscar nomination? If so, I would have placed my bets on Zoe Saldana's performance as Neytiri (see the lovely graphic above), even though her real life face was never seen in the film. The entire Pandora planet is a feast for the eyes that never gets old during the entire 3 hour run.

The basic storyline is not very original, but it strikes a chord with many people. My own wife is from Africa, and although she's not really into sci-fi, she couldn't wait to see this film because it mirrors a story so often experienced on her continent. As a drama, it does manage to develop the characters and draw you in emotionally. Cameron spent plenty of time on character treatment before the final battle scene so you could easily feel for their plight. On the down side, some of the dialogue was so cliche it was painful to listen to.

Concept-wise, the world of Pandora was full of great stuff. You could see the influence of Ubisoft, the makers of the Myst game series, who were already master computer world creators. Some would argue the animals were too analogous to Earth creatures, fair enough. But the commonalities in their body plans, and nice balance between plant, insect, herbivore, and carnivore, gave it some realism. I especially liked the beautiful rendition of the floating mountains, even though I could not think of any way the laws of Physics could support it (magnetic fields? c'mon guys). While were on that, who thought of naming the coveted mineral "Unobtainium"? I thought it was just a joke at first. And what value did it have that any corporation would spend so much money to travel across the galaxy to mine it? At least in Dune, the spice actually enabled space travel itself, thus paying for its own transport cost. These examples show how the film fell short of the requisite explainability factor in favor of what would look good or further the story line.

In summary, Avatar won't go down in film history as an artistic achievement, but it will be remembered for its effects breakthroughs and stunning visuals. The whole avatar concept, and the sheer work put into creating a planet world, is sufficient to place it in the annals of science fiction.

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