Avatar 3D (2009)

There is only one film worth seeing in the cinema this week. Avatar. Well, if we are to believe the hype anyway.

Personally, I had been rather apprehensive about this whole Avatar business. I can't remember the last time a film promised so much (well... maybe Snakes on a Plane but that was really a different kind of promise). It's been 12 years since James Cameron made a feature film... 12 years is a long time. Of course that film was the highest grossing movie of all time ($1.8 billion worldwide, just so you don't have to look it up)... but then again, not everyone looks back kindly on Titanic.

I actually liked and still like Titanic, but the idea of Titanic in space with a load of blue monkeys? Uh... I just wasn't so sure about that. And of course Cameron also directed Terminator, Aliens and True Lies. All great films but I just don't know how this all fits together.. what kind of films does James Cameron do? What kind of film was Avatar going to be? And there's so much riding on Avatar - Cameron's reputation of course, but the way it's being sold, the future of 3D cinema as well. This film is supposed to push 3D out of kids films and horror and into the mainstream. It was too much, too puzzling, I just couldn't get behind this film wholehartedly.

I'm almost hesitant to tell you what I thought of it. I think you'd be better off if you go see it yourself first. Stop reading now if you haven't seen it... or read on if you've seen it, or if you prefer to hearing other people's opinions before you see a film... it's up to you, just don't say I didn't warn you, but I do think it's one that you might want to keep your ears and eyes closed about it beforehand.

If you are still reading on then I think Avatar is going to be a bit of a divisive one, particularly because I think there's a chance it'll draw in more than a few people who don't watch movies a lot... I hope it does anyway. Which is not to say that I think people who don't watch movies a lot will particularly love it or hate it. Some will and some won't. I just mean that there'll be more people talking about it than your average genre film. For example, I doubt My Bloody Valentine was particularly divisive. Not many people who don't like horror would go to see such an obvious horror/slasher film so it's not like there'd be many arguments about it. Avatar on the other hand is being sold very wide, wider than I think the genre/s fit. I'm not sure exactly what genre it is but it's definitely being sold outside it.

Mind you, the genre is irrelevent in a way... I think everyone should see this film. Not everyone will like it but I definitely think everyone should see it. There will be people out there who just aren't going to buy into the big blue aliens. There'll be other people who just don't like sci-fi. There'll be sci-fi fans who aren't happy because it's not sci-fi enough... that doesn't matter. The fact is, it looks amazing... let me say it again, AMAZING. I could go on with a few more superlative adjectives but it's not worth it, you'll just think I sound nuts. Amazing I tells ya. You just have to go see it. It is worth it.... Even if your brain hates it your eyes will enjoy the feast. I liked the 3D in it too. It was used very effectively, there were a few "coming out of the screen at you" moments but a lot of it was giving depth to scenes, just making things look more realistic. It was different from the other 3D I've seen. Then again, it's a very different film from the other 3D films out there.

Will it revolutionise cinema though? I don't know. First of all, I don't how much this kind of thing costs and let's face it, big budget film making is all about the money. But also I don't know how well it would work with other films. I can see it with the big summer blockbusters, certainly Transformers and Star Trek would benefit from it but I still don't think that it's worth it in every case. I guess it really depends on the maths...

In general though, it's not a great film, it's a good film but not a great one. Or at least I wouldn't put it up there with the rest of Cameron's work. I think in another review, I mentioned that I don't particularly watch individual films in the context of a director's overall work. And that's true. But in this case it's easier because... well... I'm just finding it difficult to find a genre to review it in. It's not really a sci-fi film. Sure, it's in space and there's aliens all over the place, but it's really just a normal drama set against the backdrop of an alien planet. But, you couldn't compared it to something like... I dunno, Almost Famous or something. I was very much reminded of The Lord of the Rings trilogy watching it. It truly is an epic film. Cameron has created a whole world for us, so I can't say it wasn't great because it was a bit of a corny love story. It's like saying The Lord of the Rings films are just three films about a very long walk. That's just bollocks.

Ok anyway, this film has really got me waffling. Let's get down to it. Avatar is a good film but it's a bit mainstream for my taste. It's not really entirely a straight up love story like Titanic but it's more than half way there. The pacing is reasonable but it's slightly long (about 2 hours 40 mins) and I found the music more than a little annoying (it's comments like that that are the reason you should watch a film before reading the reviews - now when you watch it you might be listening out for the music and this isn't a film where you should be worrying about the music... but anyway...). That said, it's not like the music spoiled it for me, it was just annoying. Characterwise, it's ok. I wouldn't say they are well developed but it's not that kind of film so it doesn't matter. Acting is fine, a bit shaky in places and the best actors probably aren't on screen for long enough - I'm pointing at Sigourney Weaver and Giovanni Ribisi here - but there's nothing painful or shocking about it. The plot is predictable... but again, that's just the type of film it is. Some films are predictable, it's not a bad thing, it's just a thing. It's not awful though, it's engaging enough and generally sustains itself across the 160 minutes or so.

All these complaints aside though it's still a good film. In fact it's almost a great film. I found myself immersed in this alien world and if a film can do that then it can't be bad. It is thanks in no small part to the visual effects but also it's pretty much a full realised world. The Na'vi are a distinct culture and they are a believable culture in my eyes given the world they inhabit.

Anyway I do urge you to go and see it if you haven't already. It does look AMAZING and yes, it is worth it just for that. And do spend the money on seeing it in 3D. This kind of work deserves to be seen the way it was designed to be seen. Just don't expect too much from the story. In that respect it's competent but it's not worthy of those superlative adjectives I didn't use to describe the visual effects.

It’s little over a decade since the first Hindi 3D movie, Chhota Chetan, was released. Back then, in 1998, movie lovers were enthused by this new experience. But, the interest died when theatres could not adapt to this expensive technology and as a result producers became wary of producing 3D films.

Now, a Hollywood science fiction epic, Avatar, from James Cameron, the maker of Titanic, has done what Bollywood could not do in years. It has convinced multiplex owners to ramp up the number of 3D screens before the movie hits the screens on December 18. In the last six months, most multiplexes and theatres have installed 3D screens with zest, bringing the count to 50 from 17 earlier. The 50 screens include those set up by PVR Cinemas, Big Cinemas, Inox, Fame India, Fun Cinemas and Cinemax India.

A 3D screen plays out images of the movie in three dimensions, giving the viewer an illusion of depth. Each multiplex has to provide special glares to the audience, which involves significant investment. According to an industry estimate, installing a single 3D screen costs Rs 40 lakh, while a normal screen costs 15 lakh. “It is a worthwhile investment since audiences want an enhanced movie-watching experience, especially for such flicks. Going by the promos of Avatar, the movie will have a huge opening,” said Aditya Sharoff, assistant vice-president, Fame India. The investment will have to be covered by the cost of tickets, say multiplex owners. Most theatres will increase ticket prices by nearly 20 per cent, say industry sources. Says Vishal Kapur, COO, Fun Cinemas, “Avatar is a big film and most multiplexes have decided to convert their screens into 3D for this movie and for the 20-odd movies that will be released next year.”

Fox Star Studios is set to release Avatar with a record 650-plus prints in India alone, in four languages: English, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu. This is the highest-ever for any Hollywood flick in India. Spider-Man 3, till date, has topped the list with over 550 prints, followed by Casino Royale, with 427 prints.

“The digital quality of the film is like never before. We are certain that Avatar will get a huge response and that’s why we have decided to go for a mega release,” said Vijay Singh, CEO, Fox Star Studios.

Avatar is a 3D science fiction epic film which stars Australian actor Sam Worthington in the lead role. “Avatar is a much awaited film, since it’s James Cameron’s. People still remember Titanic,” said Devang Sampat, VP, Cinemax India.

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James Cameron’s Avatar : Movie Review

This Friday James Cameron’s sci-fi epic Avatar (featuring Star Trek’s Zoe Saldana), finally hits screens world wide, finishing off a big year for sci-fi movies (including the aforementioned return of Trek). In an extensive review, Jeff Bond takes a look at the much-discussed Avatar and the new state of sci-fi movies.
As James Cameron’s Avatar finally sees the light of day in theaters across the country we seem to be just beginning to see the backlash to the backlash to the backlash for one of the most highly anticipated movies in recent years. The backlash began in July at the San Diego Comic Con, where 15 minutes of footage from the film thrilled some but befuddled and annoyed others, with the naysayers instantly spreading their grumbling all over the internet. Was this what Cameron was crowing about, a $300 million videogame? A remake of Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest? 10 foot Smurfs in the jungle? Jar Jar Binks in blue?

Avatar and a Great Year for Sci-Fi on Film
NOTE: This review contains spoilers
The dangers and limitations of the film were right there on the screen: a plot that even Cameron admitted was Dances With Wolves on another planet; a race of noble primitives designed to play off the collected guilt of industrialized nations; the usual "white guy saves a primitive minority race" story approach, and an obsessively designed world that depended on ones and zeros to make it seem "real." But even in this fraction of footage made available, Cameron’s obvious strengths were also on view: his ability to maintain focus and drama in the most outlandish situations, and that same obsession with detail that in this case has the possibility of bringing the most fully realized alien environment ever put on film to fruition.

Alas, the drumbeat for lynching Cameron was the loudest one from July to now, with various bloggers and websites (chiefly Gawker and to a lesser extent its offspring io9) practically guaranteeing that "Avatar will suck."

Then followed the backlash to the backlash—early reviews that were almost 100% raves screaming that Cameron had pulled it off. Yesterday gawker.com actually, bravely published a public apology admitting that Avatar was terrific. And now…the backlash to the backlash to the backlash—some tough reviews taking the film to task for its storytelling limitations. Just as with J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek, Avatar will clearly be divisive—an overrated white elephant for those for whom a movie is story, originality and, tellingly, the right kind of politics…and a revelation to anyone who can be pulled through a movie by the power of pure filmmaking.

Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington in Avatar
I fall into the latter camp. The 15-minute tease of Avatar last July seemed very satisfyingly immersive to me. We got to see all the film’s chief creatures, but they actually mattered less than the enveloping views of Pandora’s luminescent jungles and the relatable blue faces of the alien Na’vi and "Avatar" Jake Sully. That’s the stuff that left me hungry for more.

At two hours and forty minutes in length, Avatar delivers a full meal. Cameron blends—sometimes uneasily—the tropes of both widescreen epics and his characteristic brand of industrial strength, crowd pleasing action. The first half of the film is quite simply a hypnotic, magical fever dream of stuff you always wanted to see in a big sci fi film, from the brief but satisfying glimpses of a complicated and realistic interstellar spacecraft to the dizzying shuttle dive into the atmosphere of Pandora and the first broad pans across its infinite layers of forest and mountains. Cameron introduces his characters (Sam Worthington as the wheelchair-bound Sully, Sigourney Weaver as tough talking exobiologist Grace Augustine, Stephen Lang as the human base’s hard-as-nails military overseer, Giovanni Ribisi as the symbol of venal capitalism, and Michelle Rodriguez as a helicopter pilot with a heart of gold) efficiently and brilliantly decodes his "Avatar" high concept in a scene in which Sully wakes up inside his 10-foot tall blue Avatar body, staggers out of a medical holding room and burst out onto the grounds of the compound to see other Avatars training in the open air of Pandora.

Cameron quickly gets Sully and the others into the jungle and just as quickly separates him from his team, getting him lost so that he—and we—experience the awe-inspiring jungle flora and fauna alone…until he runs into Zoe Saldana’s Neytiri, a Pocahontas-like, fierce warrior princess that is our first view of the Na’vi. Cameron inundates us with CG imagery from the opening moments of Avatar, but his director’s eye and attention to detail is so keen we barely notice. What’s truly amazing is the way the Avatar Jake and Neytiri characters work—despite design work that really does call to mind Jar Jar, the Dark Crystal Gelflings and all sorts of other unwholesome associations, these beings fully register as characters, working almost better in close-up than long shots. Saldana, great but underused in Star Trek, does awesome work here. She’s an impressive warrior but an involving, soulful presence too, and her give and take with Worthington is terrific.
Sam Worthington and Stephen Lang in Avatar

It’s true that Cameron’s plot ingredients are familiar, and there’s definitely some predictability to the story—once Cameron introduces a story element it’s fairly easy (although not in all cases) to see what the payoff will be. Saldana is so good she overcomes any cultural baggage her character might carry, but other players like C.C.H. Pounder, as the Na’vi tribal sorceress, and Wes Studi as their patriarchal leader, are less fortunate. At times the Na’vi are irritatingly on-the-nose stand-ins for Native Americans, even whooping like something out of a John Ford movie during tribal gatherings. They ride horses (that look like six-legged sea horses) and dragons, and Sully’s journey of discovery as he becomes one of the tribe involves standard rites of passage: learning to use a spear and a bow and arrow, riding a horse, riding a dragon…oh yes, riding a dragon. See, while the basics are familiar, it’s the details that matter. Saying Avatar is just Dances With Wolves in space is like saying Star Wars is The Hidden Fortress in space—it’s true, but ultimately that’s just a small slice of each film’s impact. Following Jake Sully’s Avatar around Pandora, you quickly feel like you’re there, experiencing the sights and sounds of this strange new world and even feeling the strange agility and power of this giant blue body with Sully. The script might read "Jake jumps on a dragon and flies it" but that doesn’t get across the impact of watching Jake and his Na’vi brothers run along miles of highway-like vines hanging thousands of feet in the air and clamber up a chain of floating hillocks to reach the dragons’ aerie, or the thrill of watching Sully’s lithe, savage form rocketing through the air on the back of his "banshee."

I did tune out, oddly, midway through Avatar when Cameron begins the human war on the Na’vi with a titanic-sized massacre pitting squadrons of helicopter gunships against the native populace. It might be that Cameron’s immersive vision and the power of 3D imagery on this level can only grip you by the heart valves for so long. Cameron stages two mammoth battles in the second half of the film, and by a few minutes into the climactic conflagration I did find my pulse getting back into the game. The logistics of action scenes and the plotting of the micro and macro moments of these sequences are in Cameron’s blood. He can even get away with the imagination-beggaring coincidence of bringing his three chief players together for a face to face final showdown in the middle of a battle involving thousands of warriors on each side that seems to cover miles of space both vertically and horizontally. I walked out on Ed Zwick’s The Last Samurai over just this sort of manipulation, but Cameron is such a superior filmmaker that he makes it work.
Battle scene in Avatar
Like the basic plot elements, the science fiction ideas in Avatar aren’t blazingly original. The idea of the Avatars themselves apparently owe a lot to a Poul Anderson science fiction novel, while the Gaia-ish concepts of the Na’vi’s connections to their world, and the multilayered jungle planet conception reminded me a lot of Alan Dean Foster’s seventies sci fi novel Midworld. Cameron dots most of his I’s and crosses his T’s as far as the technical details of his world go, dealing realistically and consistently with the idea of an atmosphere humans can’t breathe and the way the Avatar technology operates. But he leaves some ideas unexplored and unexplained. The human forces are mining something called "unobtanium," a tongue in cheek term also used in The Core. There’s no explanation of what unobtanium does or why humans need it. One of the film’s most spectacular images is the gigantic, floating mountains (seemingly inspired by an old Yes album cover) that hover over the Na’vi’s jungle stronghold, but aside from some vague, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it doubletalk about a "vortex" of some kind, there’s no explanation for this phenomenon. It’s not related to the planet’s gravity because rocks and people fall off the floating hills just fine. It would have been nice if Cameron had tied the ideas together—maybe unobtanium is some exotic, gravity-defying ore. That sounds like a good power supply to me. Thankfully, Cameron does take pains to ground the Na’vi’s mysticism in science, and in so doing he comes up with a fairly surprising and emotionally satisfying ending to his film.

You can’t discount Avatar as an important science fiction film. The occasional groaner line of dialogue or plot turn does not, ultimately, put a dent in this film’s impact unless you’re predisposed to reject the movie’s "tree hugger" philosophy (something Cameron cannily makes Jake reference early in the film). The film is a landmark in terms of putting an original, science fiction reality on film in utterly convincing, and often breathtaking terms—and that makes it the perfect punctuation for a year that has really been pretty great for the genre. Every sci fi film released this year has produced its share of arguments, but one thing you can’t argue is that the genre has made a huge comeback from a period in which films set in outer space and dealing seriously with science fiction ideas have been all but absent from movie screens, replaced by endless supplies of costumed superheroes. Zach Snyder’s Watchmen seemed to put the nail in that coffin in more ways than one. It’s a faithful and in many ways superbly done adaptation of the graphic novel, although with its celebrated "squid" finale removed (much to the dismay of Hitler!), it loses a big chunk of its conceptual sci fi mojo. But the realization of Dr. Manhattan alone gives the film at least a deserved cult status. Similarly, J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek (probably familiar to readers of this site) isn’t one of the strongest entries of the series in terms of its sci fi concepts and execution, particularly when someone can view a basketball-sized Vulcan in the sky from some mysterious planet called Delta Vega. The tired madman-on-the-quest-for-revenge plot was in fact a sideshow to the film’s far more successful reboots of the Star Trek characters and worlds themselves—although the idea of permanently reconfiguring the Trek universe by way of interference in the timeline is a daring—if to some, infuriating—idea.

This summer also saw the much less ballyhooed but in a way equally satisfying Moon with Sam Rockwell—an extremely well made (for a pittance) outer space drama with very intentional echoes of Doug Trumbull’s Silent Running, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and even Peter Hyams’ Outland, from director Duncan Jones. Equally intelligent and derivative—but far more controversial—was Neil Blomkamp’s terrific District 9. It spins off of things like Alien Nation and Cronenberg’s The Fly while creating a harrowingly up front parable about apartheid, with some of the most convincing, and strangely compelling alien creatures ever put on film and one of the most unusual tragic heroes since Brazil’s Sam Lowry. District 9’s documentary filming style drove some viewers crazy (or made them come down with motion sickness) but the technique serves the film beautifully and the crazy brutality of the movie’s climactic action is white-knuckle gripping. Even the Ben Foster dogPandorum, for the most part a complete train wreck that barely survived a tiny one weekend release, is an ambitious outer space thriller about the fate of the crew of a multi-generation colonization starship, a classic SF concept if ever I’ve seen one. And if you wanted to check your brain at the door, there was 2012—a brazen remake of When Worlds Collide that is probably no dopier than the classic George Pal production was. It made a good pile of money as did Star Trek, District 9 and even Moon on its own independent movie terms. And Avatar is pretty much guaranteed to earn enough worldwide to justify its $300 million budget, and maybe even justify the sequels Cameron has talked about. Hopefully studios will take the right lessons from these films, ensuring that strong characters and daring science fiction concepts become an integral part of future sci fi productions. 2009 ought to be remembered as a banner year for the genre and will hopefully be the launch point for a true revival of science fiction in film.
Star Trek, Moon, District 9, & Avatar – part of a great year for sci-fi movies

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