To say Avatar is like nothing you’ve seen before is a quite an understatement.
Back in June, I list Avatar as one of five must-see flix of the rest of 2009 and ever since then, the hype promised it to be something of an epic thrill ride. Well, I can confidently say that fifteen years after his still-unmatched blockbuster Titanic, James Cameron delivers on that promise. Really folks, it’s like NOTHING I’ve ever seen in my 30+ years of movie-going experience. I felt like a kid again being whisked to a cinematic ‘ride’ on a jaw-dropping-ly beautiful planet that is Pandora, a journey that never cease to amaze me for the full 2.5 hours of the movie running time. The movie doesn’t feel long at all, in fact, there wasn’t a dull moment from the time we put our 3D glasses on.
No wonder it took Cameron more than a decade to bring this project to light as according to Wikipedia, filming was supposed to take place after the completion of Titanic, and the film would have been released in 1999, but according to Cameron, “technology needed to catch up” with his vision of the film. That span of time also allowed the ambitious director to invent a new language (like Tolkien did in The Lord of the Rings) with the help of a linguistic expert. All that hard work and a whole lot of moolah (all $300+ million of ’em) paid off. The first time a couple of the Avatar program participants’ took a tour of that distant planet, the female pilot (played by the fiery Michelle Rodriguez) snickered at their wide-eyed wonder, ‘you should see your faces.’ The same could be said for much of the moviegoers, as for much of the time, I too was blown away by the spectacular visuals. The world that is Pandora is so spellbinding words cannot do justice, you simply have to see and experience it for yourself. One critic said it’s as if Cameron took a trip to an real island somewhere and took his video camera out, they’re that lifelike. If it’s beyond gorgeous during daytime, it’s pure magical at night. The Pandora jungles are filled with luminous phosphorescent plants and creatures, the ethereal airborne jellyfish especially, they’re ever so graceful and downright mesmerizing. Then there’s the alien creatures themselves. Five years ago, The Polar Express used a similar motion-capture technology — where live actors’ motions are digitally recorded and then applied to 3D models — but the result was a cold, inhuman, even creepy computer-generated characters with inexpressive ‘dead’ eyes. In Avatar however, the cat-like eyes of these blue aliens actually have realistic, even emotive expressions, and their movements are seamless and graceful.
Lovebirds Neytiri and Jake Sully
Now, how about the plot? Well, I made this comment in response to ‘the five reasons to see Avatar’ posted on an unofficial movie fan site: “How about the story? All those special effects without a compelling story we can root for would be meaningless. Would I care for the Na’vi people? Empathize with Jake Sully’s journey and the predicament he finds himself in? I’m pumped to see this movie but am hopeful that there is a ‘heart’ underneath all the techie mumbo-jumbo to balance things out.” Let’s just say I wasn’t disappointed.
The story takes place some 145 years into the future. The term ‘avatar’ in our computer lingo is used to describe an icon that represents a person in virtual reality or cyberspace. But in the movie, it refers to a manufactured body which is remotely controlled through brain waves generated by a human being. Because the air in the alien planet is toxic to human body, a group of scientists led by Dr. Grace (the fabulous Sigourney Weaver) develops a procedure that allows humans to ‘drive’ their avatar whilst they’re asleep, as they’re being transported to Pandora as a 10-foot-tall, blue indigenous people. Their job is to ‘study’ the Na’vi, not simply for cultural research sake however, but because this planet is ripe with a precious mineral called unobtanium (is that short for unobtainable plutonium?), that according to the corporate honcho Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi) is worth twenty million a kilo. The goal is to figure out how to get these ‘savages’ to surrender their land peacefully before they do it the ‘hard way.’ Initially, it’s an appealing mission to the paraplegic ex-marine Jake Sully, who was initially on board as a replacement for his deceased scientist twin-brother. Instead of being wheelchair-bound, he gets to freely run around, jump, fly about, and perhaps find that ’single thing worth fighting for.’ Oh, did he ever.
It’s quite evident from the trailer that it’s not exactly cinematic groundbreaking. The similarities to Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai are palpable, but it’s not a bad thing necessarily as Cameron chose to go the ‘safe’ route of the tried-and-true tale of a soldier going ‘rogue’ as he falls in love with the people he was sent to conquer. It’s no surprise that he does, as the Na’vi’s harmonious existence and deep, sacred connection with their planet is such a contrast with the world he lives in. It reminds me of the indigenous bush people from The Gods Must be Crazy, who live such a simplistic life yet they’re far more fulfilled and happy compared to those living in the modern world. Like Jake said in his video log, there’s nothing in our world that the Na’vis want, so there’s really no ‘carrot’ to entice them to leave their beloved home. It’s a familiar but still compelling story that doesn’t take away from the state-of-the-art way it’s delivered.
The love story between Jake and Neytiri might not be as feverishly passionate as Titanic‘s Jack and Rose, but their slow-burn romance felt genuine and moving. Jake was drawn to the graceful and alluring Na’vi princess (Zoë Saldana) almost instantly, but Neytiri takes her time before she finally trusts him. It’s a worthwhile journey and makes for a rewarding pivotal scene towards the end involving the princess and the ‘real’ Jake. Another key scene is when Jake learned how to ride a banshee, this colorful flying dragon-like creature (visible in the film poster) that could very well cost him his life. That’s pure movie magic that makes you go ooh and aah with wonder, as well as an emotionally gratifying one as it was a turning point for Jake to be ‘accepted’ by the Na’vi people. Both Sam Worthington and Saldana are convincing as leads, especially the first, as he’s in almost every scene as both human and Na’vi. If I have to nitpick though, it’s the inconsistency of Neytiri’s English. Sometimes she speaks in simplistic ESL English, other times she’s quite sophisticated. The same with Worthington’s on-and-off Aussie accent. But despite that, he’s definitely got that leading man confidence. He’s a strong and manly guy but with a certain earthy quality about him that’s relatable and endearing. No doubt he’ll have a fruitful career here in Hollywood.
One thing for sure, the movie boast one of the best villain we’ve seen since perhaps The Joker. Stephen Lang as Col. Quatrich is evil through and through, there’s not a shred of compassion in that massive body-builder-ish physique. During a heart-wrenching scene involving a destruction of something sacred to the Na’vi, some people in the corporation were shown lamenting the situation, except for Quatrich who praised the pilot for achieving his task. He has no regard for the Na’vi, or their home turf. In one of the most memorable quotes from the movie, he quipped, “If there’s a hell you might want to go there for some R ‘n R after a tour of Pandora.”
The central message of the movie is obviously aimed at corporate greed, though some people will make this out to be a political statement against a certain administration. Again, this flick was conceived back in the mid 90s just to give you some perspective. At the London premiere, Cameron said, “We have this tendency to just take what we want. And that’s how we treat the natural world as well. There’s this sense of we’re here, we’re big, we’ve got the guns, we’ve got the technology, therefore we’re entitled to every damn thing on this planet. That’s not how it works, and we’re going to find out the hard way if we don’t wise up and start seeking a life that’s in balance with the natural life on Earth.” It seems that the Na’vi is the poster child for the ‘green’ alien (as in environmental, not in skin color, natch). They’re also very spiritual people. So even if I find all the new-age-y and unknown-deity worship stuff unsettling, I consider it part of the fantasy and imaginary world created by the filmmaker, instead of an agenda they’re trying to promote.
I can say a whole lot more about this movie, but I feel that the less you know about what happens the better. I’d say even if you don’t normally like sci-fi, give this one a chance just to experience it and simply to find out what the fuss is about. When you do, I’d urge you to see it in the glory of 3D as it’s meant to be (trust me, you wouldn’t want it any other way). As this one reviewer puts it, “Immersion is, I think, the new standard being set here. Very few films so completely allow you to block out the rest of the world and mentally live in a fantasyland for several hours. I’d be hard-pressed to recall another movie, outside of ‘Star Wars,’ that so fully transported me to a world that doesn’t exist.” I’m not discounting George Lucas’ work, but I have to admit Avatar did that for me much more so than the last Star Wars film I saw in the theater. I feel that Avatar brought a whole new movie-watching sensation unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before, and for that reason Cameron has elevated the history of cinema up a notch. In fact, all my friends who went with me said that after watching everything ‘pop’ in 3D, watching stuff in 2D just wouldn’t cut it anymore. We’ve already made plans to see it again (and again) in an IMAX theater instead of the conventional 3D-enhanced theater. This is one of those movies that warrant repeated viewings just on the visual spectacle alone.
|4 out of 5 reels
Well, what are your thoughts of AVATAR?