Friday, January 22, 2016

Avatar Review

It doesn't seem so long ago that James Cameron's last film, Avatar (2009), was still a pop culture topic that everyone was talking about. From how amazing the visual effects were, to "Post Avatar Depression," to its world-wide box office records, to assertions that it rips off other popular movies in terms of story, everyone was talking about Avatar. It seems to have had less of a lasting cultural impact than what some were guessing, I still maintain that Avatar is a work of cinematic art that should be seen.
On the lush alien world of Pandora live the Na'vi, beings who appear primitive but are highly evolved. When his twin brother is killed in a robbery, paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) decides to take his place in a mission on this  distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's (Giovanni Ribisi) intentions of driving off the native humanoid "Na'vi" in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. Because the planet's environment is poisonous, human/Na'vi hybrids, called Avatars, must link to human minds to allow for free movement on Pandora. Under the direction of Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), an exobiologist and head of the Avatar Program, Jake becomes mobile again while inhabiting one such "Avatar" body. In exchange for the spinal surgery that will fix his legs, Jake gathers intel for the cooperating military unit spearheaded by gung-ho Colonel Quaritch (Stephen Lang), while simultaneously attempting to infiltrate the Na'vi people with the his Avatar body. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with the beautiful alien Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), the restless Colonel moves forward with his ruthless extermination tactics, forcing the soldier to take a stand - and fight back in an epic battle for the fate of Pandora.
Enough cannot be said about how completely mind blowing these visual effects are. The detail in the ecosystem of Pandora is simply incredible. Every plant, creature, and Na'vi character is created with highly detailed computer-generated photorealism. From the texture of Na'vi character's skin, to the lush, verdant foliage, to the bioluminescence inherent to many creatures on Pandora, everything looks positively gorgeous. It's such a visual feast for the eyes that you can't take it all in fast enough. Everything was so beautiful that some audience members reportedly felt some mild form of depression after seeing the artistic beauty in Avatar and then contrasting that with their real lives. That seems a bit silly to me, but with how picturesque and gorgeous Pandora is made to look, I can't say it's without basis.
The Na'vi characters, themselves, are computer generated. They are about 10 feet tall humanoids, have blue striped skin, pointed mobile ears, tails, and large catlike noses and teeth. While taller than humans, they have narrower proportions in body frame. Cameron created these computer generated characters with new motion capture animation technologies that he had been developing for fourteen months leading up to when the  filming started. Improved methods of capturing facial expressions enabled a full performance capture, so every little twitch and eye movement you see in the Na'vi, was actual movement captured from the actor playing that character. It made these digitally generated character believable and engaging.
The story of Avatar can't be said to be weak, it's fairly complex with interwoven storylines and subplots, and an interesting array of characters. However, Avatar got a lot of flak for being a rip-off of other well established stories and themes. In that regard, if you haven't actually seen Avatar, you can probably already say you've seen Avatar. It has a strong resemblance to movies like Dances with Wolves, Disney's Pocahontas, and FernGully: The Last Rainforest. The theme has been explored in other movies, too;  Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke comes to mind. Is it really so bad that the story is similar to other movies? If that's the worst thing that can be said about Avatar, I'd have to argue that it's still a good movie. In terms of story, audiences shouldn't expect too much that is unique and new, but that isn't to say it's boring or even identical to the other stories out there.
I found the themes to be engaging. Avatar is an action-adventure journey of self-discovery in the context of imperialism and deep ecology. There's an overt message of environmentalism in Avatar, and the highly common trope of greedy corporate types plotting to destroy landmarks or natural environments in order to gain profits. That's not so new. There's some interesting subtle comparisons in the term "avatar" about which Cameron said, "It's an incarnation of one of the Hindu gods taking a flesh form. In this film what that means is that the human technology in the future is capable of injecting a human's intelligence into a remotely located body, a biological body." The blue skin of the Na'vi was an intentional connection to Hindu deities, further drawing on that definition of "avatar." All of the humans in the movie have their own "Avatar" of sorts, kind of an alternate body that depicts who they are inside. Jake and Grace have their Na'vi avatars representing their connection to, and interest in, the native people of Pandora. Quaritch has this mechanical battle suit armed to the gills with missiles and guns, representing his lust for war and violence. There's a friendly pilot who helps our protagonists who is useful by herself but is truly in her element in the cockpit; she was born to fly. Parker's "avatar" is more subtle; he spends most of his time in the corporate office and command center. This is his avatar, and it's not until we see him outside of his element there that we see what a weak individual he is.
Avatar broke several box office records and became the highest-grossing film of all time, surpassing Cameron's previous movie, Titanic, which had held those record for twelve years prior. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has now become the highest-grossing movie in North America; it hasn't yet been released worldwide as of writing this review. Avatar and Titanic still hold the top two spots for highest grossing films worldwide. Avatar was nominated for no less than nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. It ended up winning three, for Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography, and Best Visual Effects. The achievements that Avatar earned for itself is an indicator of how good the movie was. I still maintain it's a work of art that should be seen.
Avatar might be more impressive on a technical level than as a piece of storytelling, but it reaffirms James Cameron's singular gift for imaginative, absorbing film making.  Avatar showed us something that we have never seen before and reminded us of what movies can do, what they are capable of, and what an experience movies can be. It would be a full-fledged masterpiece if judged solely on its technical merits. While it wasn't the most original narrative, it serves the film well, even if it was merely a template for Cameron to show us this gorgeous world and its landscapes. Avatar didn't have the lasting cultural impact that I assumed it would; I haven't heard of Na'vi-themed weddings the way I've heard about Klingon-themed weddings. But for awhile, Avatar was a hot topic of discussion everywhere you went. If you haven't seen Avatar you're missing out on an incredible cinema experience of technical and visual splendor. Just don't get your hopes up too high about a unique story. I recommend seeing this movie; it's also worth owning a copy of to bask in its beautiful artistic expression every now and again.

Ever since Avatar came out, there has been talk about three additional movies. Where do you think these movies could go in terms of story? Would we explore more biomes on Pandora? Fight off invading human corporations wanting to mine for resources? What would you like to see happen? Comment below and tell me all about it!

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