Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar - The Experience

(This review does not contain spoilers).

At first, I was a little leery of the new James Cameron sure-to-be mega hit "Avatar" when I first saw the previews and started reading about the ten year long project developed by the creator of Terminator, Titanic, and True Lies. "Another sci-fi blockbuster, over-saturated with special effects and cheesy morality themes," I thought. But as I started hearing the positive buzz about the film, I decided to give it a try... in 3D.

Cameron envisioned this movie ten years ago but didn't feel he could deliver it the way he wanted, so he developed a "technology" that supposedly will change movie making forever, similar to what George Lucas did several years ago. Holding back for ten years to make the movie right says something about Cameron. It wasn't just about fast money and cashing in on his momentum from Titanic and Terminator. Cameron has a vision he values - unlike many producers and directors today, he does not aimlessly churn out blockbuster gag-fests. Sure, there are in-your-face metaphors and over-the-top effects, but they do not detract from the story.

Cameron has always been ahead of his time, and Avatar is no different. Terminator - an apocalyptic story about machines, ironically created by mankind, taking over the world - was created in the mid-80s, long before the internet, GPS, iphones, etc. Really if you think about it, The Matrix triology, although well-done, was nothing more than a Terminator update. Not that the story Cameron tells here with Avatar is unique (one egotistical group - humans - attempting to drive out "savage" natives to capitalize on a valuable mineral.) Avatar is ahead of its time obviously because of its technology, but also in the fact that Cameron dreamed up this concept ten years ago.

While Cameron's films are typically filled with special effects and futuristic themes, he presents them in more "down-to-earth" (no pun intended) manner than your typical sci-fi movies like Star Trek, Star Wars, 2001/2010, etc. Somehow, Cameron manages to strip down his sci-fi movies. Sure, the fantasy of Darth Vader, Greedo, Han Solo, Mr. Spock, and Khan have their place. But Cameron's movies are edgier, darker, more human. Avatar is not necessarily dark, but it portrays the majority of humans as corrupt, broken, and amoral. And while there is advanced, futuristic technology, there are no cute Jawas or Ewoks, quick witted droids, elaborate space ships, or phaser guns. Avatar maintains a level of humanism by (and perhaps purposely) focuses on the stunning and fascinating alien world of Pandora - immersing the viewer into the environment and in the middle of a major theme of the movie - the aliens physical and mental connection to their world.

Like many of his past movies, Cameron pays close attention to detail. While Titanic suffered from sappy dialogue and a nauseating love story, it was saved by incredible detail and accuracy of its sets and effects. The effects, however, did not dominate the film. Whatever technology he created to better tell his tale, it works with Avatar without being a distraction. I highly recommend experiencing it in 3D. It is worth the extra $3.50 (matinee price). The effect is not your typical objects-flying-at-you 3D. Instead, it creates unbelievable depth, truly enhancing the viewing experience. By placing the viewer into the alien world, you better appreciate its beauty and the natives' connection to it. You are almost literally invested. You are part of the world.

Sure Avatar suffers a bit from "high horse" metaphors, preaching on things like tyranny, lack of appreciation for/destroying the natural world, science vs. nature, etc. The name "Pandora" itself is pretty blatant. I'd even argue there is a visual metaphor to the falling towers of the World Trade Center attack. But Avatar is different in its approach and story telling. It is absolutely amazing from a pure viewing experience (except for the choice of the Papyrus typeface - I mean come on, you spent ten years developing this and use some standard computer font?). Along with the 3D depth of field, color and light are combined in an indescribable, awe-inspiring way.

Avatar is not the perfect movie, but like I tell people about Las Vegas - even if you aren't a gambler, you have to see Vegas at least once because it's not like any other place you've experienced. That's Avatar. It's an experience.

4 out of 5 stars.

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