Straight into my Top Ten of 2009, and most likely my favourite film of the year, comes Avatar - in freakin' 3D as well.
The triumphant return of James Cameron has happened, and in 3D to boot with the biggest budget ever attached to a feature film - territory that isn't unfamiliar to JC, as he was both the first to break the $100 and $200 million barriers. To kick off, I'm going to address some of the up-front issues that have been incessantly talked about by the mass media (the extent of which is unfair and needlessly focusses on only a select few eye-catching things).
Anyway, to get them out of the way, let's first start with the 3D technology utilised in Avatar. I hadn't seen a movie in this new fangled 3D tech before - those clear-lensed plastic framed glasses that make everyone look like Buddy Holly - and indeed I was saving myself specifically for Avatar. I had a brief moment of pondering going to see My Bloody Valentine 3D, but soon came to my senses (indeed the film itself was pish, and unsurprisingly the original movie is superior). I'm pleased to say my eyes didn't hurt, nor did I get a headache, and there was no blurring to the image - only at times a sort of juddery look to some of the faster moving elements in the foreground. There'll be more technical words to describe and illustrate whatever that issue was, but they're beyond me ... fortuntely the few times that happened didn't detract from the whole.
So there we six were in the cinema, four of whom (myself included) had never seen one of these 3D movies, all thoroughly weirded out by the first jolt of 3D trickery - some advert involving a giant head thing with nuts (or something) flying through jungle. At that point I'll admit I did instinctively duck out of the way with not a hint of irony or mockery. Indeed, such trickery was throughout Avatar - but in a far more subtle way.
For example, holographic computer screens peering in at the edge of the frame, on-screen text, glowing seeds floating on air currents, or burning embers drifting through the shot (convincing enough that I almost started trying to swat them away before realising). As such however, these moments did cause an amount of distraction (especially with this being my first foray into 3D cinema going), but never enough to spoil anything I'm pleased to say.
Mercifully James Cameron (naturally) avoided such ludicrous 3D spectacles as poking anything and everything including the kitchen sink into the camera lens, and anytime a spear or machine gun lunged at us it was in a shot that would have been composed as such regardless of the 3D.
Is the 3D required the tell the story? Far from it, and it never will be. So it's really only there to add to the immersion, but again this isn't truly necessary as I've so often found myself fully immersed in 2D movies on a television screen. Indeed, JC's Aliens continues to leave me utterly gripped throughout when watched in 2D on a 20 inch TV. It's the quality of the filmmaking that counts, not the flashy gadgets on offer.
That said, in the case of Avatar, the 3D did help to add an extra layer of immersion that made visiting JC's Pandora an extra special experience. Seeing this movie in 3D was a treat in itself, and might possibly be a one-off for me. Do I want to see Pixar movies in 3D for example? Not really. The quality of the storytelling and the animation is what matters in a Pixar movie. Avatar was however, an exception, and while it will most likely work just as well in 2D, I was utterly willing to go that extra mile just for James Cameron.
The next common issue to be gang-humped by the mass media is the budget. Yes, it's large - officially $230 million (with a further $150 million for advertising) - but so what? JC has broken budget barriers before, and he still is. Move on already, sheesh. The budget doesn't make the movie (well technically it does, because it pays for everything, but you know what I mean) - just look at Transformers 2. It cost a packet and it was stupid ... a guilty pleasure sure, but really, really, really stupid.
Next up - the CGI - sitting there watching Avatar I had a thought. What's the big problem with CGI that some people have? It has it's place, just as long as it's utilised correctly, and indeed with this flick it's totally necessary. Without CGI you couldn't make Avatar. The only thing that practical effects (like a puppet) has over CGI is that you just know that it exists in the same physical space at the same time as the actors. Indeed this can sell the puppet better than some CGI (especially the earlier stuff) which can look utterly pish. However, even a puppet is fake. It's materials cobbled together (with skill) to make something that doesn't exist. Similarly, the CGI work of Weta (who did fantastic work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy) is a case of just using a computer to make things that don't exist.
At times some of the creatures do look 'too CGI' (for example the Hyena-and-Panther-like creatures during one night-time ambush, which look rubbery in a CGI way), and you're fully aware that it's all a lot of CGI going on ... however, for the most part you buy it. You indulge your imagination - just like you'd do with a rod puppet, or fake severed limb. The world of Pandora and its military & corporate occupiers are mostly constructed from CGI, so it all works in the end. It's how this film is supposed to look - this isn't a case of chucking a bit of CGI into a live action movie. Indeed, this is more a case of throwing a bit of live action into a CGI festival.
Is this a bad thing? Not in the slightest - like I said, this is just how Avatar is supposed to look, and thus it works.
Further to the issue of CGI is the Na'vi themselves. When I first heard about Avatar, I was a bit "eh?" about the whole 10ft tall blue aliens with tails thing. Fortunately the more I saw the more I become invested in the idea, and by the end of the movie (indeed within minutes of being introduced to the Na'vi in the cinema) I was a true believer in the Na'vi. They felt real, even in the (wisely few) scenes featuring humans and Na'vi.
What sold it? The human emotion of those performing the parts. Indeed, the motion capture utilised in Avatar is a runaway success. These blue aliens feel like real beings, and being able to see the people beneath it all further adds to selling you the idea. Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver and Joel Moore's avatars all look the spitting image of them, and while (for me at least) Zoe Saldana's Neytiri looks less like their human counterpart than the others (perhaps because I'm less familiar with her, and she doesn't have Moore's distinctive features or Weaver's individual smile), I'm still utterly drawn into the eyes of her.
Neytiri is a fully realised being, a charming and attractive character - you can see exactly why Worthington's Jake Sully is stunned by her and ends up falling in love with her. You're along for the ride through the eyes of Jake Sully, and you can never quite take your eyes off Neytiri as she guides you through the lush world of Pandora.
Twitches of the nose, minute movements in the mouth, the movement of the eyes - in all of the Na'vi you can feel that there is something much more going on that just some flashy CGI. You feel like they're real. Mission accomplished, Mr. Cameron.
Some of the more sarcastic and derisive members of the press and internet public have snidely commented about Avatar as being 'Pocahontas/Fern Gulley/Dances With Wolves in space', or even a rip-off of that Delgo movie (or whatever it was called - an arsey little comment which makes no sense whatsoever when Avatar had been dreamt up long before it existed and was indeed shot and half-rendered by the time that flop was released).
Personally, I've never seen any of those movies, so the comparisons are meaningless to me. Indeed, they should be meaningless to the masses too. Orson Welles himself stated, when being lauded as an original, that all the stories you could possibly do have already been covered. He said that he himself was making stories that had already been told. Indeed, it's all about the way you tell the chosen story, and what you do with all the minute details.
What Cameron does with the story is tell it his way, and while you'll know most of what's going to happen long before it does, so what? It's a joy to see it happen when it finally does. That said, the 161 minute running time is a bit much on the respective arses of the cinema going audience, but it's a damn sight shorter than Titanic (with a stronger plot to boot).
By now you'll know what the plot of the movie is, so I won't bang on about that. However, is it bluntly told? Having heard the review by Mark Kermode I was expecting something that would bludgeon me over the head. Fortunately I didn't watch that movie. There are moments of blunt-as-you-like exposition which are, of course, necessary for the audience, but they're written in such a way that doesn't make an awful lot of sense for people who know full well what they're talking about. People who have been living on Pandora for a very long time. The epitome of these moments of bluntness is a scene where Selfridge (Ribisi) moans at Augustine (Weaver) about why they're there - Unobtanium (a silly name, no matter how you slice it) sells for stupid amounts of money per kilo. Sure, we need this info, but do tell us in a better way. But like I said, the majority isn't like that at all, even if you can predict the general arc of the story.
However, how many films can you predict the plot arc of? Countless numbers, that's how many, so why people are bemoaning Cameron for it is beyond me. Like I said, a handful of story types told in innumerable ways. The fun is in how it's told and what you see along the way; to invest in the characters and watch their story unfold.
I mean think about it, how many people out there in the real world are living exactly the same lifestyle as many others? Exactly. Get off your soap box and just enjoy the world James Cameron has invested himself in and presented to you.
There are some problems with the film though. The odd line is eye rollingly in-your-face, particular the one about "shock and awe" and ultimately the one about having to "fight terror with terror" (or something like that) - since when were the Na'vi performing terrorist acts on the mining corporation?
The action, unlike Aliens or T2 for example, never gripped me like those movies did. I enjoyed the hell out of it, but I was rarely moved to the point of finding my fingernails embedded in the arm rests. Meanwhile T2 still astounds me, and Aliens still leaves me wide-eyed, fist-pounding and breathless. That little extra something was missing from the muscly thrust of Avatar, and so the action set pieces didn't pummel as I'd thought they would. Even the final barrage, which Cameron talked about recently, didn't grab hold of me and shake me like a rag doll. Aliens (again) on the otherhand, did so during the four big set pieces.
The depiction of the Na'vi as 'typically Native American' is a bit on-the-nose, I'll admit. However, it never bothered me personally. Although it does feel a bit 'stereotypically tribal' ... but you could also say that the bastards in the mining corporation (such as Ribisi's Selfridge) are stereotypically git-like with their 'flea-infested tree dweller' dismissals of the Na'vi.
Indeed the corporate-versus-nature allegory is also a bit on the blunt side. However (again), that said, I never felt pummelled by it (unlike how I felt by the blanket coverage of the recent Copenhagen Climate Conference cop-out talking shop). Cameron does succeed in winning the audience's hearts & minds in favour of Pandora and the Na'vi. We learn about them and their culture as Jake does, and as such we are (perhaps unsurprisingly) on the Na'vi side when the final battle comes around ... indeed on the positive side, dare I say it, I was a little bit devestated when the Na'vi are left to flee their home (a feeling much-inspired by Saldana's honest, gutteral, heart-broken wails of sorrow - all beautifully rendered in pitch-perfect CGI motion capture).
Colonel Quaritch is a kick ass character, a chest-thumping gorilla of a man, but he's annoyingly one-dimensional. It would have been great if he was even the slightest bit questioning of his own methods, or just had a different side to all his gut-toting. Even still, you can't help but feel a bristle of neck hair when he brazenly fires upon an escaping aircraft.
It's interesting, but in a movie where the minute details of the CGI 'emotion capture' are so important, there is a distinct lack of the minute details woven throughout the script. The motivations and feelings of the main characters are often glanced at, but never excavated and picked apart. If there was some more of that it would have helped sell the human side of the coin better. Fortunately the Na'vi are covered quite thoroughly, albeit mainly through Neytiri. It's understandable though that Cameron might have become distracted by this rich other-culture and alien people, but it is still a shame that the human characters were left out in the cold a bit. To have been a bit less black & white would have been nothing but positive, although with the overall plot arc it's hard to see how that could have been achieved.
Despite cursory problems, the odd quibble, and a slightly flabby feel, Avatar was a great experience. I loved visiting the world of Pandora, realised in such loving detail by JC and his team, and no sooner had I left the cinema than I wanted to return. I wanted to feel the subtle use of 3D again, I wanted to get to know Neytiri all over again, and I wanted to see Jake learn to love Pandora again.
Avatar is a different kind of film from JC. You can see a shift in his mindset and the influence of his documentary projects. Typically James Cameron throughout (central love story, pioneering technology, powerful female leads, record breaking budget, masterfully crafted and designed in-film technology, and so on), Avatar is the film to see in 3D. It's a welcome return of Cameron, and while it was never going to pull in the box office figures of Titanic, it is easily a better and more interesting film (my relationship with JC's Titanic has been a rollercoaster unto itself), and is without a doubt worth your time and money.
I'm very much looking forward to the DVD release, and hopefully it'll be a features-packed extravaganza. I want to delve into Pandora all over again, and I want to see how it was all put together.
I think that about covers it ... for now at least.