I avoided for seeing Avatar in theaters for as long as possible. James Cameron’s epic story about the planet of Pandora had been gaining more and more buzz, and then it became the highest grossing film of all time and the first film in history to pass the $2 billion mark. People lauded the film on its technical advances and, foolishly, on its storyline. But mostly it was the effects that dazzled everyone, as the toy 3D was used to give depth and realism to characters and environments. That created a new interested in 3D and a surge of films being released, much like the trend in the early 1980s with horror movies and in the 1950s with adventure films. Yet, I continued to avoid the film, and when people asked me why I hadn’t seen it yet, I said dryly, “I don’t think I could fit in the theater with Cameron’s ego.” The remark was made after having watched about four or five interviews with the director on the film.
When the film was released on DVD and Blu-ray, I continued to avoid it. When my mother offered to buy it for me after having recently purchased our brand new HD TV and Blu-ray player, I declined, staying true to my silly belief that the film was lousy. I had rooted against it when it was up for Best Picture at the Academy Awards. And then, my friend Ian lent it to me. Oh, boy, was I in for a surprise.
Most of you reading this article have already probably seen the film, so I’ll skip the plot details and jump to the chase. First, the bad news: the storyline was extremely lousy. Its ecological terror story was stolen from Pocahontas and Fern Gully; its love story from Star Wars and again Pocahontas, and it “borrowed” story elements from countless other films and stories. It was completely unoriginal. Although, my mother often says, “There is no longer anything that is original under the sun.” But did anyone who saw this film really care about the storyline?
Jake (Sam Worthington) is such an unlikable character. He thinks like an army man and then feels put upon when they don’t want him there. While I admit that Sigourney Weaver’s Dr. Augustine was being a bitch to him, I don’t blame her. He was unqualified and did not deserve to be there and yet he felt bad when he decided to take the job and get a little crap from the people who had worked hard to get there. Sort of like how my friends feel about Communism: you work hard and the guy who does nothing slides by (so they say). He is so unlikable, that by the time we want to root for him, or should be, we don’t really want to, and if we do, it’s a bit half hearted. He is, to use the Na’avi term, a complete skxawng.
But, here comes the good news: the visuals MAKE the film. It is one of the most visually dazzling and fantastical films ever made. Perhaps one of the best aspects of the digital peoples is the ability to make their eyes dilate. That’s the hardest thing to do in animation, which is why animators seldom ever want to do human characters: to bring them to life their eyes have to dilate. Robert Zemeckis had been trying to do that for years, first with the dead eyed Polar Express and then the slightly, if slightly, more advanced Beowulf. The Na’avi peoples’ eyes grow wide with fear, shrink with contempt, and glow in every shot. Really, one of the toughest things to do, and I commend Cameron for accomplishing it.
The technology is really astounding, as he makes every fold of skin crease when it needs to. All those fifteen years of development was put to good use, as some of the most majestic environments and species were created. The flora is pure eye candy. The aviation scenes are intense and adrenaline packed, where the viewer is no doubt sitting at the end of their seat. The sound is terrific and blows you away. It’s all spectacular.
Though, perhaps one of the best parts is the cinematography. Pretty images are nice, but pretty images paired with flowing camera movement is even better. It’s so realistic and so moving; the entire thing envelops you in the Pandora world. One scene is particularly fantastic in its viewing: When Jake first enters his Avatar, he runs through the soil. As he stops, the camera slows the speed and you see the dirt flying in the air and each little grain between his avatar’s toes. The scene not only made me feel like the soil was beneath my own feet, but the as he was running and as he stopped, the pure ecstasy from watching it sent shivers down my spine. A true accomplishment in film making. Also, congratulations to cinematographer Maura Fiore for both his fantastic cinematic direction and his Oscar win.
And, I don’t think that this film would have been able to be as totally spectacular as it was without James Horner’s amazing score. He created a very true and realistic sound to the Na’avi, a sound that seems very connected with the Na’avi deity Eywa. But, he created a resounding score that encompasses the emotion in each scene and makes it extremely resonant with the viewer. Honestly, the score coupled with the visuals made me well up in one scene (the scene where the tree is being shot down). While I’m happy that Michael Giachinno’s perky and adventurous score for Up won the Academy Award, I think Horner’s should have taken it (and that Giachinno should have won for Ratatouille).
The film got me thinking: What is a film supposed to do? Is it supposed to just tell a story? Is it supposed to provide and escape and enrapture the viewer? Is it supposed to both, or just one? Well, for the former question, it’s lousy. But, if you’re talking the second, then it provides an exciting, fantastic, amazing visceral thrill unlike any other film in recent memory. It doesn’t matter if you’re seeing it at home or if you saw it in a huge theater; the final result is absolutely astounding. I would actually, (*gasp*) put it in my favorite films list. And to the third question: there is no right answer. It can do one, or the other, or both, or neither, but as long as it means something to both its creator and its audience, it’s a film.