Alright, everyone on this blog seems to be weighing in on the biggest release this year, so let me add my two cents. I saw this epic yesterday on IMAX 3D in the best possible seat (back row centre) seeing Avatar in the best possible way you can in Toronto (I think the true 3D projectors James Cameron prefers are in New York or some such thing). So, after all the hoopla -- is Avatar any good?
Effin' yeah it's good! Look, everyone knows the premise of this movie by now, but really, it's what James Cameron adds to the thing that's the key. Heck, it's the key to any movie. Afterall, the original 1977 Star Wars film was derivative of any number of concepts but did Akira Korasawa's Hidden Fortress have anything like R2D2 and Darth Vader in it? Did the story of Gilgamesh have the Death Star and X-Wing trench battle scene? So it is with Avatar. Sure, native people being infiltrated by an outsider who is taught the ways of the tribe by a woman whom he falls in love with and is thwarted by a pissed off tribesman whom he eventually befriends is totally lifted from Dances With Wolves, and the idea of telepathically linking with flying creatures who can only be ridden by the person they choose is dangerously close to the Dragonriders of Pern book series (um, why haven't those books been turned into movies??), but James takes all of these elements and inserts characters that you care about, a love story where you actually see the two characters bonding and actually falling in love (heck, most romance movies can't even do that) and this whole biological network idea that neatly ties in his messages of environmentalism and empirial ignorance. And really, the action is clear and crisp on screen with some neat sequences involving alien animal chases, flying bird creature dogfights, army space ships blowing stuff up and a cool update on the loader from the movie Aliens fighting the protagonist towards the end.
As for the effects, the CGI Na'Vi are examples of the best CGI animation ever shown on screen. They're still not fully photorealistic, but they're damn close. When standing still or seen in a still shot, they look like CGI renderings, but when they move around and act, they're amazingly life like. The facial expressions on Neytiri alone are so good, you forget that these folks are CGI, which I guess was the goal. The animals still had that Jurrasic Park vibe to me, but that doesn't mean they're not cool looking. And you get clear looks at all of this stuff. No shakey cam and skimping on the creatures here.
Although the themes in the movie are not new, they bare repeating of course. I really liked how they all tied together here though, with the humans' reaction to the idea of a global neural network being one of indifference "They're just trees!" and the notion of a diety being looked upon the same way war mongering Christians look upon something like Mecca -- with uncaring disdain. I also liked all the details of the tribe (how they bury their dead, how they teach their young ones, how they address each other) and I really loved the glimpse we got of the other trbes in the area.
All in all, Avatar is a solid example of storytelling on film. Off the top of my head, nothing seems out of place and everything makes sense in the story. And it's hugely entertaining. From the sympathetic characters to the bad guys (and one of the most pumped up villains in movies -- drinking coffee during a battle is genius!) to the cool action scenes and the glory of discovering section after secion of Pandora and its wildlife, this movie breezes by its over two hour running time.
Now, a word about Avatar as a cultural item, since everyone seems to be comparing this thing to Star Wars and saying that Avatar changes everything:
Will Avatar touch off a phenomenon? Nope, I don't think so. Perhaps I'll eat those words. But look, I think Avatar might make back its money, may even be one of the "all time top grossing films" and it will be fondly remembered years from now as a "classic" much the same way we view Total Recall and Terminator today. It isn't the industry changer that Star Wars was and frankly I can't see a lot of merchandising potential for this beyond the inevitable toys which have just missed the Christmas season. No Avatar toothrushes, pillowcases, night-lites, T-shirts that people proudly display to show off their love for the movie, etc. And I don't think the toys will sell as much as people think. There just isn't alot of diversity beyond "this blue guy" and "that blue guy" and "this army guy" and "that army guy" etc. (the birds and beasts are cool though!). The most important demographic for a phenomenon is kids. They propelled Davey Crocket and Superman in the 50's, and they propelled Star Wars and Indiana Jones in the 80's. Will they get into Avatar with the fever pitch my generation did with Star Wars? Perhaps, but with so much more vying for their attention nowadays, I just don't see it. Avatar, as good as it is, doesn't really stand out from the alien laden Star Wars movies playing constantly on TV or the CGI cartoons kids watch today.
Is this movie a game-changer in terms of effects? Hard to say. I remember seeing the life-like characters in Final Fantasy (the movie) and thinking that every CGI character after that film would look that good. Didn't happen. After I saw Gollum, I thought there was no excuse in not having photo-real, expressive CGI characters in movies after the Two Towers, and boy was I wrong. Hell, Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant came out this year and the CGI looked like total ass. And that was a 2009 release! (And don't give me some shit about how that was a style choice -- why would your style choice be ass style?). Honestly, I'd say that District 9 was the far more important movie this year. Avatar shows what you can do with a $500 million budget and unlimited access to all facilities in Hollywood. District 9 was made on a meager budget (by Hollywood standards) and displayed amazing special effects and a terrific story and went on to gross its budget many times over. If anything, District 9 is the model Hollywood studios will follow in the future; this kind of lean, mean movie with more bang for the buck. I really don't think studios will be jumping on the "let's make movies with a half-billion dollar budget a piece" band wagon. The results on screen are nice and all, but what a risk! I think some movies will take advantage of the breakthrough in mo-cap that Avatar represents, but it won't be a game-changer across the board.
All that said, great movie and I look forward to whatever else James Cameron has planned for the future.