Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Movie Review: Avatar

I will start by saying that I will talk about the movie in a way that will give spoilers. I will note when I being the spoiler section.

Avatar is a beautiful movie. It's based in a well realized world with a story, that while not new, is told well.

It was intended to be seen in 3D and thus should be seen in 3D. While consumer electronic companies would have us believe that we'll have 3D in the home soon, no doubt it will be years before it catches on, so take this opportunity while you can. I watched it in standard size 3D, as opposed to IMAX. I'm not a fan of watching movies on IMAX. It just doesn't work for me. If it works for you try to see it in IMAX. I'm sure that'll be a great experience as well.

If you fret that the CGI characters will seem lifeless or weird, such as in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within or Beowulf, fret no longer. That was a concern I had as well but you can easily forget that the digital creations/creatures are in fact digital. It's not so much the rendering that has gotten better. It's easy to render very photo realistic digital images now. It's the nuance. It's the little details. It's easy to cut corners with CG, especially given the amount of time it takes to model, place, animate, render, etc. for each little piece, but that wasn't done here. If felt real because they spent the time to flesh it out.

OK I'm going into the spoiler section.

One of the complaints I've heard is that the movie is too long. I disagree for a couple of reasons.
The first is, as I said above, the world is fleshed out and it feels real. You enjoy being there, or at least I did. There is so much to see. It's like watching Planet Earth, in 3D, but with even more fantastic vistas. What made Planet Earth so enjoyable, aside from it being shot in high definition, was the beautiful views of our planet. Views that many of us will never see any other way. Some of the scenes might as well have been on another planet. Pandora, the planet of Avatar is like that. For a film maker to create a planet as beautiful and awe inspiring as our own is impressive. The people who thought the movie was boring or long probably don't like watching nature shows just for the nature either. It's a matter of taste to be sure.

The second reason I think it's OK for the movie to be long is because certain scenes that would have been cut from the movie in a different director/editors hands are scenes that helped blend the real and CG. For example (spoiler): Parker Selfridge, the corporate executive in charge of operations on Pandora is trying to control a holographic map. He struggles with it, then makes the normal operator take over and then gives him hell when he misses the target. It's a throw away scene. It could have very easily have been tossed out in editing without hurting the story one bit. It could have been directed very coldly as well, where Selfridge controls the map perfectly. I believe, the point was to blend the CG elements (the holographic map system) and the actors, to help drive home the blending of the two for the audience. You see the map go all over the place as the executive doesn't really know how to control the map, but because he's a cocky exec, he thinks he can. Many of us have met executives/managers like that. It's a silly scene but again, it is one of those details that draws you into the movie. I'm sure a hour or so could have been edited out of the movie, with the story intact, but the experience would not have been as rich or as enjoyable. Of course that's my opinion.

Another issue that came up, was from Tom Merritt on East Meets West. He didn't like the fact that the Na'vi are tetrapods, rather than hexapods like many of the other animals on Pandora. I see his point and raise it a few more points and then a rebuttal.

The problem with the Na'vi, isn't so much that they have two arms and two legs like humans, but the fact that they are so much like humans and less like many of the other creatures on the planet, that we see. Some creatures we see breath from nostrils on their necks. Yet the Na'vi have their nostrils on their face, much like humans. Why would the vocal cords on the Na'vi, their hearing, their vision, be virtually identical to our own? Much of the planet is florescent, so that suggests that there is a larger presence of ultraviolet light. If that is the case wouldn't the creatures of Pandora, including the Na'vi, be predisposed to seeing light further into the UV spectrum, thus changing how they would see the world? This could have been easily remedied by simply shifting the visible spectrum when we are seeing from the eyes of a Na'vi (only a couple of times during the movie) and then let the rest of the movie play out as it did.

Being a nerd and liking hard science fiction I would have preferred the Na'vi to be more alien. It would have made Jake Sully's defection even more powerful, at least in my opinion. It's very easy to relate to the Na'vi and easy to see why Jake defected. Had the Na'vi been more alien, less like ourselves, it would have been harder to understand, harder to accept, more drama. Just my opinion anyway.

So about my rebuttal to the last couple of paragraphs? OK, it's really simple. Movies are not hard science fiction. There are few hard science fiction movies made, because generally speaking it's not what the general public wants to see. Sci-Fi is well accepted by the masses these days, but they like it watered down and in terms they can easily grasp. Aliens are supposed to be alien, but if we are going to have any kind of relationship with them they have to be like us, at least a little. We have to understand their motivations. We can understand Vulcans. Sure they are logical and show no emotions, but they are not so different. We can see them and say, "We need our emotions or we end up cold like them." Vulcans are just humans without emotion. Klingons are humans who simply embrace a warrior caste system, something we have had some cultures in our human history. The Na'vi are a mixture of native peoples from Earth. Because of that we can easily relate to them. Some of us even wish we could live like they do, just as there are those who'd like to be more like Vulcans or Klingons. If James Cameron had made the Na'vi too alien, viewers wouldn't have related the way he wanted them to. Sure he could have made them more alien, perhaps that would have made them ugly. I think he wanted them to be beautiful looking, and they are. He gave the women breasts, though there was no apparent reason to do so other than aesthetics. It wasn't a sci-fi or science choice but a movie/commercial choice. What is going to draw in more customers? It was a wise choice. It's about entertainment before realism.

Everyone picking this movie apart, myself included, are missing the point. You can tear any movie down into it's base parts and find flaws. Sure the story in Avatar isn't original, but in the context of the rest of the movie, it works. That's what I'd like you all to take away from my review. As a whole this is a very good movie. It's too early to tell how deep it will effect Sci-Fi and Geek culture. The technology behind the scenes is impressive and WILL change how movies are made. The rest is for history to decide.

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