Massawyrm falls in love with AVATAR's rich world of Pandora
Published at: Dec. 17, 2009, 9:16 a.m. CST by merrick
Hola all. Massawyrm here.
If there is one complaint that will resonate with absolute certainty throughout every serious discussion of AVATAR it will be the derivative nature of the work. Make no mistake about it; AVATAR is not a deftly original work of fiction. Cameron has even gone so far to say so. The film is based heavily upon the science fiction he grew up reading like JOHN CARTER OF MARS, as well as a number of films including specifically LAWRENCE OF ARABIA. Absent from what he’s mentioned is Frank Herbert’s DUNE, which most of you are familiar with via David Lynch’s 1984 film of the same name and mirrors the AVATAR protagonist’s hero’s journey pretty point for point. And while early jokes by SOUTH PARK have seeded people’s thoughts with notions of DANCES WITH WOLVES, that film is itself a derivative work borrowing from some of the same influences as Cameron and ultimately only shares pieces of structure with it. This isn’t DANCES WITH WOLVES. It is DUNE – give or take a few plot elements.
So the question for many people will not be how well Cameron told THIS story, but rather how many times they’ve seen this story before and their tolerance for seeing it again. Because really, there isn’t much new in terms of story here. That critique is valid.
So why is it that I am passionately in love with AVATAR? Because everything else is as wildly original as we were promised. You have never seen a film that looks and feels anything like AVATAR. The CG, live action and 3D elements are so perfectly fused that they are inseparable. One element never overshadows the others. It is all given equal weight and feels lifelike and real every step of the way. If there is one element that stands out as the most talked about and noteworthy of the film, it is the eyes. WETA has perfected their performance motion capture technology to the point that they get real, honest to god performances out of digital creations. There are guys I have spoken with already that have all but fallen in love with the Na’Vi princess (of sorts) played (so to speak) by the already incredibly beautiful Zoe Saldana. Her voicework combined with the realistic facial expressions work in tandem to form a fully realized CG character.
Meanwhile, Cameron’s reliance upon 3D is a real breath of fresh air. There is not one gimmick – NOT ONE – that involves shooting at the audience or trying to get you to duck. The cheap tricks that many films have been relying upon this past year (such as MY BLOODY VALENTINE and THE FINAL DESTINATION) are entirely absent here. The 3D is about depth of field and giving you a sense of geography. It is entirely environmental, a way of bringing you into the movie rather than having the movie come out to you. And the effect is masterful. I’ve seen a number of 3D films this year, and usually the ham-fisted nature of the 3D rendering and direction caused eyestrain about an hour or so into the film. But here everything is so smooth that I’ve sat through two screenings of this near 3 hour epic and never once had to take off my glasses or even close my eyes for a few moments.
But most interesting to me was the fact that this very much felt like a film someone spent 10 years making. Pandora isn’t just a neat place to visit; it is the epitome of great science fiction. The entirety of this distant moon (which orbits a gas giant) has a biology that makes sense. And while they never take a moment to explain it to you, the nerdier a science dork you are, the more you will take away from everything Cameron has created. This is a guy who has spent countless hours at the bottom of the sea exploring “alien” environments. He has witnessed ecosystems most of us have only read about. And here he has created one of his own based upon his many passions and skill sets.
Pandora, as a moon, would have two different things governing its daylight: its rotation and the time it spends in the umbra of its parent planet. This leads to a planet that spends a much smaller amount of time in sunlight than it does out of it. So the ecosystem is based very heavily upon bioluminescence, something Cameron uses to beautiful effect. Meanwhile the lower gravity has led to increasingly larger creatures and beings, making humans rather diminutive invaders. Every animal you will see, from the tiniest bug to the largest herd beast, has its own personality, defense mechanisms and place in the food chain. Watching Avatar doesn’t just take you on an adventure. It transports you to a whole new world – which is, after all, one of the very reasons we watch and read sci-fi.
Of course this is all before you even begin to touch upon the rich culture of the Na’vi. I say this to you now: you have officially attended your last convention which did not have people in blue body paint, speaking Na’Vi to one another while occasionally uttering the phrase “Hometree.” The Gnostic Taoist ecological spiritualism of the Na’vi will appeal to a lot of people. Their belief system is deep, rich and draws from a number of different philosophies here on earth, combining Native American mysticism with pagan concepts of a Mother Earth and a smattering of Asian philosophy – all wrapped in a warrior monk package and dressed up with tribal chic. Although I must admit I wince at the notion that I will one day walk into a debate conducted in both Klingon and Na’vi about the frailty of human beings and the best ways to go about killing them.
There are a lot of folks who will try to make political hay out of the “message” of the movie. Some will try to pin it on Iraq or Afghanistan, while others will scream about environmentalism. But doing so requires conveniently forgetting about certain details, like the army not being the army at all, but ex-military mercenaries on corporate payroll. The ideas here are universal, not specific, and will mean as much 20 years from now as they do today. Wars and incursions have almost always been fought over resources, so trying to say that the corporate mission for “Unobtanium” is a direct comparison to oil in the Middle East only carries weight until you begin to look into almost every war we’ve had, pretty much since the dawn of time.
AVATAR is seven different kinds of bad ass. Every action sequence is a nail biter and every major set piece will wow you. Cameron creates such rich, dynamic characters while giving each their own moment in the sun that you can’t help but love them all – hero or villain. Truth be told, Stephen Lang’s Colonel Quaritch is one of the single baddest mother fuckers to appear on film in years – and easily one of the greatest villains of the decade. He’s a villain so great you admire him as much as you hate him – a perfect Cameron character and one that will put Lang on the map of geeks the world over. Everyone is in top form here, from Sigourney Weaver to Joel David Moore. Even Sam Worthington and Michelle Rodriguez turn in great performances under the careful watch of Cameron.
This is a great movie – a truly wonderful piece of science fiction that must be seen BIG and in 3D. No waiting for DVD on this one. Love it or hate it, this was the way this film was designed to be seen. Handily one of the best films of the year, AVATAR is a must see. A worthy addition to the geek pantheon, I look forward to the next week and a half of solid discussion about this film.
Until next time friends, smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.