I saw Avatar today with my kids, and I don’t think I’m overreacting when I say that this was a movie that will revolutionize the way movies are made. Or at least I hope it does. I’ve never been a big fan of 3-D necessarily, and I’m not a tree-hugging anti-Corporate America hippy, but after today I’m thinking I might just be the latest convert.
Much has been said, recorded and written about Avatar’s story, visual effects and philosophy. Many of those discussions can be followed up on in places other than this. But for those who have recently crawled out from under a rock and stumbled onto this post, let me cover the basics for you:
The plot focuses on an ex-marine, Jake Sully, who is now a parapalegic. His twin brother is a scientist and participant in a ground-breaking military/scientific experiment on the moon of Pandora. The technology involves entering a Matrix-like port where the nervous system of a human being is linked to the nervous system of an alien/human hybrid (Avatar) that can be used as a walking, talking version of yourself. The Avatars are being used to infiltrate Pandora’s complex aboriginal Na’vi who inconveniently have established their centuries-old dwelling on the biggest deposit of the lamely named unobtanium ore that of course provides the answer to all of Earth’s energy needs. The year is 2154, so technology is incredible, and marines are loaning themselves out to some super corporation that’s only goal is to ‘ahem’ obtain the ore, no matter the cost. Unfortunately for the corporation, science and the marines, Sully’s twin brother is dead. Fortunately, his DNA is the same, and his expensive Avatar can still be used. As Sully enters the world, makes contact and gains trust, the story borrows from equal parts Dances With Wolves, Fern Gully, Pocahontas and two or three of Michael Moore’s films.
So whether this is a historical morality tale, a ‘let’s-do-it-better’ warning, a critique of the shock and awe war in the Middle East, or just a story, what’s the difference? Shouldn’t movies be able to borrow from other tales, history or current events? Can’t movie-maker’s imaginations run with a little bit of caution, ecology and entertainment? Can’t a guy who’s producing this film with hundreds of millions of his own dollars do whatever he damn well pleases? I’d say. Let’s face it, North America is a bunch of consumers, we’ve got a pretty poor track record of taking what we want, regardless of the cost. We don’t do well at sustaining what we have and we’re totally disconnected from nature. If any of this comes as a surprise to you, you’re simply not paying attention.
Visually, the film is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced. I remember seeing the original Transformers in 2007, and I came out of the theater thinking, “Anything that can be imagined, can be put on film.”
Well James Cameron takes Optimus Prime and nut punches him to the next level. This is a seamless compilation of cutting edge weaponry, futuristic computer technology, combat, etc, etc, etc. At times, I wondered if it was simply an animated film, however the motion-capture of the human actors give the Na’vi incredibly realistic movements, facial expression and all-out action. And the work that has gone in to the skin, plants, animals, landscapes, is absolutely a work of art. There are moments when you want to pause the image just to take it all in. I found myself moving my head from side to side and gasping at the beauty of the fully immersed new reality I was experiencing. My son was reaching out towards the screen to grab the 3-D images that at times nearly engulf you. On a number of occasions I could hear gasps throughout the theater at the detail and beauty being portrayed. The effects are overwhelming. Not in an in-your-face, look-at-what-Weta-computers can do way, but were used to present a new world where the story takes place. It MUST be seen in 3-D on the big screen to be really appreciated. I don’t really know what this would look like in your living room, but the big screen adds a great deal. It sounds like Cameron took some big chances here, I think that all along, he must have known it wasn’t really a risk after all.
Here’s where things fell apart for me slightly. I was drawn into the interconnectedness of the Na’vi/nature relationship, I liked the way the scientists were discovering biological answers to the religious beliefs of the natives. The story borrows early from human religions and philosophies: there is a tree of life, garden of Eden, native American spiritualism, Buddhist and Hindu elements here, all which work, and in a weird way sort of made me realize the similarity in a lot of our origin stories. The most emotionally charged scene was a laying on of hands when Sully is fully accepted into the Na’vi tribe. But Cameron goes overboard on the Shamanism, peaking in a strange, humming, rebirth ritual that sort of spooked me out.
‘We’re all connected to nature’, is obviously an old idea, one which doesn’t have to be harmful, offensive or weird, but Cameron nearly makes it that way.
Despite the fact that I dropped $68 to take my kids, I think I need to see this one again, to appreciate the things I missed, and to remember how good it was. This will be a film that this generation looks back on, like Star Wars, or The Matrix for the generations before, as a film that changed the way that movies are made, and if you ask me, that’s a good thing.