December 26, 2009

Avatar Review

Starring Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana
Directed by James Cameron

One could say that Avatar is like Spore in the sense that it has been developed and worked on for more than 5-10 years, and the PR people keep giving out huge, nearly impossible promises that simply raise the hopes of many a tad bit too much. In Spore's case, the game never really delivered its lofty promises, but in Avatar's case, well, the scenario is actually quite the opposite (although it kinda helps that the promise emphasizes on the 3D rather than the overall story).

Leaving the theater, I was literally out of breath and gasping for air because of the sheer spectacle I just witnessed. The special effects alone were enough to blow my mind out of its place, but couple that with a final battle of epic proportions and you just might end up speechless.

The imaginative world James Cameron made up in his head a decade ago actually dares to be bright and colorful, especially in a time when movies that have dark tones are considered edgy and cool. This entire world, especially in 3D, is just full of luscious life, and the entire biosphere that surrounds the planet of Pandora is just teeming with beauty and near-photorealism. Hell, even before the planet of Pandora is revealed to us, the effects already become rather perplexing and eye-popping, I was literally opening my eyes wide and looking left, right, up and down as the movie coursed through its 2 hour and 45 minute running time. And the performance capture utilized in the Na'vi? It is close to perfection. The faces of these blue people are impressively expressive, yet the people themselves don't even look creepy ala the people that populate recent Robert Zemeckis films. Long story short, the effects just literally put the 'awe' in awesome, and with such a great world and great performance capture, there's no doubt that WETA's gonna win the Oscar for Best Special Effects.

But the 3D, while a compelling part of the movie, isn't really a point of focus when you review a movie that'll eventually get a release on DVD without the 3D effects. So ignoring the aesthetics and digging into the plot, well, there's actually not much new to dig into. But if you insist: Jake Scully is a paraplegic ex-marine whose scientist brother passed away, and since they both share the same DNA, Jake is tasked with controlling the Avatar his brother left behind so they can pursue academic research and establish diplomatic ties. Basically, an Avatar here is a body made from the DNA of a human fused with the DNA of a Na'vi.

But a certain Colonel wants Jake to help them get a rare multi-million dollar mineral Unobtanium, and while Jake opts in at first, the things he learns from the tree-hugging Na'vi (courtesy of his teacher-slash-love-interest Neytiri) get the best of him so he ends up siding with the blue aliens. Will they win the war to protect their planet?

Now, I can go on about how insanely generic and unoriginal this plot is, I mean, the movie draws inspiration from a lot of other flicks like... -deep breath- Dances With Wolves (which Cameron directly admitted), Ferngully, The Matrix, Pocahontas, by jove, the list goes on. But when all is said and done, it doesn't really matter: it's a James Cameron film, so the action that occurs is always entertaining, and learning about the culture of the Na'vi is actually kind of absorbing even though it shouldn't. James Cameron's ability to tell any story and make anything riveting is at full display here, and it's just undeniably effective.

Fine, the characters, especially the humans, are kinda two-dimensional (and at some point, one-dimensional too), and the themes of "the big bad corporation" or "the big bad military" are simply James Cameron staples, really. Ever seen the second Terminator?

And to the film's credit, at least it doesn't overstate the importance of protecting nature. I mean, the mention of "we're connected to everything that grows in the land" isn't the most subtle hint to this 'lesson', but everything just feels right enough for this obvious concept to be a bit more understated, thus making the film less than preachy.

In James Cameron's defense, he's usually credited for being a pretty good screenwriter, I mean, just take a look at his filmography: most of them are written (or at least, co-written) by Cameron himself. Did anyone argue about the Terminator or Aliens? He wrote those iconic movies, so it's really a mystery as to how such a man can merely rely on making such a crappy script compared to his older work. My guess is that he also considered that advertising a movie about blue people would prove to be too risky if it had a plot that was too inaccessible for the mass audience. I mean, it kinda makes sense: he's advertising a technology that's named after him, but the only way to recoup all that money the studio spent on the film is simply by making it very accessible to more people. It's like going back to basics.

The world James Cameron made has much potential, so it wouldn't be much of a shocker to see it get a sequel, and knowing Cameron, it'll be bigger, better, and more compelling story-wise, especially now that more people have a feel for the basics of the culture he has created. Simply put, if there's a sequel for this, the first one will pretty much be exposition in the purest sense.

Alas, I'm veering far from the point of reviewing the movie as it is, so I'll just call it a day from here and beckon you to watch it, in 3D ideally. This is spectacle in its purest form, and really, isn't the bulk of the theatregoing experience heavily reliant on spectacle?

Rating: 8/10

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