For a film with revolutionary CGI effects, such as Avatar, all eyes are definitely on the visuals. Director James Cameron (remember him from Titanic and Terminator 2?) has taken his time to produce this amazing new movie. Using the kind of computer techniques that brought to life Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, Cameron and his team have now created an entire world full of spectacular vistas, fantastic creatures, and some very tall, blue aliens, all within the virtual world of the computer.
Cameron claims that he wanted to tell this particular story 10 years ago but has been waiting for the tech to catch up. Frankly, the story’s been told many times over (not the least of which was 20 years ago when it took home the best picture Oscar as Dances with Wolves). Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington, last seen in Terminator:Salvation; next to be seen in Clash of the Titans) is a wheelchair-bound ex-marine who gets to participate in a program where his mind is transferred into the cloned body of one of the locals on an alien planet. He’s tasked to get to know the alien tribal culture and find a way to negotiate with them, convincing them to abandon their jungle home so that human corporate weasels can mine it for “unobtanium” (maybe naming it “greedicite” would have been too on-the-nose, eh?). Once Jake goes native, he’s tutored in the ways of the Na’vi by their lovely princess Neytiri. I think you can easily predict the rest of the story, but what you may not be able to imagine is how impressive Cameron’s cinematic achievement really is.
When I first started getting used to the blend of live action (the humans were played by real actors, not CGI) with animation (obviously the Na’vi were a lot more than men in blue makeup), it felt a little jarring. I thought I could tell when we were making the switch. However, the lines of distinction quickly blurred. The details of the Na’vi planet, Pandora, were vivid and beautiful. All the natural elements of plants, rocks and trees were more than photo-real. If anything, the scenes “outdoors” were brighter than scenes inside the human buildings (some of which I assume were not CGI). The creatures on the planet were light-years more realistic even than those ground-breaking Jurassic Park dinosaurs in their textures, movements, and other details. Granted, these are imaginary creatures from an imaginary world (so we don’t really have the context), but they felt like they really could exist. The pinnacle of achievement, however, is the Na’vi themselves. Their physical movements (and there is a whole lot of not-standing-around in this movie) were perfectly realised, but the facial expressions were the truly amazing work. Not only did the lips sync up perfectly with the dialogue, the expressions on their faces were incredibly lifelike — definitely enough to stir an occasionally tearful response in me (hey, don’t laugh, it’s not easy to wipe moist eyes behind IMAX 3D glasses on top of my own glasses). What this means for drama is that actors can actually “act” even if they are going to be represented by artificial characters. In a way, the metaphor of the avatar (the virtual representation of someone remote) is apt for what this movie achieves as well because the computer-generated “avatars” are able to more accurately represent the physical performance of the actors playing those roles.
The other components of the visual experience were the virtual camera work (which was stunning for the most part), and the IMAX 3D experience. As mentioned, the scenery on Pandora is breathtaking. My friend who saw the movie with me kept thinking of it as a real place and feeling sad that it wasn’t. The clarity and depth provided by the IMAX 3D treatment definitely helped us feel like we were actually there. Plus, it’s a beautiful, natural environment. What’s not to love? The funny thing is that normally when you travel to jungles via the magic of film, you are spared the annoyance of bugs, but thanks to the wonders of 3D technology, a few times the virtual bugs made me long for a CGI swatter. Even more than that, during one scene with billowing smoke and embers, I almost reached out my hand to brush away flecks of falling ash before I reminded myself that it was a movie trick. While Cameron used the freedom of the computer-generated camera to take our eyes soaring all around (which was awesome in some of the aerial scenes in particular), one area where the camera was a bit exhausting was in the training sequences where Jake and Neytiri ran and jumped throughout the jungle. The characters are already moving all over the place, did we really need the shaky-cam style at that point?
This movie is definitely worth seeing on the big screen. If you can see it on IMAX and in 3D, the bigger the better. The story is nothing special, but the acting is pretty good, and the visuals are jaw-dropping. (4.5 out of 5)