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Monday
Dec142009

Avatar

It's been 12 years since James Cameron brought us his last big screen adventure in the form of Titanic, the highest grossing movie ever made, and with his latest film, Avatar, being nearly 15 years in the making (he wrote the script in 1995), expectations couldn't be higher. It's the film that's supposed to revolutionize filmmaking and dawn a new era of digital technology, pushing its limits as far as it can go. If you look at it from that viewpoint, it succeeds. It creates an alive, distinctive world that looks as realistic as the world we live on today, but that is only one aspect of the film. The look is great, but the feeling is absent. Unfortunately, Avatar is a huge disappointment.

The film follows Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a young lad paralyzed from the waist down, as he is recruited by the military to take up the job his now dead twin brother previously had as an avatar controller. The avatar's are comprised of the DNA of the controller and the DNA of the natives and because Jake's genetic make-up is identical, he is able to use the same machine and carry out the work his brother left behind. He and the crew have all traveled away from the dying Earth to the planet of Pandora where an indigenous group of blue cat-like creatures called the Na'vi live. They are there to harvest a rare unobtainable substance called Unobtainium (how cute), but can't because the Na'vi's village rests on the largest deposit known in the world. Jake's job is to earn the Na'vi's trust and convince them to relocate because if they don't, the military will use force to drive them out.

There's a terrific article about Avatar that was written about a month ago over at Wired.com that explores every facet of Pandora and explains how Cameron desired to out Star Wars Star Wars, meaning he wanted to create a mythology just as intricate and deep as the Star Wars universe. Though most of it never appeared in the film and will only have meaning to those who take the time to seek the information out, Cameron went through every aspect of the planet and made it unique, which included crafting an entire new language, naming every animal and plant, all of which received a Na'vi, Latin and common name and have detailed descriptions of how they function on the planet, and he even hired an astrophysicist to calculate Pandora's atmospheric density. According to the article, when all was said and done, they had compiled a 350 page manual named "Pandorapedia" that detailed every possible aspect of the planet that you could imagine. If only Cameron would have spent less time on these menial tasks and more time constructing a meaningful story.

One can't help but be impressed by Cameron's dedication to crafting a true, authentic world with a complete science and history to explain how things work, but almost none of it matters in the scheme of the overall picture. Most are never seen or heard onscreen (sans the Na'vi language, which you'll hear plenty of) and are all but irrelevant. Those who love the film will find even more to love with this information, but too much time was spent on this useless dossier than on the story and that's a problem.

Though different in theory, the story of Avatar is routinely told and goes nowhere unexpected. While I won't spoil it here, you can tell from the trailer exactly where it is going and what Jake will end up doing by the end of the movie. Being a two hour and 45 minute film, it takes plenty of time to develop its characters, which is usually a good thing, but they are developed so poorly that no emotion seeps through. Before it is over, people die and bad things happen, yet I didn't care about any of it.

One reason is that the visuals overpower the story itself. The CGI in Avatar is, without exaggeration, the best CGI ever put to screen. I've never seen such a realistic digital world in my life. Each leaf, each blade of grass, everything in the environment is beautifully rendered and the interaction between real and fake objects is unparalleled. This is truly a wondrous sight to behold, but it looks so good that I actually found myself distracted by it. This is an odd criticism, but it looked too good. Eventually you become so aware of the visuals that all of the human emotion gets sucked dry. I found myself more interested in the texture and details and how each individual leaf blew in the wind than I was the story. Had it been better, these problems may have been non-existent. Unfortunately, it's not.

Then there's the rest of the writing. The story was unaffecting, but I can't say I'm surprised with dialogue like this. There are some tremendously corny, downright stupid lines of dialogue in Avatar, most coming from Michelle Rodriguez who plays Trudy, a pilot. In fact, her whole character was grating on the nerves. Combine her with Joel David Moore, who plays another avatar controller, and you have two actors who felt out of place, as if so much money had already been spent that they couldn't afford to acquire actors of higher stature.

One thing I can applaud Avatar for is that it effectively implemented some of the best 3D I've ever seen, which perfectly complemented its already lush visuals. It was used the way it should be, not as a gimmick with objects incessantly popping out at you, but as a way to heighten the experience. However, that doesn't mask the film's many problems.

It's tough to give a final call on Avatar because if it didn't have such amazing CGI, I would easily say to skip it, but I almost feel obligated to recommend it because its look truly is groundbreaking and could revolutionize the way we implement digital effects. All I can really do is leave it up to you. If you're interested in seeing this new technology, give it a shot because you're guaranteed to be impressed, but if you care about more than just a fancy coat of paint and want to see something interesting underneath it all, you'd be better off looking somewhere else.

Avatar receives 2.5/5

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