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Sunday, August 29, 2010

Pandora, The Home of Avatar

Avatar: 4 and 1/2 out of 5 Stars
Jake Sully: They've sent us a message... that they can take whatever they want. Well we will send them a message. That this... this is our land!
This quote is from a scene towards the end of the trailer for James Cameron's Avatar, one of the most anticipated films of 2009, where the lead character, Jake Sully, is giving a speech to the indigenous population of the alien world known as Pandora. At this point, in the trailer alone, the viewer will understand all the themes and essentially know much of how the plot will unfold. That being said, at 2 hours into the actual movie, where this scene occurs, I was completely involved with what was going on, absorbed into the world that Cameron has created, taken effectively into the context of the scene, and not even concerned with how bafflingly amazing the effects work in this film is. This film is exciting, enthralling, and shows just how far filmmaking has come and where it is going.
Col. Quaritch: You are not in Kansas anymore. You are on Pandora, ladies and gentleman.
Working from a script that Cameron first put together over a decade ago, the plot follows paraplegic Marine Jake Sully (Worthington). When his twin brother is killed, Sully decides to take his place in a mission on the distant world of Pandora. There he learns of greedy corporate figurehead Parker Selfridge's (Giovanni Ribisi) intentions of driving off a tribe of the native humanoids, the "Na'vi", from there land in order to mine for the precious material scattered throughout their rich woodland. 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) through the use of genetically created Na'vi bodies, known as Avatars (which are controlled by their users in a separate location), in order to infiltrate this particular tribe of Na'vi people. Accompanied by scientists played by Sigourney Weaver and Joel David Moore, as well as a helicopter pilot, played by Michelle Rodriguez, Jake is brought into the world of Pandora, only to land straight fall straight into the good graces of the Na'vi tribe, claiming to only want to learn. While Jake begins to bond with the native tribe and quickly falls in love with his new life, as well as 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.
Col. Quaritch: You get me what I need; I?ll see to it that you get your legs back.
Jake Sully: Hell yeah sir.
Coming back from a 13 year hiatus, following the epic success that was Titanic, James Cameron has returned, in full force to sci-fi adventure territory. While some of his time was spent making underwater documentaries, the rest of that time was spent on this film. In a move that defines ambitious, Cameron was aware that the technology would just have to advance to a new level before he could make this film, and now he has done so. This is a film that employs so many different levels of special effects technology that the credits had to condense the names and departments into giant paragraphs to not last for twenty minutes. All the work put into making this world of Pandora has completely paid off.
Dr. Grace Augustine: Just relax and let your mind go blank. That shouldn't be too hard for you.
For this film, besides using almost every major effects house to help out, Cameron has developed a new way for 3D to function in a film. Never going for the gimmicky feel of "whoosh" shots, the way 3D works into this film is by immersing one into the experience, adding another layer to how the camera establishes each scene. It is certainly the ultimate way to watch this movie. Now along this best use yet of 3D, Cameron, the visual pioneer that he has proven to be in the past, outdoes himself again, not only creating a new world effectively, but a seamless one. The way everything presented works its way into this film and never feels false, instead leading me to a point where I just don't care about what's real and what isn't is impressive to say the least. I could go on to talk about how much stuff is happening in the background, how well humans interact with the effects around them, and how fully realized the Na'vi people are, but suffice it to say that it is all incredible.
Jake Sully: Everything is backwards now, like out there is the true world and in here is the dream
As far as the story goes, one can say what they will about how Cameron handles his characters and dialog (Titanic won 11 Oscars, but wasn't nominated for best Screenplay), but his effectiveness as a storyteller is certainly present here. It is certainly not the freshest of plots and some of the characters could use some more development, but as I mentioned towards the beginning, I was right there with the beats that were being hit throughout. It certainly helps that many of the performances were quite strong or otherwise effective. Sam Worthington has emerged from nowhere, only to star both here and in the latest Terminator, and he proves himself as a capable action star. Stephen Lang is not an actor I am too familiar with, but he joins the leagues of entertaining gung-ho Colonels. Sigourney Weaver and Ribisi also do a good job with somewhat underwritten characters. I was most impressed with Zoe Saldana however. Playing one of the Na'vi, it's not just a vocal performance, the performance capture work and, essentially, the acting that she has done for this role was fantastically done to bring this character to life and make her resonate.

This film is certainly a sci-fi epic, with more time devoted to simply exploring the world of this film and hitting some emotional beats, but when the film gets into its action, it goes for broke, with some standout sequences within the middle of the film, only leading to the final battle, which lasts for a good half an hour. Accompanied by a very James Horner sounding James Horner score (which is acceptable), the staging of the action that features an incredible display of Na'vi/creatures vs. machine is all kinds of awesome. Again, suffice it to say, there a lot of ''Yeah!'' moments to sink one's teeth into (and between this movie and District 9, it's been a good year for Mech Battles).
Jake Sully: ...So why would he look up?
Finally, beyond all the effects and the story that is present in this film, I really just loved the ideas presented. The concepts of both the technology that now exists in the year this film takes place (2154) as well as the creatures on display here (what the purpose of the Na'vi's hair is for example) is all very intriguing, and will easily lend itself to making this film very re-watchable, in order to take everything in (of course the Blu-Ray special features will help with this as well).

Some are saying this film is a benchmark in the time-line of movies like the Wizard of Oz and Star Wars, and while I wouldn't necessarily go that far, I would certainly say it's the next Jurassic Park. Minor story flaws aside, I really loved how this film played out and that's only accompanying the truly magnificent effects work on display. A truly grand epic of sci fi filmmaking.

Col. Quaritch: That's one big damn tree.
Notes on the special edition for the film: The added sequences function in the same way most Cameron's special features do, some elements are added that expand on a few story beats, a new action scene takes place, which actually aids the proceeding sequence, and there is some additional character work, which benefits the film quite well.

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