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Thursday, April 26, 2012

Fishing in the Discount Bin - Avatar

Welcome back to Fishing in the Discount Bin, the ol' segment that I used to do on my podcast that I decided to resurrect on my blog because I didn't want my old notes to go to waste, and it's nice to always have content.  I think, with this one, we finally run out of the ones that I actually produced for my podcast, and get into the ones that were gathering cyber-dust on my hard drive.  And it's too bad, because we finally get to the #1 movie of all time, Avatar.

This review is originally dated November 21, 2010.

I've had a huge stack of brand new Blu-Rays sitting by the TV, waiting to be watched, so I decided to fill my Sunday afternoon with one I've been waiting for since the spring, and that's the 3-disc super-special-mega-ultimate edition of Avatar.

There are many directors in Hollywood who seem to be more wrapped up in the technical aspects of filmmaking than making a good movie.  Many have accused George Lucas of having that mentality when he made the Star Wars prequels.  Robert Zemeckis is another well-known example, as he's admitted that the only reason why he made Who Framed Roger Rabbit was because of the technical challenge.  And at the top of that list is the king of the world himself, James Cameron.

Everything I've read about Cameron says that this is a guy who loves to push the limits of movie making technology.  He broke ground with computer animation for special effects with the Abyss and Terminator 2.  For Titanic, he actually commissioned his engineer brother to develop a movie camera tough enough to film the actual Titanic wreckage at the bottom of the sea, in addition to building an 80% scale model of the ship.  And pushing the limits of technology is always pricey.  Defending Titanic's $200 million budget back in 1997, he was quoted as saying, "I'm making an epic.  Epic doesn't come cheap."

And then after Titanic, James Cameron took some time off.  He had a hunch that 3D was going to be the future of filmmaking, so once again he commissioned his engineer brother to make the most advanced digital movie cameras in the world, capable of filming grainy B&W 16MM film all the way up to 3D IMAX.  His next film was going to be this sci-fi epic called Avatar, but no matter how many times Cameron rewrote the script to make it cheaper, the special effects technology of 1999 wasn't up to snuff.  So, Cameron decided to wait around for the technology to catch up to his vision.  And when he saw Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express in 2004, he allegedly called up his friends and said, "I think, that if we really push the limits of the technology available, we can finally make Avatar."

And so they got down to work.  Cameron pushed the limits of 3D movie making technology by designing and filming the entire project in 3D AND for IMAX.  Cameron wound up breaking his own record for most expensive movie ever made as Avatar's final budget is rumored to be upwards of $300 million.  But, he also broke his own record for #1 movie of all time, having made a total of $2.8 billion worldwide.

It's too bad, then, that the movie is rather cliched.

The movie follows the adventures of Jake Sully, a hard-ass Marine who lost the use of his legs in combat.  But he's soon approached by a massive conglomerate offering him a second chance.  And before you know it, Jake is whisked off to the planet Pandora to pilot an "avatar."  See, the atmosphere of Pandora is toxic to humans, so a creative solution is the creator of avatars -- artificial bodies created by combining the DNA of humans and Na'vi, the Panrodan locals.  Humans use these fancy machines to link their minds to the avatars, and then they can roam freely around Pandora.

But all is not good.  There have been some conflicts between the humans and the Na'vi.  The humans want the Na'vi to move off their land so they can mine the magical mineral in the ground beneath it.  Our villain of the film -- the warmonger Colonel Quarritch -- asks Jake to abuse his new power by getting to know the Na'vi and gathering intel.  And that exactly happens.  But Jake starts to go native.  He falls in love with a Na'vi princess name Natiri.  He starts to sympathize with the Na'vi and embrace their way of life.  So, before you know it, Jake is switching sides and fighting to defend the Na'vi. 

See what I mean by a cliched plot?  "Man sent to infiltrate alien culture embraces their way of life and then fights to defend it."  That's Dances with Wolves.  That's The Last Samurai.  It's a tale told many times before.

There are some great performances going on.  It's great to see Sigourney Weaver back in form as Grace Augustine...the scientist in charge of the avatar program who is an avatar pilot herself and is also in love with the Na'vi way of life.  Fun trivia fact:  Weaver says she based her portrayal of Grace -- a driven, single-minded person dedicate to pushing the limits of existing technology -- on James Cameron.  Zoe Saldana, whom you may know as Uhura in the new Star Trek, is also really good as Natiri.

Sam Worthington is OK as the lead, although he does have trouble masking his native Australian accent from time to time.  And I did find Colonel Quarritch to be somewhat one-dimensional as the villain.  He just wants to blow stuff up real good, and there's not much more to his character.

But let's be honest.  The real reason I bought this film is because its special effects truly are groundbreaking.  This is perhaps one of the most seamless blends of computer animation and live-action going.  The performance animation for generating the Na'vi -- who are 10-foot tall, blue-skinned cat people, in case you haven't seen it yet -- is truly the best performance capture done to date. 

And I remember seeing this in the theatre.  I did pay the extra to see it in IMAX and 3D, because that's what James Cameron wanted.  And it wasn't the things popping out of the screen in 3D that impressed me.  It was the little things.  You know, one the tropes in sci-fi films has become the holographic displays and computer monitors projected above the keyboard, replacing monitors.  Well, that's on full display in Avatar, and in 3D, it seemed a lot more real that it ever has. 

But the rest of the film is so cliched.  Cliched plot...cliched character arc.  Even the music score was less than impressive, as James Horner drags out his usual bag of tricks. 

But you have to respect the technical achievement.  Yup, Cameron once again showed that he knows how to push the limits of technology. 

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