December 20, 2009

Nano Film Review #27 -- Avatar

Nano-film review: Entertaining, if cliche, story and characters; amazing world creation; spectacular special effects and action sequences.

Longer version: I’ve heard a lot of people comparing Avatar to other movies. Most of them are fair. Dances with Wolves. Ferngully. Even Delgo. (My old review of Delgo is here. And apparently after the Avatar trailer came out, the people who made the Deglo movie were considering suing James Cameron, which is ridiculous, although they may have sold one or two more DVDs from the publicity.)

The movie I’d compare it to the most, honestly, is The Dark Crystal. (The Dark Crystal, by the way, has a much better case against the Delgo people than the Deglo people have against Avatar when it comes to stealing visuals, I think.) The Dark Crystal is an incredible example of world building. And Avatar’s weakness is also The Dark Crystal’s: an amazing, visually stunning world and characters, but with a weak story to hang it on. (This is something Jim Henson himself would agree with, and with their follow up Labyrinth they started with the story first, not the world.)

Avatar was being hailed before release as a groundbreaking cinematic experience, and to be frank it is. It’s the best motion capture animation ever. The characters look expressive, move fluidly, and feel alien. The world they live in is an example of incredible world building. It is a fully realized world with believable, alien environments. It’s the best scifi/fantasy world I've seen. It totally blows way Lucas’ prequel trilogy in that regard. It’s a big, epic scaled world they created. It was made as a 3D movie, and the gimmick here is not things flying at your face, it's instead a layered, huge, textured world.

The creatures are graceful and vicious and just plain cool looking, although the humanoid creaturs and their semi-naked attire may take some getting used to. They’re just human enough to be relatable and alien enough to be different. The biosphere and environment of the world are carefully crafted and a wonder to experience on the big screen.

But then there’s the plot. You've seen this movie before . . . just never this big in scope. You'll know the plot and almost exactly how it's going to resolve five minutes in, if you’ve ever read a book or seen a movie. You've seen these characters before. Remember Paul Riser in Alien? He’s in this movie. Remember the gruff sergeant toy from Toy Soldiers, or Robert Duvall from Apocalypse Now? He’s in this movie. Remember every scientist from every science fiction movie? They’re all in this movie. But it’s okay, because this movie is bigger than any of the other times you've seen this story and looks prettier.

I will say, though, that I really liked the main character. He helps the movie rise above the cliches by being a likable character with emotional motivations. He's the perfect character to experience this whole new world with.

The underlying message is cliché, unfortunately, but you do get some interesting Big Ideas that can only come from science fiction. Things about the natural of individuality. Our place in this world. Our relationship to God. You also get lots of hamfisted references to current events, like the casual tossing out of "shock and awe", that sort of thing. It would have been a much better movie if it had left those connections up to the audience.

The music was James Horner doing James Horner. The familiar echoing horns did their thing, and the music settles in to the background. I’ve decided that even though many of James Horner’s film scores sound very, very similar, it’s familiar.

All things considered, Avatar is a visual feast, with exciting action sequences and beautiful effects. Plot is mostly predictable, but forgivable because of the world building. Avatar should be seen on the big screen. The 3D was awesome, although it took a while to get used to. (I want to see it in 2d.) It was a big, epic scaled world they created, very sophisticated. It should be seen on the big screen.

I just can't wait until this technology and this level of world building is matched with an equally sophisticated story.

~ Ben

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