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ISBS Movie Review: Avatar

By Brian | February 14, 2010 | Share on Facebook

Short version: Avatar is a formulaic story with under-developed characters portrayed by good (but not great) actors. None of this matters a single iota. Because Avatar, you see, is not a movie at all. It’s a working prototype. A hugely successful demo of what blockbuster movies will look like in the future. And like most successful demos, it involved a huge investment of time, money and creativity to produce something that the viewer simply cannot take his/her eyes off of. The future is here, folks, and it is Avatar.

Longer version (WARNING: Spoilers lie ahead, although I’m pretty sure I’m the last one on the planet to see the film, so it probably doesn’t matter. Just in case, though, you’ve been warned):

The plot of Avatar starts out encouragingly. A scientist, destined for a mission in
outer-space, is killed shortly before the mission begins. His twin brother, a paraplegic ex-Marine, is asked to take his place, since the mission involves the neural control of a man-made alien body (the “Avatar”), and his brain is similar enough to his twin brother’s to make the project work. Upon arriving on the alien world, Pandora, the ex-Marine bonds quickly – not with his scientific brethren, though, but with the military commander who is stationed there. The military’s mission is to displace the native population and clear the way for mining of the planet’s natural resources. This creates an interesting dynamic. The scientific research he has to do enables him to feed intelligence to the military, which is what he wants to do. He finds himself with a foot in both opposing camps – the “give peace a chance” crowd and the “if you’re not with us, you’re against us” crowd.

But from there, the whole thing falls apart. The head scientist hates the military leader for his wilful ignorance, but despite her obvious intelligence, she never makes her case beyond whining “you just don’t understand!” at him. There’s a corporate, CEO-type in the film who is supposedly running the entire operation, but he is completely in the bag for the military, dramatically reducing whatever tension between good and evil that could have been present. And our hero, having seen the needless death and destruction that comes from automatically waging war without any attempt at diplomacy or communication, leads the indigenous aliens (the “Na’vi”) in exactly the same strategy the very instant he is in a position to do so, provoking the predictable “shock and awe” battle scene at the end, in which thousands more Na’vi, not to mention many humans, are killed. His intriguing “one foot in both camps” perspective melts away when the first shot is fired, reducing the second half of the film to a “shoot ‘em up” formula piece, in which good triumphs over evil with mere seconds to spare. Yawn…

That said, complaining about the plot in Avatar is something akin to criticizing the content of the first web page, or dismissing the telephone as a failure because Alexander Graham Bell’s first message was too banal.

What’s on display here is not the story, the acting, or the character development. It’s the visuals. And despite all the hype, they do not disappoint.

Having heard all of the “like nothing you’ve ever seen before” talk before seeing the film, I tried to pay close attention to what, exactly, made Avatar so unique. I think it’s a combination of two things:

First, James Cameron has redefined the use of the 3-D special effect. Unlike other 3-D movies, which use the technology to either add depth to a scene (by putting objects and scenery behind the main characters) or to reach out into the audience (by having objects “jump off the screen” in front of the main characters), Avatar establishes a permanent foreground and a permanent background, and consistently puts the main characters between the two. So, for example, while walking through the Pandoran jungles, the horizon sits behind the characters, while various plants, insects, and even dust floats in front of them. This can be very prominent, as in the mayhem of a battle scene, or very subtle, like during expository dialog between characters who are walking along a path. Because it’s constantly there, the 3-D stops feeling like a special effect. It becomes a better approximation of real life than 2-D movies (and, to be honest, 3-D movies) have always been. The end result is a feeling of being in the scene, rather than watching it from afar.

Second, Cameron’s newly-invented Performance Capture¬†technology blends CGI and live acting in a way never seen before. The Na’vi are not computer generated aliens who are voiced by human actors and made to have the actors’ facial expressions by graphic artists. These are the actual actors’ faces, captured by cameras mounted on headgear during their on-stage performances, and translated in real-time to their CGI equivalents. Cameron also had a handheld virtual camera on set, which was basically a location-aware computer monitor that allowed him to see the entire CGI scene (including the actors) while the scene was being shot. The difference in the result is best expressed as the difference between taking a picture with a film-based camera and hoping it came out well, and taking a picture with a digital camera and looking at the result on the camera’s display screen, so you can re-shoot it if someone blinked.

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” Avatar feels magical because of how advanced its technology is. Now that the genie is out of the bottle, I expect any movie of sufficient scale and budget to be shot this way going forward. On the one hand, this means the movies of the future will likely engross and entertain us in ways that yesterday’s movies could only dream about. On the other hand, once the technology no longer feels so magical, a mediocre movie like Avatar will no longer make a billion dollars simply because of its special effects.

In both cases, the movie-going audience comes out ahead.

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